Friday, November 29, 2013

At the crossroads of Buddhism and feminism

I am a feminist. And a Buddhist. If I were to make a Venn diagram of my identities these two would
have a lot of overlap. I think of identities, though, as a collection of translucent discs, floating in a viscous space, moving deliberately through the thickness of reality. Various identities line up or overlap -- mother sister daughter wife boss employee teacher student feminist Buddhist smartass observer -- for some space, then slide off.

These two, though, hang together. Both ask me to question whether the identities are inherent or assigned, whether the contrails of expected behaviors and beliefs are mine, arrived at through experience, or cultural, created by external entities.

Sometimes they align, when I look for the truth of who I am -- and discover that it is pure potential. The limits are not inherent. The limits are constructs.

Sometimes there's friction, like when Buddhism says
nuns have more rules than monks
the most senior nun comes behind the most junior monk
the best a woman practitioner can hope for is to be reborn as a man -- who then can hope to achieve enlightenment
men's stories are preserved and taught
men's perspective is the authoritative view
men's voices are louder and dominate the discussion.

The Buddha taught that the path to liberation involves giving up your limited, constricted view of a singular, solid, and permanent self. But to ignore the interaction of identities, the friction that results when truths rub against one another is to invoke ignorance, to bypass the places where dissonant voices cry to be heard, to pretend that the charnal grounds of our past don't matter.

It is said that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads, receiving in exchange his fierce ability to articulate the blues.

Here at the intersection of Buddhism and feminism, we can reclaim our pure potential, look at what limits us, and move on down the path to liberation.

If women approach the understanding of Dharma differently and forge new approaches to practice, this may be a strength. ... Given equal education and opportunity, it is likely that women will contribute fresh insights, including practical ways of integrating Dharma in daily life, for example, the ethical development of children, healthy approaches to caregiving, and compassionate means of social service. Women can help expand the concept of intensive practice beyond the monastic limits imposed by certain traditions, providing greater affirmation of lay practice. Women may put their communications skills to work, developing new, more accessible ways of expressing the Dharma. They may put their organizational skills to work, developing more egalitarian structures for Buddhist and other institutions.
--Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo

Friday, November 22, 2013

You are the eyes of the world

Every morning I make the aspiration "to look at the world with eyes of compassion." I say this as I look in the mirror just after getting out of bed, and I remind myself that it includes how I see myself -- now, with my bedhair pushed into a fauxhawk from the way I sleep and throughout the day when I find myself seeing with eyes of judgment or anger or insult or snark.

Sometimes, when I have time to ponder, when I'm sitting in traffic or listening to office sniping, I think: How would this look through the eyes of compassion?

Based on recent news reports, I think I could ask myself: What would Pope Francis see here?

As a former Roman Catholic, I have no fondness for the institutional church or the office of pope. But the current holder of that title sometimes blows the roof off my heart.

Here he is, on Wednesday, looking with the eyes of compassion at a man with what is described in news reports as "a severely disfigured face." He is looking directly into whatever face there is, with no apparent sense of recoil, no lean-back, no aversion.

The Pope invites the sick and suffering to meet him after his Wednesday general audience.

What an extraordinary thing to see everyone, no matter how they look or smell or how their body functions, as worthy of kind attention. To greet them without subtly communicating distaste or averting your eyes. It's difficult to do.

Another photo of the Pope circulated earlier in which he embraces a man with neurofibromatosis type 1,which has left him with growths all over his face. His own father won't touch him, the man told an Italian magazine, but Pope Francis hugged him without hesitation.

"I'm not contagious, but he [the Pope] didn't know that," he said. "But he did it, period: He caressed my whole face and while he was doing it, I felt only love."

No words were exchanged, just the healing comfort of touch. "I tried to speak to say something but I was unable to," said Riva in a translation provided by Time. “The emotion was too strong. It lasted a little longer than a minute but it felt as if it were eternity.”
I'm deeply touched by these photos and the immense love, compassion, and lack of judgment. And seeing them I aspire to open my eyes of compassion more widely. I'm not going to start embracing people I don't know and I'll still stay as far away as possible from people with hacking coughs. But maybe I can see them more kindly.

And if one person sees more kindly, without the recoil,  maybe that can head off the aversion contagion, where everyone looks away and pretends not to see what is not pretty.

After all, as the Grateful Dead sang, you are the eyes of the world. Or, as the Buddha said in the first line of the Dhammapada, we create the world with our thoughts. We can create a world where everyone receives the attention they deserve because of their inherent humanity or we can make a world where people who don't meet some standard of beauty disappear.

Where do you want to live?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

For the benefit of which beings?

I remember the first time I saw a headline touting "mindfulness" on the cover of O, the Oprah
magazine, which also extolls the benefits of a $250 french fry maker and $300 Ugg boots. I was disconcerted. This was several years ago, and I was fairly new to Buddhist study and protective of the teachings, which didn't seem to belong in a bible of conspicuous consumption and body image. It seemed to be a misappropriation of the teachings.

But Oprah's helped popularize teachers like Pema Chodron and Sharon Salzberg, and I've come to believe that mindfulness is a good thing, no matter how it comes about. That's beneficial since mindfulness has only become more ubiquitous.

Mindfulness, it seems, has become a thing unto itself. The New York Times reports that everyone from techies to celebrities to CEOs to the Marines are practicing mindfulness, which it calls "a loose term that covers an array of attention-training practices. It may mean spending 10 minutes with eyes closed on a gold-threaded pillow every morning or truly listening to your mother-in-law for once."

The Times credits Thich Nhat Hanh, as "the Vietnamese Buddhist leader who introduced mindfulness to westerners (Google got first dibs on him as a guest speaker)" but focuses on how technology companies are using mindfulness.

Walter Roth, 30, chief executive of a tech start-up called Inward Inc. ... (said) mindfulness has made him more competitive. “Not only do I put fewer things on my to-do list but I actually get them done and done well. It’s like I’ve learned that to be more successful and accomplish more, I must first slow down.”
In response, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship points out that the Buddha didn't intend mindfulness to be divorced from ethics and wisdom. It also quotes Thich Nhat Hanh, noting that he called for people
to use mindfulness as a basis for engaging in the world. "When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time… You have to learn how to help a wounded child while still practicing mindful breathing," he is quoted as saying.

(What that seems to prove is the emptiness of Thich Nhat Hanh -- there is no single, unchanging TNH.)

What is the right view of mindfulness?

Is there one?

David McMahan, a professor of religion at Franklin and Marshall College, says mindfulness may be becoming "a folk religion of the secular elite in Western culture." McMahan, who studies the role of social and cultural context in meditation, tells Tricycle magazine:

Right now, for the first time ever, we have contemplative practices derived from the Buddhist tradition that are being practiced completely independently of any Buddhist context. Secularization has filtered out what we would call “religious elements.” It is those religious elements, those ethical elements, and those intentions that have always formed the context of meditation and that have made meditation make sense. Otherwise, what sense does it make to sit down for half an hour and watch your breath? Somebody has to explain to you why that matters, why it is a good idea, and what it is actually doing in the larger scheme of things.

When meditation comes to the West completely independently of that, it is like a dry sponge; it just soaks up the cultural values that are immediately available. So it becomes about self-esteem. Or it might be about body acceptance or lowering your stress. It might be about performing lots of different tasks efficiently at work. It might be about developing compassion for your family. A whole variety of new elements now are beginning to form a novel context for this practice, which has not only jumped the monastery walls but has broken free from Buddhism altogether.
Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen, he says.

That's true with everything. We can't ever know with certainty what will happen. We may be able to predict the result of a particular action, but interdependence means that ripples out and has consequences that may be far beyond what we expect. Which is why, as a Buddhist, I try to live with the intention of non-harming. Intention is paramount because it sets the direction for actions.

One practice is to start the day by setting an intention: to be patient, to be kind, to be generous -- and to focus on that area. That makes it more likely that actions will incline in that direction by at least making us aware. And that's where mindfulness comes in. Having set an intention, we become more mindful about how we bring that into a situation.

For me, mindfulness practice inevitably leads to ethics and compassion. If you pay attention to what
you're doing, you must see how that affects others. And if you see how it affects others, your heart opens to them.

The vast intention, in Buddhism, is to be of benefit to all beings. That sounds overwhelming at first, but when you practice the intention becomes natural. Does that mean it's easy to make every action support that? No, but it's more likely than if you don't try.

Some of the secular mindfulness training seems to be aimed at benefiting individuals or corporations. Will that inevitably lead to ethics and compassion?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A father meets hatred with love

The Buddha said that hatred never destroys hatred -- only love can do that. But it's hard not to hate people who hurt people, especially when the ones they hurt are children, especially when they hurt our children. That's what makes a letter written  by the father of a teenager who was set on fire on a bus so extraordinary.
Sasha Fleischman, a teenager who identifies as agender -- neither male nor female, was wearing a skirt when he was set on fire, apparently by another teen, after he fell asleep on a bus. Speculation has been that the act was a hate crime, brought on by Sasha's failure to conform to the conventional gender binary.
Remarkably, his father, declines to make that leap. Karl Flieschman, a kindergarten teacher, wrote a letter to the community at the school where he teaches. It's been widely distributed on the Internet and should be read by everyone.
I think it's really important to keep in mind that none of us can know the mind, motivations, or intentions of the person who set flame to Sasha's clothing. Oakland Police have a 16-year-old high school student in custody, based on video camera footage from the bus. As far as I know, police are the only people who have viewed the footage. I certainly haven't, so I can only guess at what happened. At this point, I choose to assume that this kid was playing with fire, and that he gravely underestimated the consequences of that. Others may make different assumptions, but it's important to remember that they are all just that: assumptions.
That is how you meet hatred with love.
Karl also cites the support the family has received: "I can't tell you how moved we have all been by the outpouring of loving kindness, and how helpful that has been."
He goes on to urge parents to talk to their kids about fire safety rather than hate and offers a gentle way to explain to young children (and adults) what it means to be agender.
Another aspect of this story that has gotten a lot of attention is the fact that Sasha was wearing a skirt, "even though" Sasha appears to be a boy. The fact is that Sasha self-identifies as "agender" and prefers the pronouns "they," "them," and "their" when people refer to Sasha in the third person. (English doesn't have commonly used gender-neutral third-person singular pronouns yet.)
Being agender simply means that the person doesn't feel that they are "either a boy or a girl." I realize that this is a concept that even adults have difficulty wrapping their heads around. (My wife and I frequently slip up in our pronoun usage, much to Sasha's chagrin!) So I can't pretend that it's an issue that all young children will grasp. But what they certainly can and should understand is that different people like different things.
Different people dress or behave or look differently. And that's a good thing. Sasha feels comfortable wearing a skirt. It's part of their style. They also frequently sport a necktie and vest. Sasha likes the look, and frankly, so do I. It makes me smile to see Sasha being Sasha.
As I wrote above, none of us can know the mind of the kid who lit a flame to Sasha's skirt, but I have a feeling that if he had seen Sasha's skirt as an expression of another kid's unique, beautiful self and had smiled and thought, "I hella love Oakland," I wouldn't be writing this now.
He concludes:
Again, many thanks for all of your love and kindness. Let's all take care of each other.
I hella love this family. Thank you, Mr. Fleischman, and may you always feel the love you put out into the world reflected back at you.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Dead Like You

I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.
I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness.
I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death.
I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.
I am the owner of my actions (kamma), heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.
Anguttara Nikaya V-57 (Upajjhatthana Sutta)

A memento mori is a reminder that we all will die. It's said to have originated in ancient Rome: A Roman general parading through the streets after a victory was followed by his slave, who reminded him that this glory would pass -- everyone, even generals, will die. "Memento mori," the slave would say. Remember that you'll die.

That's a key thought in Buddhism too, conveying both the truth of impermanence and the need to practice now, in this moment, while it's possible.  I am of the nature to die, one of the five reminders in the Pali Canon. In the mahayana, it's the second of the Four Reminders, following the preciousness of human birth: Death is certain, it comes without warning.

Reciting those reminders is part of the daily practice for many Buddhists. (Including me.)

But it's not the only way we can remind ourselves of that inevitability. Clocks, for instance, can be seen as reminders of how quickly our time on earth passes. Leaves turning color and falling off the trees.

Today is Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, in Mexico, a celebration that includes sugar skulls and parties. (It's actually a multiday celebration that began on Halloween and continues through the Roman Catholic marking of All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2.) Those who are taking part visit the graves of loved ones, bringing food and other offerings.

I've never been big on visiting graves, and my family's graves are far away. But there are other ways to remember and celebrate them. Thanks to my mom, who's in the process of moving, I've come into some lovely reminders, including a chair from my grandparents' kitchen and a doll that my aunt made from my great-aunt's pillow case. Both are now dead.
How about you?

My mom, in the interest of paring down, was going to sell the chair and give the doll to Goodwill since it's really a beautiful piece of folk art. I took them. The doll sits on the chair next to my shrine, and they remind me of where I come from and where I'll go and the preciousness of this life. All we have are our actions. Let them come from love.

One of the forms I recite says: Everything is impermanent. This ephemeral existence is not to be wasted. My death is certain; the exact time is unknown. Knowing this, what is most important?

To me, what is most important is to not to cross things off some bucket list but to appreciate the moments I'm here, to try to be of benefit to all beings -- but at least to do no harm.

How about you?