Book Review: Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science by Clair Brown, Ph.D.

I had hoped to like this book more. After all, the blurbs on its back cover from Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, and environmentalist Bill McKibben, all sing its praises. My own view is more mixed, however.

First, let me outline what I liked about the book. The author, University of California-Berkeley economist Clair Brown, correctly diagnoses our society’s greatest errors and failings: its fostering of obscene levels of economic inequality, its despoliation of the planet, its single-minded focus on generating wealth rather than on expanding human well-being and flourishing, and its economic model of corporate obligations to shareholders but not stakeholders.  Dr. Brown offers many sensible alternatives and solutions to these problems, providing reasonable guidelines for reducing wealth inequality, putting the global economy on a sustainable footing, preserving the planet, and maximizing human happiness and potential.  If we followed the author’s exhortations, I have no doubt that our world would be a much better place. I would very much like to live in the world she prescribes.

Now for the things I didn’t like about the book.

First, to my mind, the title doesn’t make any sense. There is no such thing as “Buddhist Economics,” just as there is no such thing as Buddhist Astrophysics or Buddhist Quantum Mechanics. Economics is economics, plain and simple. It’s a social science that tells us how to get from point A to point B: Here’s what one ought to do if one wants to constrain inflation; Here’s what one ought do if one wants full employment; and so on. It tells us the correct means to reach desired goals. What it doesn’t do is tell us what our goals ought to be. That field—the one that tells us what we ought to desire—is ethics rather than economics. What Clair Brown is really arguing for is not a better economics, but a better ethics. She is suggesting a different set of human goals to aim at, rather than a different type of means to get there.

Second, there is nothing in Clair Brown’s ethics that is particularly or uniquely Buddhist.  Pope Francis could probably agree with most of the goals she emphasizes.  So could most secular humanists.  Her vision of the well-lived life is more traditionally Aristotelian than it is traditionally Buddhist. Classical Buddhism had little, if anything, to say about reducing economic inequality or preserving the planet.  Now it happens that many if not most Buddhist modernists would endorse a set of ethics that is in accord with secular humanist, liberal Protestant, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jewish, and Post-Vatican II Catholic ethics when it comes to issues of preserving the planet, reducing inequality, and fostering human flourishing. That’s because modern humanist ethics are in the air, up for grabs by all, and not because they’re deeply rooted in the Buddhist past. Now there are several traditional Buddhist themes that resonate deeply with modern humanist ethics, including the Buddhist emphases on lovingkindness, compassion, non-greed, non-harming, non-ego aggrandizement, interdependence, and saving all beings. That is the reason why Buddhist luminaries such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh espouse them.  These ideas are the common heritage of modernity and not uniquely Buddhist

Third, this book was written during the Obama presidency when it was still possible to dream the “liberal dream”—that with just a little more effort we could head in the right direction.  We are now plunged into a new Dark Age in which selfishness and greed are valued above all else by those in charge of the national government. We have pulled out of the Paris climate accord and are on the verge of ending our imperfect experiment with universal healthcare. In the despair of the moment, I’m reminded of these lines written by the philosopher Richard Rorty some three decades ago:

“I do not think that we liberals can now imagine a future of ‘human dignity, freedom and peace.’ That is, we cannot tell ourselves a story about how to get from the actual present to such a future. We can picture various socioeconomic setups which would be preferable to the present one. But we have no clear sense of how to get from the actual world to these theoretically possible worlds, and thus no clear idea of what to work for…. This inability to imagine how to get from here to there is a matter neither of loss of moral resolve nor of theoretical superficiality, self-deception, or self-betrayal. It is not something we can remedy by a firmer resolve, or more transparent prose, or better philosophical accounts of man, truth, or history. It is just the way things happen to have fallen out. Sometimes things prove to be just as bad as they first looked.…This bad news remains the great intransigent fact of contemporary political speculation, the one that blocks all the liberal scenarios.” (from Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 1989, p. 181-182)

In the end, what Clair Brown fails to do is give us a road map that would tell us how to reorder American politics so that sensible economic proposals, such as the one she is making, can be given a chance. We can guess what some of those political changes would involve—an end to Citizen’s United, an end to gerrymandering, genuine election finance reform, and so on. But how is one to accomplish those things? Today, the kind of transvaluation of values that would be needed before meaningful political change could occur seems farther off than ever. That is what those of us on the “religious left” toil for with little hope and against heavy odds. It’s easy to think up solutions to most of our problems. The problem is, they never live to see the light of day.

To sum up, if you’re interested in suggestions for how to reorder our economic system so that businesses are more socially responsible, so that everyone is guaranteed a living wage, so that our economy is carbon neutral, so that the gap between rich and poor nations is reduced, and so that developing human potential and well-being are more important than growing economic productivity, then this is an excellent book.  If you, like me, happen to be a Buddhist modernist, you will find much that you like and agree with. I am one of those who happen to think our economy ought to be constrained by the emerging universalist humanist modernist ethics, which we as Buddhist modernists share with modernists of other faiths. The problem is, we still need a roadmap of how to draw those who view things differently into the conversation.  I suspect there are no shortcuts, that the road will be hard, that there will be many defeats along the way, and that there is no guarantee of either eventual success or planetary survival.

But try we must.

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Contemplative Chaplaincy, Psychotherapy, and Buddhist Ministry: Similarities and Differences

Foundations of Contemplative Care, NYZCCC, 2017

Contemplative Chaplaincy, Psychotherapy, and Buddhist Ministry: Similarities and Differences

I’ve just completed the nine-month Foundations of Contemplative Care program at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care (NYZCCC) as a support for my part-time volunteer role as a chaplain associate in an acute-care hospital. I wish to express my profound gratitude to Koshin Paley Ellison, Robert Chodo Campbell, Evan Zazula, all the NYZCCC staff, and my forty Foundations co-participants who helped make the program such a profound learning experience. The following summarizes my view of how contemplative chaplaincy both shares features with and differs from psychotherapy and Buddhist ministry.


Japanese Tea masters are familiar with the saying, “ichi-go ichi-e”—“one time, one meeting.” It means that each time we meet is a unique, unrepeatable moment—something precious to be savored and treasured.

Volunteering in an acute care hospital with an average length of stay of just three days, I get to see most patients only once. If hospice chaplaincy visits are poems, acute care chaplaincy visits are haikus. Seeing people just once for, at most, an hour or so raises immediate questions. How can one make such visits meaningful? How can two people, meeting as strangers, have an encounter that makes a difference? What kind of difference does one want to make? I’m aware each time I enter a room that this is truly one time, one meeting. I enter with one question in mind: what’s possible between us as two people right now? How can this moment be of benefit in some way for the person I’m dropping in on?

While any brief encounter can be freighted with meaning, there’s something about being in a hospital that makes it more likely to occur. The patient is often in a heightened emotional state—fearful, angry, in pain—and may be encountering significant existential questions involving the possibility of death, disability, dependency, transfigured appearance, and changed habits, vocations, and relationships. The contemplative caregiver is entering the room in the role of “chaplain” with all the connotations the term carries for the patient. Contemplative chaplains are the bearers of the patient’s projections. We’re coming, in the patients’ imaginations, to pray for or bless them; to hear their confessions or doubts; to offer reassurance, comfort and solace; and to talk about ultimate things. Or else we’re coming to offer platitudes and hogwash; to be scolded, blamed, and berated; to be argued with or converted or whatever else being a “chaplain” signifies for the other. We are God’s intermediaries, purveyors of the opiate of the masses, authoritarian repressors, and the bearers of chicken soup all in one.

This blog post is an attempt to sort out my thoughts about contemplative chaplaincy and how it both shares features with and differs from psychotherapy and Buddhist ministry. In sorting these thoughts out, I’m comparing my chaplaincy experience with my prior experiences as a clinical psychologist and as a novice Zen priest. In thinking about this, it’s become clearer to me that there are certain skills and habits of mind that one acquires as a psychologist or a priest that carry over into and enhance contemplative chaplaincy. There are also certain skills and habits of mind one acquires as a psychologist or a priest that interfere with contemplative chaplaincy. It’s useful to sort out which are which.

By contemplative chaplaincy, I mean an approach to being with people who are troubled, sick, or dying that emphasizes presence and communicative intimacy without any specific predefined destination or goal other than establishing, maintaining, and repairing breaks in that presence and intimacy. The assumption underlying this approach is that accompanying a person on his or her journey is the most important feature of contemplative care—really being with him or her—and if one can make that happen—if the other person can experience the “being-with” of the caregiver, and can feel that he or she is heard and appreciated in the fullness of his or her verbal and nonverbal communication—then several beneficial things may happen in turn.

First, the fundamental aloneness that so many suffering people experience is, at least in that moment, changed and mitigated—that feeling that no one understands the specific and particular texture of one’s suffering and what it is like to suffer in exactly this kind of way, or that no one cares or appreciates or fully hears what it is the sufferer is trying to share, express, or convey. We can all remember what it was like as young children to be alone and afraid in the dark, and how it felt qualitatively different once a parent came into the room to lie down next to us, to hold our hand, and quietly talk with us. One can never underestimate the transformative power of being-with.

Second, there is an internal process that unfolds when one experiences being fully heard. When we feel we haven’t been heard, we feel we have to keep repeating what hasn’t been heard until someone finally “gets” it. Until that point we’re stuck and can’t move on. We aren’t ready to hear or discover something new that hasn’t been felt or acknowledged before. Once we are heard, there is an inner process that is ready to unfold. The stuck-ness is gone and something new is free to appear. That something else may be something we’ve never noticed before about our own situation or our feelings about it—some undiscovered or unacknowledged facet of what is implicit, waiting to be experienced. Every situation is infinitely intricate and complex, like a tangled ball of yarn, connected in some way with everything else we’ve ever known, thought, or experienced. Pull one end of the string a bit, and a little more unravels, revealing itself in the light of consciousness. By being with and hearing a suffering person, we co-create a shared space in which the sufferer’s experience can unfold in new and surprising ways.

Third, if the contemplative chaplain is sufficiently attuned to the rich and specific language that sufferers use—especially their lively use of metaphor, imagery, and symbol—it’s possible to help sufferers stay attuned to their own unfolding process in a way that facilities their discovery of new ways of experiencing their situation, with the discovery of new inner resources, and with a feelingful transformation of their relationship to suffering.

In addition to these three fundamental aspects of “being-with,” there are two other facets to contemplative chaplaincy that loom large in my experience: the “mobilization of healing energies” and the “witnessing of existential choices.” The first is the mobilization of the patient’s internal healing resources. While we still know comparatively little about the role psychological processes play in disorders involving the autonomic, endocrine, and autoimmune systems, one can make a good case that reducing anxiety and panic and mobilizing hope, optimism, equanimity, gratitude, acceptance, humor, and a sense of internal control can all have potentially beneficial effects on one’s suffering and maybe, also, on the disease process itself. There are also, however one wants to conceptualize it, energies and internal resources associated with religious archetypes (Jesus, Jehovah, Allah, Krishna, the Buddha, Kwan Yin, and all the various spirits, angels and saints) that can be mobilized through prayer and blessings and that have the potential to reinforce movements towards wholeness and well-being.

The second is witnessing the sufferer’s exploration of his or her existential choices. Many patients experience their illnesses as a kind of crossroads experience—as a wake-up call, or as an enforced time-out from routine that provides an unasked for opportunity for reflection. Patients often want to tell the chaplain how their illness marks some crucial turning point—how old ways need to be let go of and new directions sought out and begun. Witnessing and acknowledging turning points helps vivify and reinforce them, increasing the likelihood they may be instantiated in behavior once the patient has left the hospital.

In all of these five aspects of contemplative care—being-with, fully listening, linguistically tracking the experiential process, mobilizing healing energy, and witnessing existential choices—the chaplain is sensitive to whether, in fact, this is the kind of intimate contact the sufferer really wants in this moment. The chaplain is always assessing what is possible in the meeting between two people as these possibilities wax and wane throughout a chaplaincy visit. Sometimes people want company; sometimes they wish to be alone. Sometimes they want some specific other person to be with them—not necessarily the contemplative chaplain. Sometimes they are weary or in great pain and just want to obliterate consciousness. Sometimes they are not open to exploration that might dredge up feelings they would prefer to keep in abeyance. Sometimes they need to maintain a state of denial. Sometimes they need to pretend to have it all together, to be perfect, to be competent to deal with everything on their own without assistance, to be strong. The contemplative caregiver needs to be sensitive to this at all times, to give space when space is needed, to be superficial when superficiality is called for. We all go through life and death as best we can. Some people leave this life with grace, some go out kicking and screaming, and some need to pretend they aren’t leaving at all. The contemplative chaplain is never afraid to knock on any door—or rather, the contemplative caregiver is prepared to knock on any door however anxious he or she may be—but the contemplative caregiver is also always prepared to leave doors unopened when appropriate, or to have doors slammed in his or her face.

It’s all well and good to talk about “being-with” or “communicative intimacy” or “presencing,” but the question remains, what exactly are we talking about when we use these terms? These terms overlap to some degree with other frequently used terms such as “mindfulness,” “being in the here-and-now,” “openness,” and so on. If one is a meditator, it’s possible one has a leg up on understanding precisely what these terms convey, but it’s also possible to understand them without having any meditation experience—some people do it more or less naturally—and it’s also possible to be a meditator who engages in focused-attention meditations (as opposed to open monitoring ones), and never get the “feel” for engaging in these modes of being while in communication and interaction with another person. In understanding “being-with” and “presencing,” metaphors like “dropping down into the body,” “spaciousness,” “equanimity,” “silence” and “slowing down” also come to mind. We all know what it’s like when people are really fully paying attention to us, and when they’re only half-heartedly doing so. We know what it’s like when people are listening to us with their minds on their next reply, and when people are listening so they really “get” us. We all understand what it’s like when someone’s relationship with us is “instrumental”—they’re trying to use us or do something to us in some way, and when it is an “I-Thou” relationship involving “letting be,” that is, encountering us and letting us be just as we are.

The contemplative chaplain is interested in quieting his or her chattering, scheming, planning mind as much as possible. He or she is not worrying about what to say next or whether he or she is being liked, approved of, valued, successful, or competent. Or rather, all those concerns are there—noticed, and allowed to come and go in a more spacious field of awareness—one that also includes awareness of one’s body, emotions, and felt senses—an awareness that isn’t centered in one’s “head” but is more likely centered mid-torso or perhaps, in one’s hara or dan t’ian. This field of awareness is a bi-personal field (or if relatives, nursing aides, or friends are also present in the room, a multi-personal field) in which one is also aware of the words being spoken, the gestures, facial expressions, and tones of voice of self and other, and the reactions to those words, gestures, and expressions as they arise in oneself and the other moment-by-moment. Of course, it’s impossible to simultaneously attend to the richness of this field in all its complexity. One can only shuttle back and forth, dancing between various “internal” and “external” objects of awareness. To do this well, one must first slow down sufficiently to allow the back-and-forth awareness of the myriad complex facets of experience to arise—not rushing from one to the other, but allowing time for each facet to be savored, appreciated, acknowledged, and then let go of. This slow, gentle, dance of aware-ing occurs within a larger context, and it is the gestalt of this larger context that helps keeps these shifting aspects of awareness relevant to the purpose of “being-with.” It is the larger context of being curious about the other person, wishing to fully get to know and hear them, wishing to be fully present with them, and wishing to be of real benefit to them.

If there are similarities between this contemplative “being with” and meditation, the astute reader may also have already recognized the similarities between “being with” and certain forms of psychotherapy—especially those existential-humanistic psychotherapies (e.g., Rogers, Gendlin) that emphasize relationship, empathy, and the creation of the fundamental conditions that facilitate therapeutic change. In these therapies, the core therapist skills involve being a good listener, conveying accurate empathy (letting the patient know they’ve been accurately heard), being authentic, and helping the client stay in touch with his or her internal processing—especially somatic-affective-intuitive rather than cognitive processing—what Gendlin calls one’s “felt sense” of the complex, intricate whole of a situation.

How is the task of the contemplative chaplain different from that of the psychotherapist? The first important difference is that the psychotherapist assumes an expert role vis-a-vis the patient. The therapist is being consulted because, presumably, he or she knows something that the patient does not. He or she is an expert in something or another. That “something” may be “diagnostic categories” or “personality dynamics” or “cognitive errors” or “reinforcement schedules,” or “hypnotic inductions,” or “family systems,” or something entirely different depending on the type of psychotherapist he or she is. In contrast, the contemplative chaplain starts from the vantage point of “not knowing” and “beginner’s mind.” He or she may be an “expert” in establishing rapport and in checking with his or her own internal process, but he or she is not an expert in knowing the client, understanding the client’s problem—if in fact the client has a problem—or knowing what might be best for the client. The contemplative chaplain starts with an attitude of curiosity and being interested in finding a way to meet the patient where the patient is, but other than that, he or she has no idea of what might possibly unfold. He or she is equipped with a sense of adventure, a wish to be of benefit, and little else. There is no guiding theory other than trust in “being-with.”

The second important difference is that the therapist is attempting to fix a problem. You wouldn’t come to consult with a psychologist without one. There is a tacit or explicit assumption that there’s something wrong with the patient that needs fixing. The contemplative chaplain starts with no such assumption. The chaplain has not been invited into anyone’s room—he or she is entering the patient’s room unbidden. The patient hasn’t asked for a chaplain, and probably hasn’t thought he or she needed or wanted to see one. This strange, unknown person bearing a suit jacket and a nametag has wandered into the room. Perhaps the patient is curious, perhaps not. Perhaps he or she wonders what this person—the chaplain—wants with him or her, what the chaplain wants to do to him or her. Every other stranger who enters the room has a specific task and function—drawing blood, giving medication, taking vitals, changing bedpans, bringing meals. What does this person want? The contemplative chaplain is the one person walking into the room without an agenda, other than being-with. The chaplain doesn’t assume the patient has some problem needing fixing. The chaplain begins with the attitude that we’re all doing the best we can, that we’re here just to meet and be together as best we can. By “we” the chaplain means the patient and him or herself. We’re all the same, all of us in the midst of our complicated, messy lives. We’re all of us wounded, all of us competent. We’re all of us dying, some of us quickly, some of us more slowly. Whether we succeed as two strangers in meeting together or not, it’s the best we could manage in this moment given our respective limitations.

We can think of other differences between the psychotherapist and the contemplative chaplain as well. Psychotherapists plan out interventions; contemplative chaplains just have conversations. Psychotherapists want to change patients; contemplative chaplains have no investment in the patient changing. Psychotherapists carry out interventions: they teach, convince, exhort, reinforce, give homework, hypnotize, offer interpretations and advice, and so on; Contemplative chaplains offer their presence.

So far I’ve been comparing contemplative chaplaincy with psychotherapy. How does contemplative chaplaincy compare with Buddhist ministry? It should be apparent by now that there are skills one acquires in Buddhist practice that help foster the kind of skills that a contemplative chaplain needs. These include an understanding of the contemplative stance which shares so much in common with the meditative stance: mindfulness, spaciousness, embodied awareness, being present, being fully attentive, and approaching things whole heartedly and one-mindfully. There are also one’s Bodhisattva vows that orient one towards behaving beneficially towards others in conjunction with the path ethical elements of right livelihood, right action and right speech. Finally, there are the Buddhist emphases on equanimity and interconnectedness and the Buddhist de-emphases of ego-aggrandizement and goal-directedness and achievement. These are all helpful qualities for the contemplative chaplain to cultivate.

But there are also aspects of the Buddhist ministry that can get in the way of contemplative chaplaincy. For example, we might find ourselves leaning in favor of patients finding “Buddhist” solutions to their difficulties. As priests, we might prefer they find ways of dealing with illness and death that accept impermanence as a fundamental fact of existence, or that emphasize self-compassion, kindness towards others, and similar Buddhist qualities. We might find ourselves wanting to teach an anxious patient meditation, teach an angry patient loving-kindness, or a patient mourning loss of function how to be grateful for their remaining capacities. After all, the core of our first Bodhisattva vow is to not just to help others, but to help others “cross over” to enlightenment. This urge to “preach and teach” is antithetical to being-with, being present, and fully listening. It can useful to remember than in many of the Pali suttas, the Buddha was reluctant to offer an opinion on all sorts of things until he was explicitly asked to do so three times.

Additionally, the chaplain’s identification as a “Buddhist priest” can sometimes get in the way of the patient’s receptivity to his or her presence. “Buddhists” as a group are generally viewed positively by the U.S. Population. The general population’s view of Buddhists is roughly equivalent to its view of Evangelical Christians, and only slightly less positive than its view of Catholics, “Mainline” Protestants, and Jews. Nevertheless, there are religious groups whose views on Buddhism are somewhat more negative and who may not be open to a Buddhist chaplain’s visitation, or who may be called upon to try to “save” the Chaplain as a matter of religious duty. In principle, this barrier is no different than the way that atheists, for example may receive a “chaplain,” or the way a Christian might receive a Jewish Chaplain. The patient’s reaction to the chaplain’s identification becomes grist for the mill as the chaplain explores whether it’s possible for patient and chaplain to meet together in an authentic and beneficial way.

The patient’s spiritual path, the patient’s view of the chaplain’s role, and the patient’s view of the chaplain’s spiritual path intersect in complex and endlessly fascinating ways. Just this past week, for example, I visited three patients who exemplified these complexities.

The first was an alcoholic who’d stopped drinking a decade ago after miraculously surviving an assault. After eight years of sobriety, he’d resumed drinking and developed cirrhosis of the liver. That’s why he was in the hospital. He’d broken his promise to God to never drink again, but now God was also offering him another chance: his hospitalization was a wake up call. This time he wasn’t going to promise God he’d never drink again. Humans are weak and can’t necessarily keep their promises. Instead, he was going to pray God grant him the strength to keep his resolve one day at a time. He saw me as someone to confess to. After listening attentively, I asked if he would like us to pray, and together we devised a prayer that acknowledged his sincerity, his weakness, and his wish for divine assistance.

The second patient was distressed that her stay in the hospital was taking so long. We talked about her illness and its impact on her life, but her mind soon turned to religious themes and she asked me about my own beliefs. I replied that I ministered to all faiths– that while I was personally a Buddhist, I considered all religions valid spiritual paths to the sacred. She strongly objected to this: Accepting Jesus was the only route to salvation! Given her palpable concern for my well being, I asked if she would like to pray for me. She embraced the opportunity, praying that God open my heart to the truth. God had prolonged her hospital stay so that we could meet.

The third patient wasn’t interested in talking with me at all. He said, “Tell me what you want to tell me and get it over with.” Whatever it was I had to tell him, he wasn’t interested. He was apparently used to people telling him things he had no use for. I replied I had nothing to tell him; I was only there to listen. He responded by telling me that the doctors said his body was “riddled with cancer,” adding, “but I don’t believe in cancer.” “What do you believe in?” I asked. “Jesus,” he replied. I told him that I understood. He may have turned his body over to the doctors to do whatever they thought best, but his soul was with his maker.  We prayed together, saying that Jesus determines all things—who shall live and who shall die, who has eternal life and who does not—and that we trusted Him to always do what was best.

As Zen Master Dizang says, “Not knowing is most intimate.” One can never anticipate what direction spiritual conversations may take. In previous weeks, similar kinds of conversations had gone in uniquely different directions. Two weeks earlier, an atheist patient informed me that it was pointless for us to talk. When I suggested that wasn’t necessarily the case, he challenged me, asking, “What then should we talk about?” I looked around the room for some clue as to how to begin. “Tell me about your tattoos,” I said, seizing on the most salient aspect of his appearance. An exploration of his tattoos led naturally into a discussion of his life philosophy and how his deepest goals were at variance with his current life situation.

A month earlier, a patient had issued a full-throated cry for me to leave her alone: “Get out! There is no God!” I stayed and listened to her harrowing tale of being savagely beaten and miscarrying her baby. She told me how, throughout her entire life, well-intentioned people had told her they “cared,” but nobody really did anything to help. I was just another one of those people. We spent an hour in Hell together. I only hope it was better for her than spending that hour by herself.

The point of these vignettes is that none of these spiritual encounters had anything to do with my specific beliefs as a Buddhist priest, and that there are ways, if I wore my being a Buddhist priest too heavily, that being a Buddhist priest would have undermined my role as an interfaith chaplain. We are here to listen to and be with patients in whatever way seems beneficial; not to teach or preach. What my Buddhist training offers me, however, are the Zen Peacemaker Order tenets of “not-knowing,” “bearing witness,” and “compassionate activity.” These tenets are the very backbone of contemplative chaplaincy.

Allow me to conclude this comparison of the roles of the contemplative chaplain, psychotherapist, and Zen priest with a joke designed to capture the essential differences between them. It’s not a great joke—but I never claimed to be a comedian.

A Zen priest, a psychologist, and a contemplative chaplain walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Say, did you hear? Joe’s in the hospital!” The priest says, “I’ll go visit and teach him about impermanence and non-attachment.” The psychologist says, “I hope he doesn’t get depressed! I’ll go visit and encourage him to think more rationally.” The contemplative caregiver remains silent, as if meditating. “What are you going to do?” the bartender asks, puzzled by the silence. “What will you say to Joe when you visit him?”

“Tell me the whole story,” the chaplain replies.







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What’s Buddhist About Buddhist Social Activism, Redux

This is an updated, revised version an of essay of mine that was published in the Fall 2004 issue of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s former publication, Turning Wheel. It has been overhauled and repurposed for the Trump Era.

Just what is it that is specifically Buddhist about Buddhist social activism?  Are we only  Buddhists who, having been social activists before we discovered the Dharma, are now simply carrying on our older activism under the banner of our new religious identity? Or is Buddhist social activism something that grows organically out of the wisdom and compassion cultivated along the Buddhist path? If so, is this kind of spiritually-based social activism identical to, or different from, the spiritually-based activism espoused by the Friends, Unitarians, Mennonites, or Catholic Workers? Is there something specifically Buddhist that we bring to the progressive movement? To what extent are there particular social issues that fall naturally within the purview of Buddhist social activism (e.g., diversity within our sanghas, the plight of the Rohingya in Burma, the Chinese occupation of Tibet), and to what extent are our issues identical to those of other activist traditions (e.g., criminal justice reform, racial, econom­ic, sexual, and gender equality)? Do we have a specific doctrine relating to economic, political, and social issues, or, as Buddhists, do we eschew “isms” as attachments to the “thicket of views”?  It helps to view these questions as koans­ that can open one up to discovery rather than as questions that call for cut-and-dried answers that foreclose further exploration.

Nevertheless, several general themes emerge through this kind of inquiry that help define what makes Buddhist social activism explicitly Buddhist.

1) Buddhist practice is nondual. It allows no space of separation between self and other. The dichotomy of working on the self but withdrawing from the world, or working on the world but bypassing the self, is antithetical to Buddhism. Since everything is connected, when I change myself, I change the world; when I change the world, I change myself. How could it be otherwise?

2) Everything that happens happens right here, immediately, in one’s own experience. This is true whether the happenings are bodily sensations and personal emotions, or the remembered images of Syrian refugees, or one’s cognitive and emotional reactions to listening to Donald Trump on the nightly news. All of these are mental objects that call for an equal degree of mindful attention, wise reflection, and skillful response. All are part of Buddhist practice.

3) Buddhist practice is continuous. There is no dichotomy between the sacred and the profane; there is not one realm that belongs to Caesar and another that belongs to a deity. Nothing is excluded from Buddhist practice. We practice all the time, whether sitting on the cushion, talking with friends, shopping at the mall, voting in the booth, or marching in a demonstration. Every moment is a moment of continuous, seamless practice. Social action is a realm of practice no different from meditation or sutra study.

4) Buddhist practice is universal. No thing is left out; no one is excluded. We apply our practice to all people: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We include animals and plants within our practice, too. We are not against anyone: we are not against soldiers, criminals, businessmen, landlords, Republicans, or Alt-Rightists. No one is left out of our caring and concern. We say, “May all beings be happy.” That is our practice.

5) We are not struggling against people but against processes: greed, aversion, and delusion. We work ceaselessly with these three poisons, whether they occur within us or within Donald Trump. We no more despise Donald Trump for his greed, aversion, and delusion than we do ourselves. Donald Trump is just a collection of the five aggregates, the same as we are.

Buddhism teaches that all things arise out of causes and conditions. The current ascendence of  the Alt-Right is the outcome of innumerable causes and conditions which include, but are not limited to: the long-term processes of urbanization, immigration, globalization, and automation; the growth of multinational corporations, decline of labor unions, Reagan-era and Bush-era taxation policies, and the end of Depression-era curbs on banking and investment; the long-term consequences of slavery, the civil war, and the civil rights movement; the dynamic narrative of personal liberation and identity transformation that has unfolded in the wake of the women’s suffrage, women’s liberation, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ movements; the long-term historical conflicts between Christian Europe and Islam, complicated by European colonialism and the clash between modernity and traditional Middle Eastern cultures; the clash between modernity and fundamentalist religions here in the West; the growth of the internet and reality television; the destabilization of social structures caused by the rapid pace of technological change; the genetic and biographical particularities of the Trump family saga, and so on, ad infinitum.

Donald Trump and Steve Bannon didn’t single-handedly create our current situation; the karma of the world flows through their actions in an unbroken chain. We’re here to be yet another influence in the great sea of causes and conditions. We’re not here to control the world; no one ever does that. We’re here to ceaselessly witness and ceaselessly practice. Our practice includes being present to suffering, befriending the forgotten, and being unafraid to speak our truth (with a small “t”) to those in power.

6) Buddhist practice is not overly attached to outcome.  When we sit on the cushion and fail to achieve Enlightenment, we don’t become discouraged and change our practice. When we demonstrate against the actions of Donald Trump, and Donald Trump remains unrepentant, we don’t become discouraged and change our practice. Not getting the outcome we want doesn’t invalidate the value of our actions. Perhaps if we persist, our actions will have significant long-term consequences. Perhaps we’ll learn to become more skillful through examining and learning from our failures. Our path in either case, is always the same: a recursive loop of: 1) showing up, 2) paying attention, 3) telling the truth without blame or judgment/ doing whatever’s necessary, 4) being open, but not attached, to outcome, 5) and repeating steps 1-4. This is the Dharma, in short. Buddhist practice is about being here, being mindful, and responding with right speech and right action, again and again, without discouragement. Practice is, as Suzuki Roshi once said, making one’s “best effort on the moment forever.” If one can be deeply present like Avalokiteshvara and see the suffering of the world; if one can show up with the intention to relieve suffering whenever one encounters it to the best of one’s abilities; if one can include every being within the circle of one’s care and compassion; and if one can avoid anger and disillusionment when suffering doesn’t always abate despite one’s best efforts, then one is engaged in a social activism that epitomizes Buddhist practice.

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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.


The Politics of Mindfulness


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 and the People’s Climate March


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.



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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Mindfulness or Heartfulness?


Kannon by Hakuin Ekaku (1686 -1768)

The visitor to our Zendo wanted to be more mindful and to “get to know himself better.” “Good goals!” I readily agreed, but went on to say “the most important thing is to identify your strengths and use them for the benefit of others.”

He made a face. “Oh, the compassion thing. I’m not really all that into Buddhist dogma. I do feel compassion, though, when watching the evening news and seeing people suffering.”

“That’s good, but why start so far from home? What about the people immediately present in your life? And why stop at ‘feeling” compassion? Why not actually do something to make others happier?”

The visitor wasn’t so sure. ”You can’t really make other people happy, and even if you could, it wouldn’t last. The things that make most people happy are inconsequential, like dining out in a fine restaurant. My folks are like that. They’re growing older. What I’d really like is to teach them tranquility, to face their impending old age and death with equanimity.”

All good points: you can’t make other people happy, happiness is ephemeral, and people are often mistaken about what will make them happy, seeking after and investing in the wrong things on the path to well-being.

And yet, all these points are besides the point because using one’s unique gifts to benefit others is what brings happiness. It doesn’t come from self-absorption or developing deep insights into the self. As Dogen wrote in Genjokoan, “to study the self is to forget the self.” The ultimate point of practice isn’t mindfulness in the sense of savoring each moment — although stopping to smell the roses is nothing to sniff at. The ultimate point of practice is transformation: cultivating one’s Buddha nature, journeying along the Bodhisattva path, making one’s life a blessing for everyone one encounters, moment-by-moment.

Blessings don’t have to be big things. They can be small moments shared with one’s grandchildren with one’s full attention, letting them know they are valued. It can be expressing gratitude when someone has done something worthy of appreciation. It can be remembering to clean up the dishes after lunch.

Of course they can be bigger things too: donating one’s time and money, volunteering, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, teaching the Dharma, working ceaselessly for peace and justice.

I emphasize identifying one’s signature talents and gifts because each of us has our own pattern of strengths and weaknesses, and each of us can best contribute to the world in our own unique way. I’m able to write and teach, so these are some of the ways I can make a difference. All thumbs, I’d be worthless building houses for the homeless or coaching kids’ sports teams. I’m too much of an introvert to go into politics — let others do that. My math skills are limited; I’ll never make discoveries in physics or develop a computer program that benefits mankind. We make a difference where we can in the way we can — the way we can genuinely be the most useful. We approach every situation with the intention of cultivating and fulfilling our Buddha nature. The most important question is not a self-absorbed “who am I?” but a Bodhisattva’s “how can I help?”

The visitor to our Zendo was a good person, sincere and dedicated in his practice. If we’d met ten years ago I might have agreed that increasing one’s awareness was the raison d’etre — the be all and end all — of practice. Over the years, however, practice has changed me. I’m aware of how much more heart-centered my practice has become. I fantasize about replacing the word “mindfulness” with “heartfulness.” Of course, the mind-heart distinction is a purely western problem; Asian languages never dissected the human soul along those particular dimensions — the dharmas of human consciousness were neither “cognitive” nor “affective,” but only “skillful” or “unskillful.” If mindfulness isn’t also heartfulness, it’s not really mindfulness.

In the Zendo, our liturgy reminds us of sitting’s transformative purpose: Our robe chant invites us to be part of a “formless field of benefaction;” our Bodhisattva vows commit us to saving numberless beings; the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo declares that moment-by-moment, morning and night, our mind is one with the bodhisattva of compassion.

Meanwhile, I keep thinking about our visitor wanting to teach his parents tranquility in the face of death.

“Good luck with that,” I think.

Really, just a phone call would make them happy.

Start small.

Start where you are.

Start where they are.

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A Meditation on Politics

015abbeydharmaFirst, some background.

I moved to my current town when my wife and I married five years ago.  I wanted to be informed about local issues and had some spare time on my hands, so I started sitting in on the local Town Board work sessions.  One day, the town’s energy coordinator, who was also attending the sessions, invited me to become part of the town’s Climate Action Task Force, and I agreed.  I performed an energy audit of the town’s electric, gasoline, and natural gas consumption, and our task force came up with a number of recommendations for reducing the town’s greenhouse gas emissions.  One of them, changing the town’s lighting over to LED lighting, is happening right now.  In the process, I got to observe and interact with the town’s political figures from the  perspective of an environmental activist.

My wife and I also began attending meetings of our local neighborhood civic association as a way of my getting to know our neighbors better, and, to make a long story short, we ended up serving on the association’s board, my wife as president, and I as corresponding secretary.  We became advocates for the needs of our local community — a road needs repaving here, a water main needs replacing there —  and we got to interact with the town’s political figures over issues related to the town’s delivery of  services.

Our town supervisor is up for re-election this November.  We were appreciative of his availability, his willingness to listen, his integrity, and his genuine wish to be of service to all his constituents, so we let him know, via Facebook, that we supported his re-election bid.  We’ve also had the opportunity to observe his political opponent at town meetings, and were deeply concerned about his negative, divisive, and egotistical personality.  He’d opposed many of the initiatives we’d supported including funding the town’s energy coordinator and arts council positions, and enacting changes to the town code that required new construction to meet energy efficiency standards.

When our town supervisor asked us to get involved in his campaign, we were happy to assist him in getting the signatures he needed to get on the ballot.  Over a short period of time, however, we found ourselves becoming more involved in the campaign.  We wanted to be of assistance, and his campaign seemed to like our thoughts about his re-election bid, so we found ourselves being invited to more and more strategy sessions.  In some ways it wasn’t surprising: my wife was a public relations and communications consultant who had worked with a number of Fortune 500 companies; I love watching her in action.  The only thing I have to contribute is my Zen presence and my occasional two cents for what it’s worth.  As the readers of this blog are well aware, everyone is entitled to my opinion.

Which brings me to my main point.

The other week during zazenkai (a kind of six-hour mini-sesshin), my mind was filled with the buzz of the campaign.  As I tried to sit quietly with my breath and the early morning bird song, thoughts of campaign strategy zipped around my brain.  I’d let them go and return to quiet sitting, only to have them return with renewed energy.  Eventually, I gave up trying to not have them, and contented myself with trying to observe them without getting caught up or carried away.  Given their powerful energy, even that proved difficult, and I had to bring myself back to the present moment over and over.

Was this a bad sitting?  It wasn’t the one I’d wanted.  I’d wanted one of those sittings in which the mind was deliciously still and clear.  That was not to be.  Abandon all expectations, ye who enter here.

But it was the sitting I needed.  It was a wonderful lesson in how addictive political energies can be; how they can absorb us to the degree that we’re in danger of losing our quiet center; how we can easily become enamored with our own cleverness; how sooner or later, we can find ourselves devising strategies that are simply about winning, but which fail to reflect the purity of our original intention to be of service to the community. It was a wake-up call about needing to be careful and discerning; about being suspicious of my own thought processes; about keeping my recommendations in accord with my best intentions and not mere expediency.  It reminded me that elections aren’t about the candidates we support, but about our highest aspirations to benefit all beings.

Zazenkai ended with a new appreciation of the balancing act that’s required if we’re to maintain our integrity while participating in the rough and tumble of politics.

The next time you have a sitting that’s not the one you wanted, be grateful.

It’s a gift.

Not just to yourself, but to all beings.


The image at the top of this post is reprinted with permission from Tricycle Magazine.  

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The Second Precept

The Second Buddhist Precept states simply:

I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.

Adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

This means abstaining from taking what belongs to others — in other words, stealing. Unlike the Judeo-Christian Eighth Commandment, it’s not a divine edict.  It’s training in the practice of non-greed for the good of one’s character and for the happiness of oneself and others.

Most of us don’t go around breaking and entering, mugging, or shoplifting, so it would seem that abstaining from stealing should be a relatively easy matter — but it’s not. There are more subtle forms of theft — downloading and uploading copyrighted material without permission, underreporting cash income on one’s taxes, using ideas without attribution, bringing paper clips home from the office, inflating damage estimates for insurance reimbursement.  The temptation to petty larceny runs deep within the crooked human heart, and aspiring to impeccability requires some heavy lifting.

Corporations can also violate the Second Precept.  Ethical businesses obtain raw materials and labor at a fair price and create something of value which they sell at a fair price.  Ethical businesses also abstain from passing hidden costs along to stakeholders.  Companies that purchase raw materials from developing nations at unfair prices, exploit workers through unfair wages and working conditions, expose consumers to risk through unsafe products, and pollute the environment are engaging in a form of theft.  So are industries that systematically mislead others about the real costs of their products, for example, the health costs of tobacco and soft-drink consumption, or the health and environmental costs of mining and burning coal, deep sea drilling for oil, hydrofracking for gas, or storing “spent” nuclear fuel in cooling ponds.

Governments can violate the Second Precept through unjust confiscatory taxation.  Zen Master Hakuin (1686-1769) railed against the typical Japanese Daimyo (feudal lord) of his day who lived:

“a life of the greatest luxury… with never a thought of the difficulties of the common people under him. From the blood and sweat he wrings from them he is able to fill his tables with fine sake….  As there is never enough money to satisfy such appetites, he ends up dispatching merciless ministers….  Not only do officials reckon the tax rate yearly, they also raise the rate two or three times during the same year.” [1]

Closer to our own time, the American revolution was fought over taxation without representation, and some present day third-world countries are governed by oligarchies so corrupt they can only be called “kleptocracies.”

Political conservatives sometimes claim taxation levels in the United States are confiscatory.  In fact, personal U.S. taxation levels are considerably lower than most Western European democracies.  Additionally, federal tax revenues currently constitute a smaller percentage of our gross domestic product than they did during the decade of the nineteen-fifties.

The Bush era tax cuts have, however, contributed to a massive transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthiest Americans. This transfer is also a function of exponential increases in executive compensation while the hourly wages of American workers have declined.  Fortune 500 CEOs enjoyed a 23% increase in compensation in 2010 alone.  The wealthiest one percent of the country now owns 38% of all privately held stock, 60% of all financial assets, and 62% of all business equity, returning concentration of wealth to levels not seen since the Roaring Twenties and the Gilded Age. [2]  Current tax policy benefits the richest at the expense of improvements in infrastructure, education, and health care for all.

No doubt, the reasons for the increasing disparity in wealth are multiple and complex, including the globalization of the world economy, the loss of manufacturing jobs overseas, the decline of labor unions, the deregulation of the banking industry, the rising cost of energy, the failures of our educational system, and the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy.  The simple, unbridled exercise of human greed fits somewhere into the mix as well.  Not unexpectedly, the wealthy continue to vigorously advocate for a variety of policies (subsidies, incentives, tax write-offs, deregulation, union busting, shredding the social safety net, shifting medical risk from insurers to patients, ending the estate tax, hobbling Medicare’s bargaining power, etc.) that further accelerate the ongoing transfer of wealth.  We might also note that the Supreme Court’s “Citizen’s United” decision gives the wealthy even more of an advantage in shifting the political playing field to their advantage.

The Second Precept applies to more than just the theft of property and wealth, however.  It can also apply to the giving and receiving of affection, attention, and caring in personal relationships and the sharing of tasks and responsibilities within them.  Most imbalances within relationships are not regulated by law and some are reinforced by prevailing customs, making it easier to fail to recognize them when they occur, and allowing their justification since “everyone does it.”  Focusing on the needs of our partners and dependents more than our own is an important part of Buddhist practice.  We might consider replacing the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as we would have them do unto us” with the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would wish to be treated.”  This isn’t to suggest one should neglect one’s own needs — self-compassion is important too.  As Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be?  If I am not for others, what am I?”  It’s just that most of us are so self-focused that a little overcompensation in the other direction couldn’t hurt!   Is it possible to give more of ourselves emotionally — to be more generous than we are at present — without resentment — without fearing we might give more than we get in return?  Can we make that our ongoing practice?

The beauty of the Precepts is that they turn all our interactions into fields of practice in a way solitary sitting never can.  They allow us to explore the degree to which we express integrity, generosity, and compassion in our daily lives.  In following the Second Precept we aspire to more than mere equity, the fair giving of tit-for-tat, but to being open-hearted, caring, and mindful of the needs of others.

Thich Nhat Hanh has rewritten and expanded the Second Precept to make its intention clearer:

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.

The beauty of Thay’s reformulation is that it turns a negative — abstaining from stealing and avoiding greed  — into a positive — the practice of generosity along with genuine activity to reduce individual and systemic suffering.

In discussing his reformulation in depth, Thay adds:

“When you practice one precept deeply, you will discover that you are practicing all five. The First Precept is about taking life, which is a form of stealing — stealing the most precious thing someone has, his or her life. When we meditate on the Second Precept, we see that stealing, in the forms of exploitation, social injustice, and oppression, are acts of killing — killing slowly by exploitation, by maintaining social injustice, and by political and economic oppression. Therefore, the Second Precept has much to do with the precept of not killing. We see the “interbeing” nature of the first two precepts. This is true of all Five Precepts.”

Buddhist practice is truly holographic — every part of the practice contains and reflects every other part of the practice.  If all we do is practice the Second Precept, we are decreasing self-aggrandizement, increasing generosity, increasing mindful awareness of our greed, grasping, and self-justification, and increasing awareness of how we depend on and influence the interconnected web of existence.

Not a bad payoff for one simple precept.




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  1. [1] Katushiro Yoshizawa (2009). The Religious Art of Zen Master Hakuin. Berkeley: Counterpoint.
  2. [2]

The Fourth Precept

The current public discussion over the role vitriolic political rhetoric plays in creating an atmosphere that increases the likelihood of violent actions is as good a time as any to revisit the Fourth Buddhist Precept.

The Fourth Precept reads:

Musāvāda veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

I undertake the vow to abstain from false speech.

“False speech” is a faithful translation of “musāvāda,” but most Buddhists interpret this precept more broadly to include all forms of wrongful or harmful speech.  The Pali Canon identifies four types of wrongful speech: 1) lies, 2) backbiting and slander, 3) abusive and hurtful speech, and 4) frivolous talk.  This would include speech that is harsh, untruthful, poorly timed, motivated by greed or hatred, or otherwise connected with harm. Gossip, misleading arguments, verbal bullying, incitements to violence, rage outbursts, malicious ridicule, and poorly worded or ill-timed truths that cause pain without benefit all fall into the category of wrongful speech.

Thich Nhat Hanh has interpreted the fourth precept to include all forms of unmindful speech and unheedful listening:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

and elsewhere:

“Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things of which you are not sure. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.”

It’s hard to improve on either the aspiration or the advice!

Mindfulness of speech allows us to carefully guard what we’re about to say.  If we’re aware that we’re about to say something we might regret, it’s helpful to pause just long enough to ask ourselves four questions:

  1. Why am I saying this?
  2. Is it completely true?
  3. Is it the right time to say it?
  4. Is it liable to result in benefit or harm?

If the motivation is self-serving or hateful, if it’s not completely true, if it’s poorly worded or ill-timed, or if it is likely to cause more harm than good, then don’t say it.  It’s simple.

The Buddha often refrained from giving painful or unwelcome answers until the questioner had asked three times.  There’s an American Indian proverb that we should think things over three times before we say them.  Once certain things have escaped our lips, it’s impossible to take them back or undo their harm.  Mindfulness is the key.

It’s often said that there are three kinds of lies, “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” but by my count there are six different kinds:

  1. Lies to aggrandize the Self (exaggerating one’s accomplishments)
  2. Lies to avoid shame and blame
  3. Lies to take advantage of others (manipulation, con games)
  4. Lies to cause malicious harm (gossip, slander)
  5. Lies to protect others from embarrassment (“little white lies”)
  6. Lies to help others (“skillful means,” paradoxical therapy)

These lies are not all equally harmful or blameworthy.  Lies intended without harm and resulting in no harm seem less blameworthy than those devised with malice aforethought that succeed in injuring their target.  Self-aggrandizing speech reinforces patterns of “selfing” and causes others to doubt one’s trustworthiness but causes little other harm.  Virtuous lies are lies that may even have positive results.  We might include in this category the physician who offers hope to a terminal patient, or the Bodhisattva who uses “skillful means” to hasten a student’s enlightenment. Virtuous lies seem less blameworthy, however, if and only if both their intention and their effect is beneficial.  For example, the physician’s offer of false hope to the terminal patient might ease the distress of the person who is unable to come to terms with death, but it could also impede acceptance and preparation for death in a less psychologically fragile patient.

Inflamed political rhetoric fails a number of important karmic tests.  It is 1) not fully truthful, 2) spoken out of aversion, 3) slanderous and/or demeaning in intent, and 4) crafted to ignite passion rather than reason.  What good could possibly come from it?

As the Dhammapada notes:

“If you speak… with a corrupted heart, then suffering follows you — as the wheel of the cart, the track of the ox that pulls it.” [1]

Words, like actions, have consequences, and set the stage for our future happiness or misery.  This is the implacable law of cause-and-effect.  We can refrain from causing harm to ourselves and others only through mindfulness, discerning wisdom, and a compassionate heart.

This week the reckless use of language has not only clouded and impeded a true national dialogue on the important issues of our time, but it also has contributed to tragic deaths and injuries caused by a deluded mind with a semi-automatic weapon.

May all the victims, families and friends of the victims, and all beings find peace and freedom from sorrow.

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  1. [1] Thanissaro Bhikku, translator