Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Humble need not mean downtrodden

There's always a fine line in a tradition that teaches you to work with your own perceptions and to welcome difficulty as fodder for practice between self-effacing and self-erasing, between sering others and failing to care for yourself.

I admire Buddhist nuns, who cheerfully sit at the back of the room and stand at the end of the food line, for their deep sense that they are serving all beings by serving the male monks. Yet, as they in a culture and institutions shaped by patriarchy, I wonder if others care for them in the same way. (OK, mostly I don't wonder; I see that they don't.)

Karma Lekshe Tsomo is the president of Sakyadhita ("Daughters of the Buddha"), the most important international association of Buddhist women, and of Jamyang Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the education of Himalayan women. She was the first person, in the late 1970s, to advocate for education and better conditions for Buddhist nuns. 

"They're telling the nuns, 'Oh, you're so humble, you're not interested in gaining prestige and power like these Westerners,'" Lekshe says with a calm voice but a quizzical look. "Well, I just wonder why they are not telling the monks that. If women are perpetually disadvantaged, this is what you end up with. Surveys show that the nuns' health is by far the worst of any group. Their educational standards are by far the worst too. There is a lot of work to be done, and awareness raising, especially among women."

Michaela Hass, who's written a forthcoming book on women in Buddhism, talked to Lekshe in this article for the Huffington Post called "The F Word in Buddhism: 'Daughters of the Buddha' Discuss How Buddhist Women Can Achieve Equality."

What is holding women back? Hass writes:
"Sexism," Lekshe candidly sums it up. She is not afraid to use the F-word. "Feminism," she says, delivering the punch line with a coy smile, "has been called the radical theory that women are completely human." The gender imbalance affects Buddhist women worldwide. "We are talking about more than 300 million women dedicated to peace, honesty, loving-kindness and compassion. Certainly we would want to optimize the talents and potential of these wonderful women." In the West, more and more teachers recognize this potential, but "women have almost no voice in Asian Buddhist institutions. For women to move into positions of leadership, they need to be fully educated and trained."

I'm currently reading "Buddhism After Patriarchy" by Rita Gross. The Buddha was radical for his time and place because he taught the same things to women and men. Gender-based discrimination seems largely to have been added by subsequent patriarchal cultures. It's time to care for -- and listen to -- the  nuns.
The Mandala Dance of the 21 Praises of Tara at the Sakyadhita conference

Friday, February 22, 2013

Enlightened society?

At this time a year ago I was participating in Enlightened Society Assembly, a program in the Shambhala tradition. One of the things I love about the Shambhala teachings is that enlightened society is possible -- that not only individuals beings can wake up but that they can be part of awakened communities. Shambhala, after all, is named for the possibly mythical kingdom where people practice what they teach.

A lot of the discussion at that retreat focused on the idea of enlightened society -- What would it look like? How would it feel to live there? What would guide interactions? Decisions? Some participants had a lot of questions and skepticism.

I had a sense that enlightened society could happen. If you take society back to its roots, to people forming communities for mutual benefit, to two people working cooperatively, it seemed that society was, as is said in Shambhala, basically good. It reminded me of a quote from St. Paul in the Bible: Wherever two or more of you are gathered in His name, there is love. And if a society is built on the practice of love, rather than fear, greed, or competition, it feels like awakenment is possible.

In the last few months, though, the idea that any society on this planet could become enlightened -- or is enlightened, at its most basic level -- has come to seem like a cruel joke. My  heart broke into smaller and smaller pieces: Gang rape in India. Twenty-eight dead people in Newtown. Movie-goers killed. Bitter, divisive political rhetoric. Heartless institutions who make health-care decisions that cause people, including some dear friends, to suffer. Oppression and obliteration of Tibetan people and culture.

Because, when you look closely, all of those events that seem like outliers are only the extreme end of widely accepted cultural factors that we've learned to live with or deny. If the India culture tolerates or promotes objectification/dehumanization of women, what does our culture do with its cosmetic ads, rom-com movies, TV shows, swim suit issues? Twenty-eight dead at an elementary school -- and how many kids in big cities never make it out of high school because they die one at a time in gang- or drug-related shootings? Can we talk about oppression of native populations? How many times has Urban Outfitters had to recall clothing that offends some group? Who buys that? We do.

I wrote about the recent report of a Zen Witnessing Council that found compelling evidence that a teacher had sexually abused female students for 50 years -- and that many in the community were aware of his actions and either excused them or ignored them.

That's what saddens me most of all -- the complicity of communities. There always will be people whose ego or delusion or confusion, mental, physical, or chemical, causes them to act in ways that harm others. We cannot prevent every incidence of that happening, and we can't measure our progress by that. But we can and should look at the baseline it arises from. Was their action really unspeakable? Or was it just a more-dramatic expression of a common condition?

Sometimes I think that all institutions -- and lately, I see society as an institution, not an energy -- are built on power and domination, on dualism, on subjugation. Maybe the only was to create enlightened society is to get to that post-apocalyptic, Mad Max state -- and start again.

Buddhism has taught me that we can always start again, fresh and new, in every moment. Each breath is a new breath. Every perception can be seen with fresh eyes. Every interaction can take place between humans rather than stereotypes. If I come to situations as an open-hearted being whose defenses aren't up, there's nothing to attack.

Will that save the world? No. But nothing else will.

Think of a spaceship headed toward a distant star. Even a slight change in course, even a 1-degree change in direction, will -- over the long haul -- completely change the destination. The work we do won't stop sexual assault or murder or oppression. But it will move us toward a future where that is possible. And that is the work we do.

Buddhism and society

In the three-yana system of Buddhism, it's taught that the focus moves from liberation of the individual (the hinyana, or lesser vehicle) to the bodhisattva ideal of liberation of all beings (The mahayana, or great vehicle, and vajrayana, or diamond/indstructible vehicle, which uses different methods but the same ideas as the mahayana). Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche talked about a fourth yana, the kalapayana, or imperial vehicle, seemingly the liberation of society.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the head of Shambhala and son of Trungpa Rinpoche, has made Enlightened Society his focus in recent years. As a Shambhala students, I've wrestled with this idea a lot since attending the Enlightened Society Assembly retreat a year ago.

I've struggled with the question of whether society can be enlightened, whether society has basic goodness or buddhanature. It's a struggle because society has not existence of its own, that I can see; it's constructed by the people who are in it. If it's built by confusion and delusion, is the society then essentially confused and deluded? Does it perpetrate that? Societies -- and their institutions -- do take on a life of their own over time. They have an energy, a culture that sets expectations for how people should be treated, what behavior is in line with the larger values and mores.

In theory, enlightened society -- with social institutions that are an expression of basic goodness -- is possible. But it depends on those who create it. Both David Loy and Ven. Bikkhu Bodhi, two prominent Buddhist teachers, argue that in modern society the “three poisons” of greed, aggression, and delusion, outlined by the Buddha as obstacles to our awakening, have become institutionalized in the economic system, militarism, and the media.

From maverickinvestors.com
Loy in October sent a letter to William George, who he describes as George is "an important figure in the 'mindfulness in business' movement, as well as ... a professor in Harvard’s MBA program. George has written some influential books that emphasize the importance of ethics and mindfulness in the marketplace, while serving on the boards of Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil, and Medtronic, companies not known for behaving in mindful ways.

In  his letter to George, Loy wrote:
I do not know how your meditation practice has affected your personal life, nor, for that matter, what type of meditation or mindfulness you practice. Given your unique position, my questions are: how has your practice influenced your understanding of the social responsibility of large corporations such as Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil? And what effects has your practice had personally on your advisory role within those corporations?

Loy goes on to outline Goldman Sachs' major role in the economic crisis and charges of a "txic environment" in the company's offices, Exxon Mobil's effect on the environment its position on global warming, and asks:

I would like to learn how, in the light of your meditation practice, you understand the relationship between one’s own personal transformation and the kind of economic and social transformation that appears to be necessary today, if we are to survive and thrive during the next few critical centuries. How does your concern for future generations express itself in your activities as a board member of these corporations (among others)? Are you yourself skeptical about global warming? If not, how do you square that with your role at ExxonMobil?

In the introduction to his letter  posted on The Buddhist Peace Fellowship's website, Loy writes:

The basic problem, it seems to me, is that one can be well-intentioned and yet play an objectionable role in an economic system that has become unjust and unsustainable – in fact, a challenge to the well-being of all life on this planet. ... I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that today the traditional “three poisons” of greed, aggression, and delusion, have become institutionalized as our economic system, militarism, and the media. If so, what does that imply for our engaged Buddhist practice?
Ven. Bikkhu Bodi, founder of Buddhist Global Relief

Ven. Bikkhu Bodhi address that same question in an interview with Religion Dispatches, an online magazine. You should read it; it has an abudnace of good stuff. He describes how his own practice moved from personal transformation to social justice, hw he became convinced that it is "necessary to translate such values as loving-kindness and compassion into concrete action in order to reduce the socially-created suffering that so many people today, less fortunate than ourselves, must face as a daily ordeal.

He talks about attending a conference on Engaged Buddhism, the term often used to describe Buddhist practice in the world, rather than on the cushion. Bodhi writes:

At the Conference on Engaged Buddhism the participants could be seen to fall roughly into two camps: a majority camp, made up of those who accepted the present structures of society and sought to use Buddhist teachings to enable people to function more effectively and peacefully within its contours; and a minority camp, made up of those who sought to draw from the Dharma a radical critique of the dominant social ethos and its institutions.

I would put myself in the latter camp. But I could see that, absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.
Like Loy, he says that the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion are now manifested in social institutions:
Social systems and institutions molded by greed, hatred, and delusion have become so pervasive in their reach that they deeply impact the destinies of whole populations, both nationally and globally. Greed, hatred, and delusion thus generate suffering not merely as factors in individual minds but also in their systemic and institutional embodiments.

For this reason, a solution to the problem of suffering requires that its roots be extricated at multiple levels, including those collective levels touched only distantly by classical Buddhism. This would entail developing a keen diagnosis of how these defilements produce collective suffering, and how we can adopt alternative ways of living that would mitigate their harmful impact.
Issues such as climate change, social injustice, and glaring economic inequality "are moral issues as much as political ones," he says, and that Buddhists and Buddhist teachers have a moral responsibility to speak out on them. To avoid addressing those issues out of fear of “tainting the Dharma,” or “mixing up spirituality with worldly affairs,” is "reneging on (the) obligation" to illuminate these problems from a Buddhist moral perspective. He cautions, however, that "it degrades the dignity of the Dharma for Buddhist leaders, in their role as Buddhist leaders, to become embroiled in partisan politics, that is, to align themselves and their organizations with a particular political party or campaign for a specific candidate."

Most of us don't sit on the boards of multinational corporations. But we do buy products, vote, and act within societies. If we are truly practicing Buddhism, we have to do those things in mindful ways. Mindfulness that isn't linked to action is nothing more than self-help. You might as well buy some $1,000 meditation pants and expect them to take you to enlightenment, no matter what you do in them.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Meditative art

Excerpted From The Nation:

Fashion photographer and avid dharma practitioner Punsiri Siriwetchapun believes there is little difference between working on his art and meditation.

"The teaching of Lord Buddha seeks to achieve the cessation of suffering. The way to undo suffering is to explore the causes as they manifest themselves in our own bodies and minds in order to understand their origins. It's the same with my art. I search within myself to convey my thoughts. My art presents my inner self," says Punsiri who has been practising dharma for more than a decade.

Punsiri has teamed up with three fellow artists for the devotional exhibition "No Absolute Truth in the Universe" at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.

"Many people think that dharma practice is limited to the temple. I think meditation can be done everywhere, so I dress my sculptures in the costumes of everyday life," explains one of the artists.

Like the practise of dharma itself, this exhibition is best appreciated through personal experience

For more details, visit www.BACC.or.th.

What is real in a virtual world?

Users of Second Life develop an avatar for the virtual world. Buddhists who use Second Life develop their avatar and can participate in religious events, such as group meditation sessions in virtual temples. The virtual temples replicate real-world temples and include a large Buddha statue, Falcone said. Avatars walk in the temple, collect their cushions and sit with other avatars to meditate. "I want to understand why this is happening in a virtual space," Falcone said. "For some Buddhists, they may be living in an area without a Buddhist community and this may be the only place where they can practice their religion with other people. It is a way for them to come together and listen to teachings or to do group meditation sessions, even though it may not be possible in real life." For other Buddhists, the virtual religious world complements their real-life practices, Falcone said.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-01-buddhism-life-anthropologist-spirituality-virtual.html#jCp
Users of Second Life develop an avatar for the virtual world. Buddhists who use Second Life develop their avatar and can participate in religious events, such as group meditation sessions in virtual temples. The virtual temples replicate real-world temples and include a large Buddha statue, Falcone said. Avatars walk in the temple, collect their cushions and sit with other avatars to meditate. "I want to understand why this is happening in a virtual space," Falcone said. "For some Buddhists, they may be living in an area without a Buddhist community and this may be the only place where they can practice their religion with other people. It is a way for them to come together and listen to teachings or to do group meditation sessions, even though it may not be possible in real life." For other Buddhists, the virtual religious world complements their real-life practices, Falcone said.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-01-buddhism-life-anthropologist-spirituality-virtual.html#jCp
Users of Second Life develop an avatar for the virtual world. Buddhists who use Second Life develop their avatar and can participate in religious events, such as group meditation sessions in virtual temples. The virtual temples replicate real-world temples and include a large Buddha statue, Falcone said. Avatars walk in the temple, collect their cushions and sit with other avatars to meditate. "I want to understand why this is happening in a virtual space," Falcone said. "For some Buddhists, they may be living in an area without a Buddhist community and this may be the only place where they can practice their religion with other people. It is a way for them to come together and listen to teachings or to do group meditation sessions, even though it may not be possible in real life." For other Buddhists, the virtual religious world complements their real-life practices, Falcone said.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-01-buddhism-life-anthropologist-spirituality-virtual.html#jCp
On Valentine's Day, Facebook asked me if I wanted to send my spouse "a real  Facebook gift." What does that mean? I asked myself (and then my Facebook friends). Does a "real" Facebook gift exist offline, ie IRL? Or is it only "real" on Facebook?

What is real anyway?

Philosopher Nick Bostrum asked in a 2003 article: “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” He didn't give a definitive yes, but he logicked out that it could not be disproved.

What is real anyway?

Are we simply avatars manipulated by some future user? And if we are, what does that mean for our avatars?

What is real anyway?

This week, in the Fearless Mind class at the Interdependence Project, Ethan Nichtern talked about the mind-only school of Buddhism, which proposes that the mind is a projector and reality is the projected.

 There are several directions that this post could go; most of them would end up in a hopeless muddle since these questions largely defy words for me. What got me started, in any case, was an article of Buddhism in Second Life, an online virtual world.

Buddhism, you see, is flourishing in virtual reality,

Jessica Falcone, a Kansas State University assistant professor of sociology, anthropology, and social work, studies South Asian cultures and religion. She's currently looking at Buddhism and Buddhist holy objects in Second Life. In Second Life, users develop an avatar and can participate in group events such as meditation sessions in virtual temples that replicate physical-world spaces.

"I want to understand why this is happening in a virtual space," Falcone said. "For some Buddhists, they may be living in an area without a Buddhist community and this may be the only place where they can practice their religion with other people. It is a way for them to come together and listen to teachings or to do group meditation sessions, even though it may not be possible in real life."

Other Buddhists, she says, may have communities -- called sangha -- that they practice with but may supplement that with a virtual sangha that's always accessible, on lunch breaks or evenings when their physical center is closed.
 "It is interesting to me and fascinating as an anthropologist that we are replicating some of our cultures in these virtual spaces," Falcone said. "For the Buddhist groups in particular, it seems there is a real effort to replicate their real-life practices, rather than innovate them. There is not much interest in doing experimental practices or trying new things because it is a virtual world." 
There's a tension in contemporary Buddhism between preserving tradition and adapting to current culture. There's a tension between Buddhists who value eastern traditions and those who seek to strip the teachings down to bare-bones, removing the trappings of ancient societies.

It's interesting that a tradition that values direct experience and pure perception finds a home in virtual reality. But then, it's a tradition that says everything is empty -- even emptiness. Study and practice is a good thing, and all dharmas come together at one point, whatever reality you're in.

Ethan Nichtern gave a talk at the Buddhist Geeks conference called The Internet is Not Your Teacher. Talking about studying via the Internet, he said, "If you want to become a sane and decent human being ... that’s something you only learn from other human beings."

While there's nothing like a live sangha -- I treasure my weekly meditation group for the chance to rest in the energy we raise -- there are live people in the electronic ether. And connecting with them can be a tremendous support for your practice.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Was This Teaching?

Joshu Sasaki Roshi was sent to the United States in the early 1960s by the largest Rinzai temple in Japan in response to a request by a community of southern Californian  Buddhists who were seeking a teacher. He became a prominent teacher in US, helping to found more than 25 Zen centers and retreat centers in his more than 50 years of teaching in the West.

One of Sasaki Roshi's Retreat centers.(Albuquerque Journal)
And he sexually abused female students in New Mexico and California for more than 50 years under the guise of Zen teachings, an independent commission of Zen teachers who functioned as a Witnessing Council has concluded. The allegations against the 105-year-old teacher range from charges that he fondled adult female students' breasts to sexual intercourse during one-on-one study sessions over many year,  according to reports on the website Sweeping Zen, which brought the matter to public view; the Albuquerque Journal ("A Zen 'Master' Molested students in N.M.), and the New York Times ("Zen Groups Distressed by Allegations Against Teacher"). You can read the details at any of those sites.

Allegations of misconduct have been made since the 1960s, but were covered up.

In its report released in January, the Witnessing Council said.

The Rinzai-ji community of practitioners has struggled with our teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi’s sexual misconduct for a significant portion of his career in the United States. Senior members of our community have made several earnest and serious attempts over the years to correct this problem. Ultimately, these attempts failed. Our hearts were not firm enough, our minds were not clear enough, and our practices were not strong enough so that we might persist until the problem was resolved. We fully acknowledge now, without any reservation, and with the heaviest of hearts, that because of our failure to address our teacher’s sexual misconduct, women and also men have been hurt, women and men who trusted us with their Zen practices, and whose trust we failed to honor in a fundamental way.
Sasaki's female students told the council and the Times that the sexual misconduct was presented as part of his teachings. The Times reports that one women who studied with Sasaki  from 2003 to 2006 said he would "fondle her breasts during sanzen, or private meeting; he also asked her to massage his penis. She would wonder, she said, “Was this teaching?” 
Joshu Sasaki Roshi

 Sexual contact without clear consent is not teaching, it's sexual abuse -- which is not about desire or attraction or temptation; it's about power and domination. It is wrong, without question, when it is instigated by a person in a position of power or authority.

The Times says this raises issues for western students of Buddhism. Zen and Tibetan Buddhism exalt the relationship between the teacher and student. Students are encouraged to be devoted to their teachers, with whom they have a special bond. One of the members of the Witnessing Council, Grace Schireson, told the Times that Zen Buddhists in the United States have misinterpreted a Japanese philosophy. 

“Because of their long history with Zen practice, people in Japan have some skepticism about priests,” Schireson said. But in the United States many proponents have a “devotion to the guru or the teacher in a way that could repress our common sense and emotional intelligence.” 

There's a shift here that makes me uncomfortable. Like critics who blame women who are sexually assaulted for wearing provocative clothes or being out late at night or being in the wrong place, it focuses on the victim -- the person with less power -- rather than the perpetrator. In the aftermath of recent gang rapes in India, the Internet was alive with commentators asking why we don't expect men to control their own behavior instead of teaching women not to provoke men.

One monk who spoke to the Times said he first became aware of allegations against Sasaki in the 1980s. “There have been efforts in the past to address this with him,” he said. “Basically, they haven’t been able to go anywhere.” 

He added: “What’s important and is overlooked is that, besides this aspect, Roshi was a commanding and inspiring figure using Buddhist practice to help thousands find more peace, clarity and happiness in their own lives. It seems to be the kind of thing that, you get the person as a whole, good and bad, just like you marry somebody and you get their strengths and wonderful qualities as well as their weaknesses.”
Is this an equation? Do good actions balance abuse of power? Do we accept behavior from a Roshi that we would condemn in someone without a title? Should there be a different standard for Buddhist teachers? Ask yourself that question without the word Buddhist: Should teachers be allowed to sexually abuse their students?

The same day I read these stories, I read a completely unrelated blog post about the veneration of eastern traditions in Buddhism. As it moved throughout Asia, Buddhism adapted and evolved, with distinct differences between Buddhism in Burma, Tibet, Japan, and China. Yet in the west, we cling to traditions not our own rather than creating western Buddhism.

One thing that I think is essential is a code of conduct for teachers within organizations. I'd assume that the precepts would cover it, but that seems not to be the case. I like the ethics code* used by the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, one of the few organizations that spells things out.

When teachers are above question or reproach, they and their students are at risk.

Leslie Linthicum, whose husband was a longtime and devoted student of Sasaki's but who is not a Buddhist herself, offers perspective and important questions to contemplate:

If we ignore the harm done by others (so convenient), are we also practicing harm?
If we’ve hidden some of the truth, isn’t that the same as lying?
If we put the teacher before all else, have we really learned anything? If the teacher allows that, does he have any business calling himself a teacher?
What stories do we tell to let ourselves off the hook?
*ATS ethics code for teachers:
4) We undertake the precept of refraining from sexual misconduct.
We agree to avoid creating harm through sexuality and to avoid sexual exploitation or relationships of a sexual manner that are outside of the bounds of the relationship commitments we have made to another or that involve another who has made vows to another. Teachers with vows of celibacy will live according to their vows. Teachers in committed relationships will honor their vows and refrain from adultery. All teachers agree not to use their teaching role to exploit their authority and position in order to assume a sexual relationship with a student.

We acknowledge that a healthy relationship with a former student can be possible, but that great care and sensitivity are needed. We agree that in this case the following guidelines are crucial.

a) A sexual relationship is never appropriate between teachers and students.

b) During retreats or formal teaching, any intimation of future student-teacher romantic or sexual relationship is inappropriate.
c) If interest in a genuine and committed relationship develops over time between a single teacher and a student, the student-teacher relationship must clearly and consciously have ended before any further development toward a romantic relationship. Such a relationship must be approached with restraint and sensitivity – in no case should it occur immediately after retreat. A minimum time period of three months or longer from the last formal teaching between them, and a clear understanding from both parties that the student-teacher relationship has ended must be coupled with a conscious commitment to enter into a relationship that brings no harm to either party.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Remember Weebles -- the children’s toy with the slogan “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down”? Small, round, sort-of-human figures, they had a curved – but weighted—base so that young children could push them over, and they would spring back up. My friend, Ven. Lawrence Do’an Grecco, a Zen monk, sometimes brings Weebles to illustrate his talks on equanimity, the quality that allows you to roll back up when you get knocked down, whether by ill fortune or giddy joy.
Shinzen Young, a secular Buddhist, says that the word equanimity comes from the Latin word aequus, meaning balanced, and animus, meaning spirit or inner state. So it means a balanced inner state.
Shinzen, who takes a scientific approach to Buddhist teachings, offers a number of physical analogies for equanimity:

 Reducing friction in a mechanical system.
 Reducing viscosity in a hydrodynamic system
 Reducing resistance in a DC circuit
 Reducing impedance in an AC circuit
 Reducing stiffness in a spring.

When we have equanimity, he says, emotions flow through us, rather than getting stuck, which allows us to be with them without getting obsessed or fixated.
More poetically, Gil Fronsdal describes equanimity as “one of the most sublime emotions of Buddhist practice. It is the ground for wisdom and freedom and the protector of compassion and love. While some may think of equanimity as dry neutrality or cool aloofness, mature equanimity produces a radiance and warmth of being. The Buddha described a mind filled with equanimity as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility, and without ill-will.”
Fronsdal says there are two Pali words that are often translated as equanimity, which reveal two aspects of it. (Pali is the language of the earliest Buddhist texts).
The first is upekkha, meaning “to look over.” It refers to the equanimity that arises from the power of observation, the ability to see without being caught by what we see. When well-developed, such power gives rise to a great sense of peace. It’s also translated as “to see with patience,” such as when we listen to criticism without getting defensive, or “grandmotherly love.”
The second meaning is literally “to stand in the middle of all this.” Fronsdal says that “being in the middle” refers to balance, to remaining centered in the middle of whatever is happening. This balance comes from inner strength or stability. The strong presence of inner calm, well-being, confidence, vitality, or integrity can keep us upright, like a ballast keeps a ship upright in strong winds. As inner strength develops, equanimity follows.”
Equanimity works with what the Buddha called the Eight Worldly Winds. They’re four pairs of states that represent the extreme points of a pendulum’s swing: Praise and blame, fame and ill-repute, success and failure, pleasure and pain. Often we classify our experiences as one or the other. We rarely sit exactly in between them – but that’s where equanimity (and sanity) lie.
My guess is that we can all agree this sounds like a good thing. It’s the eye of the storm, the ability to keep your head when everyone else is losing theirs.
Buddhism is a practical path, so how do we get there?
To some degree, equanimity is what’s known as a fruitional quality – the result of other practices. It is the fourth of the Four Brahma Viharas, or immeasurable states, and said to be the most difficult to attain. To dwell in equanimity, you have to accept impermanence and emptiness – the current situation, whatever it is, will not last. Nor will it define us. Emptiness says that states of being (and beings) are not solid, permanent, or independent. We change in response to circumstances; we adapt; we persevere. Life goes on.
We lose equanimity, and resilience, when we think that a situation has to be a certain way to be acceptable, that we can’t go on without whatever thing or circumstance we think is necessary. Then we suffer. If we can be flexible and work with what we have rather than insisting that things be a certain way, we can come back into balance.

We can experience this in meditation. When we lose concentration and get distracted, we come back. When the room is too hot or too cold, too loud, too quiet, with too many people or not enough, we watch thoughts arise and pass, pains arise and diminish, and emotions move through our minds like clouds across the sky. The sky is there no matter what is front of it – and when the clouds move or the storm clears or the bright sun sets, there it is. It doesn’t come back; it was always there, just obscured. Equanimity is always there; we just have to cultivate it and learn to access it.
Shinzen Young suggest specific ways to create equanimity in your mind and body in meditation:
Let's say that you have a strong sensation in one part of your body. As you focus attention on what is happening over your whole body, you notice that you are tensing your jaw, clenching your fists, tightening your gut, and squnching your shoulders. Each time you become aware of tensing in some area, you intentionally relax it to whatever degree possible. A moment later you may notice that the tensing has started again in some area; once again gently relax it to whatever
degree possible. If there are areas that cannot be relaxed much or at all, you try to accept the tension sensations and just observe them.
As a result of maintaining this whole-body relaxed state, you may begin to notice subtle flavors of sensation spreading from the local area of intensity and coursing through your body. These are the sensations that you had been masking by tension. Now that they have been uncovered, try to create a mental attitude of welcoming them, not judging them. Observe them with gentle matter-of-factness, giving them permission to dance their dance, to flow as they wish through your body.
He also suggests we notice when we spontaneously fall into equanimity. By
becoming familiar with it, we can extend it.
Pema Chodron says the traditional image for equanimity is a banquet to which everyone is invited. “Training in equanimity is learning to open the door to all ... inviting life to come visit,” she writes.

To cultivate equanimity, we practice catching ourselves when we feel attraction or aversion, before it hardens into grasping or negativity. She suggests training in equanimity by walking down the sidewalk, or through the mall, and noticing our feelings about each person we pass. We can use those feelings to develop empathy and compassion. Does that person look crabby? Sometimes I’m crabby too – can I make a mental wish for them to be happy? Do they look friendly? What feelings come up in us?
“When we have a feeling of spaciousness and ease that’s not caught up in preference or prejudice, that’s equanimity,” she says.
Traditionally, equanimity is developed by cultivating the seven factors that support it. Fronsdal describes them this way:
-- The first is virtue or integrity. When we live and act with integrity, we feel confident about our actions and words, which results in the equanimity of blamelessness. The ancient Buddhist texts speak of being able to go into any assembly of people and feel blameless.
--The second support for equanimity is the sense of assurance that comes from faith. While any kind of faith can provide equanimity, faith grounded in wisdom is especially powerful. The Pali word for faith, saddha, is also translated as conviction or confidence. If we have confidence, for example, in our ability to engage in a spiritual practice, then we are more likely to meet its challenges with equanimity.
--The third support is a well-developed mind. Much as we might develop physical strength, balance, and stability of the body in a gym, so too can we develop strength, balance and stability of the mind. This is done through practices that
cultivate calm, concentration and mindfulness. When the mind is calm, we are less likely to be blown about by the worldly winds.
--The fourth support is a sense of well-being. We do not need to leave well-being to chance. In Buddhism, it is considered appropriate and helpful to cultivate and enhance our well-being. We often overlook the well-being that is easily available in daily life. Even taking time to enjoy one’s tea or the sunset can be a training in well-being.
--The fifth support for equanimity is understanding or wisdom. Wisdom is an important factor in learning to have an accepting awareness, to be present for whatever is happening without the mind or heart contracting or resisting. Wisdom can teach us to separate people’s actions from who they are. We can agree or disagree with their actions, but remain balanced in our relationship with them. We can also understand that our own thoughts and impulses are the result of impersonal conditions. By not taking them so personally, we are more likely to stay at ease with their arising.
Another way wisdom supports equanimity is in understanding that people are responsible for their own decisions, which helps us to find equanimity in the face of other people’s suffering. We can wish the best for them, but we avoid being buffeted by a false sense of responsibility for their well-being.
One of the most powerful ways to use wisdom to facilitate equanimity is to be mindful of when equanimity is absent. Honest awareness of what makes us imbalanced helps us to learn how to find balance.
--The sixth support is insight, a deep seeing into the nature of things as they are. One of the primary insights is the nature of impermanence. In the deepest forms of this insight, we see that things change so quickly that we can’t hold onto anything, and eventually the mind lets go of clinging. Letting go brings equanimity; the greater the letting go, the deeper the equanimity.
--The final support is freedom, which comes as we begin to let go of our reactive tendencies. We can get a taste of what this means by noticing areas in which we were once reactive but are no longer. For example, some issues that upset us when we were teenagers prompt no reaction at all now that we are adults. In Buddhist practice, we work to expand the range of life experiences in which we are free.
Shinzen says:
Equanimity belies the adage that you cannot “have your cake and eat it too.” When you apply equanimity to unpleasant sensations, they flow more readily and as a result cause less suffering. When you apply equanimity to pleasant sensations, they also flow more readily and as a result deliver deeper fulfillment.

Shinzen Young, What is Equanimity?
Gil Fronsdal, Equanimity
Pema Chodron, The Places that Scare You: A guide to fearlessness in difficult times

Friday, February 1, 2013

Social media and secret practices

If you're my friend on Facebook, you know that I share a lot of links. I think of Facebook as a community bulletin board or an envelope of newspaper and magazines clippings that I want to send off to my friends. Here's a bunch of stuff I think is interesting or cute or need-to-know. Maybe you'll think so too.

A large part of what I share is related to Buddhism. (The rest has to do with feminism, grammar, cats, and food. Some music.) So I was interested when I saw Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse's "Social Media Guidelines for So-Called Vajrayana Students" posted on his Facebook page. He's speaking to students in a particular tradition, the Vajrayana path, but his suggestions raise interesting points for all practitioners.

Basically, it boils down to: Don't talk about your practice. Don't post images of deities, don't post your mantra (won't count toward your 100,000 repetitions), don't talk about your teacher or your practices and empowerments. He writes: "If you think images from your weekend Vajrayana empowerment are worthy of being posted up next to photos of your cat on Facebook, you should send your cat to Nepal for enthronement."

Guess he didn't recall that the Buddha said sarcasm is not skillful speech. But the Buddha didn't say anything about the Vajrayana, actually. Some say he taught vajrayana practices, but since they were secret, between him and specific students, they didn't become known until later (third to eighth century). Others say they grew from non-Buddhist traditions, particularly Indian Tantras and Bon practices in Tibet.

Vajrayana practices, he says, are secret "to protect the practitioner from the pitfalls and downfalls that ego can bring to the practice. In particular, practitioners tend to fall prey to 'spiritual materialism,' where their practice becomes just another fashion statement intended to adorn their egos and make them feel important, or have them feel that they’re part of a ‘cool’ social tribe, rather than to tame and transform their minds."

Putting aside the secrecy aspect, Khyentse raises some good points. I share quotes (with and without photos of cats) on Facebook because they touch something in me and may do so for others. It only takes one idea that catches our attention to launch a deeper look at the dharma. Or maybe it takes seeing a dozen quotes that resonate and realizing they're all from the same source. For those of us who aren't dharma brats, something had to arouse our interest.

And my teacher, Ethan Nichtern, has noted that many formerly secret practices are available to anyone on the Internet. If it's out in the public, those with some understanding have some responsibility to it. Vajrayana practices can seem pretty bizarre.

But I also feel strongly that the dharma should be respected and protected. There's a depth of understanding that comes from practice, from working with things over time. It's also interesting to go back over things you were introduced to earlier and see how it's different when you've practiced more and gained perspective.

And I worry about the dharma being trivialized or reduced to a buzzword -- mindfulness, comes to mind -- and practice turning into three breaths and a mala on your wrist. Khyentse offers an important observation for all practitioners:

Trying to impress others with your practice is not part of the practice.

For practitioners, it means examining our intention. Are we hoping to impress? To sound authoritative? To win an argument? To appear farther along the path than another? To have secret knowledge? To have achieved something? To be worthy of praise? If the motive is connected with ego, it's likely not skillful. Who benefits from what you share?

Here are more of the guidelines:

-- Don’t attempt to share your so-called wisdom: If you think receiving profound teachings gives you license to proclaim them, you will probably only display your ignorance. Before you “share” a quote from the Buddha or from any of your teachers, take a moment to think if they really said those words, and who the audience was meant to be.

-- Don’t confuse Buddhism with non-Buddhist ideas: No matter how inspired you might be of rainbows and orbs, and how convinced you are about the end of the world, try not to mix your own fantasies/idiosyncracies with Buddhism.

-- Respect others. If you think attacking other buddhists will improve Buddhism, do a service for Buddhism, take aim at your own ego and biasedness instead.

-- Don’t create disharmony: Try to be the one who brings harmony into the sangha community with your online chatter instead of trouble and disputes.