Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cultural baggage, or Dhamma for the body?

When Westerners first encounter Buddhism in practice, some are a bit put off. Encountering Buddhism as a philosophy and a dogma is one thing, but Buddhism is more than just the Four Noble Truths. It is a practice, and as that term implies, practice makes perfect.

For example, some think of the añjali (placing the palms of the hands together and raising them to about the height of your heart) as too closely resembling what monotheistic people do when they pray. And the bowing, or the three prostrations that are so common with Buddhism, is a bit much as well for Westerners new to the Dhamma. While we all came to Buddhism for a variety of reasons, I think we all share an important characteristic of being, at the least, skeptical of there being a creator god in charge of everything. All this bowing and holding hands like a bunch of Carmelite Nuns can strike us as being too much like the religious hegemony we were leaving behind.

And then there’s all that burning of joss sticks, waving plumes of incense all about as though we just bought ourselves a New Age tiara and are preparing for another harmonic convergence. We light candles with such frequency that some might think we belong to a sect that is monitored by a group of mystical lesbians. Either that or we’re really cheap and don’t want to pay for the electricity to illuminate a lamp.

Some have called all this “cultural baggage,” a sort of ethnocentric superfluity of dramatic gestures that could just as easily be cast off as so much flotsam and jetsam. But the fact is that what’s perceived as mystical ballast plays an important role in the practice. Consider what Bhikkhu Khantipalo says about these “gestures of respect.”

“Dhamma is the way for training mind, speech and body. But the Buddha dhamma is sometimes regarded in a way which is too intellectual and theoretical so that there is a danger that it is not practiced as a way of training. To help with the training of the body there are various gestures which are expressions of one’s confidence in and reverence for the three Treasures. These actions when performed with due mindfulness are wholesome kamma made by way of the body. Repeated frequently they become habitual bodily kamma and it is good to have the habit of reverence as part of one’s character.”

Respectful is as respectful does.

The Buddha teaches that we create kamma three different ways: through mind, speech and body. We meditate to development mindfulness, which is essentially control over our mind, giving it focus so that we can have our mind attend to appropriate activities. We develop this finely focused mind so that we speak and behave skillfully as well, because we create kamma with our speech and actions. When we stop making kamma, we are free. Meditation trains our mind; performing these gestures trains our body.

So the next time you sit for meditation, be aware of your posture; when you bring your hands together, be aware of how you hold them; when you do the prostrations, do them deliberately and with full awareness of what your body is doing; and when you light the candles, make sure you blow them out before you leave the room. We don’t need to start any fires.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Teenie Weenie Theravada Wagon Wheelie

I am really riled about how atavistic the Thai Forest tradition is being about the whole bikkhuni ordination situation. They are literally behaving like misogynistic cretins about this. Read John’s post over at Sweep the Dust Push the Dirt as well as Sujato’s posts on what has been happening in Australia, particularly this post.

I know that this is not how I should behave or feel if I am practicing Dhamma correctly, but dag gummit! I don’t have the authority to tell the fellows at Wat Pa Pong they’re behaving like a bunch of junior high school boys. But their efforts to control and quash Western sanghas and their efforts to allow women into the Theravada monastic community is so outlandish, so completely corrupt, and so utterly bold and brazen that it is just like the Soviets sending nuclear missiles to Cuba – it is that provocative.

They have drawn a line in the sand. I say we kick the sand in their face. They must be shamed into retracting their position. And every Buddhist blogger, I urge you to post as much about this so that our thoughts and words get picked up by Google in searches and more people realize just how insane it is that the most peace loving and compassionate world view that there is can’t even find room to allow women to share in its supreme bliss.

And so I have written a song to commemorate this moment. Well, sort of. If you know how to sing “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” then you can sing this song too.

Budho doh doh dohohohohohoho

She had a calling for that monastic life
A zillion precepts were no concern
She had a calling for that monastic life
Contemplation is what she yearned

Two three four tell the people what’s the score

It’s that Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Theravada wagon wheelie
Seems it has no room for the gals
An Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Theravada wagon wheelie
The rules were changed by misogynistic pals

Two three four stick around we’ll tell you more

Budho doh doh dohohohohohoho

All the fellows it seemed had achieved their dream
Wearing stylish robes while they set the tone
All the fellows it seemed had achieved their dream
And they wanted to keep it all monochrome

Two three four tell the bikkhus they’re a bore

Budho doh doh dohohohohohoho

Cuz it’s a Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Theravada wagon wheelie
Barely room for fat-assed monastic snobs
An Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Theravada wagon wheelie
They’re really not against the stream but boorish slobs

Two three four let us open up the door

The Buddha said contemplation is supreme
What’s the deal? Just go by what is said?
The Buddha said contemplation is supreme
Even Buddha deigned that thinking dead

Two three four it’s time to see the teaching’s core

Budho doh doh dohohohohohoho

And scrub that Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Theravada wagon wheelie
Let’s open up our minds and breathe the air
Expand that Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Theravada wagon wheelie
And understand that we can make things fair

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, I’m accepting donations at the back of the hall.”

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A couple days late, but still relevant

Greg Lake sure was cute, wasn't he?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Do not go by what is said

Hegemony: (from Merriam-Webster) 1: preponderant influence or authority over others: domination 2: the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group. (from the Free Dictionary): ascendancy or domination of one power or state within a league, confederation, etc., or of one social class over others.

Projection: (Merriam-Webster) a transforming change; (a) the act of perceiving a mental object as spatially and sensibly objective; also: something so perceived; (b) the attribution of one’s own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people or to objects; especially: the externalization of blame, guilt, or responsibility as a defense against anxiety.

It is important that we understand these two terms in advance because my post (I apologize now for its length) is about how these two terms have been functioning in Buddhism of late; and not just Western Buddhism – I mean all of it.

I was struck by five different posts this month by five different bloggers because I discerned a common thread through them all. But indentifying this commonality has proved more difficult than I anticipated (and when you finish reading this, you may still be struck with a feeling that I haven’t quite nailed it yet). I think that difficultly lies in the fact that what each writer has brought up is a reflection of the essence of dukkha, although it was experienced differently by each person. The blog posts are:

1. Ajahn Sujato’s post on projection.
2. Arun’s post at Angry Asian Buddhist titled “All the Same”
3. Shravasti Dhammika’s post at dhamma musings called “Vandals In Sandals - And Robes”
4. John’s post at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt titled “Buddha’s Afterbirth: Organizational Buddhism”
5. Nate’s post at Dangerous Harvests called “Sangha? What’s Sangha?”

What is dukkha? “Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.” (from Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion, SN 56.11)

In other words, dukkha encompasses everything in life that bums us out for whatever reason. And often, the reason we are bummed is results don’t match our expectations.

Sujato’s blog spells it out right from the start:

“I’m struck, again and again, at the vast gap that exists between how the Sangha is seen and the reality of what it is. Not just the Sangha, but Buddhism in its historical manifestations is almost completely unknown, it seems, to almost all practising (sic) Buddhists.”

At the heart of Sujato’s post is the concept of projection; the assigning to another person, group or institution our own concepts and ideas of who or what the person, group or institution is and how he/she or it is supposed to behave. As Sujato indicates, a projected expectation is frequently non-reality based; but sometimes the expectation is appropriate and the target of the projected attribute is failing to live up to a reasonable expectation.

On one hand, Sujato asserts (and I think rightly) that lay practitioners perceive monks as someone larger than life, someone above the rest of us. And to a point, this is an understandable perception given the plethora of monastics who deliberately project themselves as someone superhuman, all-knowing, and the keeper of a practice that is superior to all others.

They might say, “My dhamma is better than his dhamma,” or “Don’t do that, you don’t have to, we do it this way,” or “That group is wrong, we are right,” or “You’re wasting your time with that, all you need to do is this.”

In fact, the Buddha warned about these types in The Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Heartwood (MN 29).

I agree with Sujato that this misperception of the monastic community appears to be more of a problem with what is euphemistically known as Western Buddhism, as there are non-Asian practitioners who are uncomfortable with some of the ritualistic decorum often extended toward monks and nuns. As an example, Sujato describes how the Sangha in Asia had been an integral part of the community, a place that laypeople frequently visited, supported, sent their children to for education and sometimes for temporary as well as permanent ordainment as monks or nuns.

“Now, for the majority of urban Buddhists, contact with the Sangha is far less organic; just occasional ceremonies or teachings,” Sujato writes.

In fact, there has been recent discussion about abandoning the cultural baggage that is often attached to Buddhism, stripping the practice down to its bare essentials of dhamma study and meditation. It seems to me that these folks just don’t want Buddhism to be fun.

This has led to a de facto segregation of the Western Buddhist community with non-Asians creating their own groups and, to some extent, a Buddhist, cultural elite that deigns to control the direction of Buddhism in the West. And that brings us to Arun’s post, as this has been a topic over at the Angry Asian Buddhist for a while.

“When I write about the marginalization of Asians in Western Buddhist institutions and dialogue,” writes Arun, “a common retort is that Buddhism has nothing to do with race—it is about the path to the end of suffering. We all suffer regardless of our race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and many other factors. The promise of Buddhism is likewise applicable to all of us, regardless of our race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and many other factors. In this sense, we are all the same in our potential to attain complete liberation. I couldn’t agree more.

“This ‘all the same’ line is, however, a non-response to the issue of the marginalization of Asians (among others) in Western Buddhist institutions. At both the institutional level and at the level of discourse, we aren’t treated the same.”

This is an appropriate time to bring up the other term I presented at the start of this blog – hegemony. In the West the hegemony is based upon that of white, European culture and has at its roots a Christian ethic; but in America, it takes on an additional flare of individualism. In East Asia, I would hazard a guess that the hegemony there is driven by Confucianism, which has a decidedly different social perspective to that of American individualism.

A prevailing hegemony can have the appearance of being racist, but this seldom has to do with the fact that the hegemony is being guided by racist doctrine. The prevailing hegemony in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s – Nazism – was in fact rooted in a racist doctrine. But that’s not the guiding force in present day America. Reactions to non-whites in America can appear racist at times, but that’s not because the American hegemony is built upon racism; rather, it’s because the hegemony nurtures and supports white privilege, a concept Arun has also blogged about in the past. And white Americans can take advantage of the white privilege inherent in our culture without being deliberate or even aware of it.

When I first came to Buddhism, I joined a group that had a Thai majority of members, but which also had a significant white membership. The head monk, in fact, is a white, American-born man. But he was ordained in Thailand, having spent years in the forest monastery culture there, so when he returned to America, he brought with him a practice that had melded with it Thai culture and even Hindu culture. He showed us how to embrace this without giving it meaning; in other words, he showed us how to recognize its significance as well as its emptiness.

He explained that the bowing down before a Buddha statue was not an act of obeisance as if the Buddha was a deity, but rather an act of respect. He used the example of a parent’s or grandparent’s grave. If you had respect for them while they were alive, you often continue to show that respect by assuring that their grave is kept nice. On special days you may put flowers on the grave. If the headstone becomes dirty, you clean it. And you spend silent moments occasionally in reverie at the grave, remembering what your parents or grandparents taught you. If you do not live near the grave, then perhaps there is a special photograph of them you keep, or a photo album. That is what we do, he said, when we pay respect to the Buddha image or a Buddha shrine; we are showing our gratitude for the Buddha leaving for us the Dhamma. When we chant, we are not praying because there is nothing out there to hear our prayers. We chant because it reminds us of the Dhamma and focuses our minds.

After a trip to Thailand, I asked my teacher about the ubiquitous spirit houses I saw there, many of them with rotting fruit left on or near them. He explained that again, this had nothing to do with Buddhism, but represented a blending of Thai and Hindu culture. The Buddha spoke of the devas that live in the forests because he knew that acceptance of these minor spirits was part of the Indian culture. Many Thais also accept that the forests are filled with devas or other minor spirits. When land is cleared to build a house or a business, the forest homes of devas that lived there are destroyed. So a spirit house is placed on the property – its size and how ornately decorated usually related to how much land was cleared and how wealthy the landowner – to appease the devas so they don’t cause the property owner any mischief.

My teacher then made the comment that it would be nice to have a spirit house for the monastery. Later, at an import shop, I found one and purchased it for the monastery.

But many non-Asian Americans are not comfortable with these cultural additions, either because they are suspicious of them through giving them more significance than they really have (for example, many Asians may use the term “pray” to describe chanting because it’s the best English word for them to use instead of the word in their native language, but to non-Asian Americans, the term “pray” has a very specific definition of being an entreaty to a deity or other higher power), or because they don’t understand them and don’t want to bother understanding them because they are alien and “not American.”

Perhaps it would be helpful to use a model from popular culture to further explain the American cultural hegemony. Think of America as being like the Borg from the Star Trek series. The Borg has no cultural identity of its own; instead, it absorbs other species into the collective, retaining only what is considered useful and discarding anything that might contradict in appearance the current state of Borg identity. That is American culture in a nutshell.

So some white Americans attracted to Buddhism began to affiliate in groups that dropped the Asiatic trappings of the practice. Some of these individuals became quite expert in the Dhamma as well as in certain aspects of the practice, usually meditation. By virtue of white privilege, the voices these individuals had eventually rose above the rest, and with that came influence. In America, prestige comes with influence, and often with prestige comes snobbery. I may be wrong in this assertion, but I cannot think of a single significant and influential voice in American Buddhism that comes from an Asian American. Every significant Asian voice I can think of is either that of an individual who may be an American citizen now or lives in America, but all were born in Asia.

That, in and of itself, should not be a problem. But as Arun points out, when the editorial boards of the most influential Buddhist publications lack an Asian presence or voice, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that it may be, in fact, a problem. Imagine what our health care services and outcomes would look like for women should the health care industry and Congress be dominated by white men.

Oh, wait, the health care industry and Congress are dominated by white men. And it’s a demonstrable fact that women’s healthcare is not on par with men’s, nor is healthcare among minorities on par with that for white men.

Before I go on, however, I must point out that the marginalization that Arun speaks about is not a one-way street. When it was no longer convenient for me to visit the monastery I had been visiting because I had moved to another area of the state, I began to wonder if the positive experience I had with the former was an anomaly. I’ve written about my experiences in previous blog posts, but portions of these experiences are worth mentioning again within context of some of Sujato’s points.

Unlike the dhammasala I had previously attended, the groups I found in my new locale were overtly organized around a particular ethnic group and seemed to function primarily as isolationist community recreation venues. One was a Cambodian group, the other Lao. While the monk at the Lao temple was very welcoming and encouraged me to visit him, the members of these congregations, while polite and friendly, always treated me like a visitor.

In his post, Sujato talks about how some monks are ill-equipped to deal with the inappropriate expectations placed on them by the lay community as well as poorly equipped to follow the monastic code. As Sujato said, monks are people too with human emotions and desires. I saw that with the Lao monk I mentioned. He was deeply grateful for what Buddhism had provided him. He told me how he was a very reckless young man (when I met him, he was still quite young, in his 20s) who partied and treated his girlfriend badly. The monks in Laos took him in, cleaned up his act and educated him. He was ordained, then brought to America, barely able to speak English, to minister to the Lao community in that area. He was left on his own most of the time. He told me he was lonely a lot, which was why he enjoyed my company so much, besides the fact I was helping him improve his English. But the young Lao man was still very much alive inside this monk. He surreptitiously drank beer. There was another monk that eventually came to join him who wanted me to buy him lottery tickets. All of this conflicted with what I projected as proper monk behavior. Sujato writes that this is a significant problem within the monastic community in Asia and Australia, but he has a perception that it is not such a problem in America.

Shravasti Dhammika provides an extreme example in his blog post “Vandals in Sandals – and Robes.”

“Recently two Sri Lankan Buddhist monks led an unruly crowd to the Jesus Never Fails Good News Centre in Battaramulla on the outskirts of Colombo and after a noisy protest, proceed to smash the place up. The monks were, (I will not use the honorific ‘Venerable’) Athraliye Ratana and Ellawala Medananda, both of who also happen to be members of the Sri Lankan parliament. What on earth, you might ask, are Buddhist monks doing sitting in parliament and inciting vandalism? Well, some monks in Sri Lanka are quite literally ‘looking for a role’.”

Faced with the reality that there were no other non-Asian members of these groups in my new locale, and only the very young spoke any English, as well as the fact that I am gay, I sought a graceful exit. I wasn’t feeling much like Rosa Parks.

The white groups weren’t any better. All they wanted to do was meditate, then talk about Buddhism as if it were an intellectual exercise. They had read a lot about Buddhism, but very few had actually taken the further step of reading any of the Tipitika. And these groups, I found, were often very resistant to any type of discussion that was outside the realm of what their paradigm of Buddhism was all about.

Which brings up John’s post, “Buddha’s Afterbirth: Organizational Buddhism.” I strongly identified with a couple comments John made in response to another’s questions about his “style” of practice.

“Any large Organization Buddhist group that I have sat with eventually put restrictions on practice. Some more so than others but there was always a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way… If I walked into a ‘proper’ zendo and asked to practice in a way that was different from but not distracting to the group, I would be told ‘no’. Why? Because it is not the way ‘they’ do it.”

This can be a problem for those of use who feel a stronger affiliation for the Buddha and Buddhism than we do for any Buddhist doctrine or group, as well as those of us who have a deeper understanding of the Kalama Sutta (AN 3.65) than, perhaps, others do.

In my continuing search for a sangha here in Chicago – you would think it would be easy in a city like this as there are plenty of them – I’ve recently started participating with a group that practices the Nichiren method of chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. I really enjoy this activity, as I’ve always liked chanting. It is an exceptional practice to help focus the mind. The group I chant with is also affiliated with Soka Gakkai, which is headed up by a rather charismatic figure in Japan.

Please spare me your warnings. I am well aware of the perception Soka Gakkai projects to some other Buddhists, as well as what some other Buddhists project on to Soka Gakkai. Some have even likened it to the Chinese cult of Falun Gong. But one of the questions I ask as a measure of what this group is all about is do this group and its activities cause harm to its participants? To myself? To others? So far, the answer has been no. Having said that, I remain dubious about further engagement with the group beyond chanting. And it’s not like I haven’t been invited, or even encouraged, or that attempts to tell me that I don’t need to practice any other way haven’t been made. I shared with one woman how I really liked the way the chanting focused my mind so that my silent sitting meditation was more productive. She said that I don’t need to meditate that way anymore because all I need to do is chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.

My response was a silence that I’ve learned from hanging around a lot Asians. It’s that Chinese way of expressing, “No thank you,” without having to say anything at all. My message was received, and there’s been no more pressure since. However, I would be naïve not to anticipate future attempts to pull me into the fold. And I’m alright with that. These people are friendly and they are happy. They believe in their practice, and that is how it should be.

Nonetheless, my search for a sangha continues. This raises the issue as to whether a “real” sangha is needed at all. Yes, I am aware that the Buddha attained release entirely on his own by just sitting under a bodhi tree. But he did agree to form a monastic community, and he taught that his path was the Triple Gem of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

Which brings me to Nathan’s post at Dangerous Harvests, where he asks, “Sangha? What’s Sangha?” Like Nathan, I was struck by the plethora of discussion on this topic. There are those who assert that the iSangha is sufficient, while there are those that hold that only a “real” brick-and-mortar sangha can safely keep the practitioner on the right course. And then there are those who say to hell with it all and, like the solitary person who holes up in a cave on a mountainside, simply sit and seek enlightenment all on his or her own.

There is merit in all of these responses; each method can work for some on their own, and each method can work coordinated with any or all of the others. We have the Buddha’s teaching style as the example to follow, because, while the Buddha was skilled at many things, he was exceptionally skilled as a teacher, providing the right teaching for someone at the right time. While he taught one way to the Kalamas, he used a different technique with the infamous debater Saccaka, and still another method when instructing his son Rahula.

In reference to John’s post at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt, Nathan writes:

“John’s definitely poking into one of (the) main problems with organized religion: its tendency to fossilize around a set of rules and regulations that often places troubling limits on individual practice and spiritual understanding. And when you’ve lived through some organizational scandals, or have felt a great lack of support from a spiritual community, then it can be difficult to see how a well functioning group can propel your life in amazing ways.”

So true, so true, so true. Which is why I continue to search for my sangha. Granted, I am very grateful and hold a debt of gratitude for the iSangha I have found (read this post at the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret about the difference between gratitude and being grateful) and while I have not met any of them personally, I consider each my friend. And the article swap has been a great exercise in sharing our experiences and growing from others’. But for me, it’s not a sangha.

I have a remarkable memory from that first sangha of mine. I had only briefly visited the monastery in the past and was not affiliated with it at those times. But the bottom had fallen out of the bucket of my life, and I instantly knew where to go. When I arrived, the monk was out on a hill with some other people speaking to them as they worked at building a gazebo. I walked out there, introduced myself, and the monk replied, “Yes, I remember you,” and then he walked away. One of the others handed me a hammer and some nails, told me what to do, and then returned to his work. I then sat on the ground in the hot sun and pounded nails.

It was one of the best Dhamma lessons of my life.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Personal Retreat

Seeing how it’s going to be a relatively quiet weekend for me next – I have no plans to travel anywhere, nor am I expecting any visitors – it seems to me that next weekend offers me an excellent opportunity to have a “personal retreat.” I’m sure I will receive some interruptions, such as calls from family and friends; but by and large I will be on my own.

I believe I would have enough to do to keep me focused properly. I know the 10 precepts and I’m sure I could follow them for three days. Even the part about not eating beyond noon. I have plenty of Buddhist literature to study and contemplate. I can practice some walking meditation. The sitting might be a challenge because I’ve never sat any longer than 30 minutes at a single time.

So I think I have an idea of how to structure my time during this mini, self-contained retreat. But I’d love some suggestions. Perhaps some of you have tried this before and have some insight you could share. Please do! I welcome any and all advice.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Buddhist rodent battle brewing Hah!

I recently “friended” or began to follow on Twitter (not sure what the proper term is) bitterootbadge, also known as the Bitterroot Badger, a furry resident of the highlands around Bozeman, Mont., and keen observer of all that goes on at the Namdroling Buddhist center. I’ve recently added his blog to my blogroll, so you ought to pay a visit.

Not since the infamous cartoon Archy and Mehitabel has there been such a clever rhetorical and artistic scheme in literature as what the Bitterroot Badger provides: wonderful insights into the happenings at this Buddhist center, which, by the way, I had no idea was even there in Bozeman despite having lived there for a short spell. Ah, but that’s another story.

Oh, I guess I ought to mention the other rodent writer, Kyle with his Squirrel Zen. Yeah, he’s cute, I like his balls (no, not his guts or daring, his balls, the way they hang down to his ankles, got to love that).

And speaking of which, our badger friend has some issues with ground squirrels, to which our squirrely Zen master has taken umbrage with, but we must acknowledge the badger’s apparent willingness to find some common, err, ground.

It is rather nice that our burrowing friend has identified a number of Buddhist bloggers for perusal, but his down to earth sensibilities seemed to have left him prostrate as a dehydrated Heifer corpse somewhere between Livingston and Gallatin. You know, that Clare Prophet gal is still in that neighborhood isn’t she? As to the notion, however, that one must “wash hands” after visiting the eminent My Buddha is Pink seems to ignore where the badger tends to keeps its own hands most of the time. Seems to me the raccoon has better etiquette than this rodent. But oh well, when it comes to animal species, my clan tends to acknowledge the bear with extraordinary honor. That and the twink.

Being that as it may, I welcome our friend to the great Buddhist blog community, and if I had the chance, I would host a very divine party for us all. After all, that is something we pink Buddhists know how to do, and that is throw a party!

And Kyle, kindly extend a paw. Even squirrels have the bodhisattva in them. P.S. Thanks for the image. I stole it from your site.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Buddhism and transgendered people

Shravasti Dhammika has a really nice post at dhamma musings titled "Transgendered People and Buddhism" that I highly recommend. His blog is also in my list of blogs I follow. Along that same subject is the site Transgender and Buddhism, a Web site maintained by the International Transgender Buddhist Sangha. To be able to peruse the entire site, you must register and become a member. It has tons of great material, including some very cool videos on chanting as well as videos of a variety of Buddhist teachers commenting on many topics, not just topics specific to transgender issues.

It's unfortunate that there is prejudice and misunderstanding surrounding transgendered people, let alone that which surrounds homosexuality in general. And what really bugs me at times is when I encounter such attitudes within the gay community. Forums like these are really important for the community because there is a lot of despair that comes along with one's personal realization of his or her sexuality. It is difficult enough to come to an understanding of one's sexuality when one is gay, but the challenge of reconciliation within oneself when the inside of you and the outside of you conflict can be enormous when the world around you dismisses your conflict as mental confusion. If we really believe in the bodhisatvva vow of ending suffering for all beings, sometimes the best place to start is with a smile and an outreached hand.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Kamma via video

What do you feel when you gaze upon a Buddha statue? What becomes of your mind when looking at a Tangka? What happens to your body when you enter a temple? When I was visiting Thailand and going to the various temples, I asked my guide why were the temples so ornate, filled with golden images with an obvious intent at creating beauty? He replied that for the poor, coming to such beautiful temples filled their hearts with joy and put their minds at ease, because the temple was a place for spiritual sanctuary. The statues in and of themselves mean nothing, but provide a vehicle to pay homage to the Buddha’s teaching.

A plausible answer, and yet I wondered whether Buddhism, with its statues and images and artifacts, in some ways is similar to the Vatican. But that’s not why I raise this question. I ask this because I know that I have a biological and emotional response when I see a Buddha statue or the interior of even the simplest temples. I feel calm, at ease, as if all my burdens have been lifted.

When I see violence, I also have a biological and emotional response. I have it regardless of whether I am seeing this violence in real life or on a movie screen. It shocks me, causes me to feel empathy for the victim, even if the victim is fictional. And that is precisely the response sought by the screenwriter or the author.

I ask this because of a post at dhamma musings where Shravasti Dhammika responds to a question about whether it is wrong for someone to play violent video games. Is there a connection between a person’s enjoyment of such games and the likelihood of he or she becoming violent?

A commenter left the response that there is not a shred of evidence to support the conclusion that playing violent video games leads to violence, a dubious claim in my opinion because there is evidence. It may be scant evidence, but there is evidence. And the data I would agree leads more strongly toward a conclusion that violent content is not a single causal agent of violent behavior in others.

Shravasti Dhammika took the opposite tack as well, saying that the converse must be true; if violent content has no significant impact on our behavior, then viewing things of beauty – art, a natural scene – would also have no positive impact on our behavior. I find that conclusion dubious as well. But Shravasti Dhammika did say something I can agree with and understand: while playing violent video games is not necessarily morally wrong, it is unskillful.

Whether we are playing a violent video game or viewing pornography, we ought to keep in mind that we are creating kamma. When I play a video game like Halo, I have made a choice to play the game, knowing that to play this game I must destroy animated figures that represent human life. It is my intent to play the game. Kamma is intent.

My teacher used an example one time of a nephew of his. This nephew would play The Sims, a harmless enough game, right? But his nephew would put a decidedly sinister twist into the game. He would create characters and put them into a room with no doors, no windows, no plumbing nor a phone. He would then sit back and watch the animated figure suffer until it “died.”

This young man was creating kamma.

Now, this young man would probably never do something like that in real life – lock someone in a room without a toilet just to watch them defecate on the floor and then slowly die of dehydration and starvation. But doesn’t the fact that he would do this in a video game, in an “alternate reality,” say something about this person’s psychological makeup? I don’t know. I used to play Star Craft a lot, and that certainly involved killing other creatures, even humans should I decide to play as one of the creatures and select humans as my enemy. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I continue to have issues with anger. Does my enjoyment of a movie like “Kill Bill” play into that, even though I know the violence in such a movie is absurdly comic?

Right now my conclusion is enjoying a movie like “Kill Bill,” or a Sam Peckinpah movie like “The Wild Bunch,” is relatively harmless. But I no longer find enjoyment in video games that require developing skill in “killing” animated figures. And I certainly can’t stand to watch those real life cop shows, because the people suffering in those programs aren’t avatars or animated gifs – they are real people, and I find it abhorrent that such content is presented as “entertainment.”

“One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.” (Dhp X, 131)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A fistful of happiness

Scott over at the buddha is my dj has a very provocative and excellent post you should check out.

There was a passage in Scott’s post that really got me thinking. First, here is the passage:

“… that at the end of the day we’re going to have to live with uncertainty, we’re going to have to live with inadequate, crappy answers that make one or two people, if not happy, at least less irritable, and leave the rest of us more or less in a bummed out state of resignation. A state of, ‘Well, I guess that’s just how it is. And how it is sort of sucks.’”

I commented on Scott’s blog that what he was describing sounded like the First Noble Truth to me, that life is unsatisfactory. All around us are situations and events that we see as being beyond our control, and yet have either a direct or tangential impact on us.

But shortly afterward, I started to think more about this, and this line of thinking came to me. If I feel unhappy because of events or situations over which I have no direct control, but about which I feel deeply and which to a degree impact my life, and if I own my unhappiness, is the alternative to become indifferent? Do I lose my unhappiness by simply resigning myself to the perspective that there is nothing I can do, the world will wag on, so don’t let it bother me? Is apathy the result of The Four Noble Truths?

The short answer is obviously no; the entire point of the Buddha’s teaching is to show the way to a lasting happiness, one that isn’t predicated on conditions over which we have no control. But still, there is this subtle notion that if my reactions are my own, isn’t there a danger of acquiescing into a state of indifference?

And what of the converse? Suppose I opt to become deeply involved in some issue I feel strongly about, whether it might be the war in Afghanistan or same-sex marriage. How do I know when my political activities – my activism, let’s say – turn into an extension of my grasping and clinging to outside events, throwing me back into the whirlpool of samsara?

When I first began to consider this line of thinking, the Clint Eastwood movie “A Fistful of Dollars” came to mind. In the movie, Clint’s character finds himself between two very powerful opposing forces, and in this environment, Clint sees an opportunity to profit. Now let me apply this to the situation of same-sex marriage. The parallel I see with this is I am in the middle of two very powerful opposing forces: one of complete acquiescence and indifference to the world’s activities, and the other, complete submersion into the dynamics of socio-political gambits that grapple with a political and religious hegemony that will very likely crush me.

Wow, that was a mouthful. But is there a way to play the middle? After all, isn’t that what the Buddha did? He experienced the extremes of human existence; he was a prince living a life complete luxury and indulgence, a life he abandoned to live in extreme austerity and self-deprivation. He found the answer in the middle by taking just enough comfort as necessary and abandoning all other pleasures as superfluous.

At this time, all I have are questions. And for the time being, all I can do is attend to what is relevant to me in the present moment. After all, not all questions are worthy of attention. This sounds very self-centered, I know that. But the prospect of joining some political movement does not appeal to me at all.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

His Holliness on Homo-ness

Here is another post that is part of the Great Article Swap among us Buddhist bloggers, this one from the Rev. Danny Fisher. If you're not familiar with him and his blog, you ought to be. Here it is.

First, many thanks to Richard for hosting my comments here, and to Nate for making this whole Buddhist blog swap happen.

When Richard and I got in touch, he suggested as possible topic the confusion among gay Buddhists and straight allies “by what we perceive as the Dalai Lama’s waffling on the gay issue in Buddhism.” In addition, he suggested clarification about “what is more important for gays as they approach Buddhism: personal acceptance of who we are prior to taking up Buddhism, or using Buddhism as a vehicle for self acceptance.”

I’ve examined the first issue, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s stance on homosexuality, in some depth in a past post at my blog. Richard suggested that I rework some of what I said there and elsewhere, though, so I will begin by doing that.

In my post, I concluded that it would be difficult to characterize His Holiness as homophobic. If we’re defining a homophobe as someone who demonstrates an “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals,” then His Holiness does not qualify: statements like those he made to the XXIII World Conference of the International Lesbian and Gay Association, as well as his willingness to meet and listen to gay Buddhists like the late Steve Peskind, demonstrate a much more open mind and heart than that, I think.

Still, other things he has said (in the context of conversations about sexual misconduct “according to the Buddhist tradition”) have been less than satisfying and even confusing. Additionally, there are things His Holiness could say that he’s not saying. In my post, I suggested that while he is right to remind us that he’s not the pope of all Buddhists, I think Peskind too is right to note that he could do more to “commit himself to helping correct harmful Buddhist teachings still on the books–including the conduct codes which can fuel homophobic behavior among Buddhist teachers and students.” While His Holiness can’t change the tradition, I suspect certain kinds of statements would be enormously influential coming from him. Imagine if he said, “According to the Buddhist tradition, homosexuality is sexual misconduct…but that’s an idea that’s a product of the time of the tradition’s origins and we should throw it away.” Call me overly optimistic, but I think that would have a pretty big ripple effect. He’s not a Buddhist pope, but, when this Dalai Lama speaks, a lot of people–a lot of Buddhists in the world–listen. With all due respect, it doesn’t quite do to say “According to the Buddhist tradition…” and leave it at that.

Holding to these Buddhist sexual ethics suggest that being a “good Buddhist” and being gay are mutually exclusive. (You can have heterosexual sex and still be a good Buddhist, but you can’t ever have homosexual sex and be a good Buddhist it seems.) And to keep saying “According to the Buddhist tradition…” with no postmodern, critical, scientific reflection is problematic in that it can (intentionally or unintentionally) enable homophobic behavior. His Holiness has frequently said that if modern scientific findings contradict our beliefs—even our most deeply held Buddhist beliefs—we must change. I would agree. On that point, the American Psychological Association has rightly noted that there have been many compelling studies about the biological and psychological origins of homosexuality and that “most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.” The sciences are speaking loudly and clearly to us, and we have a responsibility to respond.

In addition, great compassion and loving-kindness are important values in every Buddhist tradition. Is it not an extraordinarily uncompassionate, unloving, and unkind thing to (grossly or subtly) dehumanize others and (implicitly or explicitly) deny them their civil rights? I would certainly not like it if I were denied equal protection under the law. How about you?

Consider this: Civil unions offer many of the same rights and privileges of marriage, but exclusively at the state-level—they are not recognized by the United States Federal Government the way that marriages are. Furthermore, under the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (DOMA), other U.S. states are not obliged to recognize these unions (nor are they required to recognize legal gay marriages in other states). The General Accounting Office lists over 1,100 benefits and protections for married couples–which relate to things like Social Security and VA benefits, health insurance and visitation rights, family leave, immigration law, taxes, and more–and civil unions protect only some of these rights. Because civil unions are not recognized by the federal government, this means, among many other things:

• gay couples cannot file joint-tax returns and enjoy some of the same tax protections as married couples;
• a United States citizen cannot sponsor a non-American for immigration through a civil union the way he or she could through marriage;
• if someone in a civil union receives benefits through their employer for their partner and/or children from that union, they must report the entire premium—including the share he or she paid and the share the employer paid—as income on his or her federal tax return.

Where is there love and compassion in allowing our fellow human beings to be treated in such an unjust way?

There have been powerful words and gestures of support for the gay community in the past couple of years from such Buddhists as B.P.F. Executive Director Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, Jodo Shinshu priest William Briones, Chaplain Mikel Monnett, and others. There need to be more. For my part, I am committed to serving the LGBTQ community as a straight ally. I hope more of my fellow Buddhists will join me. For resources on being an ally, I refer readers to Safe Zone For All.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Noble Search

I have been in a bit of a funk lately as I navigate through the cross-currents of what I need to attend to simply to be able to function within this world, what I would like to attend to in terms of my own goals as well as my desires, and what others profess I ought to attend to because they assert they know what I need.

With the first, I do my best to plod along, searching for that Right Resolve to stay focused on the mundane responsibilities required to function in a world that is driven by concepts and perceptions that are complete fabrications. If I don’t do this, then I will have a hard time eating and keeping a roof over my head. That’s not to say I find no satisfaction in what I do. In fact, I like my job and feel very fortunate to have one, particularly now. But ever since I was a teenager I’ve had this attitude of “What’s the point?” I have heard many high-brow and noble things said along the way, but so far the only conclusion I can reach is that we do all this stuff just so we can acquire things.

There’s a line in the Iggy Pop song “Main Street Eyes,” from the CD Brick By Brick that captures this feeling very well for me:

“This whole country is scared of failure.
My head keeps trying to sell me ambition,
but in my heart, I want self-respect.
There’s a conflict.”

Then there are my goals and aspirations, which are continually frustrated by forces beyond my control, or by my own fear of moving forward. I’m still struggling with my separation from Benny. While it is true that he had to leave and return to Hong Kong because with the current economy, he was unable to find an employer to sponsor him for a green card, I also struggle with the knowledge that he was relieved to be returning to Hong Kong. He felt that pull of his homeland and family, things he believes he still knows even after living seven years in the U.S. And I struggle with a part of me that tells me to move on, find someone else, while concurrently hearing that other voice that suggests there can be no one else.

Thinking of another Iggy Pop song from the same CD:

“And you’re gonna know how fine you are,
gonna write your name on a violet star,
if I don’t crap out.”

And there are those who profess to know what is good for me without having spent any time with me at all. They say, “Here, do this, you don’t need to do that anymore.” I smile and think to myself, “How the fuck would you know?”

It was with these thoughts and feelings that this morning I read the next chapter I was up to in the Majjhima Nikaya, the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, The Noble Search (MN 26). And what really struck me was a repeated passage in which the Buddha describes how he studied and learned other Dhammas:

“It was not long before I quickly learned the doctrine. As far as mere lip-reciting & repetition, I could speak the words of knowledge, the words of the elders, and I could affirm that I knew & saw — I, along with others.”

This passage struck me like a hammer on a bell. I was immediately aware of how so many people spend so much time studying what the Buddha said, become expert on the text and what it means, can recite it without hesitation, and yet have no clue as to the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. It’s as if I were to take a map of a foreign country, study the map closely and create images in my mind of that map, first tracing it with my hand and then precisely drawing it free-hand using the exact same colors, and perhaps I even read a lot of books about that country and its history and as a result, behave like an expert. And yet, I never go to that country to see it for myself, to meet its people, to see its sites, to smell its smells.

So the Buddha goes back to these teachers and tells them that he’s studied everything they’ve taught him and knows it inside and out, but could they show him how they reached the conclusions that they reached? They agreed to and the Buddha experienced precisely what they experienced, realizing that they had reached some very exalted planes of consciousness – in fact he recognized them as levels of jhana – but what they had achieved was not the end, was not the ultimate goal of unbinding.

He abandoned these teachers to continue his search, which eventually led him to sit beneath the bodhi tree. While that all may be some very tasty meat within this Dhamma sandwich, the real delectable lesson in this sutta comes from the bread, from the opening and closing sections.

At the start, the Buddha describes the two types of searches we face in life: the Ignoble Search and the Noble Search.

“And what is ignoble search? There is the case where a person, being subject himself to birth, seeks [happiness in] what is likewise subject to birth. Being subject himself to aging... illness... death... sorrow... defilement, he seeks [happiness in] what is likewise subject to illness... death... sorrow... defilement.

“And what is the noble search? There is the case where a person, himself being subject to birth, seeing the drawbacks of birth, seeks the unborn, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding. Himself being subject to aging... illness... death... sorrow... defilement, seeing the drawbacks of aging... illness... death... sorrow... defilement, seeks the aging-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less, undefiled, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding. This is the noble search.”

That is the first slice of bread, which is followed by the meat of this Dhamma sandwich. At the end comes the second slice of bread, when the Buddha tells the monks that simply being a monk does not equate with understanding the fruits of his teachings, let alone experiencing those fruits and attaining release. Someone becoming “learned” in the Dhamma does not mean that he or she has abandoned the Ignoble Search; rather, he or she in fact may still be quite mired in the Ignoble Search.

I recognize that I continue to be ensnared by the trap of the Ignoble Search, that despite recognizing that all things must pass, I continue to search for and cling to things that pass. But gradually I am becoming more aware of the Noble Search, in spite of how others may attempt to direct me.

I love to look at and study maps, picturing the terrain in my mind that is depicted by lines and letters on a piece of paper. But invariably, I have either followed through in traveling to the locations on the maps I peruse, or I am preparing to make such a journey as soon as possible. And when I’ve returned from these journeys, those maps that I studied prior to the trip have an entire new meaning and value for me.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Great Article Swap

Today's post is brought to you by Kyle at The Reformed Buddhist, part of the Article Swap concept, the brainchild of Nate at Precious Metal. The second part to my earlier post Let's Talk About Sex is appearing over at Shane's blog, zenfant's home for dirty Dharma. I will also be posting another guest article later, this one provided by the Rev. Danny Fisher. We're all sending our links to Nate so he can publish them and that way you can see all the blog swaps and maybe even get yourself exposed to some new bloggers in the process.

For this blog, Kyle tackeled the knotty and convoluted issue of Buddhism in the West, revealing the resiliency of the Buddha's teachings despite how they may appear to be modified by local culture. And not only that, I got a squirrel photo too!

The Brutal Trials of Buddhism’s Growth in the West

It certainly comes as no surprise to see that we have entered into a new era, a new generation of Buddhism in the West; not only in terms of the actual new practitioners and how their personalities and traits affect their view of the religion, but more importantly the state of the practice itself. The hard work that much of the baby-boomer generation, who put so much faith and effort into the nourishment and raising of Buddhism in the West from its infancy, with their tireless dedication and devotion, is indeed moving into much more of an adolescent stage of development. The turmoil and trials of being a teenager is not all that different than the state of Buddhism here in the West today. We have come a long way since the Beatnik’s of the 1950’s and the Counter-Culture Movement of the 1960’s, yet we have miles and miles of hard, determined work ahead of us if this living tradition is to grow and flourish into a much more mature and cohesive structure.

Unexpectedly, due to the explosion of the Internet and the proliferation of all the different Buddhist teachings displayed for all to see, a swarm of interested people have begun to take heart in the teachings, gathering around the dharma like moths attracted to a flame. However, many of these people don’t feel comfortable or don’t wish to pick one path or one particular tradition, and this has created much havoc around the Buddhist community. Many see Buddhism as a type of cross over practice, one that fits within the confines of science and logic, practicality and the profound insight of reason, honesty of self and a bridge that helps to look into the true nature of our existence. They are turned off by words like dogma, blind faith and belief and are more drawn to the essence of what the Buddha taught in tandem with the light and knowledge of a modern perspective. Through books and blogs, through the Internet and word of mouth, this entangled view of what the Buddha taught has become no less authentic than any of the existing traditional forms of Buddhism that are in existence today. However this has come at the cost of great conflict and heated emotions.

In addition, we as a community are dealing with some extremely difficult and painful obstacles, whose roots are founded in the greed and ego of men. This is nothing new in history, as all cultures and religions have experienced this kind of conflict. However, many differences stand out from history in this new struggle, as a multitude of factions have splintered to stake what they feel is their claim to the direction of Buddhism in the West. There are those who desperately grasp on to the status quo and refuse to acknowledge the rights of others to explore change; There are some whose goal is nothing less than that time tested motive of profit making, and will spare no punches to protect what they feel is their beautiful and endless cash cow; And worse, there are some who’s drive is much more nefarious in nature, who’s motives are as simple, but so utterly destructive, such as sexual misconduct, predatory fraud, racism and even just pure ego. Here is a brief, but I feel fairly concise list of these major obstacles and challenges we face as a community today. Some of these are negatives that we must endeavor to root out and some are challenges that can offer either great benefit or great conflict.

The defiling of Buddhism for the purposes of Commercialization

Lack of or denial of access to Buddhist resources for poor, middle class and rural people

Sexual Exploitation, Monetary Fraud and Counterfeit Credentials by some so-called ‘teachers’

The fantastic, yet chaotic collision of the multitudes of different Buddhist traditions online

Secularization, Science and Crossover Religions such as a Buddhist/Christian Mix

Racism, Classism and Sexism

Cultural and Intellectual Snobbery – “My Buddhism is more authentic than your Buddhism.”

This last point has been a subject of great debate online lately, which has lead to a few constructive discussions but also has seen some very disrespectful and downright ugly articles and comments aimed at belittling how others choose to practice their faith and religion. Authentic Buddhism to me is the unquestionable commitment to oneself to explore, test and understand the teachings that have been passed down from the Buddha from generation to generation. It is an exploration of nature and heart, and not necessarily limited to the traditional forms of Buddhist worship. The authentic expression of how the Buddha Dharma exists are unlimited and unending, with various manifestations, and while there are multitudes of ‘wrong paths’ one may take, Westerners are no less capable than any other people to find their own true way. As well, Buddhism has spread far beyond the stereotype of the rich white urban liberal and now encompasses people from all ethnic, political and cultural persuasions. There are liberals, conservatives, non-vegetarians, Christians, atheists, blue collar workers and yes, even us Rednecks who now are seriously looking at the Buddhist teachings as a bright shining way, away from blind faith and away from dogma, away from the un-testable supernatural, and indeed many are finding a spiritual path worth exploring.

Many are even finding the integration of Buddhist philosophy with scientific topics such as biology, psychology and perhaps most importantly physics to be one of the keys to a positive and mass reception in Western culture, and is helping greatly with the basic understandings of the fundamentals such as impermanence, anatta and dukkha. We must realize, however, the way we transmit the teachings must not exclude the thousands of years of past cultural heritage and techniques, but, however is taught in a way that neither confusing nor difficult to comprehend, and is incorporated in both new and old traditions.

It is amazing for me to know I live in a time such as this, a time where traditions collide, new ways of seeing Buddhism are formed and the extraordinary enthusiasm that all those who are new to the practice are showing us all a different way. What we want, we cannot explain, what we seek, we cannot describe. What we’ve been told doesn’t always fit and what we think doesn’t always match what we see. The power of the people’s will is sweeping down the newly formed valley of practice here in the West, like a glacial mass, growing in every moment, feed by the streams of discontent from the mountains of impure dogma, wicked greed and the ego driven contempt, condescension and intolerance of change.

This journey of inward soul searching our community has already begun to undertake is indeed a radical, colossal and prodigious event that cannot be stopped by the mere motives of a few scoundrels, profiteers or deviants. Sorry Noah, it’s too late to build the Ark, I’m waist deep in water and the only way out is to keep swimming.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Let’s talk about sex

Despite the temptation to be puerile, and goodness knows I have the capacity to be as campy as the next person (no promises here either, I might let something slip), the topic of sex is particularly important to lesbigay practitioners. The issue of right versus wrong sexual behavior – or more specifically skillful versus unskillful – is relevant to all Buddhist practitioners regardless of orientation. But it’s particularly important to gay and transgendered Buddhists because for our breeder brethren, sexuality per se is not the relevant issue. For us, however, it is.

As an aside, there has been a lot of debate, particularly within the Theravada monastic community, regarding the ordination of women. Arun at Angry Asian Buddhist has chronicled much of this, and at Sujato’s Blog, you can read more detail about the recent flap prompted by the ordination of women in Australia. The subject has also been drawing great interest in the gay Buddhist Yahoo! e-mail list Heartland. A debate like this, despite the discomfort it may create, is important to have. It provides an opportunity to not only examine the Buddha’s teachings about these things, but to evaluate how that teaching may have become staid, or even turned into a dogmatic principle that may constitute Wrong View. As the Buddha taught the Kalamas, just because something is a tradition doesn’t mean it is skillful or leads to knowing the truth.

A similar discussion about homosexuality is just as important; however, this discussion has largely been limited to the gay Buddhist community, which presents the danger that this discussion will be perceived by the larger straight community as simply being the queers trying to justify their abnormal behavior. Such a situation is paralleled in the Christian community where Christian gays are put into the rhetorical position of having to defend their sexuality against those who smugly point to biblical passages that unmistakably condemn same-sex activity, while at the same time ignore other passages that have been interpreted to be irrelevant in modern society.

It’s not a debate when all one side does is sit back and reply with the childish, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Yet the same sophomoric response is frequently encountered by gays in the Buddhist community as well. And there is a supreme irony in all of this that seems to escape many Buddhists, particularly those in positions of authority. These individuals point to the Tipitika to justify the position that same-sex activity violates the Third Precept as if they are saying, “See there? It is written!” (Although they frequently and misleadingly point to the Vinaya, which specifically addresses behavior in the monastic community, not the lay community) We come back to the teaching of the Kalamas, when the Buddha said not to rely on something as being true simply because it is written. But somehow, this is ignored because we’re talking about the Buddha’s teachings here. How convenient that these alleged “scholars” forget that the Buddha didn’t write anything down. His teachings were oral. They were written down later, and he wasn’t around at the time to provide editing. The Buddha knew that someday, everything he said would be written down, and because not all monks hold Right View, some of those transcriptions would be erroneous.

Complicating the matter is culture and its misunderstanding. For example, many Westerners have a perception that Thai society is accepting of homosexuality. This simple view fails to appreciate that just as in American society, there are urban versus rural sensibilities. And what happens and passes as acceptable in Bangkok or Phuket isn’t necessarily acceptable in Satun or Phayao. Even in locations like Phuket, much is taken for granted by Western tourists. I can remember seeing the local Thai men staring at the European women sunbathing topless on Patong Beach, but the Thai men weren’t ogling these women. Their stares held contempt for women who were showing disrespect for the local culture by carrying on as if they were at a nude beach in a Berlin park.

I also believe that many white Buddhists fail to appreciate the influence Confucianism and Taoism has on East Asian society and thought. Recognizing the fact that homosexuals exist and not harboring any outward ill-will for them does not equate with acceptance. Some of my Chinese friends who live in Asia tell me that they would never out themselves to their parents because the consequences would be swift and severe: the thinking with their parents is, “it’s OK that I know gay people, but if my son were gay, I would abandon him in a second!” The pressure on many of these individuals to marry and sire children is tremendous; failure to do so continues to bring shame on the family.

So it should come as no surprise to Anglo American and European Buddhists that the Dalai Lama hedges in his response to questions about his view on homosexuality, or that many well-known monks from both Theravada or Mahayana traditions tell gays that it’s OK, but you should remain celibate because gay sex violates the Third Precept, speaking as if they were Christian Evangelicals who say “love the sinner but hate the sin.” Nor should we be surprised by how the fruits of kamma are brought into this discussion by those who explain being born gay is the result of kamma, with the implication that it was some wrong act in a previous life that caused this.

We ought not be surprised by any of this, but that does not mean that such views are Right View; and in the case of kamma, even if it may be Right View, that does not mean that we ought to view our current condition as a punishment.

So how should we apply the Third Precept to our lives as lesbigay people? And what did the Buddha say about sexuality? My attempts to answer these questions shall be in another blog post.

Part 2 of this post can be read at zenfant's home for dirty Dharma.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Knowing the right questions to ask

People love to talk. And people love to debate. Often the debate, however, really isn’t an effort to persuade the other to your side; rather, it’s really a mild argument, just a simple game of “I’m right and you’re wrong” done for an audience with the hopes of gaining acolytes.

Monks love to talk. And monks love to debate. There’s a grand tradition among many Sanghas, particularly in Asia, of monks debating Dhamma when they gather together for festivals and other events. And monks within an individual Sangha debate each other to test their knowledge of the Dhamma. It is often a method of teaching other monks who may be listening to the debate, because there are times when someone has an incorrect view, they will hear that view expressed by another during a debate and then witness that view fall apart against the superior understanding of someone with correct view.

Monks, however, are also people and as a result, are not immune from having a debate devolve into pettiness. The Tipitika has many examples of a monk who stubbornly clings to wrong view. It is through these examples that the Buddha exposes a wrong view, contrasts it with right view, and corrects the monk’s misunderstanding, or course to everyone’s delight. This pedagogical technique is simple and timeless, but perhaps more importantly it is also effective: it brings about the desired results.

To say that there has been recent discussion within the iSangha and Twangha about what is the proper way to practice Buddhism is a bit misleading. Granted, the debate has taken form around the point of whether one can really have an effective practice if his or her absorption of the Dhamma is primarily through “discussion” via the Internet, which ostensibly would make such a debate appear to be “new.” Maybe even “different.” But it’s not any different from any other debate that has occurred within the Buddhist community, because at the heart of all this is the assertion that “my practice is the correct practice, your practice is false.”

For newcomers to the Dhamma, for those who have come to Buddhism with the hope that it will offer them something they could not find in other practices and faiths – inner peace and guidance on how to live a happy life that in turn promotes equanimity in all – encountering such debates within the Buddhism community can be disheartening. Because what I fear newcomers perceive when seeing these debates, which often are nothing more than flame wars in the old style of USENET, is that Buddhism is ensnared within the same political sniping and posturing that seems to dominate the monotheistic religions, as well as the general political culture of the West. To be skillful doesn’t seem to mean exemplifying the Noble Eightfold Path; rather, it seems to be clever in how you use your ad hominem – use just enough sarcasm, make your criticism just biting enough so that it doesn’t cause complete offense, but so that it creates an emotional rather than rational response.

The irony in all this is that the Buddha completely understood this, because, as he taught, at the root of all our suffering is ignorance – failing to see things as they really are. And the reason we fail to see things as they really are, as I understand his teachings, is that we have deluded minds. And because of our deluded minds, we fail to ask the right questions. Yet, cultivating the skill to ask the right questions is so simple that the Buddha taught it to a child, to his son Rahula (MN 61).

What the Buddha taught Rahula also seamlessly fits with what he told the Kalamas as well (AN 3.65). At the heart of these suttas – one given to a child and the other to an elite group of intellectuals – is guidance on asking the right questions. And a skillful question, as I understand the Buddha’s teachings, is one that seeks to honestly reveal our intentions.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains this very well in the essay “The Road to Nirvana Is Paved with Skillful Intentions.”

“At first glance, we might think that continual self-reflection of this sort would add further complications to our lives when they already seem more than complicated enough, but in fact the Buddha’s instructions are an attempt to strip the questions in our minds down to the most useful essentials. He explicitly warns against taking on too many questions, particularly those that lead nowhere and tie us up in knots: ‘Who am I? Am I basically a good person? An unworthy person?’ Instead, he tells us to focus on our intentions so that we can see how they shape our life, and to master the processes of cause and effect so that they can shape our life in increasingly better ways. This is the way every great artist or craftsman develops mastery and skill.”

Grasping this, I come to understand that most of my embarrassing moments of misstatement, or incidents of provocation on my part, can be traced to either one of two things: I either deliberately deluded myself about my real intentions for an action and as a result ignored the outcomes they would create, or I was careless because I failed to fully evaluate my intentions and the likely outcomes they would produce.

I would suspect that one of these scenarios was in operation in the production and publication of a recent article in Tricycle Magazine, an item that has created some angst among Buddhist bloggers, to be putting it mildly. Granted, the article “Dharma Wars” does reveal something that is true: there are some Buddhist teachers who become bullies as they become ensnared with dialogue over whose methods produce results. Recently, I attended a Buddhist gathering where the question was asked how was what this group believed and practiced different than what was practiced in other schools of Buddhism. The answer dismayed me. The respondent said it had been her experience that other “vehicles” tended to denigrate other methods, that the monks or teachers within these schools would disparage other teachers or schools. This was a “turn-off” for the respondent. I was dismayed because the answer, I thought, was unskillful in that the respondent’s answer was motivated by the same intention she was criticizing. Rather than answering the question asked – how is your practice different from others – the respondent answered a question that was unasked: how is your practice superior to others. The respondent was doing exactly the same thing that she found to be a turn-off: she focused on what she believed to be the negatives of other practices to place her own practice in a more positive light.

Similarly, it seems to me the Tricycle article failed to deliver on its supposed premise because the author asked the wrong question. The article’s summary asks this question: “What is it about the Internet that turns Buddhist teachers into bullies?” This question presumes that Buddhist bullies are not responsible for their bullying behavior because the Internet made them be bullies. It’s the old, “the Devil made me do it,” argument, a premise that conveniently absolves one of any personal responsibility. The other flaw with this premise is that it’s based on the notion that there is something about the written word appearing on the Internet that provokes disharmony, that it is more likely to encourage unskillful discourse by virtue of the fact that it appears on the Internet, which seems rather odd to me because after all, a written word is nothing more than a written word, and whether it’s placed on parchment or a computer screen is moot. It all comes back to who wrote that word and what were his or her intentions in writing it and was his or her action skillful? If a Buddhist teacher behaves like a bully, it is because the seeds of a bully were already present; the Internet did not create that seed. So it would seem the more appropriate question to ask is, “Are Buddhist teachers who respond with anger and behave like bullies worthy of receiving attention?”

Interestingly, the Buddha had an answer for that question: No. In part of the Lohicca Sutta (DN 12), the Buddha describes three types of teachers that should be avoided and who, in fact, ought to be criticized. Lohicca then asks the next logical question:

“But which teacher, Master Gotama, is not worthy of criticism in the world?”

“There is the case, Lohicca, where a Tathagata appears in the world, worthy & rightly self-awakened. He teaches the Dhamma admirable in its beginning, admirable in its middle, admirable in its end. He proclaims the holy life both in its particulars & in its essence, entirely perfect, surpassingly pure.”

But criticism in the Buddha’s view does not mean malign those who proffer wrong view. Skillful criticism is outlined by the Buddha in the Brahmajala Sutta (DN 1):

“Bhikkhus! if others should malign the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, you must not feel resentment, nor displeasure, nor anger on that account. Bhikkhus! If you feel angry or displeased when others malign the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, it will only be harmful to you (because then you will not be able to practice the dhamma). Bhikkhus! If you feel angry or displeased when others malign the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, will you be able to discriminate their good speech from bad?

‘No, indeed, Venerable Sir!’ said the bhikkhus.

If others malign me or the Dhamma, or the Samgha, you should explain (to them what is false as false), saying ‘It is not so. It is not true. It is, indeed, not thus with us. Such fault is not to be found among us.’ Bhikkhus! If others should praise the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, you should not, feel pleased, or delighted, or elated on that account. Bhikkhus! If you feel pleased, or delighted, or elated, when others praise me, or the Dhamma, or the Samgha, it will only be harmful to you. Bhikkhus! If others praise me, or the Dhamma, or the Samgha, you should admit what is true as true, saying ‘It is so. It is true. It is, indeed, thus with us. In fact, it is to be found among us.”

Indeed, two bloggers I am aware of who responded to the Tricycle article with great skill were Nathan at Dangerous Harvests, and NellaLou at Enlightenment Ward. There have been skillful responses by others and my omitting them from mention is by no means a commentary on their value, but these two are certainly worth reading.

There’s a reason why Right Speech is part of the Noble Eightfold Path, and that is speech is one of the ways we make kamma. If our speech is unskillful, our results will be unpleasant. As Master Hsing Yun wrote in “Being Good: Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life,” most of our bad kamma is created by the words we speak.

“Speech is the single most powerful means by which we interact with other people. Our choice of words, our tone of voice, even our selection of subject matter can have the profoundest influence on other people. Intemperate or ill-considered speech often leads to misunderstanding, suspicion and anger.”

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Failing a test or provoking failure: Which is worse?

It’s a lovely Saturday morning and I’m feeling very relaxed, in part knowing that I have completed my personal challenge of blogging every day about a chapter in the Dhammapada. As I finished with that yesterday, I’m feeling like I can take it easy, maybe enjoy the day, go for a hike, and perhaps later catch up with my Frank Zappa blog, which I’ve been neglecting due to the Dhammapada blog posts.

So as I’m enjoying my morning coffee, I read the Kakacupama Sutta: The Simile of the Saw (MN 21, note this link is to only an except of this sutta, not the entire sutta, but it is the excerpt I’m concerned with), I’m getting what the Buddha is teaching here, particularly the similes being used to describe how to control one’s anger. But then I read the example about this woman Lady Vedehika who had a well-known reputation of being calm and gentle. Lady Vedehika also had a slave girl named Kali who is aware of this reputation, so she gets this big idea of “why don’t I test her?” Kali wants to know if Lady Vedehika is truly without anger, or whether Vedehika has anger that just hasn’t been provoked. And that’s what Kali does: she deliberately sets out to provoke anger out of Lady Vedehika and she is so successful that Vedehika goes into a rage and clobbers the slave girl on the head with a rolling pin. So what does that little bitch Kali do? She runs out and tells people that Lady Vedehika’s reputation of being calm and gentle is false, because look here! Our calm and gentle lady clobbered me on the head just because I didn’t get my lazy ass out of bed early enough like I normally do!

Of course, because of this, Lady Vedehika’s reputation gets trashed, all because of that conniving bitch slave girl Kali. And this is used as a lesson to show monks how important it is to abandon anger and not reacted with hatred toward those who might provoke it.

OK, I get that. It is a noble state of affairs to strive for, to develop the calm and serenity so that I completely abandon anger and not react to provocation with anger. But what’s this deal with Kali? In fact, the summary of this sutta provided by Access to Insight describes the story as being about “a wise slave who deliberately tests her mistress's patience.” Wise slave? To me Kali is a conniving little bitch! She deliberately went out of her way to engage in behavior she knew would likely provoke a response, just to satisfy her curiosity as to whether it was really true Lady Vedehika was calm and gentle, or just a bitch waiting to be provoked.

What’s worse here? Lady Vedehika failing a test of her anger? Or Kali deliberately setting out to provoke such a failure?

I could see a couple monks getting together to deliberately test the patience of another monk, because if the tested monk fails, he has the Sangha to help him overcome his hindrance and eventually abandon the unskillful quality. That would have been a much better simile, I think, to present such an example. But that’s not the case in the simile used by the Buddha. In some ways, this sutta is like a Buddhist version of the Book of Job.

It is as if I had a boyfriend, and together as a couple, we enjoyed a reputation of being trusting and loving. And that I also enjoyed a reputation of being trusting and loving because I showed no feelings of being threatened by how my boyfriend hangs out with other friends occasionally, other men who I do not associate with. I exhibit no jealousy because I have no reason to believe that my boyfriend would sleep with any of his friends, despite how good looking they might be. And my boyfriend becomes aware of the reputation of how trusting and loving I am by hearing others comment on it. Maybe they even say to him how lucky he is to have found a partner like me.

But rather than being content with the knowledge, “my boyfriend Richard is such a kind and trusting partner, so trusting he does not worry about me when I go out with other friends. He does not need to worry because I do not, in fact, sleep with any of my other friends. And people tell me how lucky I am because they have jealous boyfriends. What if I test Richard to see if he really is trusting and loving, or if he also can become jealous if he discovers that I flirt shamelessly with other men, and then have a sexual encounter with another man?”

Well gosh, how do you think I’m going to react? I’m not the bloody Buddha. I’m not even a flipping monk. I’m just a guy here, trying to do the best I can, and if you go out and deliberately behave like that, I am going to be mad as hell and I’ll kick your sorry ass out.

Funny, just thinking about this fictitious scenario really has me riled! I guess I should follow the Buddha’s guidance and abandon these unwholesome thoughts and focus on something positive. Like it’s a really freaking beautiful day out, perfect for a hike in the woods!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Brahmanavagga: Brahmans

Finally, 26 chapters and 26 blog posts in 26 days. This is it, the final post in my personal challenge. And I’m torn because in looking at the Brahmanavagga, I really don’t want to blog about the verses; instead, I want to evaluate what this experience was like.

I mean why did I set out to do this? I announced this endeavor in a blog post Oct. 18, revealing part of the inspiration came from Julie Powell, who decided to show her admiration for Julia Child by blogging daily about her experience cooking a different recipe each day out of Child’s famous book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” And just like Powell, I hit some low spots during this effort, days when I really didn’t want to do it, I just wanted to rest after work. I didn’t have quite the meltdown that Powell did, but there were nights when I just hated the fact that I said I would do this.

But that was the key that kept me going, that I said I would do it. How many times do we say to ourselves that we will do something, but in the end, the task is never completed, abandoned for a multitude of reasons.

I thank all of you for staying with me through this. Although there weren’t many comments, I could tell folks were stopping by to check out what this oddball was up to. There were so many times when I wondered what I was up to. Was I trying to show off? Or was I successful in being sincere as I could be about what the Dhammapada meant to me?

In the final analysis, I believe a major reason for taking this on was to get me through my separation from Benny. I had something I could focus on each day to keep me from dwelling in self-pity and melancholy. I had a my moments, but staying focused on getting something done, something written regarding the Dhammapada helped me keep moving forward. I know, I know, I could complain bitterly about how wretched our government is that it won’t allow people like me marry the people we love, let alone be able to sponsor them for permanent residency when they are not a citizen. And many of you would think, he’s got a right to feel that way, it is a shitty deal.

Well hello! Life is full of shitty deals. Always is, always was. And it always will be. I want to get beyond that. It’s not that I don’t want to feel sadness at all. Sadness really is a beautiful emotion, just as beautiful as happiness – when experienced appropriately. But like any emotion – even happiness – sadness can become disruptive and destructive.

We are all handed water drops during our life that we want to keep, but we can’t keep them; if we try, they dry up and disappear. So I always come back to the koan that I liked so much from the movie “Samsara.”

How do you keep a drop of water from evaporating? By giving it to the sea.

“He’s called a brahman
for having banished his evil,
a contemplative
for living in consonance,
one gone forth
for having forsaken
his own impurities.”