Thursday, April 25, 2013

The mindful rapper

People consider conscious rap now, in hip-hop circles, to feel condescending or feel like not a part of the mainstream. So the challenge for me is, "How do I be as good or better than these rappers out here?" and "How do I stay relevant with my music still being considered conscious?"
-- Talib Kweli

Any critique of popular culture is sure to hit on hip-hop. Mainstream hip-hop, Talib Kweli says in this excellent interview on NPR, is about "Molly. Sex, drugs. We're in our rock 'n' roll phase, you know? Sex, drugs and party, party, party." The bling, the sex, the drugs ... if you're a mindful music listener, it takes effort to find hip-hop with a message you want to listen to over and over and over, even after you take the earphones off, even when you're sitting on the meditation cushion and a beat floats up into your consciousness. (You can note it and try to move on. Yeah, right.)

Kweli has always taken a broader view. With parents who are professors of English and sociology, he has the ideal background to be a "conscious rapper," the label that's stuck to him for almost 20 years. And that could make him an anachronism.
The best MCs in the world have always — when I first came in the business — always needed to have something conscious, something dealing with the community, something uplifting, something positive. Even if the majority of the content was negative, you had to have that. And that changed over time.
So his challenge, which I submit is the the challenge we all face, is not how to be "better" than the others, but how to be relevant, fresh, in touch with what's happening culturally, and still conscious. How to share meaning, to have a positive effect, to uplift society, to be a lotus in a pit of greed, hatred, and delusion, showing other lotuses that it's possible?

How do you  do it?

Read or listen to the interview. Listen to the songs. Contemplate.

(Conscious rap is "propelled by the conviction that radical social change comes through knowledge of self and personal discovery," according to this definition, which could also be the definition of certain strands of Buddhism.)

(I will say that I think Kweli's stereotyping Macklemore, whose songs critique consumerism, support gay marriage, and talk with painful honesty about addiction, which isn't just a white, suburban problem. So contemplate the preconceptions you may bring to hip-hop, positive or negative.)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Earth bears witness

Another story of the Buddha's enlightenment, this one from Mara's viewpoint. In this story, Mara is crying out to his troops about his failure to defeat the Buddha, noting that he (Mara) has helped many people receive things, just as the Buddha is said to have done:

"And he, what proof has he given of his generosity?" continued Mara. "What sacrifices has he made? Who will bear witness to his kindness?"

Whereupon a voice came out of the earth, and it said:

"I will bear witness to his generosity."

Mara was struck dumb with astonishment. The voice continued:

"Yes, I, the Earth, I, the mother of all beings, will bear witness to his generosity. A hundred times, a thousand times, in the course of his previous existences, his hands, his eyes, his head, his whole body have been at the service of others. And in the course of this existence, which will be the last, he will destroy old age, sickness and death. As he excels you in strength, Mara, even so does he surpass you in generosity."

And the Evil One saw a woman of great beauty emerge from the earth, up to her waist. She bowed before the hero, and clasping her hands, she said: "O most holy of men, I bear witness to your generosity."

Then she disappeared.

And Mara, the Evil One, wept because he had been defeated.

The Life of Buddha, by A. Ferdinand Herold, tr. by Paul C Blum [1922], at

Be Grateful for Obstacles

Buddhist teachings recommend appreciating obstacles because they are helpful to our practice.  Without obstacles we would never develop profound understanding or compassion.  Buddhists have also frequently claimed that female rebirth is an obstacle.  If obstacles are of great benefit, shouldn’t women, who encounter more obstacles than  men, rise to the top of the hierarchy of  revered Buddhist teachers? But that has not happened.  Is this obstacle actually of benefit to women, as teachings on the helpfulness of obstacles would suggest? After practicing Buddhism for almost forty years, I have come to appreciate how much the many obstacles I faced over the years have taught me.  For a woman of my generation (born 1943), none has been greater than the limitations placed on me as a woman, both by Western culture and by Buddhism.  
-- Rita Gross on Sakyadhita: Awakening Buddhist Women 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Am I really a good person?

The Gyalwang Karmapa recently met with a private group of 300 advanced Mahamudra students and explored what it means to be an authentic Buddhist. He began his teaching by observing that it's difficult if we merely call ourselves dharma practitioners or Buddhist followers in name, without really understanding the essence of being a true Buddhist. 

"Sometimes the most important thing is to be a good person, a good human being. This is very important," he began. The Gyalwang Karmapa continued: "For example, in terms of me myself, sometimes I think I'm a real Buddhist follower or a real Buddhist student, because I was born in a Buddhist family and raised in a Buddhist environment, in a monastery. I think I'm the real sort of Buddhist practitioner or follower. But if you really think carefully about it and discover, 'Oh, maybe I'm a Buddhist practitioner or follower, but I'm not sure if I'm a good human being or not,' then that is a little bit funny.

"So maybe the point is to confront ourselves with the question: am I really a good person, a good human being? Because that is what characterizes being an authentic Buddhist." 

More (including video) here

Environmentalism is the act of a bodhisattva

"Preserving the biodiversity and the ecosystems of our region should be like the effortless practice of dharma for us. Our basic motivation to protect the environment should come from the pure desire to benefit all sentient beings on earth since without the environment, there can be no life."
-His Holiness the Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa
 Ecospirituality is grounded in the principle of interconnectedness of all spiritual traditions, of all beings, and the interdependence of all life on Earth with the planet itself. Spiritual leadership is increasingly understood as being synonymous with environmental leadership.

Buddhist leaders, in concert with leaders across a broad spectrum of other faith traditions, are challenging their community members to fully engage with the reality of climate change, fossil fuel dependency, and the suffering that results. There is a growing recognition among faith and spiritual communities that their core teachings on extending compassion apply to actively safeguarding the endangered planet that we share. Further, faith leaders are recognizing the need to prepare themselves for the inevitability that people will turn to them for guidance as climate shifts accelerate the rate of change in their lifestyles.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The rainbow self

Saying there's no self is like saying rainbows don't exist. You've seen a rainbow. Rainbows exist. But you can't touch a rainbow. A rainbow is created ... Several factors come together, and when the right conditions are present, you see a rainbow. And then conditions change and it's gone. Your self is like that.
(Thanks, Noah Levine)
National Geographic image

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Equanimity and the Final Four

What what! Isn't sports all about passion, aggression, and achieving a goal (to defeat the other team)?

Not just. How about equanimity -- holding your (metaphorical) center in the most chaotic environment imaginable?

In the barely officiated first half of last weekend's Sweet Sixteen game between the University of Connecticut and the University of Maryland, things were getting rough.

Like our meditation practice, officiating can be too tight or too loose.In too tight, officials call every ticky-tack foul, and the game moves like a snail. In too loose, the officials call almost nothing and the game gets out of control. (You can apply the metaphor to your meditation practice: how's the officiating mind calling the session?)

Seconds from the end of the half, a Maryland player undercut a UConn player who was already jumping to make a shot, a dangerous move because the person in the air has less ability to control her body. We're not cats.

The announcers were incredulous. As the half ended, they started to discuss how players deal with a badly called game. If they talk back to the ref, they get called for a foul. If they react to the aggression, they can get ejected.

"Equanimity," Doris Burke said.


"Equanimity," she repeated. She said something like, "You have to be able to stay in your center, play your game and not react."

"Equanimity," she said again. "I like saying that."

Basketball, especially as UConn plays it, is a fast game. There's set plays, but there's also unexpected bounces, slips, and crashes. You practice a lot so that your muscle memory takes over -- there's no time to think for a lot of the game. Sometimes you get to walk the ball up, to pass it around, to execute -- but then you shoot, the ball bounces, the bodies go up, and you respond.

That's where the rubber (or the chemically created rubber-like substance that's on the bottom of sneakers these days) meets the hardwood. Thousands of people watching, your coach screaming (it's UConn), bodies crashing, a game to be won, and you have to stay in your center and not lash out.

Take that metaphor into your meditation practice. Even if your thoughts are battling, even if they're crashing the boards or jumping over each others' backs to get to the prize -- your attention -- can you hold your center and rest in awareness of what's going without getting into the scrum?

Friday, April 5, 2013

Non-self interviews for a non-job

The truth of the fluidity of existence -- that nothing is permanent, solid, and independent-- shows up in the strangest ways sometimes.

Last week I had a job interview -- or interviews  (I met separately with two people). It was the second interview, so my basic credentials had put me in the final four. One of the interviewers expressed concern that I was too thoughtful and not quick enough; the other wondered whether I was thoughtful enough and said perhaps I was too speedy.

I, of course, was the same person in both interviews. But the two interviewers saw opposite things.

The job, presumably, was the same job, though each person had a different conception of it. Both described the same functions for the position but saw them in a different context.

There was no solid "Me" there. I mean, I was there, in my creative but serious interview clothing, but each person saw a different Me. And I'm sure the interviewers I saw were not the same ones that the Interviewers experienced.

Even the job was not a singular Job but was shaped by the view of the speakers.

I haven't heard from the company, but I assume that I didn't get the job -- it's been more than a week. There's an "ouch" of rejection, or non-selection; there's also an Ah of relaxation. I am fortunate to have a job that I like, and I don't want to take one I won't like just to make more money. I want it to be a job where I can be of benefit, not suffer more and create suffering.

Everything is ephemeral -- certainly jobs are in the current economy. Maybe, especially, ones at newspapers, like mine. So I will continue to be open to possibilities.

In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert's, only one, it is said. The ground of being is a fertile place.

Why I write

If you can show your mind it reminds people that they have got a mind. If you can catch yourself thinking, it reminds people they can catch themselves thinking. If you have a vivid moment that’s more open and compassionate, it reminds people that they have those vivid moments.

By showing your mind as a mirror, you can make a mirror for other people to recognize their own minds and see familiarity and not feel that their minds are unworthy of affection or appreciation. Basically, poetics is appreciation of consciousness, appreciation of our own consciousness.

-- Allen Ginsberg

The Vomit of a Mad Tyger: The Spiritual Autobiography of Allen Ginsberg

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The 'Burmese Bin Laden' and the emptiness of labels

The situation in Burma -- where Buddhist monks are accused of inciting violence against ethnic Muslims that has killed 43 people, destroyed or damaged 992 buildings, including five mosques, and displaced 12,000 people in a town of 100,000 -- is heartbreaking, not just because of the suffering but because it is perpetrated by Buddhists.

Hatred never defeats hatred, the Buddha said. Only love overcomes hate.

For those of us who study Buddhism, it's mind-boggling that practitioners -- who take the precepts to refrain from killing, to not take what is not freely offered, to not use harsh speech -- would be involved in this:

Yangon, Myanmar (CNN) -- Buddhist monks and others armed with swords and machetes Friday stalked the streets of a city in central Myanmar, where sectarian violence that has left about 20 people dead has begun to spread to other areas, according to local officials. (Read more here)

The Buddha was clear:

Whoever, with a rod, harasses an innocent man, unarmed, quickly falls into any of ten things: harsh pains, devastation, a broken body, grave illness, mental derangement, trouble with the government, violent slander, relatives lost, property dissolved, houses burned down. At the break-up of the body this one with no disconcernment, reappears in hell.
- Dhammapada, 137-140

Time reported Tuesday that sources say Muslims are terrified to go out after dark and are not able to visit the town’s market to trade or collect supplies. The report goes on to say that monks have "unparalleled moral authority in traditional Burmese society." Various news reports say the unrest has been spurred by Ven. Wirathu, an outspoken monk who was jailed in 2003 for inciting religious clashes in the northern city of Mandalay. He's called himself “the Burmese bin Laden” in reference to the jihadi leader Osama bin Laden’s religious fervor, despite his hatred of all things Islamic, and is the leader of a movement known as 969. The 45-year-old posted an inflammatory speech online last week that warned “once these evil Muslims have control and authority over us, they will not let us practice our religion” and accused Muslims of accumulating “money to get our young Buddhist women.”

None of this is consistent with any Buddhist teachings that I've learned about. How is it possible that a Buddhist monk could lead a deadly campaign of hatred? How is it possible that Buddhists would follow him?

An opinion piece in the Irrawaddy, a news site that covers southeast Asia, says:

To the campaigners, 969 is about protecting race and religion by peaceful means. In practice, it is explicitly an anti-Muslim campaign, not about preaching people the Buddha-nature of all beings, as taught and practiced by Lord Buddha himself. In many townships across Burma, including capital regions, there are local 969 committees that organize events and religious sermons and distribute anti-Muslim materials such as CDs, books and leaflets.
The 969 campaign targets economic aspects by alleging that Muslims are dominating the Burmese economy, and that therefore Buddhists must not trade with Muslims. Instead, the campaigners recommend that Buddhists buy and sell at Buddhist shops that display 969 signs and stickers. In Karen State, Buddhists are even forced to trade only with Buddhists. There are local reports about Buddhists being beaten by members of 969 civilians and monks for trading with Muslims.

Obviously there are political and socio-economic aspects that I don't know. Burma, or Mayamar, is in the process of emerging from years of military rule. I know that I don't know the nuances of the situation. But I do know that this is not what Buddhism teaches.

Psychologist Jeffrey Rubin wrote a post on the Interdependence Project blog about how sex scandals involving Buddhist teachers develop. Maybe this is similar, just on a larger societal scale. A deluded person who stops seeing his lust for power, a population that wants to be handed a way out.

ETA: Meanwhile The Saffron Monk Network issued a statement warning the public not to take part in any violent events following the riots between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Meikhtila town last week. Ashin Awbartha (Nagar) from Shwewayoung Pyinyardana monastery, a member of the Saffron Monk Network, told Karen News that the intention is to to keep innocent people out of riots like those that happened in Meikhtila.
The Saffron Monk Network’s statement said that it is sad to see religion and ethnic based issues used to stimulate and create conflicts. The statement also warned that the violence could set back the country and lead to loss of support from the international community.

To read more:

Burmese Neo-Nazi Movement Rising Against Muslims

Burmese Monk fomenting violence against Muslims

Saffron monks stalk streets with machetes

Burmese Bin Laden: Is Buddhist Monk Behind Violence in Myanmar?

Another CNN story:

Burma's monks calls for Muslims to be shunned