Saturday, January 31, 2015

FInding the bright vein of goodness in February

Sharon Salzberg's Real Happiness 28-Day meditation challenge starts Sunday and runs through February. It couldn't come at a better time.

Blame it on the stars, blame it on the snow, blame it on my own failure to try hard enough to find the good in things as they are, the last week has been hard. It's not just the two feet of snow on the ground in my part of New England, but the lack of daylight even as the sun stays up for minutes more each day, and the number of things that need to get done. Life feels small, dry, and airless.

My days already do include meditation, which is a commitment and a joy, but I welcome the challenge to bring it more fully into life, to be more mindful about it. It's called "Real Happiness," and the reminder is to look at the real, look at the happy, look at the attachments and projects that get between me and that state.

In the introduction to Real Happiness, Salzburg writes:
Despite my initial fantasies when I began meditating as a college student, I haven't entered a steady state of glorious bliss. Meditation has made me happy, loving, and peaceful -- but not every single moment of the day. I still have good times and bad, joy and sorrow. Now I can accept setbacks more easily, with less sense of disappointment and personal failure, because meditation has taught me to cope with the profound truth that everything changes all the time.
I usually meditate right after I get home from work (after I feed the cats to facilitate a more tranquil atmosphere). I look out a window. I am intimately familiar with the sunset -- or the deepening of the grey on these dreary winter days when the sun never really pokes through the solid grey mass of clouds. It really does happen later every day. And the snow will melt -- even the additional foot that might fall on Monday. The profound truth of impermanence.

Once I learned how to look deep within, I found the bright vein of goodness that exists in everyone, including me -- the goodness that may be hidden and hard to trust but is never entirely destroyed. I came to believe wholeheartedly that I deserve to be happy, and so does everyone else.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Does Buddhism Need Men?

As a practitioner of Buddhism, I don’t think about myself in terms of gender. I try to cut through such concepts and rest in the true condition of unborn and unceasing luminous emptiness, the ground of being. -- Lama Tsultrim Allione

I went to a retreat on the sacred feminine in Buddhism last weekend, led by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. Predictably, it was practically all women. The few men there were congratulated for their bravery and openness in attending. This feels creepy to me, like when I took women's studies classes in college and the professor would make a point of calling on the men so we could hear their comments. Isn't it ironic. Male perspective is the ocean we swim in, and even when we put women first we still put men more first.

That weekend we learned a Green Tara practice. Lama Tsultrim calls Tara "the first feminist" in Buddhism. Tara was an Indian princess and highly accomplished practitioner who was told that it was a shame she was a woman; she'd have to come back as a man to get enlightened.

The princess answered back brilliantly, demonstrating her understanding of emptiness and absolute truth, saying: “Here there is no man; there is no woman, no self, no person, and no consciousness. Labeling ‘male’ or ‘female’ is hollow. Oh, how worldly fools delude themselves.” (Taranatha, Origin of the Tara Tantra).
And yet gender, while ultimately an illusion, on the relative level often is a veil as effective as a blackout curtain.

Western sanghas are predominantly female. Is that a problem? Do we need men? (Not according to a 109-year-old Scottish woman who says the secret to a long life is avoiding men.)

I went to an all-girl high school, and part of what that meant was that there were no boys to be class president, to be star athletes, to talk over or interrupt (traditional male speech patterns). Girls just did it all.

I'm not arguing that men --  or anyone -- should be excluded. Do they need to be courted? Does Buddhism, which hasn't cared about bringing women into its folds since it was founded, need to change to bring men in? Does it lose legitimacy if the sangha is predominantly female, if the ratio of male-to-female teachers reflects that? (For now, men predominate.)

Kozo Hattori, writing on the blog of The Greater Good Science Center, a project of the University of California at Berkeley, back-handedly explains why men need Buddhism in "Five Ways to Make Mindfulness More Manly." Men have embraced mindfulness meditation -- it's used by the military,
by tech companies, and sports teams -- but they stop at being mindful of what's happening with them. In Buddhism, it's taught that mindfulness leads to compassion -- as we become aware of our experience, we also become aware that others share the same experiences and emotions, and that touches our hearts, opening them. Not so with the modern mindfulness movement, Hattori says.

“Men tell you what is on their minds, but not what is in their heart,” says Elad Levinson, who has 40 years of psychotherapy and 20 years of leading men’s groups under his belt. Perhaps not coincidentally, boys and men commit the vast majority of violent acts, from domestic violence to murder. Many struggle with expressing empathy and compassion.

Would the world be better off if men were more compassionate? Absolutely, since men run the world. Therefore, it's the bodhisattva's work to bring men to Buddhism for the benefit of all beings, I suppose. Particularly into programs that focus on development of compassion, like Green Tara practice.

In one version of Tara's story, it's said that she came to life from the tears of Chenrezig, aka Avalokiteshvara, the buddha of compassion. He was crying because he realized the difficulty of saving all sentient beings from samsara; she sprang up to help him. If it happens, he'll probably get all the credit.

"The absolute truth of the emptiness of gender and the relative truth of a real historical misogynist attitude in Buddhism lay side by side in Tara’s story," Lama Tsultrim writes. The absolute doesn't trump the relative; both exist simultaneously. We can't live from our buddhanature without first peeling away the sexism that hides it.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Found in space

I've been feeling increasingly cranky lately, like the world is rubbing at the edges of my awareness with an increasingly coarse grade of sandpaper. Tis the season, in the cold and dark, to go inward, but it's been feeling more and cramped in my awareness. It feels like every block of time is filled, and even meditation is taking up place on a schedule that seems to have less and less air.

A friend and mentor says it sounds like I need to do some aimless wandering.

And that sounded like another scheduling challenge. How do I fit in aimless wandering when the laundry still hasn't been folded?

Then I realized that what had dropped off my schedule was my lunchtime walk. It has been too cold or wet or icy for the last couple of weeks, and I've been sitting at my desk through lunch. At first I made sure to move away from the computer, to do something unrelated to work, but even that's slipped to the side.

Aside from the obvious benefits of a 2-mile walk, it also gave me time for mental aimless wandering. It was the free space where things open up and thoughts float without direction. I notice the sky, the clouds, the trees. My walk is not aimless, but my thoughts are. And that creates space. Without that, the world closes in.

Space is necessary. It's important to find it. It may seem contradictory to schedule in time to do nothing but be open to what arises, but it's vital.

NASA released a series of composite images of space, made by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. They are stunningly beautiful. You can get lost in them, right there at your desk Learn more here

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

We are unbroken

Buddhism's starting point is dukkha, translated as suffering, stress, or dissatisfaction, among other unpleasant words. It acknowledges that all of that exists and is part of life. But it says you're not stuck there until your next life – you have the ability to change that, to go from samsara, the cycle of suffering that is our world, to nirvana, the cessation of suffering – in this lifetime, on this planet. The Buddhist path is a process for doing that.

Speaking about the movie “Unbroken,” director Angelina Jolie said she was drawn to tell the story of a prisoner of war who is tortured and suffers extreme hardship but emerges with his spirit intact. “I didn’t want to put a movie out where people are just reminded of the struggles of human nature,” she told the New York Times. “I wanted them to be reminded of that thing inside of all of us, that rises up against these obstacles."

In Buddhism, that thing is our buddhanature, which is unbroken and unbreakable, unceasing, and unborn. It's also called the ground of being, the nature of mind, inherent richness. I think of it as the light in us that gives us the inherent worth and dignity inherent in all beings that's referred to in the first UU Principle.

We experience stress or dissatisfaction or suffering because we forget that we are inherently whole. Instead, encouraged by our culture, we judge ourselves and compare ourselves to others. We worry that we're inadequate: too fat, too slow, too poor, that we consume too much or too little, don't recycle enough, are unaware of our privilege, drive the wrong car too many miles. We rarely hear that we ARE good enough, and when we do, we doubt the speaker's sincerity, assuming that they're looking for a favor.

But Buddhism says that we are already good enough. We just have to find our way back to our connection to our whole, unbreakable self. What is the source of the stress? Expectation? Fear? Desire? How is it expressed? Is it accurate? Is it kind? Does it leave space for change? Can we accept where we are and move on, or are we obsessed with redefining or reframing the past? Can we trust our capacity to cope, or do we need to control whatever we can (and try to control what we can't)?

Finding the connection to wholeness – through nature or spirituality or music or meditation – reminds us that we are more than the struggle, more than the stress. Our nature is already perfect. The question becomes – how can I live from that place and help others to reach it?

Sunday, January 11, 2015


It would feel dishonest not to write about the events of the past week since that's what's been on my mind and in my practice. But it's very raw and fresh and confusing, and there's already been so much written in an attempt to make sense or explain or understand.

In a week like this past one -- 20 people dead after terrorists attacked a satirical newspaper and a kosher market around Paris; "innumerable" people killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria; an NAACP office bombed in Colorado -- it's easy to fall into dualistic thinking, to see "us" threatened by "them." To feel that safety requires retaliation or revenge. To make those who created such suffering suffer themselves.

That only increases the general level of suffering in the world -- and in your mind.

Wishing misfortune on someone does not cause that misfortune to happen. Instead, because the yearning for another person's suffering is itself an unwholesome mental action, it immediately places unwholesome imprints upon our own mind and guarantees our own future suffering if those imprints are not purified.
-B. Alan Wallace
In the wake of the horrific massacre at Charlie Hebdo -- imagine sitting in your office and having people with automatic weapons come in and start shooting -- people starting using the phrase #jesuischarlie (I am Charlie) in a show of support and identification with the victims, an expression of sympathy and outrage, an acknowledgement of shared humanity. But some people didn't want to align with the newspaper, which published satire bordering on hate speech.

Even a social media expression of solidarity quickly became divisive.

Now there are hashtags supporting a Muslim police officer who was killed at the office and a Muslim grocery store employee who saved hostages there. It's a reminder, probably wise, not to condemn all Muslims because some are extremists. We tend to need reminders that the lines we draw should be dotted ones, not walls, to allow us to see the humanity among those we fear.

The best thing I read had nothing to do with this situation but with last month's crisis: Ebola.Ashokha Mukpo, an American contracted Ebola in Liberia and recovered in the US, talked at length about his experience -- including the fact that Ebola has largely dropped off the Western radar as it's now largely an African problem. Go read the whole thing at the link.

Sometimes, Buddhists have a tendency to fall into this trap where they think that personal development is the number one priority. Then they tend to sometimes forget about the need to be aware socially and aware of the impact of their lives, and to see what they can do to help, financially or professionally, to alleviate suffering.

For me, the central guiding principle of Buddhism is compassion and concern for the world in which we live. It's the idea of interdependence—that our actions dictate the experience of others. I don't think everybody needs to run out and join an aid organization and everyone should feel bad that they're not doing more for people in need. But I would like to see Buddhists have a braver relationship to engaging with the world—and also, potentially, a smarter one. We're trained to develop our intellect and develop our wisdom, and it's not worth very much unless you put it into practice.

It's sometimes very easy to feel disempowered, but what we can do is educate ourselves as much as possible about what's happening in faraway places so that we get a sense of our own position and our own role in the world, and our own privilege. Beyond that, it's important to really think hard about which charities you support and why.

Outside of that, maybe the best we can all do is try to live good, decent lives and be kind to people around us, be aware of the gifts that we have and the blessings that we have, and understand that not everybody has those. And listen for solutions. Don't get caught up in apathy and resentment about how difficult the situation is for our country and for our world right now.
Don't let the confusion cause you to check out or grab from some solid intellectual ground that you can defend against all others.  Be kind, be aware, be open.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Bending the arc toward justice

"The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice," the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr said in Selma, Alabama. Karma says we each ultimately get what we deserve. If justice is inevitable, what do we do right now? Does it matter?

It is, actually, all that matters.

Our actions now determine our future. They steepen the angle of the bend.

The Eightfold Path is the road to a moral life and liberation from suffering. If we are acting with wisdom, awareness, and ethics, then what is there to suffer about?

But liberation doesn't happen in a vacuum. While we work with our own suffering, we become more aware of the ways that others suffer. For the sake of ease in the present moment and creating a better future, we try at least not to increase that. Inevitably, I think, we seek to ease it, to help others suffer less -- not because it makes us uncomfortable to see suffering but because we see that we're all part of the same organism We are suffering and awakening together.

What we are suffering from is a disconnection from our true nature -- call it buddhanature, God, the ground of being, the universe -- and what we are awakening to is its presence in everything, us most of all. Everyone of us, without exception.

I've been contemplating justice recently -- partly springing from the events of this fall where the legal (aka justice) system did not hold white police officers accountable for the deaths of black men and the massive "social justice" movement that followed, partly because I have to lead a discussion of justice from a Buddhist perspective.

There's lots written about social justice from a Buddhist perspective* but I couldn't find a simple definition of what justice is. How Buddhist is that?

I invite you to contemplate justice, which seems like one of those things that are not easily defined but that we know. How do you know when something is just? How do you know when you see injustice? What is that based on? Is justice absolute or does it vary by the situation?

To me, justice means treating each person as a buddha, recognizing their inherent worth and dignity, and acting from our own. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that humans act out of confusion or neurosis and address that, not leave to the arc of the universe or their future suffering as recompense.

We have to start with ourselves, looking for and working with our own personal biases that keep us from seeing the perfection of others. And then we have to look at social institutions -- what assumptions are they based on? What are their intentions? To protect some at the expense of others? How can we protect everyone? 

David Loy, in "Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution," emphasizes the need to do that personal reflection. "If we have not begun to transform our own greed,  ill-will, and delusion, our efforts to address their institutionalized forms are likely to be useless or even worse. Even if our revolution is successful, we will merely replace one group of egos with our own."**

Loy observes that Buddhism may have a particular role to play in identifying the places where our collective awareness has become trapped and showing how to liberate from those traps, just as we work with our personal attachments.
Buddhas helping buddhas out of confusion, not demonizing them.
But sitting is not enough. Ven Panavatti observes
 Okay, it’s like this: When everything is good, we can sit on our cushions. When there are things to take care of, we should get up and do it. Even Buddha said it is hard for a person to make progress when he is hungry. Western Buddhists need to learn to reach before they teach.
Buddhas reaching out to Buddhas, not out of pity or in a bid to accumulate merit, just because we're all here, right now, together, bending the arc toward justice. 

*Here is a compendium of articles from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship on Social Justice and the Four Noble Truths

**If you want to walk through that process, I recommend bell hooks' "all about love: new visions."