Thursday, August 27, 2009

Eel-like wriggling

I participate in a Yahoo! group called Heartland, which is a gay discussion group based in Singapore. The reason I joined Heartland is that I’ve found the Dhamma discussion there much more stimulating than at the other Yahoo! Buddhist groups, or Buddhist discussion groups elsewhere on the Internet. I find a lot of “eel-like wriggling” going on at so many of these groups that I feel sorry for someone who is new to Buddhism and thinks he or she can learn something about it by following these discussions.

But there’s some “eel-like wriggling” going on at Heartland as well as participants ponder what it means to be a “real Buddhist,” or whether concepts such as “right” and “wrong” are relative terms that vary based on individual perspective.

This recent discussion led me to find the Brahmajala Sutta (DN 1) because I knew it contained the Buddha’s description of a reaction presented by some folk who hear his principles: The Buddha identified this response as taking the form of four types of ambiguous evasion.

“Uh, gee, I don’t know if that’s true, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I can’t say it’s not true because I just don’t know.” Such slippery evasiveness recalls for me the title of a Ministry album, “The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste.”

Anyway, while reviewing the Brahmajala Sutta, I was surprised to see how comprehensive it was. And it was also interesting to note that this teaching was directed toward monks. It’s really important to be clear on what audience the Buddha was speaking to when reading the suttas. Sometimes I think people respond with “eel-like wriggling” because they think they’re expected to master everything that was said in the sutta in their mundane lives. When they hear of things like “dependant co-arising,” they blanch, not realizing that there’s plenty in the Buddha’s words that is much simpler and easier to follow, like how to live a life that does no harm, and how to avoid being a slut on the circuit.

But the recent discussion on Heartland had my mind ready for all the other things the Buddha covered in this sutta.

For example, the Buddha cautions against becoming angry toward those that may criticize him, the Sangha or the Dhamma; rather, the response should simply be to point out where the errors are and correct them.

At the same time, the Buddha cautions that if someone praises him, the Sangha or the Dhamma, the monks should not swell with pride.

For those of us in the gay community, this is a very difficult axiom to follow. Much of what we do is focused either on the loud proclamation of our presence – We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it – or shouting down those who conjure falsehoods about who we are – you’re a homophobe. We at times resort to these knee-jerk slogans with such rapidity that sometimes we fail to hear something that might actually benefit us. We’ve played the role of victim so well and for so long that it’s the only role we know. In fact, we know it so perfectly that we even play the part with each other.

Monday, August 24, 2009

I want my meditation back

I’m a bit behind the curve, because this blog in the New York Times has already been written about, discussed, blogged, you name it. But it’s worth mentioning here as well because it really strikes a chord with me.

I want my meditation back.

Sorry, I expressed an attachment. But Robert Wright’s blog reminded me of what has been missing in my life.

There was a time when I meditated daily. That day hasn’t been around for about three years. It’s time for it to come back.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The delusion of Bash Back!

The men’s magazine Details has an article about a militant, underground group of gays and transgendered folk who are tired of the community being the targets of violence. Their solution? Fight back with more violence.

Bash Back!’s message is pretty simple: “We’re not trying to change people’s minds, we’re not trying to bend straight people to give us freedom—we’re fighting back,” says Milwaukee member Tristyn Trailer-Trash (from the Details article). “We’re going to stop them from preaching hate, stop them from creating an environment that’s unfriendly to gay, queer, and trans people. We’re not going to be nice about it—they’re not being nice about it!”

It is understandable for us to feel anger, bitterness and resentment toward the larger society because of how it marginalizes us. And it is very tempting to respond to violence with more violence. But when has violence as a method ever accomplished an end to violence?

The Kodhanna Sutta (AN 7.60) gives us seven reasons why anger is unproductive. Even its subtitle, “The Wretchedness of Anger,” fills us in on its ineffectiveness. The fact that members of Bash Back! feel compelled to cover their faces indicates that their method is not an honorable one, and one filled with delusion regarding its alleged merits. It makes them look like a pink version of Hamas. It’s not hyperbole; the Web site for the Chicago faction asks you to “Join the homosexual intifada!” Included in the group’s manifesto are statements like this: “All oppressive behavior is not to be tolerated.” Is that not a form of oppression?

The verses of the Kodhavagga (Dhp XVII) also offer a sublime teaching for us regarding anger:

Conquer anger
with lack of anger;
bad, with good;
stinginess, with a gift;
a liar, with truth.
By telling the truth;
by not growing angry;
by giving, when asked,
no matter how little you have:
by these three things
you enter the presence of devas.

“But we are under attack!” some of you might say. “We have to protect ourselves!”

At the heart of this is fear, a fear of being attacked, so the idea of arming ourselves against attack appears to be a logical step. We believe that it will relieve us of fear because the source of our fear will be vanquished. This is delusion. The Buddha teaches in the Attadanda Sutta (Snp 4.15) that arming ourselves against violence actually continues to feed our fear and preserve it, rather than rid ourselves of fear. The evidence is clear with Bash Back! Their violent tactics are doing nothing to alleviate their own fear of attack because they must hide their identities and meet secretively. This is not the behavior of someone without fear.

Gandhi led a movement that conquered an oppressive hegemony, and he did so by conquering his own fear and refusing to retaliate with violence against the violence he fully expected to meet. He took some knocks along the way, and so did his followers; but in the end, he contributed to the decline of a world empire.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Jesus went to India?

This BBC video is very interesting. I have read about the notion that Jesus, during the "missing years," traveled to India and was exposed to Buddhism. Another book posits that when he was in Egypt, he encountered monks who had established a monastery in Alexandria.

Buddhism light?

I am having mixed feelings about an apparent trend in Western Buddhism, which I am presuming is being led by American Buddhism, toward a reinterpretation in how Buddhism in the West is approached, digested and practiced. The features of this trend are identified in a post at Wandering Dhamma.

Among the features in this trend is a shift toward a “hard core” practice of Buddhism from a former, “New Age” style of practice. If such a shift as this is indeed happening, I am delighted by the prospect. It’s been my experience that “sanghas” or other Buddhist organizations initiated by Anglo individuals tend to attract people who call themselves Buddhist as long as they are comfortable with the “demands” made on them by whatever doctrine they are exposed to. As soon as the requirements become uncomfortable, such individuals discard their “Buddhism” like an ill-fitting garment. I wish I had kept track of the people I encountered who called themselves Buddhist, but hadn’t ever read a lick of Dhamma. One even told me, “I am Zen, and all we do is meditate.” Imagine if I called myself Christian, but never read the Bible; instead, I relied entirely on someone else telling me what is in the Bible. Oh, wait, I know a lot of people like that.

Perhaps my skepticism is based on a perception that many “converts” to Buddhism get their first exposure to Dhamma either through an academic class or a book. And because of that, they develop a cerebral attitude toward Buddhism, which inevitably leads to elitism. These folks never really practice Dhamma: they read about it and think about it, and they love to talk about it, but that’s as far as it goes. Ask them how they bring the Noble Eightfold Path into their lives and you’re met with blank stares.

Perhaps that is why too many white “Buddhists” fail to help out with the dirty work at festivals and events at predominantly Asian sanghas. “I know Buddhism, I don’t do Buddhism.”

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Parsing kamma

I was born a white male in a middle class family with five other children in a relatively affluent community in the United States where the residents believed in an exceptional school system. I am also gay. Is all this the result of kamma? And if it is, what portions of the above could be interpreted to be the fruits of skillfulness, and what portions would be the fruits of unskillfulness?

There are a lot of different ways people talk about kamma, some skillful and many not so skillful. But even among the skillful discussions, people can appear to be saying something different, as was pointed out in a post a month ago at Dharma Folk. That’s unsurprising because kamma is a sin quo non of Buddhism. Because it is so critical to the doctrine, it invites impassioned discussion. We recognize its importance, and we want to understand how it works. Yet this essential concept to the Buddha’s doctrine cannot be so easily explained, despite the efforts of many to do so.

I am not about to try to provide a definitive description of kamma and how it works. I am, however, going to share some thoughts about how I’ve digested these divergent descriptions. And rightly or wrongly, one of my conclusions is that when you have a discussion about a concept that is critical to attaining the unbinding, and that discussion is carried out among unenlightened people, you will get some pretty bogus assertions mixed in with the insightful ones.

Let’s identify a starting point. In his book “Refuge,” Thannisaro Bikkhu writes in the section about kamma the following:

“Put briefly, it states that action is real, effective, and the result of one’s own choice. If one chooses to act skillfully and works to develop that skill, one’s actions can lead to happiness, not only on the ordinary sensory level, but also on a level that transcends all the dimensions of time and the present.”

OK, kamma is not just action, but it’s intentional action. So if I’m driving down the road and a rabbit darts out in front of my car and I run over it, killing it, there is no kamma involved, right? (except for maybe the rabbit’s) After all, I did not get into my car with the intention of killing a rabbit, right? The rabbit ran into the path of my car so suddenly I could not stop or swerve. I never saw the rabbit coming.

What if we substitute the word “child” for “rabbit”? There would be plenty of consequences facing me, including legal and financial ones, even though when I got into my car I had no intention of killing a child.

Thannisaro Bikkhu didn’t just say kamma was intentional action, he also included the descriptive word skillful. And if I am inattentive while driving, I could strike and kill a child. But if I am not making the intentional decision to remain attentive, if I am carelessly being inattentive without thought, does that mean I de facto intended to be a threat to that child?

You can see how this notion of kamma gets all tied up in knots the more we try to rationalize and explain it. And along the way, we often attach value judgments to the idea of kamma as well, going so far as to differentiate between “good kamma” and “bad kamma.”

Look at my opening paragraph. Was the fact that I was born white in a middle class family that valued education the fruits of my good kamma? Am I better off than being born among a small tribe of indigenous people in the jungle of Brazil into a family of prominence within that local society, to be given skillful instruction on how to be an effective leader of my klan? Was my kamma good and the Brazilian baby’s less good? There are too many people who would say that me being born white was the fruit of good kamma, while someone born in a black middle class family might be viewed as having to “work through” his or her kamma accumulated in past lives.

The idea that we have to work through our accumulated kamma is not a bogus one; consider the Lonaphala Sutta: The Salt Crystal as a reference (AN 3.99). But I’m wondering if this desire, particularly among Western Buddhists (at least that’s been my observation) to qualify kamma, casting it not only as the consequences of action, but as being negative or positive in nature, is actually a hindrance to anyone really grasping the Buddha’s words, as well as a hindrance to attracting others to his doctrine of truth. It appears to me to be a carryover from the Judeo-Christian hegemony. And this is particularly true when it comes to homosexuality.

In the discussion about sexuality at Dhamma Spread, the author perpetuates the idea that being homosexual is a consequence of one’s kamma; given the way society at large tends to perceive “difference,” this consequence is most often perceived as a negative one. But the author does make what I believe to be a very significant distinction: “Thus, in the end it is not about being homosexual, lesbian, or heterosexual, it is about how you deal with the mind, and how you respect and look after the mind.”

So much of the discussion about homosexuality gets trapped within a narrow and self-serving interpretation of the Third Precept. And it also gets inappropriately colored with references to the Vinaya, the monastic code. What people fail to realize is that the Vinaya addresses very specific behaviors and outlines consequences for these behaviors – some of which are homosexual in nature, and some of which are heterosexual in nature – with the goal being the maintenance of order within the sangha: it’s about action, not about nature. Outside of the Vinaya, the issue of sexuality is barely addressed at all, and when it is, the discussion is focused on whether the intention behind the action is skillful or unskillful.

So am I suffering the consequences of the kamma I’ve accumulated in past lives by being born gay?

Not any more or less so than are my straight brethren suffering the consequences of their kamma for the conditions of their birth.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

White privilege and isolation Part 2

Had I found a new sangha with the Lao temple I had discovered? I wasn’t certain; but I did believe my kamma had guided me there. Before going further, you should read Part 1 of this memory, as I must be up front about it: what I am writing here is from memory. We don’t always remember events accurately, although we like to flatter ourselves in this respect.

I can remember when I first visited the Lao temple, it was late winter, 2007. Remember, I was working on a story about the Buddhist congregations in the Holland, Mich., area, and my deadline was in early March. The story wasn’t to be published until late March. (I don’t have hard copies of the articles I wrote, and when the paper was bought by another company and switched to the new company’s platform, all the archived material under the previous platform was lost: it “disappeared.”) The monk liked me enough that he consented to another story idea. I knew that the Lao New Year was approaching (April 14 that year, according to my e-mail files). This temple, like others I had encountered, had “fudged” the date for this event so that a celebration could be held on a weekend. Anyway, the monk said I could come and write about it for the paper and we could take photos and even film the ceremony to be posted on the paper’s Web site.

I prepped my “crew,” a photographer who took outstanding photos (few displayed with this blog entry) and a videographer. I gave them a basic primer on Buddhist and Asian etiquette – don’t be afraid of them, they are people just like you, but take your shoes off at the front door, don’t pat anyone on the head, and when you sit on the floor, tuck your feet under your butt; same goes for the monk, don’t be afraid of him, he’s not the pope. Also, I said, most do not speak much English; they will smile a lot at you and nod, but that doesn’t mean they understand what you are saying.

It was a splendid event and we had a wonderful experience. The photographer was inspired with the many photo ops he saw. The Lao people were happy and very friendly, making sure we got plenty to eat. And we were treated to some amazing solo chanting by the resident monk. It was so beautiful.

So in a relatively short sequence of time my general story about the Buddhist community in the area was published, followed a few weeks later by the story of the celebration at the temple. During this time I had also been communicating with a few of the “board” members about the travails the sangha was facing in its dealings with the township zoning board.

During an interview with the township attorney, he made a comment that he felt empathy for the folks at the temple, but they didn’t seem to be able to get anything done. I took the liberty to speaking freely with him. First a bit of background: this area of Michigan is the home turf for two of the most conservative and politically influential Christian denominations in America – The Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America. People like Gary Bauer, James Dobson and the Prince family (you know Erik Prince of Blackwater fame? That family) were all well-connected to these denominations, even though they may not be church members. When the attorney made his comment, I told him I might have some insight into the situation because I was Buddhist. He was willing to listen, so I went out on a limb.

I had no idea what religious affiliation this attorney held, but the odds were he was either CRC or RCA. I said in many respects, the Lao Buddhists were not much different from the Christians in the area: they also took pride in their temples and worked hard to build them on their own. It was how they provided support to the monks, who in most circumstances had no means of economic support. This group, however, was primarily working class families who had limited income as well as limited opportunities to work. Unlike the wealthier white Christian churches, they didn’t have the cash flow to hire contractors, nor did they have temple members who own their own excavation companies to come out and complete the site work for free. Instead, they would get a building permit, but would be unable to finish the work before the permit expired either because they ran out of money or they simply couldn’t get the job done in time. Plus, even the best English speaking member representing the congregation, the board president, seemed to me to not fully understand all the legal requirements of each individual permit. Perhaps, I suggested, during future township meetings, the township zoning board could take a little extra time to ensure that communication with the temple was successful?

Did that make a difference? I don’t know. All I can say is that conversation occurred roughly during the same time period as when my articles appeared, as well as other stories I had assigned for a reporter that covered the township’s zoning board meetings whenever the Lao temple was on the agenda. By spring, several “white volunteers” showed up at the temple and spoke with the president. A week later, someone showed up with a backhoe, a bulldozer, building supplies; the recreation building that had stood as an unfinished shell for two years got completed, the grounds leveled and the drainage completed, and a parking lot covered with asphalt before the end of June.

To be quite honest, I really don’t think I had anything to do with this outcome. And yet, it still might not have happened had I not asked to do a story about the Buddhist congregations in the area. It kind of reminds me of what the white monk near Lansing would tell visitors to the temple, folks who seemed curious but somewhat skittish about what went on there. “Hello, welcome, we are friendly here, we do not sacrifice animals here, we are quite harmless.”

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

White privilege and isolation Part 1

The recent discussion on many Buddhist-related blogs regarding race in general and the notion of white privilege in particular had me thinking again, this time about my experiences with a Lao temple near Holland, Mich.

I was lucky to find the sangha near Lansing, Mich., when I first learned of Buddhism. The abbot was Caucasian, had been born and raised in the same Michigan town that I was born and raised in; he might have even attended the same high school at the same time as some of my siblings. But despite the abbot being Caucasian, the dhammasala was steeped in Thai culture, as the abbot had studied and was ordained in Thailand.

When I moved to the other side of the state, I maintained ties with the monastery near Lansing, but was able to attend only major ceremonies once or twice a year. There were some ad hoc groups in the Holland area, but the monasteries in the region were sustained by the Cambodian and Lao communities there. A Cambodian temple was just a block from my apartment. I observed as an outsider for a while, soon concluding there weren’t any other white members. Why did this make a difference?

I was a reporter and editor for the local paper at the time, and we were working on a series of articles on how religion influenced the area, the predominant hegemonies being that of the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America. I lobbied for the assignment of writing about the Asian communities that had immigrated to the area in the 1980s from Southeast Asia; the article would feature their Buddhist practices, which had garnered some recent attention.

In particular, a Lao temple was having some communication problems with the local township board and zoning ordinance over construction of a new community hall. I visited the monastery and offered my assistance to help improve communications between the temple and the township. The monk, a very young man who spoke little English, was very interested in getting help, as he was frustrated with how things were going. However, one of the senior lay members called me later and politely, but very firmly, declined to take me up on my offer: they would manage on their own. In fairness, they did, eventually working more effectively with the township and successfully completing their new community building. Also in fairness, behind the scenes, I contacted a township official and did a bit of “explaining” to that official how the Asian Buddhist community functioned, offering some advice as to why communications were difficult at times.

Anyway, the monk kept me on, so to speak. He wanted to learn to improve his English and he suggested I could teach him. I agreed to; I hadn’t been connected with a temple for a couple years and saw this as an opportunity to become involved again. The monk also seemed pleased with my knowledge of Dhamma. I explained that I was by no means an expert, but I had hosted some informal Dhamma classes in the town where I had previously lived, using the Study Guides at as my lesson plan. That was excellent, he said. He explained to me that the older members of the temple spoke little English and knew less Dhamma; all they were interested in were the ceremonies, the blessings, the rites and rituals. The younger generation, however, spoke English well, but also knew no Dhamma, and cared nothing for rites and rituals. Maybe I could teach Dhamma to the temple’s youth? It would be good, said the monk. They have so many problems and this would help them, he said.

I admit it was tempting, but I was also very wary. I told him I would think about it; besides, there was this matter of me being gay. It might cause problems. He seemed amused by this information and assured me it would not be a problem. I shook my head; I wasn’t going to proclaim it to everyone, but I wasn’t going to keep it a secret either. In the meantime, I would continue to visit him and help him with his English. I also agreed to teach him how to drive; the remote area he lived in kept him very isolated. He wanted to attend night school to obtain a GED. He thought this very important. And he couldn’t rely on the temple members, because they couldn’t always get out to the house to bring him his midday meal. They have to work, he said. “We are not a rich people.”

Thus began a very interesting spring. Part 2 will be coming soon.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Status is not kamma

The prevailing understanding in Buddhism is that one’s past behavior, in this life or a previous life, determines one’s kamma. That is self evident when considering this life. But what about past lives? Does kamma determine one’s social or economic standing? Is a person born into poverty because of kamma? Is he or she blessed because of birth into wealth?

I think not, as that would be an oversimplification of kamma; as my original teacher once told me, kamma is very complex.

I believe it absurd to think that someone born into poverty is suffering the consequences of his or her kamma. And I find it equally absurd that one is benefiting from the consequences of his or her kamma by being born into wealth.

Was Abraham Lincoln suffering the consequences of prior bad acts in a previous life because he was born to a humble family in 19th century Illinois as opposed to the more comfortable East? Did he have to rise above these humble means to improve his kamma, only to be shot?

Did Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s kamma benefit him in his political ascendancy more so than Lincoln’s humble birth? Should we have expected more out of Andrew Cunanan considering his bright promise, such as his intellect, which undoubtedly was a fruit of his previous lives?

What if one’s socio-economic status at birth was random? What if it had nothing to do with kamma?

That would mean it’s all about choices and actions. And we all face the same choices and actions regardless of our birth status, don’t we? Influences might vary to a degree, but we all face the same choices don’t we? We either do right or we do wrong

And kamma is not result; it's action.