Buy the ticket, take the ride. Hunter S. Thompson
I used to enjoy watching the old science fiction movies of the early 20th century. Metropolis was a favorite but I also enjoyed the Buck Rogers adventure type movies as well, not to mention the original Star Trek. These fearless folks going where “No one had gone before” had both an attitude and the technology that frankly inspired a bit of envy. I couldn’t wait to catch up to the future. And when I was introduced to computer technology in the 1980’s there was no looking back.
Sometimes I thought of Zen Buddhism in a similar light. It was going to where no one had gone before on an individual level. No one has had the experiences I have had and no one is walking the same path as I am. And that is true for everyone. It was and still is an adventure.
Both of these elements, Buddhism and computing technology present interesting paradoxes. They are at once solo endeavors and social endeavors. Both deal with connections to others, networking if you will. Groups by their nature, be they Sangha or social network, bring a lot of baggage with them, as do individuals. Some of the issues that arise include social responsibility vs. individual responsibility, freedom of speech vs right speech, the marginalization of some groups, social engagement and activism, dealing with controversy and many more.
As I was writing this column and considering some of the issues, it struck me that I might ask for the opinion of someone with some knowledge in these areas. So you are getting two opinions for the price of one ticket this time. That price being your time and attention. I developed a few questions that I had interest in and tried to anticipate some that might come up for other people reading this as well.
Ven. Kobutsu Malone, an American Rinzai Zen Buddhist priest, graciously agreed to entertain my questions. He is a man that has done his time with the Dharma in some of the toughest places around, most notably bringing the Dharma to bowels of Sing-Sing prison and several death rows around the country among other places. He is the co-founder of The Engaged Zen Foundation. A full biography is available there as well.
Part 1 is my column on these issues. Part 2 is by Ven. Kobutsu Malone answering some of my questions and giving his own perspective on the issues raised.
Part 1 The Internet Landscape as a Field of Buddhist Activity-Engagement, Controversy and Weak Tea
Cyber-Sangha, on-line Jukai ceremonies, broad access to Dharma education and texts, a metaphorical meeting of minds separated by thousands of kilometers and my all time favorite, Buddhist blogs, many of which I list on this site, are all developments of introducing advanced computing technology to the ancient religion of Buddhism. But is this May-September relationship ultimately a good match? What of the offspring of these diverse species of human endeavor?
There are four areas that have come to light for me in asking these questions.
- Is it providing a platform for the accurate representation of Buddhadharma to the masses?
- Is it providing the means that will engage participants in the actual activity of relief of suffering in every quarter?
- Is it watering down the Dharma into feel-good platitudes that are drowning in the tangles of self-help indulgences?
- Is it setting the stage for histrionic ego dramas played out under a Buddhist banner?
In the first instance there are underlying assumptions that beg to be examined. And the level of examination is two-fold. Not only is a degree of media literacy needed but one of spiritual literacy as well. The first question contains two parts. One regards the audience that is reached by the medium of the Internet and the other concerns the representation. For example:
Who can have access to this information? An immediate reaction might be, “Everyone” , but that is not necessarily so. Statistically in America computer literacy and ownership is dominated by upper class, white households. From a report entitled A Nation Online:Entering the Broadband Age done by the U.S. Department of Commerce completed in 2004 we learn that in 2003 over 60% of both Whites and Asians (next after Whites) are Internet users while less than 50% of Blacks and Hispanics are Internet users. Internet usage rates also rise with education and income. Those earning more than $50,000 have a 70% or higher usage rate while those below that number have a 60% usage rate or lower and that rapidly declines with declining income. The same pattern continues in the 2007 census statistics as well. Computer literacy and even literacy itself is not available in many other parts of the world.
This is important because it begins to define the user group and the potential audience for media activities. It also, by the very structure of the media involved-Marshall McLuhan’s famous quote The Medium Is The Message is particularly apt here, excludes many of those who are already marginalized in terms of ethnic background, education, geography and income.
In other words who we hang out with on-line tends to mirror those we hang out with in real life. From the blogs we visit and comment on, to Facebook friends lists (have you actually met all those people IRL?-I haven’t) the Internet reinforces divisions. And where divisions are breeched there are plenty of opportunities for misunderstanding and controversy.
This leads into the question of accurate representation of the Buddhadharma. While an in-group may agree on certain views, these may be quite different in other quarters or even from the vast majority of people with a stake in an activity such as Buddhism. Accurate interpretation of anything requires a certain amount of knowledge of the subject matter. And the broader the better. The Internet is full of instant experts each with their own view. And some have nothing but their own views to back up their assertions. But it also contains some folks who have some significant amount of study, wisdom, experience and even expertise and credentials.
This brings up the the ugly specter of anti-intellectualism. Just because two people have the capacity to write a blog post doesn’t mean the information contained in two such posts will be equally valid. But most people are reluctant to consider the possibility that someone else might just know a thing or two that we don’t. We need to consider the sources of our information. Are they trustworthy and on what grounds?
Both who is receiving the information and who is disseminating it are relevant issues. With the Dharma one might also consider the myopia that comes with lack of exposure to alternate views. If one is unwilling to expose one’s own views, however unorthodox, they cannot be put to the test that outside viewpoints provide. This takes a certain amount of courage and a willingness to be deemed wrong or to actually be wrong. And if one is unwilling to be exposed to other’s views the exercises of dialogue and learning cannot progress. Each group or even each person becomes a closed little universe unto themselves. It is a self-sustaining feedback loop with little or no progress being made. One who believes he is standing alone is standing in a dream of his own making. That is precisely the situation addressed by the Dharma.
The risk of being criticized or of “going beyond” and all that phrase implies may be daunting. (Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha! just came to mind.) But without feedback how is testing one’s views possible? But then again it does not mean all criticisms are valid. One also has to consider the sources of criticism.
This ebb and flow of ideas, views, and understanding is one of the strengths of the Internet as a platform for Buddhist study and dialogue. We can reach broader audiences and receive hitherto unavailable information. However if it does not expand due to both economic and social circumstances to include everyone with a potential stake in the endeavor the Dharma will become on an increasing scale the property of those with vested interests. And if the sources of these criticisms are simply temper tantrums of a self-indulgent need to win an argument at the expense of the truth of the Dharma then this is also one of the weaknesses of the Internet. Self-examination in terms of intent and action are required.
For Buddhism to gain further ground in the Western parts of the world, recognition of the broader base of the global Sangha needs to be reckoned with.The historical roots of any human endeavor once forgotten tend to condemn that endeavor to oblivion. The foundation crumbles. Growth which sacrifices the place of growing cannot continue. Consider Christianity for a moment. The Old Testament of the Bible was not thrown out in favor of The New Testament. It was looked upon in it’s entirety, as part and parcel of the religious doctrine. Even in Zen Buddhism which urges a direct experience rather than reliance upon words many of the great teachers had studied the ancient texts diligently and referred to them frequently in their own teachings. The roots are not forgotten but are discovered and cultivated.
Consider the case of the first teacher Siddhartha for a moment. He expanded his horizons, saw something he was not comfortable with-suffering-and took action. He took it upon himself to try to understand the roots of that discomfort and a remedy for it. He examined the available teachings from many perspectives. And only then did he sit and make his own discovery. Suppose he had decided not to bother? Suppose he had felt it was not his responsibility? His life became a direct act of engagement with suffering. Yet he did not forget his origins and shared this great remedy with both the family back home and any stranger, regardless of status or sect.
There is already concern in Asia that White Christian missionaries are usurping Buddhism among the many hundreds of small Buddhist groups. In a fine article on Buddhist Channel, Bhikkhu K. Tanchangya a Shri Lankan monk discusses the lackadaisical attitude and outright ignorance many affluent Buddhists (East and West) have towards marginalized Asian Buddhist groups. With regard to the circumstances of the greater Sangha he states:
It is time for Buddhists to get our act together, look out for one another and redeem ourselves by rallying to Buddha’s call to “go forth… for the good of many, for the benefit and well being of many.”
This brings up the second question. What of suffering and it’s relief?
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi has stated in a recent issue of Buddhadharma magazine:
I’ve been struck by how seldom the theme of global suffering—the palpable suffering of real human beings—is thematically explored in the Buddhist journals and teachings with which I am acquainted. It seems to me that we Western Buddhists tend to dwell in a cognitive space that defines the first noble truth largely against the background of our middle-class lifestyles: as the gnawing of discontent; the ennui of over-satiation; the pain of unfulfilling relationships; or, with a bow to Buddhist theory, as bondage to the round of rebirths. Too often, I feel, our focus on these aspects of dukkha has made us oblivious to the vast, catastrophic suffering that daily overwhelms three-fourths of the world’s population.
There is not much I can add to such a clear statement.
Where, within this Cyber-Sangha do the disenfranchised find a voice? Who is willing to step up and represent those interests? It is not that impoverished and isolated people lack the ability to dialogue on the issue of suffering. It is simply the lack of opportunity. And that is the biggest issue facing the global Sangha right now. It is not whether science can prove Buddhist assertions about the benefits of meditation or whether certain mantras improve your sex life.
The Dharma is not a series of watered down platitudes meted out in Daily doses like the cute quips on some desk calendars. It is a call to radically embrace life, all life and come to terms with the truth contained there. Especially the truth of rampant, deep and continuous suffering. If that is not understood then The First Noble Truth is not understood and any effort to go beyond that is a waste of time.
We may want to consider the concept of Vannamacchariya which is one of the 5 characteristics of unselfishness that signifies a Sangha member. This is discussed in What is the Triple Gem? by Thai monk Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo. He characterizes Vannamacchariya thusly:
Vannamacchariya: not being possessive of our ‘color’ (vanna). ‘Vanna,’ here, can be interpreted in two ways. In one sense, it refers to social caste or class. For example, the ruling class, the religious elite, property owners, and laborers are held to be unequal in status, and the members of one group are unwilling to let other groups mix with theirs. If such mixing occurs, they regard it as something base and disgraceful and so they continually put up barriers to prevent it from happening. In this case, we can infer that we shouldn’t make distinctions based on faction, nationality, color, or race, because the Buddha taught that a person’s worth comes not from his or her birth, but from the goodness of his or her own actions; or, as we say, ‘Those who do good will meet with good, those who do evil will meet with evil.’ For example, we worship and respect the Buddha even though he wasn’t Thai as we are. We respect him through the power of his goodness. If we were to be close-minded and nationalistic, we Thai’s wouldn’t have any religion to worship at all aside from the religion of spirits and ghosts.
A mind closed to others based on any sort of sectarianism will never be opened to relief of even it’s own suffering. Again it would all be a wasted effort.
And finally what of these Internet dust ups between sects and individuals. As with any sort of conflict or controversy there are always numerous viewpoints. Some are simply disgruntled individuals sounding off. While others seem to signify deeper level concerns which may include criminal activity such as fraud, sexual abuse and related self-serving activity that disregards the suffering caused to others . Each has to be examined in it’s own context.
The further question arises as to the usefulness of raising such storms. If it is a simple case of adults acting childishly it is of little concern. But if it is a situation of speaking up to right a wrong or to prevent damage and suffering one is obligated by the vows one takes to consider it both Right Speech and Right Action. Consider the criteria for Right Speech from the Abhaya Sutta:
 In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
 In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
 In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.
 In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
 In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
 In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.”
There is a right time  for words that are “unendearing and disagreeable”. It is entirely possible that disagreeable speech is beneficial. It relies on intent. If the intent is truly compassionate, if it is in regards to the cessation of suffering then there is an obligation to speak.
Unfortunately there is a tendency of a few people to try to act as some sort of Dharma police. These folks embody a sort of arrogance involved in trying to control the concept of right speech in others. Right speech seems to involve only melodious tones and “let’s make nice” finger-wagging all said with a vacant stare and pasted on smile. There is also the impetus, rather like peer pressure, to prevent legitimate criticism or to silence those who speak by hurling labels such as “UnBuddhist”, “Ignorant”, “Avidya” and dismissing even the most legitimate of concerns. A label does not solve the problem. A label does not heal the wound even if others cannot immediately perceive that wound. It is simply a dismissal such as one might give to a trained pet “Sit, Stay, Good Boy”.
“In a tradition that allegedly emphasizes inquiry and thorough examination” * there is a great deal of denial and other forms of delusion masquerading as Buddhist activity. Right speech does not mean “If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all.” Nor does it mean “Shut the fuck up!”
Attempts to silence dissent and discussion in McBuddhaland are propaganda in service of protectionism of the upper classes and the co-opting of Buddhadharma by those classes. Western White Buddhism is increasingly about reinforcing class structure, racism, psycho-Dharma, capitalism and status quo. It is protectionist and divisive on a global scale. The Internet both serves this interest and can be used as a means to subvert it. Which is in the true interest of the Dharma?
The Cyber-Sangha calls for a broader level of engagement than one’s local sitting group which most likely is made up of individuals of homogenous backgrounds and views. The Cyber-Sangha by it’s very nature propels one out of their comfort zone and into the wilds where one could encounter just about anything imaginable or unimaginable.
The Internet like any tool can be used as a skillful or unskillful means. It can be used to silence dissent, vilify others in personal attacks, to propagandize and distort truth, to warp Buddhist principles and to further personal and political agendas at the expense of others. It can also be used to prevent suffering. That depends upon the user.
We have seen in the past some of the dangers of those who have acted in isolation and gone astray bringing damage to themselves and the Sangha. No doubt there is much more that has not yet emerged.
The Internet can be used in the service of preventing further damage and in bringing forward legitimate questions regarding the Dharma and it’s teachers and applications. It is in the uncomfortable and in the controversial that we may find the most compelling instances of the Dharma in action. Do not turn away!
Marnie Louise Froberg (NellaLou)
Part 2 Another View of Engagement, Controversy and the Internet as a Field of Buddhist Activity-Questions with answers and an essay from Ven. Kobutsu Malone
1) Speaking up about controversial issues is a tough gig. Why do it any time? And especially why would a Buddhist priest do it?
Controversial issues are bound with things that shake preconceptions we hold that most closely define our self-image. We all have vested interests, irrespective of alleged “spiritual attainment,” “Dharma transmission,” or “great wisdom.” Granted the way of the Tao teaches that as soon as we pick and choose, we distance ourselves from the path. However, in reality, who would choose to sit on a dirty toilet seat when the one next to it is clean? If we did choose to sit on the stinky seat for some rationalized reason of “having transcended” we are simply deluding ourselves into thinking we have some sort of accomplishment, we are catering to a self-image preconception. “I’m of the Tao – slimy toilet seats are the same as royal thrones.” Hey, be my guest…. I’ll put my wrinkly old ass on the clean seat, thank you very much!
Addressing the controversial is not simple, by its nature that which is controversial is going to ruffle feathers – stir up negativity. In itself, controversy is neither good nor bad, nor profane or sacred, the issue of the controversy is the meat of the matter. We don’t have to look far to find issues that at one time were “controversial” and were addressed, brought into the spotlight to be examined and dissected through discriminating awareness, logic, questioning authority, questioning preconceived “truths,” communication and scientific method. People may become complacent over time and wish only to maintain the status quo out of the need for false security and to maintain their rigid notions of their own worldviews as the basis for defining themselves. In defining the universe, we define ourselves through our relationship to the universe.
This brings to mind a formal talk given by a former teacher of mine that served as a point of departure in my relationship with him. The text of the talk was published in one of “the Buddhist glossies” and I happened to read the magazine by chance. I read the piece and was initially stunned. I re-read it several times to make sure I was fully grasping the “gist” of what the teisho was about. The following quote jumped out at me:
“The other day I received an e-mail with a short article about a therapist in Hawaii who had the ability to heal mentally ill prison inmates without ever seeing them. At first, I was half-believing, half-doubting. But as I continued reading the article, I couldn’t help but agree with this doctor’s methods.”
Typically my former teacher would be wearing an elaborate, extravagantly expensive brocade kesa, sitting on the high seat, in the Dharma hall making those statements. He would be addressing a group of clergy and lay students gathered for Sesshin.
What they are hearing is that this man is in agreement with the methods of a doctor who has evidently claimed to be able to heal mental illness at a distance. The teacher’s statement indicates that he is in agreement with the doctor’s “method.” He does not explicitly state that he subscribes to the truth of the claim that mental illness can be “healed” from a distance but his statement certainly implies to his audience that he agrees with the premise, as he makes no effort to assert otherwise.
The format of the talk is such that no one in the “audience” can offer any comment or ask any questions. In effect all gathered are a captive audience with no ability to offer input, express disagreement or challenge any viewpoint. If some brave soul were to do so, they would be sealing their fate and would be told to leave, most likely never to return.
From where I’m sitting, the alleged claim of doctor being discussed, in and of it’s self, is patently absurd. The doctor is claiming to be able, in essence, to perform miracles. Such claims reek of magical thinking, delusions of power, grandiosity, arrogance and even omnipotence.
In holding up such a model of the universe, the teacher holds up a mirror of his own perception of himself.
With my experience in prisons and with prisoners during the past two decades, my attention was drawn to that particular statement in the talk. Prisons are bastions of mental illness ranging from mild (i.e. “normal”) to profoundly psychotic, manifesting in forms ranging from harmless to exceedingly dangerous (criminally insane, mass murderers). I have worked with the full gamut of people in these circumstances.
The first thing that crossed my mind on reading the lines about prisoners was, why does this doctor limit his “practice” of “distance healing” of mental illness to prisoners? Why on earth didn’t he focus his attention on the White House, where really dangerous mentally ill people were rather than on anonymous prisoners in some isolated hellhole?
What is this so-called teacher thinking in bringing up such blatantly absurd claims in a formal talk? He uses the self-serving claims of this deluded doctor to buttress a completely non-Buddhistic, dualistic premise that the entire universe is somehow a “projection” of himself. His precise words further on in the talk:
“To me, total responsibility means that everything — literally every single phenomenon inside and outside of my being — is wholly a projection of myself.” [italics in context]
The article this well known alleged Zen teacher refers to in the teisho is about Dr. Ihaleakala Hew Len and is entitled “The World’s Most Unusual Therapist” by Dr. Joe “Mr. Fire” Vitale. The article references only anecdotal claims of the doctor himself and makes no reference to any sort of investigation. No witnesses.
Dr. Ihaleakala Hew Len teaches something called Ho’oponopono. His organization is called, “The Foundation of I, Inc. Freedom of the Cosmos” http://www.hooponopono.org/
Dr. Joe “Mr. Fire” Vitale’s web page http://www.mrfire.com/ claims that he is the founder & president of Hypnotic Marketing, Inc. His homepage states: “Besides being one of the five top marketing specialists in the world today, and the world’s first hypnotic writer, Joe is also a certified hypnotherapist, a certified metaphysical practitioner, a certified Chi Kung healer, and an ordained minister. He also holds a doctorate degree in Metaphysical Science and another doctorate degree in Marketing.”
This whole business has nothing to do with Buddha Dharma; it appears to be a foray into sociopathic, megalomaniacal, magical thinking. What is being promoted here is described as by its proponents themselves as “self-help.” Let me state it clearly… Zen is not about “self-help” it is not about “self” anything.
In dealing with controversy we have a foundation of guidelines offered in the Kalama Sutra. This is a Theravadan Sutra and is not taught in the Japanese Zen traditions. On studying the text and examining the history and structure of Japanese Zen it becomes easy to grasp the reason the Sutra is ignored in the tradition.
In the Kalama Sutra we find specific instructions – Question the one in the robes, profoundly question the one in the fancy robes, think for yourself, don’t take anyone’s word for anything. Check it out… question what you hear, what you read – question what you teach, and what you publish.
Setting up self-serving world-views that support arrogance is not Buddha Dharma. In the Anattā-lakkhaṇa Sutta we learn, “There is no self, no “being,” no “my” to have any “being” No self inside — No self outside
Hui Neng, the legendary Sixth Patriarch of Zen, put it this way:
There is no Bodhi tree,
Nor stand of mirror bright.
Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?
This one puts it another way:
At the prison gate,
Step aside, let white moon light
Shine through iron bars.
A Buddhist priest is responsible for presenting truth that can be examined, questioned and digested, not magical, megalomaniacal thinking. Dialog and communication are vital to communication, alleged “truth” presented from on high as unquestionable is extremely suspect if just in its manner of presentation. If a Buddhist priest is truly serving people he or she is obligated to encourage questioning and meticulous examination.
To question a former teacher is perhaps “controversial” but to say nothing while people are being lead astray into the self-serving delusion of another is criminal. This Buddhist priest would far prefer to enter into controversy than to remain silent in conspiracy to delude.
2) Engaged Buddhism seems to require a good deal of sacrifice, particularly in terms of focus on personal practice. Does it detract from or enhance practice and how?
I have some trepidation about the term “personal practice” as it implies the notion that there is indeed a “person” who practices. We may approach practice in the beginning from just such a perspective, we have little else to go on. Most people approach the contemplative aspect of Buddhism from the perspective of “personal” or “self” development. It’s indeed spiritual materialism – what can I get out of this for ME? There is nothing wrong with this approach, it is hardly rare, and in fact this is how the vast majority of people at the beginning stage first come into contact with Buddha Dharma.
We are all immersed in the clinging of ego with little clue as to the nature of the “problem”. Of course this is all we are able to do as novices on the path, despite our deluded notions to the contrary. This sort of approach is quite normal, common and widespread, hardly out of the ordinary. At first we are often motivate to search for a “path” a “practice” due to our life experience, our experience of pain, disappointment and general dissatisfaction. These “negative” experiences in life bring us to a point where we begin to feel a nebulous sensation of something being “wrong” that somehow must be “correctable.”
In our first steps toward the path we are all excited with the idea that we have found a “solution” to what ails us. In the beginning we delve into practice like a kid in a candy store, surrounded with mouthwatering sweets of innumerable variety. We experience great excitement; we feel that we have finally found a way to “improve ourselves”. We begin to feel giddy in this newfound joy and cannot wait to show off our new and improved “self” to others.
In time this initial exuberance wears off when we begin to recognize that perhaps we have deluded ourselves rather than improved ourselves. This happens time and time again. If we somehow manage to keep up with a contemplative practice through these stages we may begin to realize that what we are engaged in is not as simple as our original preconceptions dictated. We can then begin to approach practice from a saner and more stable position and not be deluded by our own thought creations into believing this or that about our practice – whether we have made “progress” whether we have “improved.”
Our initial exuberance has to run its natural course; there is no way we can jump ahead, the path is walked, not traversed in leaps. These are painful lessons we learn in the beginning. We learn about disappointment, we learn about spiritual ambition, we learn about spiritual arrogance. These lessons cannot be conveyed verbally or in writing, they have to be experienced directly. We learn from experience, that is the nature of “practice.”
In the beginning we are immersed in egocentric reality, we know nothing else. In time, with diligence, hard work and continual disappointment we may be able to begin to attain a glimpse of non-egocentric reality. To fully embrace such a perspective, to develop it as the foundation of our lives may take many years, even many decades of dedicated practice. What has been described here in a few short paragraphs is a long duration vale of pain, dissatisfaction and disappointment that takes decades to traverse.
In the beginning we may feel that we “have” something called a “personal practice” that involves sitting alone in formal posture every day or multiple times daily. But what’s “personal” about it?
The posed question seems to differentiate between “personal” and “engaged” by implication. The notion that “engaged Buddhism” involves sacrifice begs examination.
Engaged Buddhism is not a “flavor” of Buddhism that we can choose as if we are at a “Buddhist” ice cream counter. “I’ll have a scoop of engaged and a scoop of personal… with sprinkles please!” Engaged practice is not about “choosing” to be “engaged” or not, more likely engaged practice chooses us. It does so often despite our preferences, despite the path we may have planned out in our own heads for our spiritual journey. We might bear this in mind; that our ambitions and projections onto our “path” are most likely hindrances that will eventually have to be burned through in a long painful process.
In the beginning we may have some idea that we somehow “want” to be engaged Buddhists. If we are smart, we will view such ambition with a high degree of suspicion. It is very much a part of the miasma, part of the entangling briars of ego that we have to work through. Examination and questioning is never ending on this way, complacency is a stone in the road that crops up over and over again. Unless we learn to be observant, unless we pay close attention we will find ourselves wandering into states of arrogance, deluded thinking and becoming invested in maintaining some status quo.
Engaged practice is perhaps something that develops out of what has been called “personal practice” it is about practice for the benefit of others and the benefit of society as a whole irregardless our own personal benefit. It requires a familiarity with the traps and pitfalls we encounter in contemplative practice and cannot be properly manifest without having gone through the preliminary process of gaining familiarity with our own “personal” neurosis. This is why it is important to view the practice of contemplative training as an effort in becoming familiar with and making friends with all of the elements of mind that prevent us from seeing things clearly and precisely as they are. Neurosis can be quite aptly be defined as the refusal to see things clearly and precisely as they are.
Engaged Buddhist practice is perhaps the flower of the root of practice, it cannot exist without the root, stem and leaves that make up contemplative practice. It cannot manifest without the base elements of a firmly established plant. Engaged practice can be viewed as post-graduate work, not something we can simply jump into from the get-go. This is perhaps worth bearing in mind when we read the words “engaged Buddhism” or “engaged Zen.”
At the right time engagement flowers, but we cannot force its flowering. When it flowers it does so out of a genuine understanding of our nature that mandates understanding of the “nature” of “other” and the “nature” of “all others.”
In time with practice we develop a comprehension of the limitation of linguistic expression along with the precise use of linguistic expression in its realm. It would be counterproductive to mistake the words for the real…
In summation, and to answer the second part of the question, engaged Buddhism is the flowering of practice. It does not detract or enhance, it is a natural outgrowth that exhibits great beauty and enables the propagation of Buddhadharma for the benefit of all beings.
3) What comes first Dharma or activism?
I don’t perceive that it is a question of Dharma or activism, in that these terms are not precise relative to the discussion of Engaged Buddhist practice. Perhaps a more apropos question would be, ”What comes first Dharma or Engaged practice?”
There are all sorts of “activists” who are involved with all sorts of causes for all sorts of reasons. In my case, I was an anti war activist actually before I was a committed Buddhist. Activism to me meant standing up for what I strongly perceived was a situation that was unjust and caused unnecessary suffering. One does not have to be a “Buddhist” or anything else to hold such a position. Activism is willingness to become actively involved in bringing about change, seeking justice, addressing corruption, or all of the preceding. These matters do not necessarily have any thing to do with Buddh-ism.
It behooves us to bear in mind that Activism does not imply action for the good or even effectiveness. Just because activists take up a cause does not mean that the cause is “just” or “unjust” it only means that people are passionately concerned about the cause. Activism does not equate with the use of skillful means to bring about change either, some activist activities are far from skillful.
Positive activism encompasses the passionate intent or desire to bring about change for the common good in different areas; political change, social justice, racial issues, economics, environmental issues, the provision of equitable health care for all, even psychological issues. Activism can range from union organizing to transformational psychology; it can be quite public or completely unknown.
Negative activism could include movement toward racism, exclusion, protectionism and nationalism among other issues. It could be said that KKK organizers are involved in negative activism… they are passionately involved in action to bring about change.
Activism changes people, including those who practice it. The effort of becoming active for a cause brings about a transformation in the individual independent of the results or goals of the activism. Simply standing up and taking action, even if it something as simple as writing a letter to a politician in support of a cause gives a sense of empowerment to the person involved. Activism can encompass many different endeavors ranging from quite public street demonstrations, protests, and public dissent to an action as simple and obscure as placing a stamp on a letter upside down.
The term “engaged Buddhism” is perhaps a reactionary take on the common notion, prevalent in the East, that Buddhists (and Buddhist clergy in particular) are required by custom and tradition to remain aloof from political and social involvement. This has been maintained as a status quo for centuries in many Buddhistic societies in various countries. The reasons are manifold and at times difficult to examine. The position of the Buddhist tradition and the Sangha in many places has been that of large and powerful blocks or bodies of people that are held together in a cohesive bond often transcending secular authority in size and historical significance.
Secular rule and authority comes and goes, Kings rise to power and fall from power in time frames narrower than those involved in religious traditions. In the past, secular powers came into control of countries and areas through military and economic might that were incredibly intimidating in their degree of control over people’s lives. Kings and governments were in the position of wielding the power of life and death over their subjects. Such power is not to be taken lightly.
Buddhist societies and Sanghas through the ages were quite aware of the power of governments and rulers over their people and in particular the power over the very life and death of their subjects. Dissent and activism were generally not tolerated by those wielding absolute authority, it’s one thing to express dissent in an allegedly “free” society where freedom of speech is enshrined as a basis for governance and an entirely different matter when dissent is viewed as treason punished by summary execution.
We might perhaps bear in mind that in many Eastern countries absolute power has been a reality for eons whereas democracy and freedom are relatively new. The traditions of Buddhist clergy being prohibited from engaging in political activity has come out of the tradition of despotism and absolute control. The tradition of accepting authority without question likewise arises from such conditions. These factors have been inculcated into societies over hundreds if not thousands of years. Such traditional deference to power is woven into the very fabric of a society in ways that may be difficult to discern at first glance.
So we can see that as societies gain some freedom of expression for their people the historic restrictions against dissent are loosened and the people gain a certain freedom of expression without fear of reprisal. It may take the passage of a great deal of time between the gaining of such freedom and the embrace of freedom of expression to take hold as patterns of behavior are deeply entwined in social custom. Breaking out of long maintained tradition does not occur overnight, it may take a few generations for the people to embrace their newly acquired freedoms and learn that they may adopt an activist approach without fear of crushing reprisal from oppressive governance.
Plain garden-variety activism is unrelated to Buddhadharma, it is simply a method, a tactic for bringing about change, and Engaged Buddhist activism is perhaps another matter. What does it entail?
The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term “engaged Buddhism” in his book “Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire” published in 1967. He originally used the Chinese characters meaning “entering the world Buddhism” [ 入世佛教 – rénjiān fójiào ] to describe the concept of Buddhist Sangha breaking free of traditional monastic bonds so as to be able to enter the world of the suffering of the common people to serve all beings. His conception of the practice of “mindfulness” involved the responsibility of Buddhists to take part at a grass roots level to alleviate the suffering of the masses as opposed to maintaining the orthodox tradition of clergy being sequestered in monastic environs, isolated from the world. His approach was to urge the integration of contemplative practice into the mainstream culture and to free Buddhists from the rigid control of entrenched orthodox hierarchy thus enabling them to fulfill their vows to emancipate all beings in a very timely and concrete way.
Thich Nhat Hanh, his fellow monks and associates worked to ensure the integration of The Buddha’s teachings into the lives of common people as opposed to retreating into sequestered monastic existence and abandoning the world as something unclean or a distraction to spiritual progress.
In the East, at the time, much of Buddhism was more involved in the veneration of dead ancestors than in relating to living people. Many Sangha members were directed by the established hierarchy to direct their energies toward ancestor worship, “self improvement” or “individual spiritual development” as opposed to extending their interest and care to living people, those really in need of aid and support. Thich Nhat Hanh’s approach involved direct action, working toward establishing political reform for the benefit of society rather than simply praying or chanting with intention. His take was; that real medicine was of greater value than ceremony or prayer for the cure of disease.
On reviewing what I just wrote, I wonder if I was really getting to the point or if I had gotten bogged down in semantics, I kind of realize that I don’t think that Dharma or activism are mutually exclusive. In other words it isn’t an either/or situation. A lot of it seems to come down to our individual perception. Dharma and activism it seems, are both transformative; both are “practices” that in their undertaking bring about change in the practitioner. I realized that simply engaging in activism irrespective of involvement in Buddhadharma brings about changes in the individual, not just the “subject matter” that the activism addresses. Standing up for social justice, being a social justice activist may or may not bring about furtherance of social justice. However, the simple act of standing up brings about change in the activist irrespective of the intended effect of the action.
I’m reminded of a situation that occurred in the early 90’s when I was involved in battling with the administration at Sing Sing Prison in New York State over the nature of the fledgling “meditation group” I had going in the prison. I was in touch with a man who was involved in running another group in another prison in the state and we were discussing ways of getting what we needed to facilitate our programs. I was operating pretty much on an instinctive level in terms of fighting with an administration that had allowed a “meditation group” to form but that did not wish to grant the group “religious” status. It was like pulling teeth with them, one of the first requests I made was for permission to bring in (at no cost to the facility) sitting cushions and mats, zafus and zabutons. The administration’s response was that the cushions and mats were “articles of worship” and that since we were not a “religious group” they were not allowed.
Dealing with such assertions took weeks, as letters were exchanged, phone calls made and arguments put forth. Prison administrators can be very difficult to deal with as they are entrenched in the maintenance of the status quo, almost to the point of absurdity. I was asking for sitting cushions so the men in my group did not have to sit for long periods of time on wimpy rolled-up blankets on concrete floors. When they responded that the cushions were articles of worship I was dumfounded. I responded that we had no intention of worshiping the damn things; we just wanted to sit on them! Nevertheless, the die had been cast, the cushions and mats had been labeled and the administration had dug in its heels. (This sort of mentality prevails in “corrections” administration because they are used to making pronouncements that carry the weight of law over their charges and staff.) But I was not “one of their charges” I was a “civilian” I was neither a “prisoner” nor a “guard” and not so easily dismissed by heavy handed, arbitrary rulings.
I put on my “activist hat” and examined my options. OK, so cushions are “articles of worship” that can only be used by a bono fide “religious” group… hmm. My first gambit was to inquire about forming a Buddhist religious group since they had raised the issue of religion. I was told that a certain number of prisoners were required to form such a group and that it was a long and complicated process. It took weeks and a number of letters just to get that information from the administration. I sought clarification from them as to just how many prisoners were “required” to constitute such a group. I was informed that I didn’t have enough although they refused to tell me how many constituted “enough.” It went on and on…
I finally put on my activist hat, consulted with an attorney friend who had some experience in dealing with correctional administrators who told me I was simply being stalled and put off. I finally decided to directly confront the authorities and I drafted a letter of confrontation that laid down an ultimatum for them to consider. I shared a copy of the letter with the man who was teaching Zen in the other facility.
After sending him a copy of my letter I called him to discuss the situation. He was appalled at what I had done, he was quite upset and told me that, “If this is what Buddhism has come to we are in a sorry state.” He went on to admonish me by saying; “WE use skillful means in our efforts and do not resort to threatening the administration.” He then hung up on me. I was taken aback by his response to the situation. I got the impression that this was someone who was unwilling to deal with negativity and somehow thought that Buddhadharma was always about flowery speech and kowtowing to authority. I never contacted him again.
What I told the administration in my letter was simply this:
“It took five prisoners a number of years ago to file suit in Federal Court to get Buddhism recognized as a religion by the New York State Department of Correctional Services. We have five men in the meditation group who are registered as “Buddhist” in their institutional religious preferences. Either the administration allows a Buddhist religious group to form without obstruction or this group of Buddhist prisoners will file suit in Federal Court with the assistance of a couple of pro bono attorneys of my acquaintance.”
I copied the letter to each of the prisoners in our group, the NYSDOCS Director, the head of Chaplaincy Services in Albany, a couple of attorneys and provided copies to several newspapers.
Well, in a couple of weeks I received a call from the Deputy Superintendent and he informed me that we had a sufficient number of men to form a “religious group” and steps were to be taken to that end. We formed The Dharma Song Zendo in Sing Sing Prison. We were allowed our cushions, mats, altar, sutra books and over time many other zendo tools and instruments. I even managed to convince the administration to allow in a kyosaku (wake-up stick). They were aghast at first when I brought in the implement and explained its usage. They were very nervous about the idea that I was going to be hitting maximum security prisoners over their shoulders with a three foot long paddle like oak stick.
Now, getting to the “skillful means” issue: I was dealing with a group of men who were entrenched in their exercise of complete control mentality, who are constantly being sued by prisoners for all sorts of reasons. They don’t like going to court, it takes away from their work time and things pile up when they have to appear in court. The administrators of the facility and the higher-ups in Albany could see clearly that they would lose in court and simply took the path of least resistance, they acquiesced to our demands. They did not take it personally; they actually paid attention to our maneuvering and acknowledged that we had prevailed. The group earned respect on the administration’s home turf.
From that point on things became a lot easier for the group and we experienced eight years of cooperation with the Sing Sing administration and during that period ran the most intensive prison Zen program in history.
So, what constitutes “skillful means”? That which does as its told by authority “because that’s the way Buddhists behave” or that which addresses the issue at hand in terms that are familiar and understood by the authority?
I’ll leave that for the reader to decide….
4) About the Internet and Buddhism
The advent of the internet has opened up a brave new world of communication that is unprecedented and cannot be fully grasped or understood by those involved in using it. We have never before in history been in a position that we are able to communicate instantaneously and directly to huge numbers of people worldwide for free from the comfort of our own homes.
“Internet Buddhism” is a unique phenomenon particularly for Western “converts” to Buddhism. Until the late nineteenth century Buddhism was largely unknown to the West. Eastern Buddhists were immersed in a religious tradition that had been entirely a local affair for over two millennia. It was the advent of the publication of Buddhist texts for the masses, the newfound ability of people to travel relatively easily from one country to another in short periods of time that contributed to an opening up of the tradition in the East and its eventual transmission to the West.
Prior to the twentieth century very few people in the East had any exposure to Buddhism beyond what was available at their local Buddhist temple. Schools of Buddhism were separated by geography except for a determined, diligent few that were willing to undertake arduous pilgrimages to far away places to encounter other form of Buddhism. The overwhelming majority of Buddhist people had only exposure to whatever tradition or school of Buddhism was available in their locale. People didn’t travel much; folks had hard lives with little leisure or means to travel to other countries where they might encounter differing Buddhist traditions. If one was born in a village with a temple, one was whatever sort of Buddhist that that temple’s school represented. There were simply no alternatives.
The advent of modern communication and relatively inexpensive rapid transit has changed that paradigm. The changes in the past fifty years alone have been mind-boggling. In my own lifetime I have gone from having a library of just about every book available in English on Buddhism to seeing huge numbers of texts that are totally unfamiliar. The internet has brought access to phenomenal amounts of information concerning Buddhism to just about anyone who wants it; this is historically unprecedented.
While the volume of information has grown exponentially, most people are not in a position to be able to judge with any degree of acumen the quality of this “Buddhist” material. Herein is the issue I am addressing in this essay. We are beset with quantities of information but are apparently lacking in the wisdom and experience required to make informed decisions as to the quality of the information in front of us.
We denizens of cyberspace are a subset of the population that we may not at first be able to perceive with clarity. We on-liners tend to be well off, we can afford computers, pay for providers to connect us to the web, are blessed with the free time necessary to take part and possess a certain degree of training and skill sets required to navigate cyberspace. We tend to fail to recognize our position and find ourselves startled when we ask a new acquaintance for their email and learn that they do not have email. It’s shocking for some of us, we have become so used to the idea that everyone is online.
As for online Buddhism, there really isn’t any… there can’t ever be any. Buddhism is about human relationships; direct one on one personal experience. I’ve been on line since the old BBS days when the internet was in its infancy and have watched, even taken part in the development of the huge amount of information ABOUT Buddhism that is now available. My experience with Buddhism and its connection with the internet has not been a bed of roses. It has been far from a pleasant, enjoyable experience.
I have found various sources and databases of classical Buddhist texts to be of value along with the availability of the writings of a few modern teachers. But by and large I have come away from the internet disturbed with the dearth of useless and even injurious information available attributed to Buddhism. I have run into fraudulent teachers, charlatans, con men and scoundrels passing themselves off as accomplished masters and leading groups of people astray at will on the net. Buddhist chat room and channels are filled with misguided individuals who hide in their anonymity and spew forth absurd interpretations of Buddhadharma as if it were ambrosia. People are always around who are willing to take in such sop as gospel truth without question.
Everybody’s an expert, everyone is right and everyone else is wrong. The rank beginner can come off as an accomplished master behind a keyboard, its easy and the pickin’s are unlimited. In many ways we abandon our humanity on line, both our own and that of others. I’m distressed in all honesty….
Someone asked me recently why I don’t blog. It’s because I am unwilling to make the commitment to provide a constant stream of new and insightful information demanded by blog followers. I simply do not have that much to say. I’m not interested in gathering students around me online; I could care less about internet fame or fortune. I’ve been called all sorts of names and accused of all sorts of failings online. I don’t care; I’m just not interested. I’ve been around the Buddhist “scene” since my time with Trungpa Rinpoche beginning in 1969. I’ve seen scads of teachers, gurus and other spiritual types that I wouldn’t give two cents for. I’ve supported teachers who have been immoral, unethical, delusional, megalomaniacal, uncaring, sociopathic, sadistic and damaging to people beyond belief. Buddhism in America has severe problems as does Buddhism in the East…charlatans abound here and there.
The plain truth is that genuine teachers of sound moral and ethical standing are rarer than hen’s teeth. Are these just the words of a crotchety old man fond of picking fights on the internet? Perhaps – I find little positive to say about how Buddhism has been maligned and manipulated by modern day hucksters more interested in playing “Dharma for dollars” than living and breathing for the sake of the liberation of all beings.
5) Right speech vs. freedom of expression.
I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the presentation of the eight fold noble path in the “right” this or “right” that format. For me, the idea that matters of moral and ethical conduct can be reduced to a cut and dry formula of “right” or “wrong” is rigid and simplistic. Ethics and morality cannot be reduced so easily into black and white. Perhaps a better word than “right” might be “wise.”
I do not subscribe to the notion that we need speak “only pleasant words, those words which are acceptable (to others). What one speaks without bringing evils to others is pleasant.” [Vangisa Thag 21 PTS: vv. 1227-1230]
There is something insipidly simpleminded in such instruction. We must always be “nice,” pleasant, soft, flowery and appealing. This is hobbling and restrictive to the use of expression as needed in real life situations. Blanket statements telling people what they “should” do or be are thinly veiled forms of oppression. Simplistic rules of conduct designed to bring people into line with any ideology, even appealing ideology, denies people their freedom of choice. It disrespects people by imposing ideological considerations over their personal freedom to choose.
Speaking only pleasantries or refraining from speech does not serve to address issues of negativity that may cause harm to others. We cannot promote justice without speaking about issues that may be unpleasant for others to hear.
How do we expose corruption by only speaking pleasantries? How safe would we feel if our police officers could speak only pleasant words, those words that are acceptable to a dangerous criminal? How could we address a fraudulent Dharma teacher who speaks pleasantries in public while operating as a sexual predator in secret and encouraging others to lie to protect his image? Can we handle such a situation using pleasant speech? Hardly… reality dictates otherwise. It is childish, unrealistic and simpleminded to maintain that such all too common situations can be handled using only pleasant words. In real life situations, at times it is necessary to use harsh words to communicate.
If a mugger is holding me up at gunpoint and we are being approached by a police officer, I want that police officer to be free to use the harshest language imaginable to intimidate the predator into submission, thank you. I want Officer Friendly to be free to turn into Dirty Harry if the situation calls for it. I want to have the same freedom of expression and the ability to act in my own and that of others best interests. If my life, that of my family, friends or any others is in danger, I’m not going to use pleasant language… I’m not going to behave like Mr. Rogers when someone is in mortal danger or being threatened with rape or being beaten. Sorry, it is just not realistic to suppose that “right” speech, using only pleasing words, is appropriate in such circumstances. “Wise” speech, yes, wise speech can include that which is pleasant or mild and that which is unpleasant or harsh. Wise speech leaves us with the freedom to speak in ways that are appropriate to the circumstances without oppressing us into some form of ideological behavior pattern designed to control and subjugate people into compliant automatons…
Will I lie if my safety or that of others depends on it? You bet I will. “There are no Jews hiding in my basement.” Will I lie and use harsh language while doing so? Yep. “Freeze! – Drop the gun mother fucker or I’ll blow your head off.” The stricture of speaking only in a friendly, warm, gentle manner is ideologically appealing to some perhaps, but unrealistic in reality.
Things in real life are not as simple as we might imagine in establishing ideological strictures of moral and ethical behavior. Would I really blow someone’s head off? Maybe not, I could perhaps throw my sutra book at them… but I’d take my chances lying and using the loudest, harshest language possible to cause a perpetrator to think I might.
So let us not be so naive, complacent and ideologically fettered in our thinking. Life is not all “love ‘n light” or “bunny rabbits, teddy bears and flowers.” It behooves us to be able to use our intelligence, wisdom, critical thinking and discriminating awareness to deal with things in the real world juxtaposed to adopting simplistic, formulaic ideological standards such as “right” or “wrong” behavior or interpretation. Let’s keep open minds, lest we fall into ideological quicksand and loose our freedom to respond in a wise and effective manner.
Will these words offend? Yes, some people, perhaps sincere Buddhists will find the words herein highly offensive and may condemn me as a Buddhist priest for using “harsh, crude language” just in my above illustrations. That is fine, I am not concerned over such matters. I am capable of mild, gentle and loving speech in addition to rough, course and aggressive speech. I do not go around shouting at people in a threatening manner unless the need arises. My intention is not to be or project offensiveness, but rather, to educate and raise questions in people’s minds that motivate them to question and examine commonly accepted Buddhist doctrine in accord with the epistemology provided in the Kalama Sutta.
6) Where do you see Buddhism in America going? Does this direction accord with the Dharma?
Let me state right off the bat that “Buddhism” and “Buddhadharma” are two different things from where I’m sitting. The term “Buddhism” encompasses a huge swath of traditions, sects and schools. It is a very broad term akin to the term “Christianity” that can denote wildly diverse sects, churches, even cults. Christianity can refer to snake handlers in the Appalachian Mountains, hate groups like propagandist Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, the mainstream traditions and extend as far as the Vatican.
Buddhism in America is by and large a general a term used to denote groups of Americans in the Zen and Tibetan schools made up largely of converts. These days there are increasing numbers of second generation American Buddhists, the children of the first generation converts. There are of course ethnic Buddhist groups throughout the country but these groups tend to be insular, isolated by language and cultural differences – not a part of what most converted American Buddhists would regard as mainstream American Buddhism.
As for where it’s all going… well that’s anybody’s guess. I’m not optimistic even that Buddhism can serve as a vessel or Buddhadharma in the West. The level of misperception and egoistic greed prevalent in so called Buddhists and all too often indeed in their alleged teachers is frightening. Seeing teachers from Asia coming over here and dispensing watered down Dharma for us simpleminded Westerners is disheartening. Seeing the number of Western teachers who have become entrapped in the “Dharma for dollar$” circuit, their faces gracing the pages of “The Buddhist glossies” hawking this “product” and that “modality” is revolting. Watching these magazines publishing drivel time and time again is down right depressing. I’ve often commented that I see the same sixteen articles being written and rewritten by the same dozen or so writers over and over again.
I’m no fan of magical thinking, numerology, superstition, Orientalism, Japanophilism or Asian occultism. I see strains of these characteristics permeating American Buddhism and shudder. I’m not interested in ancestor worship or paying homage to the “Spirits of the mountain” or other quaint Japanese superstitious beliefs. This stuff simply has no place in my life.
I am deeply disturbed at the presentation of Buddhist traditions that embody the concept of “credentialing” for teachers that is poorly understood by Westerners for what it really is. Credentials can and are bought and sold. Credentials are dispensed for political and administrative purposes. I know folks who have something called “Dharma transmission” that are held up by students as some sort of superior beings allegedly “enlightened” and even super-human. I’ve watched people struggle tooth and nail to obtain such status; I’ve watched the ass kissing, the ingratiating, the patronizing and the exchange of hard cold cash in such endeavors. I’ve seen deals brokered and deals broken all in the effort to obtain supposed “official” recognition. I’ve also seen some of the ambitious slime-balls that come out of such endeavors with a couple of scrolls, silk brocade vestments and noses held high in the air so as to look down on the mere mortals beneath them. I’ve watched these credentialed wonders dabble in so-called Engaged Buddhism to round out their curriculum vitaes in vain efforts at self-promotion in the “circuit” of fame and fortune. Rubbish I say…
I’m not optimistic, no. At times it is frustrating watching gullible people, one after the other, sucking up to these charlatans to be fleeced for all they are worth and unceremoniously spit out when they are no longer perceived as being of value for the validation junkies.
I’m not interested in such games; I’m interested in liberation – not the worship of fame and profit, such base activities are most definitely not in accord with Buddhadharma.