Thursday, March 29, 2012

Debating a monk is dukkha

Have you ever tried to point out to a monk that he just might be full of shit? It’s not an easy thing to do, because let me tell you, some monks are very adept at turning the tables and making you out to be the problem, that it’s your delusion operating here, not theirs.

I stumbled into such a debate after seeing a post on the Heartland Singapore Facebook page. It was referring to a post at, which appears to be a message board. There are other, blog-like pages on this site, but it doesn’t appear to be very active. Anyway, you can read my heresy by following the link I provided.

The gist of this began with a question emailed to the monk administering the page: “Can a gay person be ordained as a monk/nun?”

Bhante Shi Chuanguan replied with this: “Heterosexual men and women have to transcend their heterosexual desires if they are going to be ordained. Similarly, gay person can be ordained as a monk/nun, as long as this person can transcend this inclination.”

Me thinks I detect a double standard here.

As an aside, the Venerable Ashin Sopaka had a very pithy comment on the Heartland Facebook page, to which I will return later. But my response on the forum was to say I thought the answer provided, as well as an answer provided by another presumed monastic, was drawing a distinction between straight people seeking ordination and gays seeking ordination, that each was to be treated differently.

The Bhante said that straights had to “transcend their heterosexual desires,” while a gay person had to “transcend this inclination.”

This inclination? So the straight person need only renounce his or her sexual desires, while the gay has to renounce being gay? In other words, renounce his or her sexuality. What’s up with that?

You can read my entire reply on the message board, as I waxed very eloquent and pontificated like a true queen in heat. Perhaps that was a bit rash, because Bhante replied and suggested that, “Your inference that there is such a prejudicial idea is what is prejudicial.”

Moi? OK, OK, you can read my reply to that bit of obfuscation, because clearly this Bhante wanted to paint me the ignorant dualistic thinking bitter fag and a poor victim of all that nasty hate in the world, which, I would point out, often begins with narrow-minded and atavistic interpretations of religious doctrine by Paleolithic thinkers such as him. But I digress.

What I want to do is now return to Ashin Sopaka’s comment on the Heartland Facebook page. Ashin Sopaka succinctly points out that apparently the requirement to enter the monastery and seek ordination is to already be an enlightened being. Doesn’t the requirement that a gay first “transcend this inclination” mean that one must have renounced all notion of self, which can only be achieved upon enlightenment?

Seems to me that all the monastic code requires is that the monk or nun abstains from any form of sexual activity. That living in a monastery is the venue through which a monk or nun practices the doctrine to eventually transcend all fabricated notions of identity, whether they are sexual or otherwise. What “inclinations” remain in the unenlightened mind is irrelevant to anyone else in the monastery, as it is the duty of the monk or nun to peel back the layers of delusion and clinging within his or her own mind to ultimately attain freedom.

I’m sure Bhante Shi Chuanguan is a very wise man and knows his Dhamma pretty well. But his understanding of gay people, in my opinion, is no better than your average homophobe.

Update: I am pleased to say that Shi Chuanguan replied to my comments in a manner suggesting that we are coming together to a closer understanding.

Friday, March 23, 2012

It’s not always about me

Next time something you would label as “bad” happens to you, take a look around. You’re in that situation for a reason. And that reason might be an opportunity to be helpful to someone else.

When I was hospitalized following my stroke, I was placed in a room with another man who was really sick. Not that I wasn’t really sick – people are usually not admitted to a hospital unless they are really sick – but my roommate was pretty miserable.

His name was Tom, and I guess he was probably in his 30s. Shortly after I arrived in the room, he received some visitors. I quickly discerned that Tom’s visitors were his fellow residents from a group home for developmentally disabled adults. Over the next 24 hours I also picked up that Tom had a severe lung infection. He had a tube in his chest to drain fluid, but each time a nurse came in to check him, he or she would comment that there wasn’t much drainage.

Tom and I gradually got to know each other. I explained to him my situation and he explained his. Tom wasn’t stupid, but it was evident to me why he lived in a group home.

Eventually, the doctors began talking about getting Tom into surgery because not only was the fluid not draining from his lungs, it was solidifying. Tom was miserable, in pain, and frightened by the idea of surgery. “I don’t want to die,” he said.

The surgeon did a fantastic job of explaining to Tom why he was recommending surgery, doing so using imagery that Tom could understand. The liquid in his lungs at first was like liquid Jello, but like Jello, it was beginning to solidify into a wriggly mess in the lining of his lungs. If nothing was done, that Jello-like stuff in his lungs would eventually become like Jello left out in the air – it becomes hard and stiff. What the surgeon wanted to do was open a small hole in Tom, stick something into his lungs and scrape this gunk out of his lungs.

As all doctors must say, the surgeon said there were risks involved. But with someone like Tom, enumerating these risks, while legally required, just frightened him more. His sister, whom I also got to know, did her best to explain to her brother that while these risks were real, the surgery could make him feel better.

Tom was lost in a thicket of views. He didn’t know what to do. He would agree to the surgery, but it was evident he was simply agreeing with what the adults around him were suggesting. So he was saying what they wanted to hear. It was clear, however, that Tom was scared shitless.

After he and his sister talked some more about the surgery, she got up to go to the cafeteria. When she was gone, Tom said, “Richard, what do you think I should do?”

Me: “Tom, do you like the way you feel right now?”

Tom: “No.”

Me: “You’re in a lot of pain right now, aren’t you?”

Tom: “Yes, and it’s not getting better.”

Me. “Right, it’s not getting better. And I know you are in pain, because having a chest tube stuck inside of you like you have is one of the most painful things to go through. And I must say you have been really strong dealing with that, you know that?”

Tom: “Yes. But I don’t want to be like this.”

Me: “Well, if you don’t have the surgery done, what will happen?"

Tom: “I won’t get better.”

Me: “That’s right, you won’t. And what did the surgeon say if nothing was done?”

Tom: “The stuff in my lungs will get hard and I will get worse.”

Me: “Yes, that stuff will get hard and you will get worse. And what else did he say?”

Tom: “I will die.”

Me: “So you know that, you know you do not like how you feel right now, and you know if you don’t do anything about it, it will get worse and you will die. But if you have the surgery, what can happen?”

Tom: “I can get better.”

Me: “You will get better."

Tom: “But I could die in the surgery.”

Me: “Yes you could. But that’s a maybe. You know you will die if you do nothing. You know you won’t get better if you do nothing, right? So let me ask you this. Are you willing to go through some more pain for a short time after the surgery, but knowing the pain will go away and you will feel better?”

Tom thought about it for about 10 seconds and then said, “I’m going to do the surgery.”

The day Tom was wheeled into surgery was also the day I was sent home. I gave his sister one of my email addresses to let me know how things turned out. A couple days later I got her missive explaining that the surgery went well and that Tom was rapidly recovering. She thanked me for being a calming presence for Tom and helping him sort through this frightening experience.

Did karma put me in that room? I can’t say. But I can say this. I was there and I had a choice. I could either dwell in my own world of woes – and I might even have had a legitimate reason to do that – or I could recognize an opportunity to alleviate someone else’s suffering.

We face these choices every day. They may not be as grand as my situation, but we face them nonetheless. All it took was a small step outside of my inner world and be aware that it’s not always about me.

Photo courtesy of my friend Jimmy Huang.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A new meaning of mindfulness

There’s nothing like having a stroke to change the way you think about mindfulness. Sure, I had a conception of what it meant, what being mindful was all about. And in that notion was a root connected to raw awareness. But it seems I've been looking beyond that raw awareness and seeking something else that I thought was mindfulness.

That is, until I had a stroke.

It was a minor stroke, one cause by a clot in the vision center of my brain. It’s affected my peripheral vision on my left side in both eyes. Everything else – motor skills, speech, cognitive abilities, taste, smell – remain unaffected. To give you an idea, when I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a car, I can see just fine straight ahead. And I have normal peripheral vision to the right. But my vision ends at the center console. I can’t see the driver at all unless I turn my head.

Needless to say, I bump into doorways on the left side frequently because I can’t see the left side of the door jam. People or other moving objects coming up from behind me and passing on the left startle me because I don’t see them until they’ve already past and are almost in front of me. And unless I look directly at what I am reaching for, I may misjudge and fail to grasp it if it’s on my left.

There is a possibility that my field of vision may return to normal. Since my stroke, which was this past Friday, the blind spot has shrunk a bit. But it’s still there. It’s still significant.

In the meantime, I am learning some rather harsh and immediate lessons about mindfulness. And it’s changing the way I think about mindfulness. It’s not this overall gestalt that I used to think it as; rather it’s very specific. Mindfulness doesn’t just mean being aware of the world around me any longer. It means being aware of what I am doing right now in this world around me, and that means just a small part of this world around me, not this big expansive world that I had been thinking about.

My moment of realization was when I was being discharged from the hospital. I was elated I was finally getting out. I’d spent four days there waiting for tests to be completed. As I was gathering my belongings, I reached to my left for a Styrofoam cup of ice water I knew was there. But instead of grasping the cup, I closed my hand too soon, puncturing my thumb through the side of the Styrofoam and spilling water onto the table.

It was then I realized what being mindful really meant, what was really required of me. And it also made me aware of how I had taken for granted my awareness and my ‘mindfulness.’ No longer could I be casual about even the simplest thing like reaching for a cup of water. No longer could I be automatic while doing something as simple as walking through a doorway. When dining out, I must be extra sensitive to a server coming in from my left, or a glass or utensil on my left. And when I cross the street from now on, my life depends on my mindfulness more than it ever has before.

I’m actually finding all this quite thrilling. Believe me, if given a choice I would not want to reach such understanding by having a stroke. But I did have one. That can’t be changed. And now I’m ready for a new day.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Capture Kony in 2012

Not necessarily a Buddhist topic per se, but watch the video and do what you can. No matter how small your effort, whatever you do will help. Sometimes the video doesn't show up, just click the reload link if you see it below and the video should appear.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What’s all the Rush about?

You don’t have to be an enlightened being to know that Rush Limbaugh is very skilled at Wrong Speech. His most recent epithet regarding a Georgetown University law student really should come as no surprise even when measured by Limbaugh’s standards. Neither should his non-apology apology. And of course, none of us would ever do or say anything like what Rush Limbaugh said or did, right?

OK sweeties, let’s take a step back for a moment and seriously contemplate this thing called speech, because as many commentators have said and written, most of our “bad karma” is created by speech, by what we say and not by what we do (although our actions create plenty of bad karma as well). And it may come as a surprise to some of you that the rationalizations Limbaugh went through in his non-apology apology are often the same rationalizations we employ when confronted with foot-in-mouth syndrome.

“What? Me as boorish as Rush Limbaugh? That’s simply not possible!” I know, some of you are shocked. But rather than look at the specifics of what Limbaugh said and how he “apologized,” let’s look at their elements and characteristics.

As mentioned in the Abhayarajakumara Sutta (MN 58) and explained in this post, there are three elements to Right Speech: (1) Whether the speech is true; (2) Whether the speech is beneficial; and (3) Whether the speech is pleasing to others.

It’s easy to see how Rush Limbaugh utterly failed on all three of these, but how easy is it for us to look at our own speech to see how it may fail as well? Granted, determining whether what we say is true is probably simple enough – or is it?

This brings to mind a mother of one of the students killed in a recent school shooting in an Ohio suburb. This mother forgives the alleged shooter despite the fact she lost her son. But she admits that she doesn’t know everything about the situation, particularly what drove a young man to take such desperate action and shoot inside a cafeteria filled with other students.

Like her, we often only know part of the truth, and that part is often what’s inside our head, colored and distorted by our mind. It’s also why the Buddha warned us that just because something is true doesn’t mean we ought to say it. There remain two other factors, whether the speech is beneficial and pleasing.

Limbaugh gave a rather pathetic excuse in his non-apology apology that he was attempting to be funny. We’ll just ignore that. Yet, his comment is very telling. How often do we find ourselves saying something that we know might be offensive, but quickly follow up with the comment, “just kidding”? And when our quip comes off lame, how often do we blame the listener for not “getting it,” and chide them for being unable to “take a joke”? I’ll be the first to admit that at times I can be thin-skinned, which is ironic given my career in editing. I have plenty of experience listening to irate people on the phone lambasting me and the publication I was working for over something that was printed. But when someone reacts to something I say in a manner that reveals that they were offended despite my intention to be playful, clever or whatever, who failed “to get it”? I suggest that it’s me, the speaker, that didn’t get it, not the listener. Which, despite this being about point 3 (is the speech pleasing to others), brings us back to point 2, whether the speech beneficial.

Determining benefit may not only be a bit onerous, but it may also be a bit unrealistic. Can’t we have a little fun? Must everything bring benefit? Well, yes, it should and it can because if we look at who benefits, as opposed to whether there is any benefit, things become more clear. Because most, if not all, of the bad karma we create is the result of actions or speech that were motivated by selfish ends.

If all I’m concerned about is how funny or sharp I appear to others, then I’m not thinking about the person I am teasing or making my comment about. I’m thinking about me. So it's perfectly acceptable to come with some quips that get people laughing or smiling at the least, provided that is my intent. But as soon as my intent is about how I will appear clever and be admired for what I say, my words will fail. I’ll be like the pretty boats in the photo with this post: nice to look at but the tide will have disappeared leaving me stranded.