Contemplation of Sutra as Practice ~ Jiken Anderson

Or “When you need a crowbar, use a crowbar.”

Thus have I heard—in some corners of the English-speaking Zen world: 

Study of the sutras is an obstacle to practice.  “Dogen said just sit,” it has been said, “so just sit.”   Our transmission is outside the sutras, not about letters or words.  And we know perfectly well what this means, right?

I do not know if this resistance to study and thought (and, concomitantly, to ritual) represents a traditional tendency in Japanese Zen or even a coherent reading of Dogen, or is a reflection of an uncritical embrace of the rhetoric of the Patriarchs of the ninth century, who rightly rejected the hegemonic and constipated piety of their own moment as counterproductive. 

I do know that we do things differently in the milieu of Tendai Buddhism among English-speakers.  And I have reason to think that a Tendai approach to practice and to the teachings offers a sensible, workable third path between two untenable positions: a nihilistic rejection of the sutras as Asian Puff from the Ancient Past Irrelevant to Us on one side; an eternalistic, uncritical, or fundamentalist veneration of the sutras as the Summum Bonum of the One True Faith and Mystical Wisdom Heritage on the other side. 

To get at what I am proposing, you need to have a handle on two interrelated concepts:  that of upaya or skillful means, and that of Buddha-garbha, or enlightened nature.  These are treated together in the Lotus Sutra, which is the central text of the Tendai tradition.  Buddha-garbha means that all beings, even you, have the potential to attain enlightenment and, further, will inevitably do so; upaya means that all the actions of the Buddhas, including the recorded texts of the sutras, are moments in which enlightened mind reaches out and meets deluded beings where they are, with whatever tool, trick, or gimmick is necessary. 

“Gimmick” is not too strong a word for this method:  in chapter four of the Lotus Sutra, for instance, we see an analogy made between the teaching situation of the Buddha and the disciple to that of an employer (hilariously in my view) tricking a man into shoveling shit for decades in order for him to feel better about himself and, ultimately, attain something that was already his from the start.  One might say upaya is about mitigating stupidity, specifically the stupidity of deluded beings who do not see their own inherent dignity and divinity, the stupidity of avoidance.  Upaya is the means by which Buddha-garbha is realized; Buddha-garbha is the rationale for upaya. 

Buddha Shakyamuni is credited in the Lotus Sutra (chapter two this time) with coming on out and describing this situational pedagogy:

“The Tathagathas save all living beings
With innumerable expedients.
The cause all living beings to enter the Way
To the wisdom-without-asravas of the Buddha.
Anyone who hears the Dharma
Will not fail to become a Buddha.
Every Buddha vows at the outset:

‘I will cause all beings
To attain the same enlightenment
That I attained.’

The future Buddhas will expound many thousands
Of Myriads of millions of teachings
For just one purpose,
That is, for the purpose of revealing the One Vehicle.”  Lotus Sutra p. 43.

And the One Vehicle, or Ekayana, is the Buddha-Vehicle (Buddha-yana):  the doctrine that all beings, here described as those who hears the Dharma, inherently have the potential to Buddhahood, with no exceptions, and that Buddhist practice amounts to eliminating defilements and drawing forth or manifesting from oneself enlightened qualities.  This is about the Buddha within. 

The purpose of the written Teaching is to give a pointer or, if you like, to create a situation or context in which one might have some insight into this.  It is a poke, a prod.  Brook Ziporyn describes it as being like the punchline to a joke:  first a context is established, and then undercut with a surprise that transforms the context.  The transmission is not in or of the words anymore than the laughter a good joke provokes is identical to the words of the joke.  This is not about making meaning, or having a meaningful life; this is not a semiotic or semantic game.  It is, in short, about practice.

There is a way in which the question of whether the claims made in sutras are objectively true or false is irrelevant.  Consider the hyperbole:  does it really matter how many kotis of nayutas of kalpas passed before the sky stopped spontaneously showering mandarava blossoms?  Only to such a one who seeks to understand Stravinsky or Bartok by measuring the mass and volume of a symphonic score.  No:  the written text is itself a series of upaya, or gimmicks, just as a piece of music is constructed serially to kick you here, caress you there, and achieve (if successful) a particular affective impact on the observer

Can the orchestration Stravinsky devised for the Rite of Spring be proven true or false?  No, but it can be understood nonverbally, transmitted outside the “words” or notes, if taken on its own terms and in an appreciative attitude.  This means stop jibbering your overconfident jabber and listen to the music, open up to it, let it work on you.   Another analogy:  if you are trapped in a cage, and someone offers you a crowbar with which to work your way out, does it matter if the crowbar is “true” or “false”?

The rest of the prescribed practices in post-Ekayana Buddhism, inclusive of Japanese Zen streams, are also upaya.  There is nothing singularly special about the effective but arbitrary practice of sitting on a zafu staring at a wall until your hips heroically turn arthritic.  That, too, is a device, something that works in a particular way under particular conditions.  Chanting?  A device.  Walking in the woods with an open heart?  The same, and just as authentic.  In short, quit worrying and contemplate the teaching in a meditative spirit, just the same as washing the dishes or shoveling the shit.  In all seriousness, why not?  Who are you to avoid the dirty work? 

This is the truth, not a lie:  this literature reaches people because it directs attention to a fundamental reality of our situation, in any situation.  With an open mind, you may also get in on it.  Namo Buddhaya!

“Those who do not study the Dharma
Cannot understand it.
You have already realized

The fact that the Buddhas, the World-Teachers, employ expedients,
According to the capacities of all living beings.
Know that, when you remove your doubts,
And when you have great joy,
You will become Buddhas!”
Lotus Sutra, pp. 49-50

Works Cited and Suggested

  • Murano, Senchu (trans).  The Lotus Sutra.  Tokyo, Japan:  Nichiren Shu Shimbun, 1974.
  • Ng Yu-Kwan.  T’ien-t’ai Buddhism and Early Madhyamika.  Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press:  1993.
  • Swanson, Paul L.  Foundations of T’ien-T’ai Philosophy.  Berkeley, CA:  Asian Humanities Press, 1989.
  • Ziporyn, Brook.  Being and Ambiguity: Philosophical Experiments with Tiantai Buddhism.  Chicago, IL: Open Court Publications, 2004.

Other Upaya:

Jikan Anderson leads the Great River Ekayana Sangha in Arlington, Virginia.  Find more of his material at DC tendai. Follow him on twitter under the handle @JikanAnderson.

Addicted To Attachment ~ S.A. Barton


I am an alcoholic who has recovered from alcoholism in a 12-step program.  As many of you are aware, 12-step recovery involves a spiritual solution, the finding of a higher power.  The spirituality I found was in Taoism, I call my higher power the Tao.  As a Taoist, I feel right at home writing a guest post for a Buddhist blog.  I think most Taoists at the very least think that Buddha was a great guy who was very close to the Tao.  As many of you may know, when Buddhism came to China, one branch of Buddhists intermingled the two strains of thought very strongly: the Ch’an, which is known as Zen Buddhism today.  So whether you think Zen Buddhists are close to the Tao, or Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu were very close to the Buddha, what’s the difference really?  They’re all close to reality, and that’s a great place to be.  That last statement is a halfway decent lead-in to what I’m writing about here, a concept that is at the root of both Taoist and Buddhist thought, as well as those in recovery: attachment.

–S. A. Barton ~ on twitter as @Tao23 , and I blog at The Tao Of Chaos

Addicted To Attachment:

            Attachment is something that every human being deals with.  We become attached to all sorts of things.  We become attached to material items, to people and our relationships with them, to ideas and habits and… you get the idea.  Attachment is an attempt to root something in an undeveloping state, to prevent change in both ourselves and in the thing we are attached to.  As we all know from our own experience, doing this leads to suffering.  Does this seem awfully basic, not a terribly refined thought?  Good.  One of my weak spots as a pointy-headed intellectual is for baroque flights of complex thinking.  I need to remind myself of basic things often. 

            So, back to suffering.  As someone who has experienced addiction, I think looking at addiction is a great way to look at how attachment works.  Addiction is a deep, raw, powerful form of attachment and suffering.  It is easy to look at someone who has an addiction and say “you’re an alcoholic, you’re attached to alcohol.”  Well, that’s true.  It’s also a superficial observation; it’s looking at the flower and not the fruit, at the leaf and not the root.  I was attached to control, not alcohol.  When I was a child, my family life was chaotic.  I felt adrift, without power, without control.  As I grew up, I flailed around, trying to find something to hold on to, something unchanging which of course did not exist.  I became attached to the idea of controlling my life.  At first, I tried to do so by being exceptional.  But this required me to be the best at whatever I tried.  I quickly discovered that I could not be the best.  As large as this world is, there was always someone who surpassed me.  As varied as the things people can do are, when I surpassed someone, there was some other pursuit in which they surpassed me.  If I couldn’t be the best, what good was it to try, I thought.  I was quickly a disappointed perfectionist; I saw that I could not have control over the results of my own pursuits.  All I could control was the  amount and quality of effort I put in, and that was not enough for me.  But I am stubborn, this realization did not stop me.  Instead, I found another way. 

            I would be a drunk.

            No, I didn’t make a bold decision just like that, saying, “and now, I will be the best alcoholic ever.”  Like many of the decisions we make about our own lives, this one was made as the result of many smaller decisions, and even more, of times when I did not make a decision, but refused and let inertia and whim rule the results.  It is very easy to do that when one lives an unexamined life as I did.  The end result of my decisions and non-decisions and willful refusal to examine my own motives, though, was that I became alcoholic.  Because that’s real control.  Remember, what can be controlled is the effort you put into a thing.  And I could definitely down a bottle of bourbon.  It worked every time.  I opened the bottle, I drank, I found refuge.  Refuge, because what addiction to an intoxicating substance brings is a relinquishing of control.  Control over my own perceptions, my own thoughts, my own fears, my own body, of others’ behavior, of my own life.  Everything goes on autopilot when you drink addictively.  And that’s a huge relief, giving up control.  The only problem is, sooner or later you sober up, and it is very easy to see that when you spend your time being drunk instead of dealing with your own life, autopilot is not a good pilot.  Being drunk is what we in 12-step recovery call “an easier, softer way”.  And it doesn’t work.  It’s like the dark side in the Star Wars mythos.  It looks like it’s working at the moment, but in the long run you find that somehow everything has gone awry.

            Recovery from addiction, on the other hand, is exactly the same thing.  As is living any life mindfully whether you have had the experience of addiction or not.  It is about relinquishing control, giving up perfection, and finding refuge.  When you do these things in a mindful way (and that’s the difference between addiction and spiritual practice), you find the proper use of the will… another phrase from the 12-step playbook.  More importantly, finding those  proper uses, you accept what they are and what they are not.  I cannot control the words of another, but I can control mine.  I cannot control what another person does, but I can choose my own actions.  I cannot take responsibility for what happens in the world, but I can choose what I do about those events.  Letting go is not about drifting, though many people unacquainted with Taoism and Buddhism make the mistake of thinking so.  Sometimes those of us who are make that mistake too.  Relinquishing an attachment is more like a boat drawing up an anchor; it is now free to travel with a destination in mind.  Where does our spiritual practice come into play here?  Extending the metaphor, it is the map, the compass, the knowledge of how to tack into the wind.  Doing those things effectively requires one to see clearly, to understand the behavior of the wind and the sea.  Tao and Zen are all about seeing clearly.  And that brings us right back to basics. If our boat is to carry us to experience and learn about new lands and peoples, we must see and understand the sea and the wind, or the basic foundations of our own lives.  Only by avoiding the illusion of controlling the uncontrollable, by relinquishing that very basic attachment, can we be free of the suffering we bring to ourselves.  With every bit you let go, your vision becomes clearer, and the more you can let go of.

            Living a life as a recovering alcoholic, or just living a life, boil down to the same thing.  They’re both done the same way.  An addiction is just another attachment, and a life touched by addiction is just another life, and living mindfully is just living mindfully, whatever it is that you personally need to be mindful of.  So, no matter who and what you are, ask yourself:  is this attachment I see the flower, the outward seeming?  Or have I truly reached the root?

A Clear and Present Danger to a Buddhist Free Press ~ Bill Schwartz

Thanks to Bill Schwartz for his guest post.  For my commentary on this controversial topic check SLAPP threats to Buddhist Bloggers.

Three months ago I decided I wanted to write a blog for my publisher, Elephant Journal, on the subject of Kunzang Palyul Choling, a Tibetan Buddhist franchise founded by a controversial Palyul lineage tulku.  I’m a 2010 Blogisattva Honorable Mention for Political and Opinion blogging by a Buddhist. As a journalist I thought it would make it an interesting column.

Unfortunately, before I was able to even finish my blog I was notified by Waylon Lewis, publisher of Elephant Journal, that he had received threatening phone calls from Kunzang Palyul Choling. Even a law suit without merit could put his magazine out of business. This was no idle threat. So advised, I was in the process of finishing my blog when Waylon notified me that he had received a cease and desist letter from KPC’s lawyer.

This is not a squabble between Buddhists. It is a threat against our fundamental right to a free press. Fortunately for Kunzang Palyul Choling, Buddhists don’t care about free speech. KPC can threaten to put a publisher out of business to block the publication of a blog about them with impunity. I wouldn’t have believed this to be so, but this has been the response from Buddhists to date.

The Palyul lineage (of which KPC is a nominal affiliate because its founder was recognized by His Holiness Penor Rinpoche as a tulku and enthroned as such) can do nothing even if it were so inclined. As a Buddhist franchise, KPC does not accept the authority of the present head of the Palyul lineage, His Holiness Karma Kuchen. The founder of KPC does not answer to HHKK.

When Travis May published a blog on Buddhadharma about the KPC SLAPP Scandal the editor removed it. Was KPC threatened? No, it wasn’t threatened. Worse, it simply doesn’t care. Why? It doesn’t care because Buddhists don’t care. None of the glossy Buddhist magazines is willing to cover this story. Buddhists don’t believe in a free press.

But surely Buddhist bloggers care? Nope. One Buddhist blogger informed me he wasn’t interested. It would be too much work. It’s much easier to write about wisdom and compassion instead. His audience will just eat that up and ask for more. There is no upside to a Buddhist blogger in harshing the mellow of his audience over something of such little or no interest to Buddhists as a free press seems to be.

The response of individual Buddhists has been even worse—unsolicited dharma advice on Tonglen, sending and receiving. We are to exchange our attachment to our right to free speech for the peace of mind that comes with caring only about ourselves. I kid you not. That’s what Shantideva taught. This is the path of the bodhisattva. The Buddhist response has been that it’s perfectly acceptable what KPC has done.

We are two weeks into this scandal. I thank John Pappas for providing me the opportunity to share with you this breaking story. This is but the beginning. Until the Palyul lineage issues a public statement in support of press freedom, until Buddhist bloggers step up and make their voices heard on this subject, and until Buddhists consider the slippery moral slope we now find ourselves upon, I have only yet begun to fight.

Unbelieving the Buddha ~ A Guest post by Robert McClure

Photo taken by Hirekatsu

Bouncing down the rutted dirt road heading towards Bodhgaya, we are a traveling Sangha thrown together in a bus by  pilgrimage and the desire for adventure. This journey in Bihar state, the poorest, most politicized Indian state and home to the Dalits, is a Buddah Path tour with teachers Shantum Seth, Stephen Batchelor, and Martine  Batchelor. We, a mixture of Westerners, are there to see the sites of the Buddha’s life and learn about the history of the places associated with the life of Gautama Buddha. We may have been seeking devotion and history, but Stephen Batchelor was there to understand the connection of the Buddha to our times.

Stephen is a controversial author and teacher, who has espoused “agnostic Buddhism”, but who now proclaims Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, the title of his latest book. He describes the spirit in which he tries to understand the Buddha in a quote by theologian Don Cupitt, “Religion today has to become beliefless. There is nothing out there to believe in or hope for. Religion, therefore,  has to become a deeply felt way of relating yourself to life in general and your own life in particular.”

Taking science and secularism as the value culture of the 21st Century, Batchelor questions traditional Buddhism. Challenging the truth and the relevance of doctrines of reincarnation and karma, he seeks a dharmic expression free of Indian cosmology and metaphysics. But he also asserts that to reject organized religion in favor of an eclectic spirituality is not a satisfactory solution. Doubt, therefore, and the spirit of inquiry become essential tools for finding the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings for our secular times. Batchelor states the challenge,  “The point is to not abandon all institutions and dogmas but to find a way to live with them more ironically, to appreciate them for what they are- the play of the human mind in its endless quest for connection and meaning- rather than timeless entities that have to be ruthlessly defended or forcibly imposed.”

In that spirit in 2005,  our band of pilgrims followed the Buddha path, visiting the worn stupas and dusty mounds of dirt considered sacred places by millions for two thousand years. With the lense of modern science and anthropology, Batchelor suggested that much of what is presented as Buddhism today are doctrines and practices that evolved long after the Buddha ‘s death. His conclusion was that no single form of Asian Buddhism is  “likely to be effective as a treatment for the particular maladies of a late-twentieth-century-post Christian secular existentialist” like himself.  Nor will it ultimately resonate with a secular society whose paradigm is science.

What spoke to him most directly in the Buddha’s teaching were not those ideas derived from classical Indian thought, but four core elements of the Dhamma that cannot be derived from the Indian culture of his time: the principle of conditioned arising, the process of the Four Noble Truths, the practice of mindful awareness, and the power of self- reliance. Batchelor says, “These four axioms provide sufficient ground for the kind of ethically committed, practically realized, and intellectually coherent way of life Gotama anticipated.”

For me this pilgrimage in 2005 began as an exploration of history and a search for devotion and ended as a lasting journey inward. Batchelor’s spirit of inquiry and doubt, and his challenge to contemporary orthodox Buddhist religion continues to infuse my practice and life as a Buddhist. Renouncing consolation by giving up the hope of belief allows me to continue to walk with the Buddha.

Connect with @RobMac_ on Twitter by clicking on image

Zen Ghosts

I have been a fan of Jon Muth from his earlier comics days with his work on “Meltdown: Wolverine and Havoc” and the epic “Moonshadow” series.  Fantasy writer Micheal Moorcock said of Moonshadow

 “This is an outstanding graphic tale, told at a level of literary and visual sophistication which introduced new standards and aspirations to the genre” 

Recently his storybook fiction has been equally stirring and eminently life-changing for me as both a former after-school librarian and a massive fan of zen tales and watercolors.  Rarely does the poignancy of a koan combine with an emotional exploration as well as it does in Muth’s books.

His newest book, “Zen Ghosts” follows the haiku speaking panda Stillwater and his young friends through an American Halloween.  In a fashion similar to his earlier books “Zen Shorts” and “Zen Ties”, Muth ties together Asian and Buddhist thought in a framework that is easily identifiable by children while engaging to adults with little or no interest in Asian philosophy or culture ( or like me, has a massive interest in both).  A wicker basket to be enjoyed for its utility or for the surprises held inside.

In “Zen Ghosts”, Halloween serves as the backdrop to the Wu-men koan “Senjo and her soul are separated. Which is the true soul?” which was based upon the T’ang period ghost tale where the young girl Senjo appears as sick and lifeless to her parents after they refuse her wedding to the man she loves.  The spirit of Senjo manifests into another form and runs off with her lover while her former self remains sick and listless in the house of her parents.  Eventually, Senjo is reunited with her other self as her familial ties draw her back to her father’s household.

from "Zen Shorts"

My Lovely Fetter and Building Buddhas

Crossposted over at Dharma Mouth Punch but worth reposting over here….

The ten fetters that bind the us to the world are (1) self-identity views, (2) uncertainty/skeptism, (3) the concious and unconcious clinging to habits & practices, (4) sensual passion, (5) irritation, (6) attachmen to form, (7) attachment to formlessness, (8) conceit, (9) restlessness, & (10) ignorance.

Oh, my lovely, lovely fetters.

We look into so many spiritual recipes to remove our fetters.  Some passed down from generation to generation and some new fusions containing different styles and cultures but they all try to explain and delineate the same thing ~ How many?  How many retreats to I need to go on to remove them?  How many minutes sitting in zazen will do?  How many blogs, Dharma talks or sesshins?  How many masters?  How. Many. Moments.

Every moment is a personal recipe.  It isn’t complex and doesn’t need to be.  The only ingredient of interest is action.  Taking one moment in meditation or mindfulness is the only quantity on which you need to focus.  One moment spent in compassion rather than judgment.

When Master Ikkyu was asked what the most profound teaching of Zen was he replied “Attention.”  When asked for more elaboration and commentary on that teaching he replied “Attention.  Attention.  Attention.  What else is there?”  The questioner grew angrier and asked “Well what is attention anyway?”

“Attention is attention” was Ikkyu’s profound, quiet reply.

A friend mentioned that the endearment I use to describe my daughter “Samsara-toddler” would be better described, in Buddhist terms, as “Fetter.”  My lovely little fetter.  This struck a strong chord as I have felt uncertain and fearful that my practice was faltering due to increased duties at work and at hime.  In reality, it is just my own clinging to outdated modes and ideas of practice (insisting on silent moment for meditation or more free time) that was holding me back ~ not my familial obligations.  Grasping at the past is a fetter and shows an ignorance of or (at very least) a lack of internalization of impermenance.  The life of a householder does not limit practice but allows my practice to change and evolve.  I can either stop practicing altogether or I can adapt my practice to the moment.  I can ignore the fire or allow it to temper this practice. Strengthen it.  Create resolve.

Attention is attention.

My lovely Fetter.

I got up early this morning to practice yoga and sit zazen until I needed to get ready for work.  While beginning my first few stretches my two-year-old walked in and asked for breakfast.  My first reaction was “There goes that. No meditation. No practice this morning.”  But it didn’t feel quite right so I prepared her breakfast and then set myself up for zazen and sat.  While a TV was blaring on one side and a (now fully awake and active) toddler on the other, I sat in zazen for 15 minutes.  The actions and noises and responsibilities were each noticed, addressed and then allowed to move on while I sat under my own personal, domestic waterfall of householder duties and distractions.

There is very little interest in inculcating Buddhist dogma into my child. But for the values that I find dear, I must create a bridge that does not exist here—a bridge to the understanding of Buddhism without ever being Buddhist. Values and concentration without dogma and secterianism.  For a child to see a practice develop is the best way to impart these morals.  To see a calm mind and compassionate actions are the flesh and bones of a little Buddha.  Stories and holidays, retreats and sesshins will create Buddhists but experiences, insights, and concentration will build Buddhas. 

Zen is experiential and the direct experience of a child seeing compassionate action, contemplation and openess in their daily lives will, with care and tenderness, build Buddhas. 

My lovely Buddha.

Issei Buddhism in the Americas and Racism in Utica

Issei Buddhism in the Americas

Well supported by primary correspondences and sources, Issei Buddhism in the Americas (in part edited by Duncan Ryuken Williams whose is an associate professor of Japanese Buddhism and the chair of the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of California Berkeley also wrote “The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Soto Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan“) spends much of its 191 pages documenting the Buddhist experience from the point of view of those that brought it over:  Japanese American immigrants.  Especially topical with the recent commentary concerning the place of Buddhism in the West, this book places the emphasis less on the western academic perspective of Buddhism and more on how the structure and understanding of the Dharma and Buddhist practice changed within the Japanese American community during the late 19th and early 20th century.

By examining the eastward transmission of Buddhism (rather than the Western transmission from Europe) alongside the diaspora of the Issei, the authors show how these early settlers negotiated a new multiethnic, multilingual and multireligious landscape by adapting the presentation and understanding of Buddhism.  Far from static and stagnant, many of these early pioneers were progressive, proactive and reformist in their presentation.

While many western practitioners attempt to classify and create boundaries between Western and Asian Buddhism along traditional/progressive lines, “Issei Buddhism in the Americas” shows that those categories were already in major flux before any popular “Western” interest evolved.  Most important (and surprising) to me were the drastic changes in Jodo shinshu when emigrating from Japan as well as the burgeoning agglomeration of Zen and Catholicism spiritual practices in Brazil (being a Zen practitioner as well as raised Catholic, I found particular interest in that essay).  I was also disturbed to learn about extended work camps (basically businesses, that looking for cheap labor, found it in the form of recently released detainees) for many Japanese detainees that existed long after WWII ended and some were in my home-state of New Jersey.

The impetus for the movement of Buddhism to the West was not the occasional western interest in an Eastern philosophy (although I am certain that it played a significant role) by academics but a personal immigration of home-practice, societal bonds and emerging traditions from Asian Buddhists as well as trail-blazing clergy, priests and practitioners that, in a movement to make traditional Buddhism more applicable to a new environment, adapted traditional Buddhism to a new audience ~ Asian and non-Asian Buddhists living in the Americas.

Duncan Ryuken Williams did a wonderful job in presenting a series of academic essays based upon primary sources in a manner that was understandable to a lay-person like myself by organizing the book into four digestible chunks: 1) Nation and Identity 2) Education and Law 3) Race and Print Culture and 4) Patriotism and War.  Each part contains two essays pertaining to the topic with a lengthy introduction written by the editor which provided the necessary backing information and historical foundation to make the essays approachable and understandable within context of the period.

From the Introduction:

…Asian immigrants were distinguished from their European counterparts by unequal treaties, low wages and hostility to “heathen religions,” and ineligibility for citizenship, voting rights and land ownership.  It was in this context that pioneer Issei Buddhists started establishing temples in the Americas…These temples established for and by immigrants were more than just religious sites: like the Christian churches and Jewish synagogues of many European immigrants, they became centers of social and cultural life that addressed the practical needs of a growing and increasingly more settled community.

If for a moment you believe that the hostility to “heathen religions” and Asian immigrants is something in our country’s uninformed past, I ask that you read about the Vietnamese Quan Am Temple in Utica NY and how vehemently the white Christian community and neighbors oppose it.  From stating that the statue is too tall for the neighborhood, stating that the monks are on welfare and lazy to racist comments about the Vietnamese community at large.

If so motivated, read the book and comment on the article. [Update!  The Observer Dispatch has dumped the comments from the article.  For the most part these comments came from members of the Christian Evangelical community and were a rather disturbing display of racism and bigotry in the US against refugee populations and other religious beliefs.  Remember, it is much easier to swipe a problem under the rug rather than address it directly.  From William P. Cannon, Multimedia Team Editor:

We seek to foster healthy community conversations. When a story has multiple violations of our terms of service, we will deactivate the comments. We make no judgement about how comments reflect on the community

So, there you go. ]



A Personal Reflection on Mindful Blogging and the Ego

I came across this article earlier this summer and found several disturbing truths about my blogging and how I let my filthy ego drive it around recklessly.  This seems especially topical for anyone that follows a Buddhist path and blogs (think of it as “Right Hobby”),  so I thought I would apply some of the signs that my ego is having far too much of say in what and how I write and share them with you.  This is me reflecting on my own blogging and experience and is not meant as a silent jab at any number of bloggers (both ego and non-ego driven) out there that I read, enjoy discussions and/or throw tantrums at.  This is also not meant as an example of how to blog; I am full of ego but the self-reflection was useful.

  1. You want to be on TOP; better than the rest. ~ Not so much.  I really have never had any expectation of “Sweep”, or any other blog of mine, to be more than a simple and hopefully engaging, practice blog.  I can admire that many people out there have amazing writing skills, intuition and a knowledge-base that far exceeds mine.  I will grant my self the humble honor of being humorous at times but don’t pretend to have ever wanted to be recognized as “the best”.  I am happy enough with expressing these moments as they pass.  And at least my Mom still lets me know that I make her laugh.
  2. You complain because you’re not getting enough comments. ~ I don’t complain but I did and do still yearn after comments.  They make me feel that my writing is engaging enough for others to feel the need to add their own thoughts.  But any marker of success is somewhat ego driven, I suppose, but I still light up when I see someone leave a comment (I then quickly deflate when it is PachenLama or some other troll).
  3. You are jealous of the success of other bloggers. ~ No, but I occasionally feel a pang of the green demon when someone scoops me on topic that I have ruminated over.  Publish or perish, ya know.  But I love to see the success of others.  This falls into Number One of this list.  If you want to be the best, you won’t be happy when others improve or gain some merit.  My personal favorite blogging moment to date is flipping on MSN and seeing a fellow Buddhist Blogger mentioned by Pat Buchanan.  But I also enjoyed being called Momma’s boy by Deepak Chopra and arguing religion with Adam Baldwin on twitter.
  4. You hang out on successful blogs to draw attention to yourself. ~ Ugh…marketing.  And yes, I have.  It is all about intent.  If your intent is to stoke the flames of your own blog versus leaving relevant advice or insight then you are taking the backseat to your ego.
  5. You don’t comment on certain blogs just out of principle. ~  I fall into this one as well but recently I have tried to move more towards actually saying something and not just commenting to comment.  I see it as raising your hand in class.  Do you raise your hand to get your class participation grade improved?  Do you want attention?  Have a joke? Providing encouragement? Or do you have an honest question and seeking an honest answer?
  6. You publish a post because your numbers are dropping. ~  For two years I tried to post 5 times a week.  This was exhausting and I really began to wonder why I was doing it.  I did not like the answer I came up with.  “Because, if I don’t then my numbers will tank and no-one will ever love me and the world will end…cats and dogs living together! Mass Hysteria!”  Just like any daily practice, blogging changes as you grow into new environments and situations.  My current one largely does not leave much time for daily posts and nor do I think I have the energy.
  7. You’re afraid to check your stats or you check them too much. ~ Daily I would check my stats and for the past summer I moved completely away from that aspect of blogging.  I check occasionally but it became too much of a driving reason to my blogging.  Does it matter that I had a huge wave of readers or that no-one was reading a post?  No, it really doesn’t.  Statistics (especially Google Analytics) is just one long rabbit hole.  It is illusionary worth, unless of course if you are trying to sell or promote something, then this tool is very useful.
  8. You log on while you’re still brushing your teeth in the morning (ahem). ~ I try to cut this out of my morning routine.  Before the TV or computer gets flipped on, I practice yoga, do zazen, prostrate and/or chant.  Before distractions when the morning is still pure and open, I practice.  Before I begin thinking, I practice.
  9. You’re offended because so-and-so is commenting on so-and-so’s blog, but not yours. ~  I guess my ego is not competitive because I have never had an issue with people commented on other blogs and not mine.  It sounds awfully similar to the “best friend” syndrome in High School or on Glee.
  10. You feel entitled to leave a comment and take offense if your opinion is disregarded. ~ It irks me when I am ignored or set aside and would much rather my opinion (even if misguided or incorrect) be engaged or provided the opportunity to learn from it or at very least discuss it.  But to take offense at this seems harsh.  Although I still get pissed when someone erases my comment without reason…
  11. You don’t appreciate the time you spend blogging. ~ Well, here is the crux of it.  When it becomes a chore or something that is no longer a positive or at very least an engaging experience, I think we have lost our way.  I saw the drama beginning to outshine the Dharma in my posts.  Drama is fine in moderation.  I can deal with some excitement but not too much excitement.

When I recently switched to a smaller posterous blog and began to just write when motivated or when I really felt there was something to say or express, I found the experience much more liberating and less stagnant.  It was less of a moment of self-promotion and more just a moment.  Sometimes a funny moment, sometimes a serious moment.  But it seemed that letting the moments come as they may, may be a much more rewarding experience.



Home-Dweller Meditation

It is an old story ~ A practitioner wishes to meditate regularly but either can’t (or doesn’t want to) find the time to do it consistently. The limiting factor can be geographic, physical or mental reasons that prevent them from attending a larger, “proper” sangha.  For my situation, I am stuck between lack of time, massive leftover guilt from my Catholic upbringing and too few local resources to tap.  While my local grassroots Soto Zen sitting group is accommodating, it is still difficult to find time away from family needs and duties to attend regularly.  It becomes a mental battle between the want to practice with a group, my innate guilt for leaving for a time that may be better used and my want to spend some quality time with family.  The ropes tug back and forth.

So, except for some special occasions, my practice is a home-practice.  Which means that the motivation and diligence is squarely in my novice hands, slave to the ebb and sway of work, visiting family, depression and dogs…But luckily, after some trial and error, I was able to come up with a routine that I can stick to, and thought that it would be a good enough time to share a bit of it with the hope of benefiting those in a similar situation.

First, set up everything the night before.  I am a morning person and rarely sleep past 6 AM and it is easier for me to stick to a morning meditation schedule and not an evening one.  But even a the brisk hour of 5 AM, I am still limited in time and discovered that my largest hurdle was laziness in setting up cushions/mats and altar that early in the morning. So I set out everything (mats, cushion, clothes etc), prepare incense and have an online digital timer ready to go the night before.  It has become a part of my meditation routine to include some ritual the night before.

Take a second to set an alarm for 10-15 minutes earlier than your planned sitting time but not so much that you will get caught up in some other task.  Oh my! Dishes need  washing and there is a hamper full of clothes, a litter box full of shit … posts need crafting and hair needs setting.  Since it is easy to become distracted with other bits of living I sit as soon as I come out of the bathroom.  The morning is fresh and my mind is not racing with the myriad of tasks for the day.  This is the best time.

I hate affirmations but…maybe a little something to get into the mood just as you wake up.  Something quick that will get you motivated. Perhaps a blog?  My personal favorites are John Daido Roshi’s “Invoking Reality“, Richard Baker Roshi’s “Minatures of a Zen Master“, Pema Chodron’s “Start Where You Are“, Master Cheng Yen’s “Jing Si Aphorisms” or I just run to Access to Insight and click on “Random Sutta”

Take it seriously and don’t consider it *just* meditation.  We are rotting from the first moment we are conceived.  Nothing slows down the process but this practice may help us deal with it.  I dedicate my practice to anyone that needs it.  Metta to my daughter.  Thoughts to my friends that are feeling the bite of samsara.  The dedication that by beginning to realize myself I can act in benefit for all other sentient beings.  Yeah, its lofty but it *is* that important. 

Laugh and loosen up.  In all this seriousness there is humor.  Sometimes it just won’t happen, accept it.  The dog will need to go out or you will get bum-rushed by a toddler.  All those sentient beings understand that you have a life too and that it affects your practice.  Strive but not to the point of self-defeat.

Start out small and build up rather than go for broke and beat your head against the zendo wall.  I started with 10 minutes and moved up to 15 and then to 25.  That is the peak of what I can do with my current situation and I am ok with that.  Purists will tell you that anything under 45 minutes is a waste of time.  Meditation is never a waste of time.  Any moment spent in the process of realizing yourself is time well spent.

Find a substitution for meditation.  There are times that sitting is out of the question for whatever reason and I have a back up activity.  In lieu of seated meditation I engage in walking meditation up and down a few blocks, yoga or try to do 108 prostrations.  I even had 108 push-ups as a possible replacement when I needed to get in a work-out and had too much energy to sit.  Often, I walk in the morning when meditation isn’t fitting into the schedule.  I walk either silently or listening to a liturgy (Soto, Seon or Shingon) recording.  Dharma talks didn’t work as well since I tended to focus more on the words than on the breathing and walking. 

Practice is more than just meditation.  Some simply don’t like meditation or can’t make it work.  Find a different practice.  There are plenty of Dharma doors that can be opened…they all lead to the same place.

Meditation is a process and not a goal.  Expecting a revelation on the first sit is like expecting to hit a home-run against a major league pitcher the first time you hold a bat.  Yeah, there is a slight chance but let’s be realistic, you are sitting against a trained and capable foe ~ your self.  And the most devious weapon in its repertoire is the idea that there is a “right” meditation versus a “wrong” meditation.  Rather, any moment of self-reflection is of benefit both to you and to those around you.  Don’t expect a good sit or a bad sit.  It is all the same.  When tired, we will have snatches of daydreams drift in an out of consciousness.  When stressed we will mull over problems and puzzles from work.  When angry we will seeth over the causes of our anger.   None of these things negate our meditation.  Just don’t let them dominate.

Meditation won’t make me happy.  It won’t.  It is simply not the purpose of meditation to make us happy.  What it will do is make you more receptive to being happy, content and compassionate in your daily life.  It isn’t a magical elixir that will solve all your problems or make your life a sea of bliss.  Just as brushing your teeth will prevent rot; meditation will prevent the corrosive nature of samsara from rusting your glimmer.  It ain’t much but it will keep you focused on how attentive you are through the day.  How equitable you are to family, friends and complete strangers.  How steeped our actions are in anger or in compassion.  How calmly we handle stress and strain.  How quickly are we to levy blame onto others or ourselves.

Our practice isn’t simply how we sit – It’s how we live our life.  It is the act of meditation that provides a template of how to express the subtle nature of the Dharma.  But that template is useless if not applied to our everyday life.

The Merit Badge

This is just awesome…

Inspired by a Twitter conversation between the authors of Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt and DigitalZendo, these two kind souls have been instrumental in one of the best months in BuddhaBadges history. We honor their belief and support with “The Merit Badge”. If you get it, give it as a reward for a good deed. Don’t keep it.

Thanks Buddha Badges!  So buy the merit badge and pass it on to someone that deserves it.  You can’t purchase merit but you can always reward good folks. 

Remember that ninety percent of the proceeds from Buddha Badges go to different monthly charities.  I am not sure where July donations are going but you can check the list of agencies here.  The month of June is being donated to the Tzu Chi Foundation.

Tzu Chi Foundation was established in 1966 by Venerable Dharma Master Cheng Yen on the poor east coast of Taiwan. For over 43 years, the foundation has been contributing to better social and community services, medical care, education and humanism in Taiwan and around the world. From the first 30 members, housewives who saved two cents from their grocery money each day to help the poor, the foundation has volunteers in 47 countries , with 345 offices worldwide.”

Great job, Buddha Badges…But when do I become a badge?

Credit for this image goes to @iDharma on twitter.