Saturday, January 30, 2010

Was Holden Caulfield Gay?

This may strike you as an off-topic subject, the contemplation of whether JD Salinger’s most famous and talked-about character is gay. What has this got to do with Buddhism, you may ask? Frankly at first, I wasn’t sure myself. Ever since I first read “Catcher in the Rye,” I have always wondered if Holden Caulfield was gay. With Salinger’s recent death, I began to ponder this possibility anew. With these thoughts resurfacing, a moment of clarity came to me, and that was how “Catcher in the Rye” was a portrayal of the deluded mind from a very Buddhist perspective.

First I want to thank Scott over at the buddha is my dj for his post about Salinger’s death. His musings about Salinger’s work confirmed what I had sensed about the author from my own reading of “Franny and Zooey,” and that it was filled with a very Zen perspective; not like how John Updike speaks of Salinger’s prose as being open-ended and Zen-like. No, there was something else going on for me. And the same New York Time’s obituary that mention’s Updike’s comment also enlightened me to the fact Salinger practiced Zen (although one must take Salinger’s daughter’s description of her father’s practice with some skepticism).

So when I began to contemplate once again Holden’s sexuality, the additional input from the Times article and Scott’s blog post provided the prompt necessary for me to realize that Holden Caulfield is an allegory for the mind.

When many of us read “Catcher in the Rye” for the first time, we instantly identified with Holden and his railing against all the phoniness in the world. We saw the same thing, but perhaps we couldn’t quite finger it: Holden gave voice to what we were already sensing. The trouble is, Holden is a phony too. He also senses this, but is either unable to or unwilling to investigate his own phoniness, so he projects it onto everyone else. That’s not to say that Holden was wrong to say people are phony; it’s just that he wasn’t seeing the same phoniness in himself. He wanted to, he wanted closer relationships with others, he wanted intimacy, but the prospect confused him and frightened him. And like so many of us did, he distanced himself from others, labeling them as phony, as his defense against his own mind.

And that brings up the prospect of Holden being gay. My own adolescence was during the 1970s when sexual liberation was at its zenith. And yet, during that time, my confusion over my own sexuality led me to develop all kinds of irrational defenses against the very idea that I wanted to sleep with other boys. Now take that back to the time period of Holden’s, the late 1940s and early 1950s (the book was published in 1951). That context is important when considering Holden’s sexuality and how he dealt with it.

The fact that Holden is very conflicted is immediately revealed in the early chapters, particularly with his visit to the history teacher that failed him, Mr. Spencer. Holden harshly describes the teacher as mean and vindictive, and yet he feels compassion for the very sick man.

Holden’s interaction with his good-looking roomie Stradlater is interesting as well. Holden chats with Stradlater in the bathroom while the latter shaves. During the conversation, Holden nervously turns on and off a faucet; the sexual tension is palpable. And when Stradlater identifies that he’s got a date with Jane Gallagher, a girl he knows, he’s upset that Stradlater will likely have sex with Jane, a girl Stradlater hardly knows anything about – he can’t even get her name correct! Holden knows Jane well, revealing this with some insight into how the girl plays checkers.

Whether Holden is angry and jealous about the likely sexual encounter because Stradlater will get Jane and Holden won’t, or that Holden is envious that he is not sleeping with Stradlater remains ambivalent to me. It’s just not that clear because Holden remains ambivalent as well. What does become increasingly clear is how lonely Holden is as he attempts to fabricate liaisons with girls and women, which clumsily fail. His recollection of an intimate moment with Jane is more reflective of his present need for someone to show him that same level of intimate support and understanding rather than an example of any sexual desire he may have for Jane. And his fascination with the transvestite and the couple spitting on each other that he sees from his hotel room only reveal his confused and shallow understanding of sex. His later blowup with Sally may be fueled by a deluded desire to convince himself that he is in love with her, but this desperate thought mixed with all his confused emotions leads to an outburst and Sally abandoning him. His ambivalence with homosexuality is revealed with his encounter with a former schoolmate Carl Luce, as well as a later encounter with a teacher, Mr. Antolini. It is clear Holden cannot deal with the world as it is. It’s worth noting too that Mr. Antolini was, in Holden’s memory, the only person who showed any courage or kindness when a boy at school had jumped out a window after being harassed by other boys (for being perceived as gay?).

Whether Mr. Antolini was in fact making a sexual advance on Holden is irrelevant. The more important item is Holden’s homophobic reaction, which he later comes to regret.

All of these vignettes describe a deluded mind unable to see things as they really are. And isn’t that how our minds function? And isn’t it the point of the Buddha’s teaching to cut through this delusion to see truth? As a confused adolescent, I attempted sex with girls, but never carried out these situations with any success, as I was always afraid of the encounter and managed to concoct a reason to avoid it. Just as Holden loathed the idea of casual sex, believing that it ought to be with someone you truly cared for, I also wanted to seek someone I truly cared for. But I was paralyzed by a deluded mind that couldn’t shake the notion that my true desire was an abomination. Instead, I became bitter and cynical, highly critical of others, and filled with anger and resentment. Poisoned with these feelings and fabrications, I hurt people that I cared about. And, of course, this only added to my feelings of despair.

The fact that Holden’s little sister points out his misstatement of the line in the song “Coming Thro’ the Rye” as being “if a body catch a body coming through the rye,” rather than the real line, “if a body meet a body,” reveals the pivotal fear at the heart of Holden’s delusion, and that is his fear of sex. He is so completely screwed up emotionally that his deceits are so masterful that he has completely blinded himself to his own fear of intimacy on any level. His reaction is to runaway, but again, his little sister saves him. Or does she?

The novel’s ambiguous ending is to me a warning of how difficult it is to overcome our delusions once they have become part of us. Of the three taints the Buddha warns us about – greed, hatred and delusion – it is delusion that the Buddha marks as the most difficult to overcome. After all, how does a deluded mind recognize its own delusion?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Seeking the sound of silence

Probably the most common hindrance to my meditation is my mind’s latching on to some damn song, endlessly looping just a snippet of the song through my head. I’ve tried many strategies to get beyond whatever song is playing in my head and sometimes it’s not such a struggle. But just about every time I go to sit, there’s some song in my head.

This morning it was “Jet,” from the McCartney album “Band on the Run.”

My mind is a manic menace. There are times when I easily let go of the bothersome tune that is trying to monopolize my meditation, but I’m never really aware of how that occurs. There are several strategies I employ, all of which can work from time to time, but none of which are universally successful. One, I focus stridently on my breath, really forcing my mind to let go of the tune and pay attention to my breathing. Another is silently chanting Buddho as I breathe, and when that becomes so monotonous that I sense I am drifting into sleep, I will count my breaths going from 1 to 5, then back down to 1, etc.

The counting tends to work the best, but there are other times when I will direct my mind to take a close look at the song in my head, asking it the question, “Where is this coming from?” This is occasionally successful because the mind usually responds with, “I have no idea,” and the song disappears.

Nonetheless, just about every time I sit for meditation, I have to initially struggle with some freaking song. Music playing in my head is so common that when I first wake in the morning, a song immediately starts playing. It’s the first thought of my mind each day!

Granted, I listen to a lot of music. I have a blog as well about Frank Zappa’s catalogue. I have probably more than 1,000 CDs. The thought that a solution to my problem is to turn off all the external music around me is so repugnant that I won’t even consider it. But there are times when I intentionally engage in activities to separate myself from music and the rest of the world, like when I go for a hike.

Any of you have similar recurring distractions to your meditation? How do you deal with them?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Is there meat in that bowl?

One of the first questions I am frequently asked when I identify myself as Buddhist is, “You’re a vegetarian then too, right?” And I reply, “No, I’m not.” This sometimes elicits the question, “But aren’t Buddhists supposed to be vegetarian?” And I reply, “No, we’re not. Many are, but it’s not a requirement of the faith.”

Whoop! Whoop! Danger! Danger! Someone has breached the code! Lockdown sequence has been activated!

Yes, I am sure that is how some of my Buddhist compatriots would respond to such heresy, as many Buddhists cannot differentiate between Dhamma and being a vegetarian. For some Buddhists, one must be vegetarian or one cannot be a Buddhist. I find such categorical statements preposterous. To really determine whether Buddhists ought to be vegetarians as well, one has to be sure to be asking the right question. Because the Buddha taught that if you ask an unskillful question, then you will get an unskillful answer, and unskillful answers do not help you along the path.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a wide variety of opinion on the topic. Take a look at this post at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt, where blogger John asked people to share their perspective on the First Precept and whether it demands a Buddhist to be vegetarian. The responses there run the gamut, most leaning toward vegetarianism as either an outright requirement or as an ideal to strive for.

But when it comes to the attraction of Buddhism, I don’t want potential new followers to get hung up on the vegetarian thing. I don’t want someone to decide to not explore the Buddha’s teachings because they like their hamburgers rare and they may even – Oh My Freaking God! – like veal (probably the most cruelly produced meat product out there).

Before I go on, I provide this disclaimer: I eat meat. This morning for breakfast I had bacon and organic free-range eggs fried in bacon grease, plopped on pancakes smothered with real butter. I eat meat almost daily, mostly pork and chicken, sometimes fish, and occasionally beef. I like my beef thick, juicy and rare (I prefer my men more like chicken).

The issue of vegetarianism is mostly concerned with what the First Precept means, which directs practitioners to avoid the deliberate killing of living creatures. This obviously means, some say, that we should not eat meat or other animal products because this leads to killing living creatures, not to forget the often inhumane treatment animals go through in husbandry.

By logical extension then, I should also not drive, nor ask anyone to drive for me because such activity could lead to the death of an animal; I should oppose driving and the use of all public transportation by anyone because such activity does, on a daily basis, result in the death of animals (humans too). By virtue of this information, the mere fact of my using any form of motorized transportation knowing that it may result in the death of an animal an intentional act. So if I used a motorized method of transportation and that use resulted in the death of an animal, I intended that animal to die; hence, I have violated the First Precept.

An oh, by the way, I should oppose electricity also because the number one cause of power outages is squirrels; squirrels gnaw on the insulation around power lines, leading to the squirrel’s electrocution and loss of power to the area served by that power line. Therefore, my use of electricity frequently leads to the death of animals, so I should become Amish if I want to faithfully follow the First Precept. Except, well, hmm, I don’t know any vegetarian Amish.

In my view, the above logical extension is absurd.

There’s a discussion on Access to Insight that addresses the question, “Are Buddhists vegetarian?

“Although the first of the five precepts, the basic code of ethical conduct for all practicing Buddhists, calls upon followers to refrain from intentional acts of killing, it does not address the consumption of flesh from animals that are already dead.”

Some may say this is a rationalization, and I don’t deny that. But even the Vinaya is cautious about how monks should act when someone drops meat into their alms bowl. And it’s clear too in this explanation in the Vinaya that the Buddha acknowledges that lay Buddhists eat meat. They had to eat meat to survive.

This, of course, raises another line of reasoning. Today, is it reasonable for people to presume that personal survival requires the consumption of meat? The obvious answer to that is no. It is much easier now to be a vegetarian than it was years ago, and it is certainly easier to be vegetarian by choice in a developed nation than in an undeveloped nation. But does that mean the First Precept requires one to have a vegetarian diet?

When I go to the supermarket, all the packages of meat I see there are going to be there whether I am a meat-eater or vegetarian. I was not personally responsible for the killing of these animals. Again, some may argue that this is a convenient rationalization. If fewer people ate meat, then less meat would be available, leading to fewer animals being raised solely for meat consumption. This leads to less suffering.

Or does it? What happens to the people employed by the meat processing industry? Will there be enough jobs for them if the one they have disappears? How does the loss of their job relieve suffering for them? What happens to the economic structure when all the ancillary businesses involved in meat production have to shut down because everyone decided that eating animals is bad? And what of the animals that were bred solely for meat production purposes? Is their suffering really alleviated when their primary protector is not longer concerned with their well-being? They have no natural defenses against predators. Many couldn’t feed themselves on their own because they are completely dependent on the food the farmer gives them. And even if the farmer, or someone, continues to feed and care for them, what economic benefit comes out of that to the farmer? How does one afford to feed all these animals? Without someone continuing to feed and protect these animals, they would continue to suffer; perhaps even more so as many would simply die of starvation.

Not so simple is it? Of course, the above scenario simply isn’t going to happen. The world isn’t going to become vegetarian. We can, as individuals, make that choice. And for many, it’s the right and good choice. For others, striving toward a completely vegetarian diet as an eventuality is the right and good choice. But to assert that vegetarianism is a sin quo non of being a Buddhist is just as much an unskillful attachment to a fabrication as is my attachment to a perfectly cooked beef tenderloin.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Queerness of Dhamma

John over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt has a post with a good list of some of the characteristics of Buddhism that demonstrate well the reasons I believe Buddhism is a much easier faith system for gays to immerse themselves in than other doctrines. John’s intention for the list, however, differs from mine (he compiled it as a suggested list of responses to an Evangelical Christian of how Buddhism differs from Christianity); my intention is to extrapolate and present those characteristics that ought to be considered by gays searching for a spiritual path.

  1. “There is no Omniscient God in Buddhism.” I would add that there is also no omnipresent or omnipotent god in Buddhism. The point is there is no one single god for you to petition to save your ass. The Buddha acknowledged that various gods and spirits exist, some of whom can be helpful to you, and others who are bothersome. But rather than teach others to seek salvation and grace through any of these beings, the Buddha teaches us that the key to our happiness and redemption lies within us and within our control – not outside of us in the hands of someone or something else.

  2. “Buddhists do not owe any allegiance to a supernatural being.” There is no angry, self-centered god in Buddhism that you must constantly appease to avoid spiritual retribution. There are two “gods” in particular that the Buddha spoke of frequently: Brahma and Mara. Brahma is the “chief” Hindu god with whom the Buddha debated at times. Brahma paid deference to the Buddha, not the other way around. And there is a passage in the Tipitika (Buddhist scriptures) in which Brahma admits that he does not know where the beginning or the end of the universe lies. Mara, for lack of a better term, is Satan, the devil. But Buddhism doesn’t require you to believe that Mara truly exists; because the Buddha uses Mara more often as a metaphor for the deluded mind rather than a real deity. So for us gays, we don’t have to justify or rationalize who we are to fit in.

  3. “The Buddha is a guide and teacher. Not a savior or incarnation of a God.” We do not worship the Buddha. The Buddha is gone. When we bow to a Buddha statue or image, or burn incense and mutter unintelligible sayings in some cryptic language, we are not praying or making offerings to a god. We are paying respect to what the Buddha left behind after his passing, all his teachings about how to overcome our own suffering and help others to alleviate their suffering. There are sects of Buddhism that come closer to the notion that the Buddha as a god that you can petition, but they are a minority. Despite that, the Buddha did not tell people to not believe in a god or not pray; if doing so helps you to develop kindness for others and better awareness of your own actions and the consequences they bring, then go ahead and believe. It just isn’t required; you can still attain release from the cycle of suffering and not believe in any deity at all.

  4. “We all have Buddha Nature and can realize that through striving to cut our delusions.” Just as Christians seek to be Christ-like, we Buddhists strive to emulate the Buddha. And despite what others may say or think, realizing our own Buddha nature is not some impossible or even improbable feat. The key is, rather, that successful realization of our Buddha nature is in our hands, not someone else’s. It means seeing things as they really are, rather than what we wish them to be. This does not mean we become doormats and let the larger society wipe their feet on us. It does mean, however, that we remain focused on the present and on what we are doing right now, because out of the present our future is shaped. And while we don’t dwell in the past, we recognize that all we’ve done in the past – good, bad, or indifferent – has consequences that will be eventually revealed, sometimes at inopportune times.

  5. “Heavens (other realms of existence) may exist, who knows?” The Buddha taught that it is unnecessary to believe in a heaven; you can if you want. What is important is the clear understanding that you can reduce – even eliminate – the suffering you experience in this life right now by taking complete responsibility for all that you think, say or do. If there is no afterlife, you’re fine because by being responsible and living a moral life, you will be happy and content. If there is an afterlife, then by being responsible and living a moral life, you will have secured a happy existence in the afterlife. The point is to stop worrying about what happens next: focus on what is happening now and you don’t have to worry about what happens next. The same is true of a hell. If you live carelessly now, behaving badly toward others, your life right now will be filled with suffering. You don’t need a hell in an afterlife because you’re already responsible for creating one right now.

  6. “I may or may not be reborn….this has nothing to do with reincarnation.” In Buddhism we talk about rebirth; it is not the same as reincarnation. In reincarnation, the same “person” or “soul” is reborn over and over. With rebirth, it is your actions and intentions that are reborn; what bodily form these actions and intentions – or kamma – take upon rebirth depends on their quality. But that’s all I’m going to say about this rather complex subject, because the fact is you don’t have to accept the concept of rebirth to live your life guided by the Buddha’s teachings. So don’t get hung up on this concept. It’s not important right now. A way to simplify this concept, however, is to think back on some basic science you learned in school: matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but only change in form.

  7. “A balance of Metta, Wisdom and Compassion are the cornerstones of Buddhism.” Actually, compassion falls under metta; it should be metta, wisdom and concentration. Metta translates best as loving kindness or loving friendliness. Wisdom isn’t just smarts, it’s the quality of being able to see things as they really are. And concentration is the ability to control and direct the mind in appropriate directions so that we think, speak and act in skillful ways; it is developed through meditation. Now think of a three-legged stool. If each of the three legs is the same length, then the stool will be stable; you can sit on it without it wobbling, leading you to fall off. Now think of Buddhist practice as that three-legged stool, with each leg being metta, wisdom and concentration. A lot of people spend too much time on concentration and not enough on metta and wisdom, and as a result, their practice becomes lopsided. They get some of the benefits, but not all the benefits. The key is to develop all three simultaneously, as that creates a stable practice that brings good results. Buddhism is about action, not thinking.

  8. “Suffering happens. Deal with it. This is not sin.” It is an easy trap to fall into, the idea of blaming others for our woes. It’s a trap because that type of thinking misleads us into a sense of powerlessness. Yes, there are forces – politics – that work against us gays. They will probably always be there because the world will always be filled with greed, hatred and delusion. But I am in charge of my own happiness, and I can be happy despite the presence of greed, hatred and delusion in others. I do that through cultivating the Noble Eightfold Path, a topic for another day.

  9. No eternal Hell or eternal Heaven. No eternal anything except what is eternal.” And what is eternal? Impermanence; all phenomena have a beginning, middle, and end. Yet, many of us just don’t see this or refuse to accept it. Our refusal to see that nothing is permanent, including emotions, is at the root of most of our suffering. We fall in love with someone and we expect things to remain the same forever. They won’t. And surprise, surprise, we get disappointed about this. How does a couple find each other and remain together for the rest of their lives? By understanding and embracing the fact that their relationship will always be changing, that it will not remain static. That is the key to happiness.

This list is a good place to start with a personal investigation of Buddhism. I do not present this as representative of every school or branch of Buddhism that is out there. But I believe it is a good representation of Buddhism’s essence and why gay people – or anyone searching for a spiritual path – should consider Buddhism and its path to freedom.

I want again to acknowledge my friend Jimmy Huang for the photo used with this post.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Rootabaga Dhamma

It began with a simple Facebook post I made while I was still at work. The end of the day was approaching, so for my status I posted that Richard Harrold “hears the weekend creeping up on him.”

Marnie, who writes the fabulous Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret (formerly known as Enlightenment Ward), commented on my status with, “on little cat feet.”

It was like, OMG! Carl Sandburg! What memories from childhood were immediately called up. Her comment was a reference to the Sandburg poem “Fog.”

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

When I was a kid in school learning about poetry, this poem was my absolute favorite. And not just because I love cats. Well, maybe it is because I love cats, because the visual it conjured was so immediate and meaningful.

I have always been troubled by poetry. I can appreciate and love a good poem, but I’ve never been able to write one, and that frustrates me.

But I digress.

There was another work in the Sandburg canon that I recalled, and that was “Rootabaga Stories.” I recall loving these stories, but to be honest, I can’t remember what any of them are all about. All I can recall is a sense of happiness, a sense of mystery, and a sense of discernment.

So I went to Wikipedia to find some information on Sandburg, and I found the entry on the “Rootabaga Stories.” And there was this description of Potato Face, a character from the stories.

“ is in Rootabaga Country, and in the biggest village of that country, the Potato Face Blind Man sits with his accordion on the corner nearest the post office. There he sits with his eyes never looking out and always searching in. And sometimes he finds in himself the whole human procession.”

When I first read this, I thought to myself, “This is Dhamma.” The description goes on.

“In fact, he sometimes indicates that when he needs an animal or fool not yet seen or heard of, he can make it for himself and give it a character so it is real to him, and when he talks about it and tells its story, it is like telling about one of his own children. He seems to love some of the precious things that are cheap, such as stars, the wind, pleasant words, time to be lazy, and fools having personality and distinction. He knows, it seems, that young people are young no matter how many years they live; that there are children born old and brought up to be full of fear; that a young heart keeps young by a certain measure of fooling as the years go by; that men and women old in years sometimes keep a fresh child heart and, to the last, salute the dawn and the morning with a mixture of reverence and laughter.”

After reading this, I felt supremely happy.

Thank you Marnie for this memory.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

War in the name of Buddha? Name one

It eventually occurred to me what it was about the article I wrote about previously that troubled me so. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it, but then it became clear.

The problem is with the way the article described the book’s premise and assertion that Buddhism – the religion – is not as peaceful as it is portrayed. This is completely wrong. The premise ought to be that Buddhists are not immune to violence, both in terms of being victims as well as users of violence, and share a commonality with practitioners of any religion in that respect.

However, Buddhism per se is a non-violent religion. No where does the Buddha advocate violence. I know of no such instance in the Tipitika where the Buddha tells someone to go and start a war in his name. But it won’t take me long to find several such instances in the Bible.

Rather than condone war or any kind of angry response, the Buddha was explicit in his condemnation of anger and behavior motivated by anger.

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha said: “All beings fear death and they all fear the pain of a club. Think: How do they make you feel? Then do not kill and do not club; live peacefully with all beings and do not add to the violence of this world. Harm no one here and you will pass your next life in peace.”

That’s pretty clear. And yet, in the Bible there are numerous passages that blatantly condone violence, such as “An eye for an eye.” And there are histories within the Bible that relay how God commanded his followers to wipe out entire cities because the residents there didn’t worship him.

History documents numerous wars fought in the name of God or the name of Allah, but name one fought in the name of Buddha. Granted, individual Buddhists, and even Buddhists collectively have banded together to defend themselves and are continuing to do so today in areas like Southern Thailand, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. And they have been victims of violence at the hands of Western influences, some of which was so eloquently revealed by Kyle at The Reformed Buddhist. But these practitioners that the authors of this new book write about – even if some of them are monks – are not acting out of anything the Buddha said. They have not one shred of Dhamma to back their decision to take violent action against anyone, even an aggressor.

This is really sophomoric logic, the idea that an individual member of a religious group becomes representative of that religion’s doctrine by virtue of the combined factors of his or her behavior and the fact he or she is a cleric within that group. To conclude that Buddhism is violent, or has a violent side, because some monks are involved in violence would be the same as asserting that Catholicism is a prurient religion because some priests molest children. When you get down to it, this line of reasoning is what sustains such abhorrent notions such as racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia.

I am not denying that Buddhism has been affected by violence, nor am I saying that all Buddhists behave peacefully. But when it comes to the assertion that Buddhist doctrine – that Dhamma – is violent and that Buddhist monks who engage in violence do so because of prompting by the Dhamma, to even suggest that is a mendacity I cannot tolerate.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the WTF?

Yes, that image disturbs me as well. And the content associated with the photo is disturbing too. But first let me clear the air. The photo with this post is of a boy monk in Bhutan, and the gun he is holding is a toy gun, according to the source of the photo. It was taken in 2008.

I found this image in a blurb at the Web site Religion Dispatches about a book that is expected to be released this year. The summary paragraph of the article says it all:

“The co-editor of a new book on the history of Buddhist violence and warfare explains how the notion of a purely mystical and otherworldly Buddhism—promoted by some of the great interpreters of the tradition—denies its adherents’ humanity.”

The article’s title gets to the point as well: Monks With Guns: Discovering Buddhist Violence

When I saw this, my inner Lost in Space robot immediately went into action! Danger Will Robinson! Danger!

Doctor Smith is not going to sooth my concerns with his unctuous tongue this time, as there are a number of serious problems with this item from a writing point of view. In addition to being a practicing Buddhist, half of my 20-plus years in journalism were spent as an editor, so I think I’m qualified to critique this. But I must make clear – the book has not been published, so I am only responding to the article at Religion Dispatches, and I know nothing about what kind of Web site this is.

First, the disclaimer about the photo. The authors are presenting a case that Buddhism isn’t the peaceful, warm, fuzzy religion that the Buddhist propagandists have been asserting. But in proper professional form, it is noted that the boy monks (there’s another photo that appears to be the book’s cover photo) are carrying toy guns. This begs the question, why are they toy guns? How did they obtain them? There is nothing in the article to dissuade me from concluding that the boys were handed the toy guns for a photo op.

The author spent a few years in Southern Thailand where he witnessed firsthand the long-standing tensions and all-too-frequent violence that erupts in that region of the country, more often than not instigated by members of the Muslim majority there (Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist, but not in the south where it borders Malaysia). He thought it would be a good opportunity to observe Buddhists making peace, but, “Unfortunately, I found very little of this.”

I’m not surprised. There has been ethnic violence going on in that region of Thailand for a while, something that Marcus has commented about and written about at his blog. In March of 2003 I traveled through that region, although it was peaceful at the time. The Maoists in Nepal have been brutally violent with the Buddhist population there, and one can’t ignore the ongoing civil strife and violence in Sri Lanka that pits Buddhists against the Tamils.

“The constant fear and violence took a toll on them. Monks talked about the guns they had bought and now kept at their bedsides. Others spoke heatedly about the violent militant attacks on Buddhist civilians and monasteries. Although the cause of the violence is multilayered—owing much to corruption, drug trade, and corporatization—many monks also felt Islam was to blame. In their minds, the conflict was anchored to the larger discussion of religious violence: Muslims against Buddhists.”

The author states that the West has a faulty perspective of who Buddhists are in Asia and the daily struggles they face, and in response to these struggles, sometimes violence is employed by even the most meek.

“In an effort to combat this view and to humanize Buddhists, then, Mark Juergensmeyer and I put together a collection of critical essays that illustrate the violent history of Buddhism across Mongolia, Tibet, Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India.

“Our intention is not to argue that Buddhists are angry, violent people—but rather that Buddhists are people, and thus share the same human spectrum of emotions, which includes the penchant for violence.”

Problematic phrase here: “…that illustrate the violent history of Buddhism …”

That statement leaves one with the implication that Buddhism’s history is a violent one, rather than presenting what may have been the intended implication that Buddhism’s history has not been free of violence. Maybe I’m being too picky, but then the author makes the big switch.

He sets the stage using an example from Thailand, but then proceeds to cite sources from the Tibetan traditions, as well as other Mahayanists from China and Japan. This rather strikes me as asking a Southern Baptist in Alabama to comment on the former violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. If I had been his editor I would have suggested he support his premise using a Thai source who practices Theravada.

There is something else that rubs me the wrong way about this book, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. But I keep thinking of some horrible revisionist history in holocaust denial, a book called “The Pink Swastika,” that drew the conclusion that the Nazi party became so violent because it was run by homosexuals.

But I guess what really offends me is that I can’t shake the notion that the photos of the boy monks with the toy guns were completely staged.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Was it real or Memorex?

This post isn’t about Buddhism. Rather, it is about inexplicable phenomenon. It is about a story from my past that after you hear it, you will likely think, “Sure Rich, I bet that’s how it happened. Sure you weren’t smoking something that night?”

As a matter of fact, I probably had been. I know for a fact that I had been drinking. I did quite a bit of that when I lived in Montana during the early 1990s. Sometimes we measured driving distance by the number of beers consumed during the trip. And despite all the drinking and driving I did back then, I was always lucky.

In fact, several years prior to the incident I am about to describe, a companion and I (a note, I was deep in the closet at the time, so there is no innuendo when I use the term “companion”) drove all night from Pecos, N.M., to Telluride, Colo., for the bluegrass festival that year. Needless to say we drank all night while I did all of the driving. We were going through the last little mountain town before descending the pass down into Telluride when I was pulled over, apparently for speeding. Inside my car were empty beer bottles, an empty black rum bottle; it stank of stale alcohol and hops. And then there was the issue that I had a car with a New Mexico license plate, registration from Arizona, and my driver’s license was issued by the state of Michigan. Oh, and when I went to get the registration, a bag of pot fell out of the glove box.

When the officer examined the documents I handed to him, his plaintive reply was, “Who owns this car?”

“I do.” I tried to explain the situation. “I’m sorry for the speeding. We’re on our way to the bluegrass festival and we’re so close, I guess I got a bit impatient.”

He went back to his patrol car and started to radio in the information. I can still recall that beautiful sunny day, and as I looked at the steep mountainsides, heard the Alpine air breezing through the trees, and watched as the officer held his head in his hand in despair, I thought to myself, “I hope my jail cell has a window.”

I had completely surrendered myself to the situation. I had been nabbed. There was nothing for me to say. I still had enough alcohol in my body to qualify as being drunk, although I hadn’t had anything to drink for a few hours. There was marijuana in my car. The ownership documents were dubious. And I was speeding.

The officer got out of his car, walked up to me to hand me my license. As he did so, he said, “Drive carefully Mr. Harrold.”

Did I already say that I’ve always been lucky in these matters?

In 1977 when I was a sophomore in college, I and my two very close friends who were also my roommates drove from Kalamazoo, Mich., to Holland, Mich., to Hope College, a very conservative college affiliated with the Reformed Church in America in one of the most conservative counties in the state. We snuck in a keg of beer into the men’s dorm where another friend of ours was living. We also snuck in a bunch of girls. After the keg was killed, all the pot was smoked, and we’d listened to enough Supertramp and Boz Scaggs to keep us going for another 12 hours, we decided to take a small group to the “warm water channel” for a swim. About 10 miles north of Holland is Port Sheldon where there is a power plant. The water used to cool the turbines is discharged into Lake Michigan, creating a region of warm water. It also creates some treacherous currents.

Eight of us got into a Chevy Vega. This car had bucket seats up front, so two were in the front. Three of us were crowded in the back seat; I was among these three. And three others rode in the back with the hatch open, dangling their legs out the back.

I recall everything with strange lucidity. For some inexplicable reason, the passenger up front grabbed the steering wheel and gave it a yank. The driver yelled some expletive at the passenger, but it was too late. The Vega was sent into a swerve on the pavement moist from the mist in the air, as we were quite near the lake. The driver counter-steered to the right, then to the left, then to the right again as he lost complete control and the Vega slammed its side into a huge tree. Glass shattered and scattered all over me, as the impact was just 15 inches ahead of me on my side of the vehicle.

No body was hurt. Not even a scratch. The car was even drivable, although the girls said we were crazy assholes and they were going to walk the 10 miles back to Holland.

But I digress. I was going to tell you about an incident in Montana. It was 1990, mid-winter. My companion and I (I’m still in the closet then) were out in my pickup driving about the mountains of Montana, drinking and listening to music. It was night and snowing like crazy and we were car skiing. What this entails is as the driver is driving on the snow-covered roadway, the passenger opens his door, and while holding on to the door, steps out onto the road way to slide along on the snow pulled by the vehicle. And then you hop back into the vehicle. All of this is happening while you are driving as fast as conditions will allow.

Yeah, I know, really fucking stupid.

My companion was driving as it was my turn to hop out and ski for a bit. We were travelling down a long hill that had some curves, but not sharp ones. After I hopped back into the truck, we reached the bottom of the hill and we started to slide. My companion attempted to counter-steer to bring the pickup back under control, but he could not and the truck went off the roadway, headed for a road sign with enough momentum we would likely crash into it. It was one of those road signs mounted on two posts. My companion was apologizing profusely to me for losing control of my truck. I again just surrendered, and without thinking, said to him, “Don’t worry, we’ll be just fine.”

The truck went off the road through the snow at the sign and went under the sign right between the two posts. Within a matter of minutes another truck showed up that had a chain and a winch that pulled us out.

Two days later I drove by that sign. I stopped to look at it because it still amazed me how lucky we were to go between the two posts. But when I got out of my truck to look at the sign, I quickly realized that the space between those two posts was too narrow for my truck to pass.

And yet, that’s exactly what happened that night.

The following summer I stopped drinking for a bit. Well, for five years anyway. And I came out, acknowledged my sexuality. When I did that, come out to people, well, any words I try to use to describe that feeling of release will just be hackneyed. And shortly after that, I met the Buddha.

I still drink, but not nearly as much as I used to. Perhaps still too much, however. But these things, over time, have a manner of dropping away, like flotsam and jetsam cast away from a ship that is in danger of foundering.

Well, I guess this post is about Buddhism. If you see how, explain it to me.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What is love?

Love is a tricky – and sticky – emotion that does everything from creating bliss to confusion and even anger. And when we lose love, the sorrow can be overwhelming. It is one of the sources of dukkha that the Buddha talked about: we fear separation from the beloved.

From the Sammaditthi Sutta:

“And what is stress? Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; not getting what one wants is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful. This is called stress.”

And from the Maha-parinibbana Sutta:

“Yet, Ananda, have I not taught from the very beginning that with all that is dear and beloved there must be change, separation, and severance?”

The entire Piyajatika Sutta is about this, describing how it is the people we love and care about that are the primary source of our sorrow because any change in them, their loss, or even just the thought of losing them, causes distress.

I have been reading the Lotus Sutra, which has a really quite amazing chapter in it regarding love called “Belief and Understanding,” also known as the “Parable of the Destitute Son.”

The Cliff Notes version of this chapter is a wealthy man loses his son while his son is still a very young man. The son abandons the family to wander about, eventually running out of luck to wind up living destitute. The father gave up searching for him and settled in a town where the father became enormously successful in business – so successful that even the heads of government paid homage to him. Fifty years after his son disappears, the son returns, although he cannot remember who his father is or what he looks like. He sees this rich man and thinks he’d better leave or someone might think he’s trying to steal something. The son attempts to sneak away, but his father sees him and recognizes him. He sends out servants to stop his son, but the son becomes so frightened, thinking that he’s being accused of stealing, that he passes out from fear.

The father realizes that his son has lived for so long away from home, and has lived such a hard life, that the son would never believe that he was heir to this rich man. So when the son wakens, the father tells him he is free to go. This overwhelms the son with joy, that he isn’t going to be imprisoned and falsely accused. The father then sets out to slowly express his love, first by showing the son compassion, offering him a menial job of sweeping dung, providing him with very basic housing. Over time, the son comes to trust and respect his father, but refuses to come live within the household, staying instead in his tiny hut. But after 20 years, the son’s responsibilities have been elevated to the point that he is then tasked with taking an accounting of his father’s wealth without any supervision. The son honors the task and takes an honest accounting, not stealing anything. Then just before the father dies, he reveals to everyone that this ragged man is in fact his son and shall inherit all his wealth. At this time, the son is ready to recognize his true father and accept the love that he’s offered him all along.

This is a really powerful parable for me because it shows so well how someone with such deep love for another can have the resolve and the patience to express it, to do so without pressure, without clinging, by leaving the object of that love – the man’s son in this case – completely free. It is very difficult to love someone in this manner, but it is the only true way to love someone.

I would like to thank my friend Jimmy Huang for the image posted with this blog. He has an amazing eye for photography and he has graciously granted me permission to use his photos from time to time.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

What I sent to Fox News

Below is what I sent to Fox News to express my disappointment with Brit Hume's comments today on Fox Sunday. I urge that you also send something to Fox, but as others have noted, use sensible and reasonable language because whatever you send will be viewed as representative of all Buddhists. Remember, if you write from Right View using Right Speech, you can't go wrong.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I would like to express my extreme disappointment at Brit Hume's comments regarding Tiger Woods and the suggestion that Mr. Woods ought to give up on Buddhism and seek forgiveness in Christianity. Mr. Hume is a news man and I am surprised by his display of ignorance over what Buddhism is all about before he makes a comment implying that Buddhism is incapable of offering forgiveness. In doing so, Mr. Hume has insulted Buddhists not just worldwide, but the more than 1 million within the United States (current estimate is there are from 1 to 4 million Buddhists in America).

Buddhism is a supremely moral doctrine that provides practitioners very concrete guidance on moral behavior, as well as very precise descriptions of what would likely happen to someone who fails to behave with rectitude. The Buddha taught his son, Rahula, a mere child at the time, the following: "...Rahula, when anyone feels no shame in telling a deliberate lie, there is no evil, I tell you, he will not do. Thus, Rahula, you should train yourself, ‘I will not tell a deliberate lie even in jest.'"

Rather than seek forgiveness, we Buddhists focus on correcting the immoral mind so that we do not commit further wrong acts, as all action - thought, speech and behavior - arises from the mind. The Buddha teaches us to cultivate a sense of shame when we commit an immoral act so that we can correct the wrong way of thinking that led to the act's commission and not commit the same or similar act again.

I do not know whether Mr. Woods is a practicing Buddhist. But I do know that his infidelity broke Buddhism's Third Precept, which is to refrain from wrongful sexual acts. By following Buddhist teachings, Mr. Woods is fully capable of redeeming himself through learning how to turn his mind away from immoral thoughts and deeds.

I could go on a great deal more about Buddhist morality, but suffice it to say that Mr. Hume should be certain of his words and their truthfulness before speaking them. That is also a lesson the Buddha taught his son Rahula, who was only 7 years old at the time.

Richard Harrold
Chicago, IL

Brit Hume is ignorant

We should forgive Brit Hume his ignorance, because the ignorance he displayed via his comment about Tiger Woods is, unfortunately, not limited to just a few people. For most monotheists, the idea of a religion that does not pay homage to a creator god is an anathema. Hence, anyone who practices Buddhism is incapable of obtaining forgiveness because only a creator god can forgive humans of their sinful ways. Of course, for we gays, the notion that being homosexual is a condition that requires one to be “saved” is an anathema to us.

Buddhism may actually be superior to monotheistic religions in guiding its practitioners toward a life of morality as opposed to a life of irresponsibility, as that is what the concept of “forgiveness” entails. It is a notion that when one “sins,” that action can be “forgiven,” or otherwise negated in that person’s life. The person is forgiven, the sin is forgotten.

This is not the case in reality, let alone Buddhism, as our actions set off a sequence of events that continue well on into the future, and if the action is considered a “sin” by others, the consequences will continue to manifest themselves well beyond any formal forgiveness. And besides, the act of forgiveness provides no assurance that the “sinful” act won’t be repeated.

Hence the beauty of Buddhism. As I have so frequently done, I will refer once again to the Rahula Sutta.

“In the same way, Rahula, when anyone feels no shame in telling a deliberate lie, there is no evil, I tell you, he will not do. Thus, Rahula, you should train yourself, ‘I will not tell a deliberate lie even in jest.’”

What the Buddha was teaching his son was that to prevent the re-committing of an unskillful act, it was important to cultivate a personal sense of shame. It didn’t matter so much what others thought about the act; what was more important to a person was how he or she personally viewed and interpreted that act. Unless a person feels shame at an unskillful act, the act will be repeated, because all action arises from the mind.

I was unaware that Tiger Woods was Buddhist, although it makes sense considering his mother is Thai. But if he had been raised in a Buddhist environment, the best thing for him to do is return to that Buddhist practice where he can develop the type of mindfulness that he would need to cultivate the proper sense of shame over his action and develop the skills he will need to curb his sensual desires. Failure to do so would mean that whatever kammic reactions he has set into motion by his infidelity and unskillful actions will continue for some time and quite possibly intensify.

Christianity will not help him accomplish that.

Buddhism is a supremely moral doctrine. Anyone who suggests otherwise, such as Brit Hume, is simply ignorant.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Loving kindness for 2010

On this first day of this new year, I present to you a Pali chant that had been part of my daily practice, although it has fallen into neglect lately. For 2010, I am going to resume this chant and make it part of my daily practice. What I have here is an abridged version of a longer chant called The Sublime Attitudes which can be found among many other Pali chants in this Chanting Guide. If you are unsure of the pronunciation of the Pali, there is a pronunciation guide, but correctly saying the Pali is not as important as understanding the meaning of each verse and striving to bring that quality into everything you think, say and do. Recite the chant after you finish your sitting meditation while your mind is at ease.

Aham avero homi: May I be free from hatred

Aham abyāpajjho homi: May I be free from oppression.

Aham anīgho homi: May I be free from trouble.

Sukhī attānaṃ pariharāmi: May I look after myself with ease.

Ahaṃ sukhito homi: May I be happy.

Sabbe sattā averā hontu: May all living beings be free from animosity.

Sabbe sattā abyāpajjhā hontu: May all living beings be free from oppression.

Sabbe sattā anīghā hontu: May all living beings be free from trouble.

Sabbe sattā sabba-dukkhā pamuccantu: May all living beings be freed from suffering.

Sabbe sattā sukhitā hontu: May all living beings be happy.