Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Three-legged stools everywhere!

Riding public transportation in a metropolitan area can be at times – how shall we describe it? – interesting, to say the least. In Chicago, my most frequent mode of public transportation is the Brown Line. The majority of my rides are exceedingly uninteresting. But there are occasions when even I, my dear reader, have to shake my head in dismay.

Recently I boarded the Brown Line at Rockwell on my way to Lakeview. As I was perusing some of the notifications on my iPhone, I became aware of the fresh scent of beer. I looked over to my left and sitting across the aisle from me was a middle-aged man slurping beer from a quart bottle. I glanced at the time on my iPhone and thought to myself, “Well, I guess it’s not that bad. He waited until after 11 a.m. to start drinking.”

Perhaps my beer-drinking fellow passenger had a poorly developed sense of virtue.

On another Brown Line ride a woman boarded while speaking on her cell phone. A plethora of expletives tumbled out of her mouth with an ease that would shame the feistiest drag queen dealing with a broken heel on her pump while traipsing through the rain in Uptown. As I eavesdropped on her conversation – she was speaking so loudly on the phone that it was difficult for anyone in that car to ignore her – I began to learn that she was speaking to her son, who apparently didn’t want to go back to school (I’m presuming back to college). As she cursed her “encouragement” for him to get off his lazy effing ass and go to school to “make something of himself,” I heard her then admonish her son for using the F-word with her. “How dare you talk like that to me,” she said with complete seriousness.

I couldn’t help but smile as I thought of the irony that such a fine role model of a mother would be offended by a son who used the F-word. Perhaps she had a poorly developed sense of discernment.

Last night was perhaps the best Brown Line ride in a while. After I had finished my workout at the gym (lost 12 pounds so far!) I boarded the Brown Line at Belmont for my return home. Oh joy, there was a nut case on the car I boarded waxing ineloquently as he admonished his captive audience, ridiculing them for ignoring him and being heartless during this most wonderful time of the year. With a heavy sigh I took my seat and with eyes cast down, pulled out my iPhone to do something, perhaps slip into the gay first jhana where I find rapture and withdrawal in directing my thought to who’s on Grindr right now.

He went on and on about how everyone on the car would be enjoying Christmas, opening presents, while some friend of his – who must have been hospitalized – was facing certain death because of the overwhelming lack of generosity of those of us on the train. He even had photographs.

I bit my tongue, because the Buddha said that even true speech should not be spoken if such truth will likely lead to a – how shall we say? – more uncomfortable situation. I wanted to tell this idiot that not everyone on the train was going to be opening Christmas gifts or was even buying Christmas gifts and that, oh, by the way, we all are going to die, and you know why? Because we were born.

Nonetheless, I remained silent, thinking about how this kook had a poorly developed mind.

My, aren’t I the queen of all that is perfect and good! Because here I am, dealing with my own poorly developed mind, my poorly developed sense of discernment, and my complete lack of virtue.

Well, maybe I don’t have a complete lack of virtue, but saying my virtue is poorly developed would be an understatement; it would be like saying the Pope was merely a confused man.

But I digress.

The point is that we face constant distraction in the world around us and everywhere we turn, we see ourselves as we are now, or how we might become, if we lose sight of the three basic goals of Buddhism: the development of virtue, wisdom, and concentration.

Some of us may get overwhelmed by all the lists, rules, gathas and discourses within the Buddhist canon and think, “Whoa girlfriend! This is bunching up my panties, I can’t deal with all this! I need to de-stress with a cosmo.” But as the Buddha suggested to monks who were becoming overwhelmed with all the rules in the Pātimokkha, everything can be boiled down to three essential trainings.

The Buddha explained it again to a group of Brahmans, saying that if we pay attention to how we act, how we speak, and how we think, we can avoid a lot of problems later on. Evaluating our selves under these three areas is really what Buddhism is all about. The key, however, is to develop our virtue, wisdom and concentration simultaneously so our practice is balanced.

Think of a three-legged stool, where each leg is wisdom, virtue or concentration. To develop concentration (focus in meditation) our mind needs to be free from distraction, which is accomplished by being virtuous. But to be virtuous, we need the wisdom to know what is skillful and unskillful. But to have wisdom, we need to have the concentration to investigate phenomenon to be able to discern how things really are. And on and on.

If we over-emphasize one of the legs of the stool, we will metaphorically fall off our perch, like a barely-legal Boystown newbie who slides off his barstool after trying out his first Long Island Tea at Sidetrack. Yet I see many practitioners go running off toward jhana like a dazed mo with his first credit card dashing across Michigan Avenue toward the shrine of Ermenegildo Zenga.

Not that I am the epitome of Buddhist practice. I am far from it. But isn’t Buddhism about living rather than thinking? Isn’t the practice about how we behave rather than what level of self-absorption we think we have achieved and brag to others as if it were a bhodi badge of spirituality?

Perhaps the path is like riding the Brown Line in Chicago, filled with opportunities for self-reflection.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Successful dating and Right Effort

The single life can be so dreary and stressful at the same time – alas, what is a poor gay boy to do? Striking the right balance can be so difficult. Endlessly checking Grindr or Jack’d for new cute faces more frequently than not leads to disappointing meetings and meaningless hookups that, when looking back, really weren’t very satisfying.

It’s enough to make you renounce the dating life altogether and retreat to the solitary life of, what? Perusing Internet porn? Watching episodes of Glee? Fantasizing that you’re in the Amazing Race? Maybe there’s a new Vietnamese restaurant I could check out. I got it, I’ll go buy something!

It’s like being on the dance floor between songs, during that period when there is no real melody and the back beat is transitioning. Do I just stand here and wait for the song to start? Do I dance a bit to the backbeat, uncertain of where it might go? Do I just go get a drink?

Actually, I think it’s more I am like a guitar with strings that are either too loose or too tight, never playable or in tune. Wait, that sounds so familiar, like something the Buddha would say.

Don’t faint or start thinking that I’ve lost my mind. I know what you’re thinking: What has the Buddha ever said about the gay dating scene? Nothing specific perhaps, but if you take a look at the Sona Sutta, the Buddha uses a very interesting metaphor.

Sona was a monk who exerted himself so intensely in his meditation practice that one time he had done walking meditation for so long that the soles of his feet were cracked and bleeding. He sat for some more meditation when the thought occurred to him something like this: “You know, I’m not getting much out of this monastic scene, there are still so many things I want. Why don’t I just chuck it all and go back home? I can still support the Sangha, plus enjoy a more comfortable life.”

Well, the Buddha became aware of this so he teleported himself to Sona’s side where he asked the monk, “Dude, what are you thinking?”

The Buddha then uses a metaphor involving a vina, a stringed instrument, to help Sona understand how to balance his efforts. If the strings are too tight, the instrument is unplayable. If the strings are too loose, the instrument is unplayable. Only when effort is exerted to find just the right string tension will the instrument be playable.

If you noticed, this sort of Goldilocks state of tension with the vina strings is right in the middle: not too tight, not too loose, but just right.

OK, I know what you’re thinking – what has this got to do with finding a boyfriend? Probably not much. Or maybe everything. But the real point is when our lives feel out of sorts, it may be from a lack of proper concentration, and to regain proper concentration, we must put forth the Right Effort.

Wow, aren’t I clever? I managed to turn the topic of gay dating into one about the Noble Eightfold Path!

But seriously, just about every time I feel like my life is a bit disconnected, I can trace the problem back to my meditation practice. While I seldom have gone to the extreme of meditating so much that my ass is sore, there are times when my practice becomes so lax that I go for days without even getting 10 minutes in. And what the Buddha was telling Soma was the right method, the Right Effort, was in the middle.

The notion of Right Effort is part of the concentration group in the Noble Eightfold Path. Among the key elements of Right Effort are the Four Right Efforts. These are:

1. Develop skillful actions that one does not already possess
2. Further develop skillful actions one already possesses so they become more refined
3. Abandon unskillful actions one already has
4. Prevent the development of unskillful actions that one does not have

In other words, strengthen whatever qualities you have that make you a decent person and a good date, work on developing other qualities that would make you an even better person and date, work on getting rid of those qualities that annoy people, and make sure you don’t develop any new negative qualities that limit your dating prospects.

Think of it this way: if you’re not aware of the things you do that bug people or make you less attractive to people, you’ll continue to lose on the dating front. And on a more serious note, if you’re always worried about what you do, how others perceive you, or continuously worry as to why people don’t want to date you, then you will be distracted and restless whenever you attempt to meditate.

Right Effort is required to develop disciplined concentration, and our most serious impediment to our efforts at concentration is all of the unskillful things we do that bring us regret or confusion, or just plain restlessness. It goes back to thinking about our practice as if it were a three-legged stool: each leg represents either Wisdom, Virtue, or Concentration. We need to refine our virtue to be able to concentrate during mediation without distraction by the things we’ve said or done, and when we achieve proper concentration, we start to develop wisdom that helps us further strengthen our virtue. Of course, before any of that is possible, we need at least wisdom enough to know what virtue is and how to get started.

So it’s back to the cushion for me with a bit more regularity. Remember, overdoing it can be just as bad as not doing it at all. And finding that balance in anything takes effort – the Right Effort.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Requiem for a true friend

On Thanksgiving Day before my brother and his wife and my sister and her husband arrived for the weekend, I got in a workout at the gym and then met a friend afterward for lunch. We went to Chinatown on the north side in Uptown and ate at Pho 777 where Stephen filled me in on how his medical internship was going.

Stephen speaks English very well. He’s from Taiwan and here on a visa completing a medical residency/internship program that has been really difficult for him at a Chicago hospital. Although he speaks English very well, his listening comprehension isn’t quite as good, particularly if the English speaker is a non-native English speaker. It’s been very stressful for him; at one point he was ready to give up and go back to Taiwan where he is already a licensed radiologist. But he selected internal medicine for his residency program in the U.S.

Anyway, we had lunch and I listened to him, encouraged that his really difficult rotations were about to end. He was optimistic that his next two rotations won’t be as difficult.

After lunch I returned home knowing that I would need to feed Symba again. Following the surgery in early October that removed a horrible infection in his mouth – and which revealed that he had a very aggressive form of cancer – he could only eat soft food from a can. The surgery removed most of his teeth and he needed to gain weight. His appetite was voracious, and he managed to keep the food down as well. His coat was gradually getting shinier, although he wasn’t grooming himself. However, brushing him we both enjoyed as it gave me some quality time with him. I knew his days were numbered.

When I returned home Symba was snoozing on his usual spot – a small pile of brown grocery sacks on the kitchen table. He perked up when he saw me, anticipating his feast as I got the canned food out as well as some dishes. He meowed nosily as usual. When he jumped down from his spot on the table I noticed some dried blood on his right front leg. There was no injury to the leg, but it looked like he may have been bleeding from the mouth. This happened before and the incident was brief despite being quite alarming. It was a small amount of dried blood, so I just made a mental not to keep track of these incidents.

Symba wolfed his food as usual. It was quite obvious there were no issues with his appetite, not that there ever was really. I gave Tazz some soft food also, although just a tiny amount as Tazz was able to eat the dry food left out for him. I then went to clean up some new hairballs Tazz had hurled on the carpet. I had returned to the kitchen where I was rinsing out the rag I used to clean these spots up when I noticed Symba at the kitchen doorway.

Although sitting on his haunches, he was very unsteady, his body teetering side to side, and there was bright red blood dripping from his mouth. He then took his paw and furiously pawed at the side of his head as if there was something crawling all over his face. I crouched down next to him to get a closer look, to try and determine what happened, what I should do. I petted him as I examined his mouth – he immediately sensed my petting and responded with affection – and saw with this incident there was a lot more blood than before.

And he was still bleeding.

Then the most extraordinary event occurred, something I will find hard to forget. Symba’s entire front end, his front legs and all just collapsed as he fell face-first to the floor, his hind legs still up. His body was stiff and he uttered a baleful meow that was quickly followed by his back end falling sideways to the floor.

Alright, I’m not sure of the exact sequence of events, but somewhere in all this I got my phone and called my vet, who I knew wouldn’t answer, but I also knew the message at the office would have the phone number for the pet emergency hospital. Symba seemed to recover somewhat. He sat up, shook his head, which nearly knocked him over because he was so unsteady, and then he got back up on the kitchen table to be on his pile of grocery sacks just like he always did after eating. The hemorrhaging had abated, but there were drips of blood coming from his mouth. Symba looked really out of it.

I got the pet emergency hospital on the phone and began describing what was going on. When Symba collapsed, it was just like the videos I had seen in the past of farm animals when they founder – the collapse begins at the front of the body with the back end falling 2 to 3 seconds later. I got directions to the hospital, then went to get the travel cage as I called my brother to find out where he and his wife were. It was about 3 p.m. I think and I was expecting them around 5. He said they were in Indiana, so they weren’t that far. I told them I might not be home when they got to my apartment, so would they mind waiting in the street until I got back?

“I think Symba is dying,” I said.

It was difficult for me to drive at first. Seriously, I was freaking out and starting to cry. Symba was starting to bleed again. But I told myself it wouldn’t do anyone any good if I crash the car because I’m blubbering and couldn’t see the road or wasn’t paying attention. So I pulled it together and began the drive. One thing nice about Chicago on Thanksgiving: traffic is not a problem. Symba traveled as best as can be expected, but I think he went through another one of those collapses about half-way to the animal hospital.

The pet emergency room was a bit busy when I arrived with at least a dozen other people there. I put the pet carrier on the counter as I told the receptionist I was there and that I had called just a bit ago.

“And what is Symba’s problem?” The receptionist kindly asked. Consternation is such a mild term, but it described her expression as she looked at the pet carrier while I spoke.

“He’s hemorrhaging from the mouth and I think he’s been seizing.”

I didn’t have to wait; she took me to an examination room and called for a physician. They began examining Symba as I retold the sequence of events. When they went to weigh him, he seized again as he was being placed on the scale. They took Symba to another examination room where they sought to raise his body temperature and observe him. The doctor came back and we talked options. She explained that she believed that he was almost blind, that he saw motion, but it didn’t appear that he could clearly see forms. The size of his head and the shape of his skull suggested that the cancer was not just in his jaw, but very likely in his brain. There were tests if I wanted them done …

I had heard enough.

They brought Symba back to me. He was wrapped up in soft blankets to keep him warm. I held him in my arms and gently stroked the back of his head. I was left alone with him for a while. He responded affectionately to my petting, pushing his head against my hand as he always did. But one thing I noticed right away: he wasn’t purring.

After a few minutes the doctor returned and explained the procedure. I requested that I be allowed to hold him when it happened. They took Symba for just a few minutes to insert a catheter into his left foreleg, then returned him to my lap. First they sedated him. He quietly went limp in my arms. Then they injected him with propofol, the same drug that killed Michael Jackson.

I kept petting Symba as I told the vet about how I had Symba since he was a kitten, that he was rescued from the pound when he was 6 weeks old. I then handed Symba to her. Would I like to take his ashes home, she asked?

I shook my head. “Symba’s gone. That’s just a body.”

They did make a paw print, however, and gave that to me. A very cute Asian boy cleaned the blood out of his carrier for me. And then I drove back home to meet my brother and his wife. We later went out to eat dinner.

So why am I telling you all this? It’s not for sympathy. I guess it’s partly to get things out of my head in a thoughtful, cogent way. But it’s also to talk about kamma.

Yes, I created some kamma that day when I agreed to have Symba killed. You can call it euthanasia, “putting him down,” “putting him to sleep,” whatever pretty little name or phrase you like. It doesn’t change the fact that Symba is dead because I killed him. You can rationalize all you want, but Symba died at the moment that he did die because I authorized someone to kill him. You can say he was going to die anyway, but that can be said for all of us. We’re all going to die. In this case I deliberately and with forethought had Symba killed.

But here’s where I think many are wrong. Some may say that it was the compassionate thing to do. Perhaps. Some may say that by my doing this, I’ve interfered with Symba’s experiencing his own kamma. Maybe. I say the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Symba’s kamma and my kamma are not isolated from one another. Just as the Buddha taught, kamma is not linear, but involves multiple feedback loops over time and even lifetimes. With the simile of the Salt Crystal the Buddha teaches us that even with very bad things that we’ve done, we have every succeeding moment to work through and eliminate the kamma we create.

But we don’t create kamma alone. My own kamma and Symba’s kamma were intertwined. We were both suffering. While one may say that to kill him would be interfering with Symba’s kamma, one may also say for me to allow “nature to run its course” could potentially interfere with my kamma. It’s simply not black and white.

No living creature wants to die. Even the tiniest spider will do all it can to preserve its life. Heck, even an amoeba will flee from pain. Which is why, when given the opportunity and even the advice to kill Symba earlier on as soon as cancer was even a possibility, I rejected the idea of killing Symba despite most advising it. If that’s really how we’re going to manage life, then my parents should have killed me when I was 2 years old and stricken with pneumonia. We’re all going to die anyway, right? Why go through all that suffering?

Symba didn’t need the power of speech to tell me he didn’t want to die. And it’s not difficult to conclude that I didn’t want to see him suffer any longer. What I wanted to avoid for both my own and Symba’s sake was turning this event into a matter of convenience.

Some may say my decision was still ultimately made around a notion of convenience. I do not disagree. Just remember, you weren’t there.

Symba: May 1, 1996 - Nov. 24, 2011

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Do Buddhists worship idols?

Ajahn Yuttadhammo addresses the issue of idol worship in Buddhism, pointing out that while ostensibly Buddhists do not worship idols, many Buddhists do, in fact, worship idols (and not just Madonna or Lady Gaga). The fact that many Buddhists do worship idols is a central issue with why many Muslims and Christians are so hostile toward Buddhism and Buddhists.


Yuttadhammo has a series of videos "Ask a Monk" that are interesting and informative. They're worth checking out.

I have used the explanation that Yuttadhammo mentions of my possessing a Buddha statue and the creation of an altar is not idol worship, but a point of focus in my endeavor to develop mindfulness. And the Buddha didn't really say no to idols, just as he didn't completely rule out rites and rituals, as long as the practitioner was mindful that rites and rituals (and presumably idols) were empty and held no significance in and of themselves. If such objects or practices were helpful for developing mindfulness, then fine, they are useful as tools (I do believe somewhere in the Tipitika the Buddha warned of relic worship following his death). But the Buddha was not, is not, a god.

But it's easy to understand how some non-Buddhists are confused, particularly when many practitioners talk about "praying" to the Buddha, etc. (Again, someplace in the Tipitika I believe the Buddha is quoted as saying something to the effect that there is nothing to pray for because there is nothing to pray to)

I hope you take the time to investigate Yuttadhammo's other videos, particularly the ones on meditation. They're very informative and helpful.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Does success lead to indifference?

About a week ago a horrific incident in China spread across the interwebs with videos popping up showing the world the unbelievable – a hit-and-run crash in which a truck runs over a toddler in a Chinese market. But it wasn’t just the hit-and-run itself that was so shocking. It was the nearly two-dozen people who walked by the toddler as she lay injured and bleeding in the alley. Of all people, it was an immigrant woman collecting trash who saw the child and came to her aid.

There was plenty of U.S. media coverage of the incident; this particular video is stunning, although there are more graphic videos out there that show the actual collision between the truck and the child. An article in the Chinese newspaper Xinhua revealed how quickly Chinese and the world shared the story across the Internet. But perhaps much more revealing was this statement in the Xinhua article:

“The incident has left many people to wonder if China's rapid economic development has had an effect on ethics and morality in the general public.”

This particular incident in China may recall to some a similar event that occurred in the U.S. in 1964, the Catherine “Kitty” Genovese murder. The lead in the New York Times article about the murder, published two weeks after the killing, present an ugly and horrifying picture of fear and apathy:

“For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.

“Twice their chatter and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.”

This literally became a textbook example in many schools – I know we talked about it in a high school class of mine – of how people become numbed by fear and no longer show any interest in their fellow human beings.

How do people become so insensitive to others? It’s a natural question to ask, but it’s not really the right question to ask, the skillful question to ask. We can examine why people become insensitive, why they lack compassion or are unwilling to show compassion toward others, until we have what we might consider a definitive answer. But finding that answer won’t ensure we become compassionate ourselves, it does not lead one to being more compassionate.

When I was 10 or 11 years old, I was with a buddy of mine and his mom as we walked through downtown Midland, Mich., for the annual carnival days and sidewalk sales. It was such a gay time, but as we walked along I saw how people were making way for something. As we got near we saw a man lying on the sidewalk, blood streaming from his nose. Apparently he had been in a fight right there and was knocked down, his assailant nowhere to be seen. I’d never seen that much blood come out of a person’s nose before. He was conscious, but just lying there. My friend’s mom without hesitation, with not a shred of shock or dismay on her face, took her handkerchief out of her handbag and offered it to the man. I can still picture her in her slim dress, probably a Jackie O kind of thing that all the women were wearing at the time, it had to be about 1968, just as prim as can be offering her clean white lace-trimmed hanky to this brute on the ground with blood forming a pool just below his face. He at first declined her offer. She insisted, said it wasn’t doing her any good and it would likely do him some good. He acquiesced. Could she get some medical help? No, he wanted to be left alone. So be it, and we moved on. All during that episode, dozens of other people just walked by, taking only furtive glances before hurrying on. As we walked on, a couple medics were apparently on their way to help.

There were a lot of other children around that day. For most of them, the lesson was don’t pay attention, don’t get involved, pretend it doesn’t exist.

We don’t need to understand why people lack compassion. We simply must instill it within ourselves and express it to others. Unsurprisingly, the Buddha had plenty to say about this because even monks are not immune to indifference.

In the Kucchivikara-vatthu, the Buddha encounters a sangha where there is a monk seriously ill with dysentery, fouled with his own urine and excrement. But none of the other monks are attending to the sick monk. The Buddha asks the sick monk why.

"I don't do anything for the monks, lord, which is why they don't attend to me."

Now, the Buddha is a level headed guy, not given to extreme fits of emotion. Nonetheless, I have to think that when the Buddha heard this, he was freaking fucking mad. But the first thing the Buddha did was to immediately start attending to the monk, bathed him and put him to bed. After that, the Buddha went to the rest of the monks and asked them why they hadn’t been attending to the ailing monk. Their answer?

"He doesn't do anything for the monks, lord, which is why (we) don't attend to him."

Being the level-headed guy that he was – I mean really, getting all angry and bent out of shape accomplishes nothing – the Buddha firmly reminded the monks that they have abandoned their homes, which means they have no mothers or fathers or siblings or anyone else to attend to them. That means they must attend to each other.

It’s part of the Four Right Efforts when you think about it: Remove negative behavior and thinking from ourselves that already exists; prevent new negative behavior and thinking from arising in us that doesn’t already exist; further develop positive thinking and behavior that is already developed in us; and nurture and encourage new positive thinking and behavior in us that doesn’t already exist. We don’t need to understand why; we just need to do it because the benefits of such self-directed action will be readily apparent.

That’s not to say that there aren’t many obstacles out there that actively discourage being compassionate. As the title of this post suggests, new-found prosperity can lead to callousness, even without us being aware of it. We live in such a litigious society that we may fear aiding others because we might get sued. And particularly with children, men – especially gay men – need to be extra careful. If I see an obviously lost or distressed child, I don’t help the child. Instead, I seek out a woman and ask her to help the child, because if I do it, someone will carelessly accuse me of being a child molester.

But I think the most dangerous and destructive mental attitude we must be alert for is this line of thinking: This doesn’t pertain to me, it’s none of my business.

That Chinese toddler died from her injuries. Had she received help promptly, it might have been a different outcome. Then again, she might have died anyway. But all those people who ignored her? Oh, the kamma they have made.

The image with this post is not mine, but was given to me with permission to use. However, I can't recall whose image it is, so let me know so I can give you proper credit.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Selfishness disguised as compassion, or kamma can suck

For the past several days I’ve been struggling over what to do with my cat, Symba. He’s been sniffling and sneezing and losing weight, which I largely attributed to some type of severe allergy or sinus infection. However, there was a key symptom I wasn’t paying attention to: Symba’s breath was awful smelling, like rot. Everything else was beguilingly normal; all his other body functions were operating, shall we say, unimpeded. And he was especially perky whenever I fed him and Tazz, my other cat, soft food.

When I finally took Symba in to see the vet, the news was dire. It wasn’t merely nasal congestion or some allergy going on. It was an infection, but it was in his mouth. He had already lost several teeth, his breath smelled rotten because of all the pus building in his gums and even the roof of his mouth, which was starting to look like maggot-ridden hamburger. The swelling from the pus on his right cheek was so intense it was ready to burst through the outside of his cheek; the vet showed me the spot where hair was starting to disappear. That’s why he was constantly rubbing and grooming that side of his head with a paw. And that’s why he showed excitement when I brought out the soft food, because his mouth hurt so much to eat dry food.

I was overwhelmed with sadness, but it wasn’t for Symba – it was all about me. I hadn’t recognized it fully, however, at that moment. Oh, I knew I felt guilt for not paying closer attention to Symba’s symptoms. And I felt guilt over not listening to a vet 8 years ago who told me that Symba was developing gum disease that ought to be taken care of. But when he told me that it would cost $150 to clean his teeth when I hadn’t gone to a dentist in years to take care of my own teeth, I said no. Now I was looking at major surgery for Symba to the tune of at least $900, potentially more.

There was the possibility, the vet told me, that Symba’s problems were entirely restricted to this awful – and I mean AWFUL – mouth infection. She said there was a possibility he may have bone cancer in the jaw as well. If that were the case, she recommended putting him down. But there was a catch. She would need to begin the surgery on his mouth before she could see and determine if cancer were present. And even then, it may not be immediately obvious, which would then necessitate a biopsy. Biopsy results could take a couple days, meaning the mouth surgery would be completed and a few days after his return home, the biopsy result would be available.

This all meant that I could end up spending more than $900 only to learn later that Symba’s days were over. That bugged me. Really bugged me. But a voice inside reminded me had I listened to that vet 8 years ago and paid the $150 then, I wouldn’t be faced with $900 now.

This was all on Thursday. The vet told me she couldn’t do the surgery until Monday. If all went well, Symba could be home that evening. If it were just the mouth infection, she said his prognosis was actually excellent. Symba wouldn’t have any teeth, but should fully recover. They had a plan, also, that would allow me to pay for the surgery over time, interest free. I qualified, so I agreed to schedule the surgery for Monday with the knowledge that I still had the weekend to think things over.

That evening I had dinner over at a friend’s house. He gave me very practical feedback. I don’t have $900, this would add to my debt load, even if only temporarily, he told me. Symba was 15 years old, he’s lived a good life. I gave him an excellent home, took care of him and loved him. I shouldn’t feel guilty over not addressing the gum disease issue in the past. I also had my own life situation to consider. My cat food costs would like go up after this because I would need to buy soft food more frequently, so long term my expenses would rise. I needed to think about myself in this situation as well.

It was all very persuasive. My friend made excellent and valid points. I didn’t have any money, no savings at all, and Symba was 15 years old, at the high end of a cat’s normal life span. Even if the surgery was successful and there was no cancer, how many more years would I be giving to Symba?

Friday I worked at home, although frankly, I was not very productive. I struggled with my decision. I couldn’t ignore the cost and the impact that would have on me.

Symba seemed to sense something was troubling me. He came out of his corner where he’s been spending his days, the lower shelf on a small case where I keep grocery bags, and came into my home office. He looked at me, meowed loudly (I think he’s deaf now, and that may be the result of the infection as well), then jumped into my lap. I reclined back into my chair and he laid his frail body against me and began to purr. I understood now why his fur was so ratty looking; he wasn’t grooming himself because of the mouth infection. I knew why he had lost weight; because it hurt his mouth to eat the dry food. I was overwhelmed with sadness and guilt. I apologized to him. I did this to him. I had failed. And the decision to have him put down was beginning to take shape.

But it was still all about me.

I was ready to take him to the animal hospital that moment and have it done. But there was somebody else I wanted to talk to first. Benny. So I left a message for Benny to give me a call. While waiting for Benny’s call, I drove to Whole Foods to pick up some items with the idea that I would park my car on the street when I got back, making it easier to bring Symba down to the car to take him to the vet. But when I returned from Whole Foods, there were no street parking spaces, so I drove back to the alley to my garage.

Back inside, I tried to do a little work, responded to some emails, and then Benny called. We chatted for a bit and he said something that surprised me. Benny’s known about my Buddhist practice, I even tried to teach him meditation but he didn’t stick with it. He said that my dilemma sounded like something I should meditate on.

Duh. When was the last time I meditated? My practice had really gone to shit. It must have been weeks, perhaps months, since I last mediated. What was up with that? After my call with Benny, that’s exactly what I did, I went to the cushion.

It was a struggle. My mind was all over the place. Rather than attempt to “think” about anything, my decision or whatever, I just brought my mind back to my breath. Over and over it would run wild into this or that thought, and I would each time bring it back to the breath. By then end of the session, I had achieved some semblance of mental calm. I then began my normal routine of chanting some Pali verses after the silent sit. Needless to say I got a bit choked up when I said out loud, “May all beings be free from suffering.” But what really got to me was reciting the Five Recollections.

“I am of the nature to grow old, I have not got beyond aging.
“I am of the nature to be sick, I have not got beyond disease.
“I am of the nature to die, I have not got beyond death.
“All that is mine, beloved, and pleasing, changes and vanishes.
“I am the owner of my kamma, the creator of my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide supported in my kamma; whatever kamma I create – skillful or unskillful, light or dark – to that I fall heir.”

My voice trembled as I recited this, but something was coming up. Something was rising.

I went back to my computer and began a search with the terms “euthanizing pets Buddhism.” The discussion was all over the place, but I began to see a common thread. And in particular, it was discussion on how our sense of compassion may not really be compassion at all, but a mask to cover up selfish intentions. We tell ourselves that our beloved pet is suffering and so we seek to end that suffering. At the other extreme is the notion we should never euthanize our pets because they have their own kamma to work through and by euthanizing them we’re interfering with that. I found that argument to be bullshit, largely because it presumes that we “know” what kamma the animal has and must deal with. Now that is ego to the extreme. Plus, such a position logically leads us never to intervene when anyone is sick because we might be interfering with their kamma. That’s just crazy.

But the notion that the option of euthanizing an animal was merely a smoke-screen covering up our own discomfort with disease and death was resonating with me. The more I began to re-evaluate Symba’s symptoms, the more I began to see that the likelihood he also had cancer was extremely low. I’ve had pets that were on death’s door because of either feline leukemia or another terminal illness. It was clear that they were close to death because they weren’t eating, some couldn’t even lift up their head and they could barely respond to any type of affection.

Beyond the fact that he had a horrible mouth, Symba was still Symba. He remained affectionate and even playful, particularly if he knew I was preparing soft food for him.

We all get sick. Sometimes really, really sick. But we don’t die from every illness. Not every illness is fatal. In fact, we recover from really major illnesses all the time.

And so do animals.

I do have responsibility for Symba’s illness. After all, I cannot ignore the fact that I did not heed the advice of that vet 8 years ago. Symba’s and my kamma are connected. And this got me thinking of the simile of the salt crystal. I can’t erase my negligence and selfishness entirely all in one sweep, but I do have an opportunity to remedy this and eliminate not just my kamma but Symba’s as well. And when I came to that realization, this burden I had been feeling was completely lifted. I felt light and at ease, like a shadow that never leaves.

So I will be bringing Symba in on Monday morning, but it will be for the surgery. Certainly there is the possibility that he has cancer and in that case, we’ll put him down. But I truly believe that is a slim chance. Despite that, I am comfortable with my decision. Symba doesn’t want to die and he doesn’t need to now. For me to think I would be doing him a favor by euthanizing him was delusion.

This time the decision was about Symba.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Observing the past, then walking away

Saturday I returned from a week in Arizona where I visited places I hadn’t seen in 30 years. Yes, things change, but how things change can be interesting. While the Bhaddekarrata suttas (MN 131, 132, 133, 134) wisely instruct us to avoid living in the past, such guidance does not equate to ignoring the past nor refusing to peruse it to discern any secrets it might reveal.

For example, one of the places I visited was Red Rock Crossing near Sedona, Arizona. I like to call Sedona the chic epicenter of new-age ethnocentrism and self-inflated egos, the home of the harmonic distortion, er, convergence. Seriously, Sedona is a beautiful place, but not my favorite spot in Arizona. It is where mysticism dies to become commercialized.

Red Rock Crossing is to the south and east of Sedona and is home to one of the most photographed views around, Cathedral Rock at Red Rock Crossing. Thirty years ago my journey to Red Rock Crossing took me along a lonely gravel road to a small park where folks brought their kids and picnics. The crossing had a gorgeous view of Cathedral Rock and was a hugely popular swimming hole. The red sandstone making the creek bottom was covered with a slick moss, which made the rock excellent for sliding along, letting the current push you through small chutes and into deep pools.

Today, the location is a state park surrounded by multi-million dollar homes all huddled together to get that “view.” Instead of a gravel road, it’s paved. The place had changed so much it was difficult for me to find the spot where we used to swim. The water wasn’t clear any more, but ruddy, the current carrying various flotsam and jetsam discarded by an egotistical society that believes that views can be owned. Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” came to mind. I managed to finally reach the spot, but it wasn’t the same; the creek was lower, likely because of all those seven-figure homes with wells that were sucking the water out of the underground stream. The final insult was the new age “sorceress” there smudging a man by the waterside, undoubtedly for a hefty fee. The tone of her Tibetan chiming bowl was divine.

Other places I visited were still great. I love the atmosphere of Jerome, Arizona, and the mystical aura of the various Sinagua ruins in the national monuments that can be found in the vicinity. One spot in particular was important to me, Walnut Canyon National Monument east of Flagstaff. Here is a photo I took of my parents (both now dead) circa 1980 as they rested along the Island Trail in the park.

And here is a photo of me sitting in what I believe to be the same spot roughly 30 years later.

The former photo was taken with a Konica TC Autoreflex (which I still have) using a 50mm lens. The later was taken with a Nikon D70 with a wide-angle lens, hence the different perspective.

My homage to the past is merely that, a nod of respect toward what has happened. It is not a longing for the past, for as the Buddha taught us, the past is gone. To say that I feel nothing in terms of the past would be a lie for certain. But I don’t need to cling to it and any desire to do so is gone. Each day I capture a drop of water, and each time I give it back to the sea.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

There’s a Little Wayman in all of us

What can a Jataka tale about a dullard novice whose brother attempts to expel him from the Buddha’s Sangha teach us about our own potential as gay practitioners? Quite a bit, it seems, as long as we persevere even when facing what seems to be the darkest of times and we allow ourselves to be guided by the calling that comes from within our own hearts rather than the admonitions and even shouts from the world around us.

This isn’t always easy, particularly when stories like this continue to occur.

The Buddha taught that how we live our present life will determine the condition and circumstances of our rebirth. The simplistic way of looking at this leads us to conclude that living a good, moral life will not only bring us happiness now, but also greater happiness in our next life. But kamma isn’t so simple, not so linear. And it’s easy for us as gay people to fall into a line of thinking that the fact we are born gay is a negative consequence for something we may have done in a previous life – that is if you accept the notion of rebirth. Not all Buddhists do.

In some instances within the Tipitika, the Buddha explicitly states that living a good life now will lead to a good or better next life, but these situations usually involve the laity and times when the Buddha crafted his teaching according to his audience. When one considers the entirety of the Tipitika, however, one sees that what the Buddha was more likely attempting to convey was that living a good moral life would bring one closer to Nibbana, to total release, with each successive rebirth, regardless of the specific circumstances one was born into each time.

Humans in general have many hang-ups regarding sex, so it stands to reason that many Buddhist teachers – even very well-respected teachers – have hang-ups not just about sex in general, but about homosexuals in particular. Many of these teachers suggest that being homosexual is a consequence of our previous lives, the results of kamma. I agree with this, but not the same way as these teachers suggest. This is because I don’t subscribe to a linear notion of kamma and rebirth, that not every successive existence is necessarily better than the last even when the prior existence was an exemplary life. And I offer the Cullaka-Setthi-Jātaka to explain this.

In this Jātaka tale, we have two brothers, Wayman and Little Wayman, who come from humble beginnings. The elder Wayman joins the Buddha’s Sangha and, finding the monastic life to be fulfilling, entices his younger brother to become a monk as well. But Little Wayman proves to be a dullard, unable to learn the teachings and fails to remember even the simplest of gathas. So Wayman takes it upon himself to expel his brother from the Sangha.

Being omniscient, the Buddha becomes aware of this and intercedes. There are some really wonderful passages in this story, but I don’t want to bog things down, so I will skip over many of the details. But the Buddha gives Little Wayman a clean cloth for the novice to wipe his face and head. When Little Wayman does this, he sees how the cloth becomes soiled and eventually comes to realize that it represents how he is removing the soil of his delusions and expelling them from his mind. This young novice was ready for this teaching and became an arahant. The Buddha explains to the others how this happened by revealing what he knows about Little Wayman’s previous lives.

In a previous life, Little Wayman was destitute and poor, but, as a young man then, he overheard a wealthy treasurer make a statement about taking an opportunity and profiting from it. That young man took that advice and within four months became extraordinarily wealthy. He returned to the wealthy treasurer (who was the Buddha in a previous life) who gave the young man a job and allowed him to marry his daughter. In this previous life, Little Wayman was no dullard, but a very apt pupil with the potential to realize great things as long as he persevered. But here’s an interesting twist.

Despite rising to be a wealthy merchant in that previous life, Little Wayman was re-born poor to parents of mixed parentage. His mother came from wealth, but she married a slave, bringing shame to her offspring. So Little Wayman was not reborn into steadily rising social circumstances; rather, he was reborn into circumstances that prepared him for his eventual enlightenment.

As homosexuals we aren’t reborn gay as a negative consequence for something that we did in a previous life. And heterosexuals aren’t reborn straight as a positive consequence. It just simply is. But the circumstance of our present life is the result of what has happened before and probably reflects our growing ability to “hear” the Dhamma with the right ears. We are where we are because of the path we took, regardless of whether we are conscious of how far we have traveled over the eons. Those who sit in a self-exalted state to proclaim they know why we were born gay are only revealing their stubborn clinging to delusion.

Little Wayman almost gave up because he believed his older brother who told him he failed. As a result, they both were about to fail by giving up not only on each other, but on themselves. The cycle of their rebirths, fortunately, brought the two of them to the Buddha who helped them see release despite their humble beginnings.

The photo with this post is not mine, and I want to express thanks for the permission to use it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Chicago temple gets some unwelcomed attention

Well drat, I missed an opportunity this weekend to join a group of protesters rallying outside of a Chicago-area Theravada temple, bringing attention to allegations that a monk at the temple had sexually assault a girl there. I only found out about it via Barbara O’Brien’s blog the day after the demonstration. Had I known about this event, I would certainly have gone.

There was also a related demonstration in Long Beach, Calif. I love the quote from the Orange County Chapter of SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which organized the two demonstrations: “It’s a different religion, but it’s the same story.”

I wrote about this situation not too long ago, and my conclusion then remains the same: There needs to be some type of oversight of these temples, regardless of whether they be Theravada, Zen, Tibetan – whatever. But the reality of the situation remains true as well, because these organizations do have members, and these members are the ones who should be raising hell about this.

As mentioned in my earlier post, I had contacted some monks I know for their thoughts. Two replied to my queries with the same message: While the monk’s action is deplorable, these “ethnically oriented” temples are not interested in outside pressure to police monks and we “outsiders” should just leave them alone and let them figure out how to deal with this on their own.

Now this is where my reaction could easily be taken out of context to portray me as a reactionary anti-immigration xenophobe, because to that notion of just “let them deal with it themselves” I say a loud and forceful, “Fuck that!”

We are in America, not Thailand or Cambodia, or anywhere else where the locals might sheepishly avoid confrontation with their religious leaders. And while I have no problem with immigrants bringing with them their homeland culture to add richness and diversity to our American culture, when that culture is one of silence and fear, then fuck that. You can send that attitude back on the boat.

Regardless of what this monk told his Sangha, regardless of what the Vinaya says about this, there is the Third Precept, which in numerous places throughout the Tipitika identifies inappropriate sexual contact with a child as constituting sexual misconduct.

This monk doesn’t need to go back to Thailand. He needs to go to jail.

BTW, the photo with this post is from Bali and has nothing to do with the temple in Chicago. It's just a nice photo of some cute boys with slingshots. Yes, they had slingshots. Hunting for rats maybe?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Whittling away at anger

Recently while on my commute to work, a taxi driver in the lane to the right of me decided he wanted to make a left turn at the intersection I was about to proceed through. He waved at me for letting him go through while I cursed loudly at him. I had no choice but let him through as he cut me off.

Immediately I chastised myself for losing my temper like that. I practice what the Buddha taught his son Rahula, and that was to immediately cultivate a sense of shame at my own behavior.

Alas, I do that often, because anger remains a major issue for me. And as evidenced by some recent bloggers, it is an issue for others as well.

I am ashamed to admit that words like “moron!” and the f-bomb frequently flow effortlessly from my lips while I am driving. Unlike with other activities, the anger button is easily pushed while driving. I can be doing a lot of other things and never reach that fast flare of anger that seems to instantly arise when I’m behind the wheel. And the reason is very simple, despite my apparent inability to sufficiently deal with it: it’s ego.

You see, when I’m driving, all the rest of you are in my way. I’m quite perfect. I leave well-enough ahead of time so I don’t have to be in a rush, so it’s not that I’m in your way, it’s you haven’t planned enough time for your drive. And when you do get in my way, it’s because you’re a rude and pathetic self-centered bee-atch!

Well, maybe it’s not everyone else on the road.

The Buddha was consistently clear on how poisonous anger is for us. When he describes the Big Three – I’m not talking automakers – of greed, hatred and delusion, anger is right in there tied up with hatred. Anger is a form of hatred, it is an expression of hatred, and it sullies our kamma every time we allow its expression. Contrary to many pop psychologists, venting anger does not make us feel better; it does not relieve us of our anger. Rather, venting anger gives our mind fodder for justifying future anger so it is sure to reappear again.

Remember the Bhaddekaratta Sutta and the lesson it has for us? We must pay attention to what we are doing right now because what we do right now shapes what is yet to be.

An entire chapter of the Dhammapada is devoted to anger and our need to rid ourselves of this. Anger is described as wretched, causing one to appear ugly and drive away his friends. The Samyukta Agama simply guides us with, “Not being angry is always better than being angry.” And if that wasn’t enough for you, anger is identified as one of the Five Hindrances to one’s practice, more commonly labeled as ill will.

Face it, anger’s got to go.

Granted, the examples of what gets me angry are rather petty. Many of you may believe that what gets you angry is so much more important, so much more meaningful. But I think it’s safe to say that the allegedly “important” things we get angry about are generally infrequent. Most of us get pissed off by really stupid things.

I hope that I am less angry today than I was yesterday, and last month, and last year, etc. But it requires effort, something I don’t always remember and even when I do sometimes remember, it’s effort I want to avoid. I like being angry. I must, because there are so many things I do to nurture it. And if you have issues with anger, I suggest that you must like it as well. If you didn’t like being angry, you would rid yourself of this venomous emotion like you would dispose of a Ted Nugent recording.

When I do cultivate the necessary awareness of my anger, there are a couple tricks I employ. One I mentioned earlier, and that is to immediately create a sense of shame within myself for reacting with anger. I remind myself that the object of my anger, usually another person, is suffering like I do but I have no idea of what they are dealing with. Rather than react with a knee-jerk response that my woes are so much more important and overwhelming than anyone else’s, I attempt to develop a bit of compassion and empathy for my fellow human – even if he or she is an asshole. Whoops, did I say that?

Another trick I use when this option is available is to quickly find a mirror and look at my face. Have you ever really looked at your face while you are angry? Believe me, it’s not as pretty as David Oldham’s maniacal face in Harry Potter. And this really works, because even if you really try, you can’t stay angry while looking at your face in a mirror. It wouldn’t surprise me if you started laughing.

And a final trick, also quite simple, is to immediately be aware of your anger and ask yourself, “what is this? Where does this come from?” By immediately focusing on the origin of your anger, you quickly and cleverly shift your mind’s attention from self-indulgence into healthy investigation.

Granted, this takes effort and practice. But let’s look at the three types of anger as expressed in a simile I once read. There is anger like a line scratched into stone: this line can take years to be erased. There is anger like a line drawn in sand: the line remains for a while, but is eventually removed by the wind. And there is anger like a line drawn in water: so brief and fleeting, no trace of it is left behind.

While I remain quick to anger over the silliest things, my anger is much more like the line drawn in water. Before I found the Buddha, I had a lot of scratched rocks in my mind.

Speaking of anger, the photo with this post is from the memorial in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia, that now resides on the location of the former Paddy's Pub where a bomb exploded on Oct. 12, 2002, killing 202 people and injuring 240 more.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Who will watch the watchers?

A recent story in the Chicago Tribune has rightly outraged many. The specter of clergy sexually abusing minors has revealed itself in the Sangha, as well as the pernicious practice of enabling the monk perpetrators through “sending them away” to places where they wind up re-offending. The sad thing, in my mind, is that you could substitute “priest” wherever you see “monk” and “Catholic Church” for the temple’s cited. It’s the same enabling behavior: rather than directly dealing with the offender, he is shuffled off to re-offend.

But don’t get carried away with that analogy.

Our reactions to this story, which by the way is not “new” because even this specific event has been developing for more than a decade, reflect both our bewilderment and our anger. But while for many of us our initial reaction is to “rage against the machine,” where does it get us? Is that our best response?

It is easy to see parallels in this situation, which I repeat is nothing new, with what’s happened in the Catholic Church. Both have traditions in which the clergy take vows of celibacy and both are dealing inappropriately with violations of that vow through secrecy and shuffling clergy around. But the similarity ends there.

The Catholic Church is a world-wide organization with a central authority. Its entire administrative structure is based upon this authority, and while the Vatican moves agonizingly slow, it is an authority to which congregants can turn to petition or seek to influence. There is a dearth of similar administrative structures or hierarchies for Buddhism in America, and with Theravada, there are none.

This is not a “Theravada” problem as it is not an institutional problem. Theravada, or the way of the elders, is not broken. Theravada is no more broken than Zen is broken, the latter of which has also seen its share of sexual misconduct among its clergy. To say that there is a problem within Theravada that needs to be addressed is no different from the one made by the editors of “Buddhist Warfare,” that Buddhism has a problem with violence.

There is a problem, yes, but not with Theravada per se.

With the Catholic Church, it is an institutional problem because the failure of appropriate response lies within the institutional hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. But there is no “institution” of Theravada. All the individual congregations have their own boards that answer to no higher authority. Proclamations of “Theravada, fix yourself” are specious and meaningless.

Whose problem is it then? Because clearly this is a problem that requires our attention. While I knew how I felt, I didn’t know how to respond. So I asked four monks who reside both in the U.S. and Southeast Asia. What can a layperson do? Are there oversight organizations that can be pressured? Reasoned with?

While I have not heard back from all of them, the responses I did receive were simultaneously unsurprising and vexing. It goes back to the culture issue: many of these congregations are based upon an ethnic community that doesn’t have the same tradition of openness and confrontation that we have in America in particular and in the West in general. And the other issue is what ecumenical or administrative organization is there that exists to exert pressure on? When you’re angry, who do you shout at? Who has authority over these sanghas?

Shravasti Dhammika replied, in part, to my query with the following: "I have long been an advocate of the idea that ultimately, to move ahead, Western Buddhists will have to gently and politely ‘part company’ from traditional Asian Buddhism. The values, assumptions and attitudes of the two are just too different...We Westerners have enough problems of our own, getting involved in ethnic Buddhists’ wastes energy, leads to resentment and changes nothing. Let’s walk our own path."

While I do not subscribe to the notion of Hinayana – the Lesser Vehicle – when describing Theravada or the Thai Forest Tradition, the way it is manifested, the practices that it adheres too, certainly make it come off as a teeny-weeny wagon mired in twisted and misogynistic doctrine.

And after viewing the vibrant and at times acrimonious discussion at Sujato’s blog regarding secular Buddhism versus traditional practices, I am increasingly of the mind that Buddhism in America needs a Reformation of its own.

This is an important question for American and other Western Buddhists as more and more Westerners adopt Buddhism while at the same time its various iterations are increasingly co-existing literally closer to each other: Thai and Cambodian Theravada temples within blocks of Tibetan meditation centers that are close to Zen groups operating in store fronts and SGI groups meeting informally in homes in many neighborhoods. No longer are the various schools and vehicles physically separated by countries or other much larger geographic divisions. For crying out loud, I bet 90 percent of the non-Buddhist world thinks that the Dalai Lama is the leader of all Buddhists!

Many of us may rebel against the idea of a “centralized” Buddhist structure that oversees congregations and establishes parameters, and there is merit in their worry. But if Buddhism is allowed to gradually erode into a populist practice in which anyone who writes anything and gets it published is suddenly a guru who doesn’t know or care a whit about Dhamma, then we all might was well start dropping acid right now and walk the road of hedonism and nihilism, because that’s where such a road leads.

Conversely, Buddhism cannot be and never really was a fixed doctrine. Frankly, most of the Vinaya the Buddha made up as he went along, reacting to certain situations that arose at the time. Now that the Buddha’s gone, however, the Vinaya and Tipitika are treated like some sacrosanct text that cannot be changed and even contemplating a review of it would be considered heresy.

Yet it is this blind allegiance to doctrine that gives us a Thai Forest Tradition that can’t come to grips with ordaining women, a Zen culture in which the teacher is considered infallible, a Mahayana sentiment filled with bodhisattvas that can’t pay their own bills but they’re gonna save every sentient being, and a Tibetan culture that deifies superstition.

Things have changed in the monastic community and many of us may not be aware of that. Arun from Angry Asian Buddhist reminded me of an excellent point. In the past, families in Asia sent their children to the Sangha for education, but nowadays, education has been largely secularized. Trips to the Sangha are less frequent. In fact, it is losing support in some regions. Add to this the growing desire and pressure to succeed in life, to get a professional degree; in the past those motivated to learn, think abstractedly and were of high intelligence were attracted to the monastic tradition, but has that attraction disappeared? And if so, how is that affecting the quality of those who do enter the Sangha to seek ordination? If all the smart and ambitious ones are going to graduate school, what does that leave for the Sagha in terms of new recruits?

Granted, the Sangha has done great things for young men who made poor decisions, drank excessively, gambled, used drugs, etc. But some of these men are also being ordained and sent off to the U.S. to guide their own community of immigrants and do so on their own without guidance or support. These young men are placed in positions of authority to watch over a devout and, most likely, naïve congregation.

Who is watching the watchers?

In the meantime, young women and boys are preyed upon by those whom they thought they could trust.

Perhaps it is time that Buddhism in America takes a look at how physicians are managed. Medical doctors who received their degree overseas, but who desire to practice in the U.S., are treated just like residency students and required to go through a residency program before being licensed here. I know two medical doctors, one who received his degree in the Philippines and the other who received his degree in Taiwan. Both are licensed physicians in their home country, but for them to practice in the U.S. they must go through a residency program here just like someone fresh out of an American medical school.

But someone trained to be a Buddhist cleric and ordained in Thailand, Nepal, Japan, or anywhere else can come here and start a congregation with virtually no oversight.

Maybe that needs to change.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A minor meditation challenge

I realize it is a bit late to get in at the start seeing how the Rains Retreat “officially” began a week ago, but a post I happened to see on the fancy new Google+ alerted me to an opportunity I thought I couldn’t pass up. It was an invitation to join Patrick Henry, who on Twitter goes by the handle @MishapPatricio and Tumbles here, and others in a commitment to meditate for 30 minutes daily for the duration of the Rains Retreat.

If you want a little background regarding the Rains Retreat, this article is a decent start. It also explains that if you decide to make a commitment to sitting for 30 minutes each day, you don’t have to do all 30 minutes at once. I break up my sessions into two 15-minute sits.

But I would also recommend that you read this about the Lay Buddhist Practice. It’s an excellent guide to a variety of activities you can add to your practice. Granted, these practices are mostly from the Thai Forest Tradition of Theravada. But several of the chants I recite every time I sit; it’s part of my practice just as much as breathing.

Some may balk at these activities because they appear ritualistic. And there’s been a lot of discussion about dumping the rituals and seeking a new Buddhism that is more focused on – well, I actually haven’t quite figured out what this “new Buddhism” is supposed to be. I’ve read several posts about this rebellion against traditionalism within Buddhism, both from the pro and con. I’m reserving judgment at the moment. But I will say this, as I have said it before.

Rites and rituals, in and of themselves, are empty behaviors that have no meaning and to attach meaning to them is to foster delusion. Having said that, these rites and rituals are excellent methods for developing mindfulness, without which Buddhism merely becomes a glamorous excursion into self-gratification – a supreme hand-job if you will.

Start slow, however, if you decide to add any of these activities to your practice. If you seek to develop mindfulness, you will fail if you try to add too many of these activities to your overall practice all at once.

Please let us know how you are doing with your 30 minutes a day for the next 90 days by leaving a comment here occasionally. And don’t forget to visit the My Buddha is Pink Facebook page!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Making a chai tae out of a kathoey, or real man out of a fag

Got a sissy-boy child? Send him to a reparative therapist who attests he or she can “straighten” your boy out. Even if it kills him. Literally.

These types of “clinics” and “therapists” were fairly common in the not-too-distant past in the United States, but for the most part have been professionally ridiculed as not only ineffective, but as psychological quackery and mental torture. There remain a few who still push this dangerous fake therapy, the most infamous being the laughable George Rekers.

More recently, similar clinics have turned up in Malaysia, which is led by a homophobic Islamic (is that redundant?) government that has for years been trying to convict a dissident of sodomy. These clinics were for “sissy boys” and asserted they could turn your sissy boy into a real man. Unsurprisingly, many reparative therapists took up the torch – oh, how ironic – to practice this voodoo psychology in Malaysia where they found a willing client: The Malaysian government, which allegedly forced boys into the treatment centers. Despite international condemnation, the Malaysian government essentially replied with a hearty “fuck you.”

A side note: To really understand Malaysia’s antipathy toward gays, you need to know the history behind the government’s attempt to denounce and prosecute dissident Anwar Ibrahim. The government wants to get rid of him so badly, but the only thing they can come up with is an accusation of sodomy.

But I digress. Because that’s not the end of it. While it may not surprise you that conservative Christian groups and Islamic groups continue to support efforts to change one’s sexuality, it may surprise you to learn that Buddhist organizations, teachers and even various Sanghas have been involved in reparative therapy as well. And a recent news report of a particular Thai Sangha’s involvement in treating so-called “ladyboys” infuriates me no end, as this strikes me as a complete corruption of the Dhamma as well as some of the worst kind of homophobia I’ve seen.

To get a good grasp about how this issue operates in Thailand and most of Southeast Asia, one needs to understand both how the Sangha fits into Thai culture, as well as understand the history of the kathoey, or ladyboy, both in Thai culture and Buddhist history. For this explanation, I’m going to rely heavily on a work by Peter A. Jackson called “Male Homosexuality and Transgenderism in the Thai Buddhist Tradition.” Granted, this work dates back to 1993, but it nonetheless presents excellent background on this issue.

There remains a very strong link between the Sangha and lay community in SE Asia, where families in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia send their boys to the Sangha for short periods where they learn Dhamma and live as a novice monk. Some decide to stay. Most return to their families and lay life. This is such a strong tradition that a recent survey revealing that many Thais no longer support the Sangha like they had in the past has made headlines in the local press.

Many may have a perspective that Thais are generally very tolerant and accepting of homosexuality. After all, sex clubs have been ubiquitous in Bangkok and Pataya (not as much so in Phuket), and if you type the search terms “ladyboy” and “Thailand” into Google, you’ll get a plethora of results for various websites offering a variety of services performed by such ladyboys.

True, there are no laws against homosexual activity in Thailand as there are in Malaysia to the south, but to conclude that homosexuality is widely accepted in Thailand would be very unskillful. It’s not uncommon for Thai police to raid gay bars just for the hell of it, much like police did in the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s. What made the attitude different in Thailand from that in the West, Jackson points out, was the Thai attitude toward homosexuality was largely diffused: it lacked a specific target. The AIDS epidemic in Thailand changed all that; it gave people who initially harbored vague feelings of antipathy toward homosexuals an opportunity to target aggressive hatred.

But where did this seed of homophobia come from? Believe it or not, it came from several Thai Buddhist teachers from the past whose homophobic interpretations of the Tipitika have been carried forward by more recent members of the Thai Sangha. As was largely the case with Christianity and Biblical texts, the Buddhist canon contains sections referring to certain, specific sexual activity and attitudes. But given the fact that there was no Western concept of homosexuality 2,500 years ago in Asia, modern Buddhist “interpreters” have tended to force the concept of homosexuality onto Pali terms and descriptions of activity that appear similar to what the Western mind labels as “homosexual.”

Another thing to keep in mind is the Pali canon, and Thai Buddhism in particular, contains a very strong anti-sex message directed specifically toward monks.

“That which is called methunadhamma is explained as: the dhamma of an unrighteous man (asattapurisa), the conduct of the common people, the manners of the low, dhamma which is evil and crude, dhamma whose end is but water, an activity which should be hidden, the dhamma which couples should perform together.” (Vinaya, Vol. 1, p.49)

While the message was strident, it did not differentiate between forms. All types of sex were covered: it didn’t matter what a monk stuck his penis into, such activity always carried the same result – the monk had failed and was usually expelled from the Sangha. But a distaste for all forms of sex, even among the laity, found its way into the commentaries of many Thai Buddhist writers. Jackson writes:

“Significantly, contemporary Thai Buddhist views on laypersons' sexual behaviour are often more proscriptive and extreme than attitudes reflect in the Pali canon or in traditional or popular Thai accounts of Buddhist doctrine and ethics. Phra Buddhadasa's work has been especially influential among educated and middle class Thai Buddhists. However, his views on sexuality are at variance with Thai Buddhism's traditional distinction between lay and clerical ethical conduct. The ethical extremism of Phra Buddhadasa and other contemporary Buddhist reformists in Thailand such as Phra Phothirak results from a clericalising trend whereby ethical demands traditionally made only of monks are now increasingly also being required of laypersons.”

This anti-sex attitude remains to this day not only in the Thai Sangha, but to a large extent within general Thai society among the laity in the form of homophobia.

The term "kathoey" in Thai loosely translates as "ladyboy" and has a somewhat interesting history in Buddhist literature. The term has been translated to include everything from hermaphrodites to being a descriptive term for a weakling or eunuch. The Pali term pandaka has been used to describe virtually any sexual deviant, but was most frequently used to describe homosexual activity. Jackson writes:

“But whether or not Buddhism has been instrumental in influencing the development of the popular Thai notion, a very similar mixing of physical and psychological sex, gender behaviours and sexuality occurs both in the Pali terms pandaka and in the Thai term kathoey. Both terms are parts of conceptual schemes in which people regarded as exhibiting physiological or culturally ascribed features of the opposite sex are categorised together. If Buddhism was not the source of the popular Thai conception of kathoey then at the very least it has reinforced a markedly similar pre-existing Thai cultural concept.”

Jackson further states that the term kathoey has largely transformed in general Thai vernacular to be used to describe any gay man, whether a cross-dresser or straight-acting, so nowadays it essentially translates as "fag."

It is unfortunate that so many Thai commentators and their subsequent followers developed and promoted such anti-gay sentiments as there are some very interesting references in the Pali canon to the Buddha showing great tolerance toward those whose sexual identity did not follow the norm.

There was Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and personal attendant, who allegedly was born a kathoey in many previous lives and who became an arahant shortly after the Buddha became enlightened. And there is the story of Vakkali, who was enamored with the Buddha. The Buddha rebuked Vakkali for constantly staring lustfully at the Buddha, but his rebuke was not a “stop looking at me that way gay boy,” but rather, stop falling into the trap of sensual attachment. Nonetheless, the Buddha told Vakkali to go away. Jackson writes:

"Vakkali was so shattered by this command that he attempted to kill himself by jumping off a mountain. But deva or spiritual beings informed the Buddha of Vakkali's dejection and he quickly went to the monk's aid in time to save him from committing suicide. With an extremely brief exposition of the dhamma, 'The eyes see dhamma,' the Buddha gave Vakkali the insight he needed in order to attain enlightenment and he immediately attained arahantship."

Nonetheless, there is a proscription against ordaining a pandaka that is attributed to the Buddha based on a tale in the Vinaya about a monk who was running around the Sangha asking the young monks to “fuck me, fuck me.” When they didn’t oblige, the pandaka went to the elephant stables and again pleaded with the men there to “fuck me, fuck me.” When the Buddha heard about this, he expelled the pandaka because he was concerned what the lay community might think about the Sangha. This has created considerable controversy today over whether openly gay men should be allowed to be ordained.

Now we arrive to the year 2011 when effeminate boys are being sent to Sanghas where monks are attempting to transform them from being pandaka or kathoey into real men, or chai tae. At work here is probably centuries of indoctrinated homophobia.

The renunciation of sexual desire, whether same-sex or opposite-sex, is for the monastic community and has everything to do with renouncing sensual pleasure of all types. For the monks to teach these “ladyboys” to become "real men" would mean guiding these boys in the ways of hetero sex. The fact that monks would even venture into that territory at all with young novices strikes me as a serious corruption of Dhamma, as well as a particularly virulent form of homophobia sustained by reactionary abbots who don't know what to do with the ordained ladyboys in their midst.

And again we come back to the psychological trauma such reparative therapy can create in young minds. This isn’t the ending of suffering, this constitutes the nurturing and encouragement of suffering. Many of these boys will simply reject the efforts and return to their previous ways after they leave the Sangha. But others may likely be so traumatized that they commit suicide or develop seriously self-destructive behaviors. From being happy, these boys are “transformed” into miserable waifs.

Shameful. Shameful. Where is Rahula when you need him? Where is the water dipper?

Friday, July 15, 2011

The day I knew Buddhism was right for me was…

I posed this question a few weeks back on Twitter and I got some great responses. He are some of them:

@MrsCapra: When I read the book “Buddhism is not what you think”

@Zenfant1969: When I saw what I already knew had been written down 2k yrs ago

@ZenDirtZenDust: The day the bottom fell out of my pail

@checkbak: The day I broke 20 years of resistance and walked into a meditation center

@ruralhybrid: When I saw Lama Yeshe say calmly on video, “check it out for yourself”

@bodhichittah: The day I lost everything around me but glimpsed (gained!) a new world within

@Bohicitta3000: When I knew I have to be the carrier of my own banner and not blindly follow one

@ShojinRJB: The day when I learned no discrimination on the zafu

@mindonly: I remember reading a little "basics" book & thinking 'wow, I've always thought that' & 'that makes perfect sense'.

I thought it would be an easy question for me to answer as well, but I found that I really struggled with defining a single day, a single moment or epiphany when I knew that Buddhism was right for me. I guess for me it was really a process that took approximately two years.

If I had to pick a single statement, however, I think I would go with @ZenDirtZenDust’s response: The day the bottom fell out of my pail.

Buddhism is a path, and like any other path, we decide to follow it because something about the path’s beginning appeals to us. Along the way we see and experience different things and at some point we make a decision, conscious or unconscious, that we chose the right path.

My first experience with Buddhism was going with a former boyfriend to a Buddha’s birthday celebration at a temple in the Lansing, Mich., area. During that visit, the monk’s Dhamma talk really struck home with me. It was welcoming, but also presented boundaries that made sense. A seed was planted. Because it was at least another 18 months before I found myself at that temple again, this time alone and feeling like I had lost control of everything, including myself.

The bottom had fallen out of my pail, and when it did, the first thing that came to mind was that evening Dhamma talk. Without hesitation, I got into my car and drove 90 minutes to the monastery where I began walking the path.

But when did I know, when did I become aware, that I had made the right decision? I’m not sure, but I know I did.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Buddhist Warfare, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 presents another excellent example of really interesting history on how the Chinese Communist Party set out to re-shape Buddhist doctrine to get practicing Buddhists to follow the party line and willingly enlist with the Red Army to help defend Korea from the Americans.

In other words, it’s another example of fine scholarship that contradicts what the editors of this collection assert – that Buddhism rationalizes violent action and warfare – by clearly showing that Buddhists succumbed to the pressures of the prevailing hegemony either through acquiescence or through intentional action to curry political favor.

Buddhists in China at this time didn’t become soldiers because Buddhist doctrine condoned it; rather, the Chinese Communist Party beguiled Chinese Buddhists into believing that by helping the North Koreans defend themselves from American forces, they would be practicing the Bodhisattva path.

This was a clever ruse by the Chinese Communist Party achieved by co-opting Buddhist terms and concepts and re-packaging them in terms that would benefit the party. And in part, it was also a reaction by Buddhists there to secure preservation of their practice under the Communist regime.

For example, the author, Xue Yu, writes: “Many Buddhists believed that, by positively responding to the government’s call and undertaking socialist transformation, they would in return receive sympathy from the government, which would then protect Buddhist institutions.”

But the Party was also much more direct in coercing cooperation from monks and nuns:

“Monks and nuns were advised to closely follow government policies or be considered enemies of the people within the framework of the people’s democratic dictatorship. To a large extent, these campaigns successfully transformed monks and nuns, physically as well as mentally.”

The results of these efforts can still be witnessed in China today as the Party prepares for its 90th anniversary, as evidenced by this article.

Using Orwellian speech tactics, the CCP mounted an aggressive propaganda campaign to malign the intentions of America while portraying Chinese intentions as pure:

“We Buddhists uphold peace, yet America is the deadly enemy of peace. Therefore, we must reject American imperialism in order to safeguard peace… Now, the people of Korea have been severely tortured by the imperialist America; assisting Korea will safeguard not only the nation and the world, but also Buddhism.”

By using the language of the bodhisattva, the pure and good intention of the Chinese and efforts to support the underdog Korea were made palpable to a Buddhist constituency. Never mind that it was the North Koreans who started everything by invading the South and that America only ventured into the fray following the North’s aggression and near occupation of Seoul.

This chapter, “Buddhists in China during the Korean War,” is an excellent read and bit of history. But as an article to support the editors’ thesis that Buddhism in and of itself it “warlike?” Sorry, not a chance.

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