Community Health

-a dispatch from the grief process

Today I came across this CNN article Global health success: India certified free of polio which said:

India has been certified polio-free by the World Health Organization after going three years without an endemic case of polio. The eradication of polio in India is heralded as one of the biggest achievements in global health efforts….

Health workers determined that the children of migrants or those growing up in difficult-to-reach areas were not getting access to vaccines. So they deployed immunization efforts to reach the most vulnerable, according to UNICEF.

India launched a massive effort involving a surveillance network and almost 2.3 million vaccine administrators, who identified communities falling through the cracks.

To counter rumors and misgivings about the vaccine, social mobilizers, religious leaders and parents were included to increase understanding about immunizations.

I am so glad to hear this. I notice over the 13 years I’d been coming to India that there was gradually fewer young people seen around with the effects of polio.

I come across things pretty much every day that trigger cascades of emotion and memory. Not always sad, though tinged with that, but also happy memories. Here’s something that came to mind related to the above story.

One thing Manoj and I used to do on some Saturday afternoons (when school is in the morning only) or on Sundays, was pick up some of the teachers who had been trained as health workers and drive them (in his Bolero-that’s like a jeep-see picture below) with all their supplies to the villages and more remote farms in the valleys, particularly in the Yamuna River valley (on the way to Yamnotri) and those valleys that joined up to the Yamuna valley, so they could give the kids polio drops and do some health teaching. While other kids would get drops at school or in some central place in larger villages like at the temple, these outlying areas (where a lot of the kids didn’t go to school) were hard to reach. The teachers would go there on foot sometimes, taking the walking paths through the mountains rather than on the roads, but there’s a limit to how far you can walk carrying stuff in a day. Manoj knew a lot of the people and the geography of the area by having grown up there (Tehri Garhwal, though he was born in Pauri Garhwal). Many of the teachers came from outside the area, so that knowledge made it easier to get the job done. My role was limited to carrying stuff and serving as an object of amusement for the children.

Here is a picture of Manoj with the Bolero that we all went in. It could seat 7 plus cargo.


I think this is just a few days after he bought it in 2005. That car really got around. It took us up to Leh in Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir state) and back again, to Rajasthan and Punjab, to Delhi more times than I can remember, through Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and to Badrinath in the north east of Uttarakhand and as close as we could get the borders of Nepal and Tibet, where many Bhotiya people live. They are primarily Indian Buddhists related to Tibetan people (as are Ladakhi people in Leh), though some practice a syncretic version of Buddhism that includes Hindu practices as well. They are native to the Indian Himalaya and border areas.

All in all that’s a lot of terrain covered. When we weren’t going somewhere the car was used as a taxi for which Manoj hired a local driver. This helped pay for the expenses and upkeep. I have to say it was a fantastically study vehicle. He sold it in 2012 when it could no longer be used as a taxi due to road regulations regarding the taxi industry and the age of vehicles legally allowed to operate as taxis. I think it may be up in the villages now used as a shuttle (sort of like a taxi but not really—a grey market hybrid commercial-personal vehicle). But I don’t know for sure and if I did I wouldn’t really say anyways.

Most of the times when we took a trip we’d bring other people along and drop them off or carry some cargo for delivery to places along the way. This is a very common practice. We’d also pick up people walking along the road if they flagged us down because distances are very great, terrain is sometimes difficult as is weather. This is also a very common practice in the mountains.

Sometimes, when we went to Uttarkashi there would be Tibetan refugees on the road. They had often just completed the crossing of the mountain border. Manoj could speak some Tibetan so we would stop if we saw any, feed them something because they were always hungry, and take them to the nearest Tibetan colony so they could then get to Dharamshala (McLeod Ganj actually), meet HH Dalai Lama (who greets them all in person), and get registered with the Tibetan Government in exile so they could get services like housing, education, identity papers like refugee certificates from the Indian government and so on. There is a whole informal (and formal) system in India for taking care of refugees. It involves the cooperation of not only the Tibetan community but local Indian community as well. The informal system is not transparent to outsiders but is well known to the local populations and the authorities there. I’m saying this here because it’s something a lot of “white saviors” are unaware of when they come barging in and telling Tibetan and Indian people how to run their business. You know my feelings about that by now.


Here’s a picture just off of the Yamuna Valley in the Uttarkashi District, which is just northeast of Tehri Garhwal District where our teachers did their work. Terrain is very similar. 

When you look at the top of the mountain across from the temple there are stepped areas where cropping is going on. That’s either remote farms or possibly a small village. Those are the kinds of places that had to be reached to give vaccine. There are no roads to get up there so you drive as close as possible to find the walking path and start climbing (usually about an hour or two). Sometimes there is a fairly well used path that is even paved with stones and stone steps, like the path up to this temple, but most often there is only a dirt path that’s been pounded down by footsteps over the decades and in some cases centuries or millenia…some of these villages are very old. 

So that all occurred to me today after reading one news article. Usually I put this kind of write up on my other blog just to journal it for when I’m old and my memory gets even more foggy, but I thought it might be informative or of interest (however slight) for some people here this time.

Traffic jams and the tea house at the end of the road

Sunday, November 20, 2011



Ran into a bit of a traffic jam on our excursion yesterday just outside of Uttarkashi. It’s the time to bring the herd animals down from the high altitude meadows to the low lying fields to graze.


We drove to the end of the road and bought some local white beans (5kgs). Our friend, in the blue sweater starts his journey to his village from this roadhead. He crosses this bridge then climbs 7kms to get home. We were dropping him off there.

The buildings on the far side of the bridge are the last tea and provision shops before one has to either walk or go by mule into the mountains.

The villagers bring sacks of agricultural produce down on mules. Lots of people go down and up again in a day.

This is also the start of the main trekking route to the lake called Dodital, which is reputed to be the birthplace of the god Ganesh.

We sat by the river that flows below this bridge, the Asi Ganga which is a small tributary of the Bagirathi which is the main source of the Ganga, and broke open and ate rich black walnuts that we had brought with us. Nice day all around.

Horse Latitudes and Other Strange Airless Places

This post began to be about Horse Latitudes. I started it about 6 months ago.

Then another post came up yesterday demanding to be written, that I titled “India may not be for you”.  That is a recurrent mental phrase that has plagued me for about a year now. I could not resolve it in the writing of the post. Have not been able to resolve it as there is much obscuring the reasons for the phrase’s genesis.

When I hit the Horse Latitudes, a phrase that came up on the latter post, I decided to join the posts together then, and the thoughts as well. It recurred. Recurrence is significant. Something that cannot be ignored…signaling.

So this is a remix. And an exploration of a space without a name. With poetry and a bunch of tangled tangents.

It is true.

No one here gets out alive.

Would death be airless? 

A moment breathless

India may not be for you…

…nor Thailand, nor America, nor Turkey, nor Brazil, nor Mali, nor Spain, nor Canada…

Could be true about anything anywhere. There may be nothing for anyone in the sense of identification with place that so many seem to relish.

The transparency of the ridiculous notion of citizenships, nationalities, this face, that body, the lines through time that bring a meaning to temporality.

Having rather amorphous thoughts about the tension between belonging and home leaving. It’s a real interesting space to examine.

I read a post by James Ford Roshi where he addresses the question:

“Whose Are You?”

He was using the question in terms of deity and the theistic business of corporate oversoul as I tend to think of it. The big boss in the sky and all that. Which I don’t buy for a minute. But the question itself brings up a lot of things that have been bedeviling me for the past year or so.

The tension between belonging and home leaving is where that question resides for me.

This isn’t going to be the most inspired blog post. Nor the most creative nor even one that’s probably even interesting. Am stuck with the feeling presently of having all the creativity sucked out of my bones. A kind of missing marrow that manufactures stuff.

It’s not boredom, for there’s plenty to do and interesting things abound. It’s not depression since there is a noticeable lack of emotion including those one might label as sad or anything else.

Just kind of a flatness, dial tone, monotony…to everything. Doldrums. Or more like Horse Latitudes.

horse latitudes



the airless box the mime,

and I’m no fan of mimes,

tries to escape


This is not equanimity or balance

Another dead end road

examined and ticked off

in what may be a map making exercise

a cartographic expedition

Horse Latitudes explained:

A likely and documented explanation is that the term is derived from the "dead horse" ritual of seamen (see Beating a dead horse.) In this practice, the seaman paraded a straw-stuffed effigy of a horse around the deck before throwing it overboard. Seamen were paid partly in advance before a long voyage, and they frequently spent their pay all at once, resulting in a period of time without income. If they got advances from the ship’s paymaster, they would incur debt. This period was called the "dead horse" time, and it usually lasted a month or two. The seaman’s ceremony was to celebrate having worked off the "dead horse" debt. As west-bound shipping from Europe usually reached the subtropics at about the time the "dead horse" was worked off, the latitude became associated with the ceremony.[1]

One theory, of sufficient popularity as to be an example of folk etymology, is that the term horse latitudes originates from when the Spanish transported horses by ship to their colonies in the West Indies and Americas. Ships often became becalmed in mid-ocean in this latitude, thus severely prolonging the voyage; the resulting water shortages made it impossible for the crew to keep the horses alive, and they would throw the dead or dying animals overboard.[2] However this is extremely unlikely since horses would have been eaten and not thrown overboard.


from Wikipedia

Jim Morrison used to write about the Horse Latitudes a lot. He managed to find plenty to say about it.


When the still sea conspires an armor
And her sullen and aborted
Currents breed tiny monsters
True sailing is dead
Awkward instant
And the first animal is jettisoned
Legs furiously pumping
Their stiff green gallop
And heads bob up
In mute nostril agony
Carefully refined
And sealed over

Horse Latitudes-Jim Morrison

The journey of the horses. Their home leaving.

the awkward instant

the necessity of a jettison

but of what? of what?

Show me a sign.

There’s wild horses running everywhere

I was walking down the hill one day, from my old home and ran into a woman from Delhi who was up visiting her son. He had been newly placed in one of the boarding schools and she wanted to stay around to see that he was adjusting well enough.

She asked me “How long have you been here”

I answered “Six years” For then it was six, not more than ten like now.

She said “Oh. You belong to the place now.”

I could neither confirm nor deny that.

I’ve spent most of my life home leaving. The only thing that happens to me when I get settled somewhere is I get grumpy and gain pounds. Sometimes more of one than the other but both definitely increase.

For some time it seemed to me that it was a chronic case of discontent. That waffled with another chronic case of situational love at first sight, that is being smitten with new locations.

There is something of a home town that is written on my birth certificate. A set of coordinates of a particular event.  Though I don’t hold it in veneration as some of my relatives and friends do. They partake in the various “Homecoming” and similar types of reunion activities.

Can it be a family trait? Paternal grandfather was a rolling stone. Rode the rails with the hobos and job seekers during the depression. Left wife and children. Took up with various other women. And a lot of drink.

I met him years later. He seemed chastened. But angry.

Then later, soft and beaten by life.

Smiling the last time I saw him. Looking both beatific and foolish. He caused a lot of pain to people. Didn’t seem to understand why. Continued to do so right until the day he died and his will was read. Left my father out of the will. My father being the reason he had to marry my grandmother. My father paid for half his funeral anyways. Learned a lesson about honor there.

Maybe he was being beaten by life all along. Maybe he deserved it. I don’t know.


Monkeys are calling from one treetop to another.

For those left behind from their movable society

There isn’t much chance of survival.

Here I’ll sing along with Etta in the middle of an Indian afternoon.

I may not have the voice but I feel her.


When there’s nothing to believe in

Have faith in your poets.

The poets know.

Western Buddhist Teachers-Activists in Everybody Else’s Backyard

Have been seeing a lot of Western Buddhist Teachers, including the Zen variety, signing on to help free Burma. Good for them.  The brutality of the Burmese junta is an abomination. The captivity of the population as well as the militarily enforced deprivation is certainly an affront to human rights and the dignity of the population. It’s good to see so many willing to put their names out in public, in a letter to President Obama no less.

It’s interesting to run through that list of names. Most are recognizable to anyone familiar with the American convert Buddhist scene. And particularly on the engaged Buddhist front. So this post is not about most of them. But it may be about some of the others. Yes I am deliberately being vague, but only for the moment. Hold on.

There’s plenty of those others running around Rawanda, Thailand, India, holding Peace Conferences, Seminars, big meetings with lots of important people. Changing the world one backward country at a time. Not unlike NATO and it’s allies.

Of course there are always the retreats to the Greek Islands, the Caribbean and lovely Bali, for which attendees are urged to raise funds from friends and strangers, and no one is[edit del n’t] going to sleep on the streets there, although the climate may be quite appropriate for that. There is no end to all the do-gooder campaigns overseas that can be manufactured and lipsticked up to look like “serious political activist work”. But these forays into hedonistic service-something of an oxymoron yes, I can’t think of another term-are also something other than the point here.

So back to that.

Yes, let “them” “over there” all be like us.  Full of knowledge, wisdom and answers. So free, so democratic, so rational, so ethical, so honest, so incorruptible, so holy, so righteous, so compassionate, so caring, so educated, so socially minded, so concerned, so relevant, so clear minded, so intelligent, so right.  So…distracted.

Yes, let’s all go somewhere else and play at politics for a while. And get a nice vacation in to boot. We can put the pictures up on our blogs, tell everyone about our great work and encourage others to sign up as well. We can put out our begging bowls on Twitter and Facebook and get people to support our roles as “facilitators” in this fabulous endeavor. [Never mind actually getting a job to pay our own way.]  And most importantly it allows us the luxury of forgetting whatever is going on “back home”. To even admit anything is going on “back home” would destroy the little escapist bubble we’ve created in that exotic place. OMG, if there really was a MG, please don’t  let me have to deal with that possibility.

Now it needn’t all be quite that elaborate. Escapist social action, with minimal actual work is easily available with the strokes of a computer keyboard. Add one’s name to a petition or letter. The further removed the subjects of the contents of the letter from one’s own situation the better. Looks good on the Internet and feels good too. Now we’re really doing something! And without having to disturb our regular schedule. And you know if there is little to no possibility of any kind of feedback so much the better. Always good to have a safety harness, helicopter and stunt double when one goes out on a limb even metaphorically.

So today I undertook a little compare and contrast exercise of two lists. One is of the letter to Obama regarding the Burmese situation and the other is the list of signees of a petition to remove Eido Shimano from ZSS. [you dear reader can sign it too if you feel so inclined]

Now it seems ZSS-Zen Studies Society is celebrating Eido Shimano by not only continuing his residency but by allowing him to give Jukai to new students. A whole new bucket of fresh meat. How nice for him. My heart’s absolutely bursting with mudita! The generosity of the ZSS board knows no bounds with regard to their leader. Return every slap by turning the other cheek, or even better offering some fresh cheeks for a bit of slap [and tickle] as well.

[Yikes! The snark beast has been rebirthed! Feeling so much better and re-energized after hibernating through the rainy season.]

So back to those lists. I’ll confine this comparison to Zen teachers. [I tell ya it was some work looking all these up too in order to find their affiliations and roles. I was tempted to put the whole AZTA list here in addition to the letter signatories, but I don’t have that kind of time.]


Burma letter Affiliation/Role Shimano petition Affiliation/Role
(where not otherwise indicated information is from the petition site)
Rev. Hozan Alan Senauke Soto Zen priest…residing at the Berkeley Zen Center (BZC) in Berkeley, California, where he currently serves as Vice Abbot. He is a former Executive Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship…received Dharma transmission from…Sojun Mel Weitsman in 1998 (from) Rev. Hozan Alan Senauke <—–same as
Robert Joshin Althouse Robert Joshin Althouse  is a Zen teacher in the White Plum Asanga and a dharma heir of Jikyo Nicolee McMahon Roshi. He is the current abbot of Zen Life & Meditation Center of Chicago in Illinois.(from) Robert Joshin Althouse <—–same as
Rev. Susan Myoyu Anderson spiritual director of Great Plains Zen Center (GPZC) studied for over twenty years with Taizan Maezumi Roshi(from)
Carolyn Atkinson Head Teacher a Dharma Heir and Lineage Holder of the late Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi (from)
Rev. Zentatsu Richard Baker founder and guiding teacher of Dharma Sangha—which consists of Crestone Mountain Zen Center located in Crestone, CO and the Buddhistisches Studienzentrum (Johanneshof) in Germany’s Black Forest. (from)
Ezra Bayda received dharma transmission from Charlotte Joko Beck, and presently teaches at the Zen Center San Diego.(from)
Mitra Bishop a Dharma heir of Ven. Philip Kapleau-roshi.
Abbot of Mountain Gate in Northern New Mexico, and Spiritual Director of Hidden Valley Zen Center in San Marcos CA.(from)
Many of her students have signed the petition
Melissa Blacker Zen priest with Boundless Way Zen, a Dharma heir of James Ishmael Ford (from)
Bruce Seiryo Blackman Zen teacher in the White Plum Asanga of the late Taizan Maezumi-roshi and a Dharma heir of Sr. Janet Jinne Richardson-roshi (from)
Joe Bobrow a Zen teacher in the Diamond Sangha (from)
Dae Bong Sunim resident Zen Master of Gye Ryong San International Zen Center- Mu Sang Sa in Korea. He became a monk in 1984. He received Inka from Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1992 and Dharma Transmission in 1999. (from)
Merle Boyd Zen priest with the White Plum Asanga lineage of Taizan Maezumi…founder and guiding teacher of the Lincroft Zen Sangha located in Lincroft, New Jersey and is a Dharma heir of Wendy Egyoku Nakao (from)
Mitchell Cantor Mitchell Doshin Cantor Sensei has been a student of Peter Muryo Matthiessen Roshi since 1986. Doshin received Denkai from Muryo Roshi in 2002. He additionally studied with Madeline Ko-I Bastis Sensei…and received dharma transmission in 2006. Doshin is the teacher at the Southern Palm Zen Group in Boca Raton FL(from)
John Crook dharma heir of the late Chan Master Sheng-yenof Dharma Drum Mountain, Taiwan, having received dharma transmission in 1993 (from)
James Ford a Soto Zen priest… serving as a guiding teacher at the Boundless Way Zen Network (from)
John M. Gage abbott and sensei of the Vista Zen Center (Hotei-ji) (from)
Elizabeth Hamilton teaches at Zen Center San Diego  She received dharma transmission in 1994 from Joko Beck. (from)
Rev. Zenkei Blanche Hartman a Soto Zen priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, a Dharma heir of Sojun Mel Weitsman. Zenkei is a Senior Dharma Teacher at San Francisco Zen Center (from)
Kip Ryodo Hawley Sensei with the White Plum Asanga of the late Taizan Maezumi-roshi and a Dharma heir of Wendy Egyoku Nakao-roshi (from)
Taigen Henderson a Dharma heir of Sensei Sunyana Graef (from)
Joan Hoeberichts Zen priest in the White Plum Asanga, the lineage of the late Taizan Maezumi-roshi (from)
Amy Hollowell Amy Hollowell Sensei is one of three dharma heirs, or successors, of the French Zen master Catherine Genno Pagès Roshi, who founded Dana Zen Center in Montreuil, France, in 1994. Genno Roshi is the first dharma heir of the American Zen master Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi (from)
Zen Master Soeng Hyang (Barbara Rhodes) is the School Zen Master and Guiding Dharma Teacher of the Kwan Um School of Zen. She received dharma transmission from Zen Master Seung Sahn (from)
Rev. Keido Les Kaye Les received Dharma Transmission, authority to teach, from Hoitsu Suzuki son and successor to Shunryu Suzuki. He was appointed teacher at Kannon Do Zen Center (from)
Rev. Taigen Dan Leighton a Soto Zen priest and Dharma successor in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. (from)
Stanley Lombardo was a founding member of the Kansas Zen Center (from)
Barry Magid a Zen teacher of the Ordinary Mind School of Zen..heir of Charlotte Joko Beck (from)
Genjo Marinello Abbot of Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen Ji (from)
Rev. Nicolee Jikyo McMahon received Dharma Transmission from Taizan Maezumi Roshi in 1995. (from)
Rev. Wendy Egyoku Nakau abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles (from)
Rev. Tonen O’Connor Soto Zen Buddhist priest and has been the resident priest at the Milwaukee Zen Center (from)
Rev. Enkyo O’Hara Abbot of The Village Zendo in New York City. A Soto Zen priest, O’Hara, Roshi received Dharma transmission from Tetsugen Bernard Glassman. (from)
Rev. Joen Snyder O’Neal ordained as a Zen priest by Katagiri Roshi in 1980 and received Dharma transmission from him in 1989. (from)
Michael O’Sullivan Senior Dharma Teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen, is the founder and abbot of The Three Treasures Zen Center, located in Oneonta, New York (from)
Ji Hyang Padma currently serves as the Buddhist Advisor at Wellesley College….has served as Abbot of Cambridge Zen Center (from)
Rev. Tony Patchell Zen priest and Dharma heir in the Suzuki-roshi lineage, trained at the San Francisco Zen Center. (from)
Rev. Josho Pat Phelan a Soto Zen priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki currently serving as guiding teacher at Chapel Hill Zen Center (from)
Rev. Dosho Port Soto Zen priest and Dharma heir of Dainin Katagiri-roshi (from)
Rev. Susan Jion Postal Susan Ji-on Postal, teacher and founder of the Empty Hand Zen Center in New Rochelle, New York (from) Many of her students have signed the petition.
Rev. Taihaku Priest founder of Shao Shan Spiritual Practice Center (from)
Jason Quinn Abbot in the Empty Gate center in Berkley California (from)
Rev. Densho Quintero Soto Zen priest and Dharma heir of Shohaku Okumura-roshi (head teacher of Sanshin Zen Community in Bloomington Indiana and Director of the Soto Zen Buddhism International Center (from)
Sylvan Genko Rainwater Zen Buddhist monk at Dharma Rain Zen Center – Portland, Oregon. (from)
Rev. Zuiko Redding Soto Zen priest and the guiding teacher of Cedar Rapids Zen Center in Iowa. (from)
Caitriona Reed received Lamp Transmission from her teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. She is co-founder of Ordinary Dharma in Los Angeles (from)
Joan Rieck Sanbo Kyodan, Three Treasures Sangha of the Sandias, Bernalillo, NM (from)
Judith Roitman JDPSN began practicing Zen with Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1976 at the Cambridge Zen Center. She was one of the founders of the Kansas Zen Center (from)
Rev. Daigaku Rumme Soto Zen priest and resident of City Center (from)
Rev. Seisen Saunders founder and head teacher of Sweetwater Zen Center (from)
Elihu Genmyo Smith first Dharma Heir of Charlotte Joko Beck (from) (more)
Abbot Myogen Steve Stucky received dharma transmission from Sojun Mel Weitsman in 1993. He founded Dharma Eye Zen Center in Marin County (from)
Rev. Heng Sure senior disciple of the late Venerable Master Hsuan Hua, and is currently the director of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery (from)
Rev. Jisho Warner founder of Stone Creek Zen Center (from)
Tom Aitken Family heir & POA for Robert Aitken
Jiro Andy Afable Second Dharma Heir [of Eido Shimano] – Former Vice-Abbot of Dai Bosatsu Zendo (1998 – 2003)

/Rinzai teacher and founder of Early Light Zendo in Southbridge, Massachusetts (from)

Ji Kai Myo-on (Yvonne Rand) a “lay householder” Soto Zen priest and guiding teacher of Goat-in-the-Road (from)-a Dharma heir of the late Dainin Katagiri (from)
Kan-kan (Kurt)
Head Teacher, Cold Mountain Sangha
Sante Poromaa Co-Leader of the Zen Buddhist Society of Sweden and Teacher of the Cloud Water Zen Group) (from)
Zuiko enji Angie
Soto Zen roshi and guiding teacher of Floating Zendo (from)
resident priest at Anchorage Zen Community (from)
sensei at Auckland Zen Centre(from)
NC Zen Center Founder
Gentei Sandy
abbot, North Carolina Zen Center
Sensei at Windhorse Zen Community
Sensei atWindhorse Zen Community
priest withFive Mountain Sangha
Kojun Jean
Teacher in Kobun Chino lineage
Soto priest, formerly Kwan Um/Chogye
Teacher with Kwan Um School of Zen
Patty Jishin
teacher at Twining Vines Sangha
Jane Genshin
teacher at Twining Vines Sangha
Former Dai Bosatsu Zendo Ordained/Former ZSS Board Member
Sambo Kyodan teacher
Teacher, Montague Farm Zendo
Diamond Sangha Teachers Circle; Clear Spring Sangha
Daizen Brian Victoria Soto Zen Priest, Author of “Zen at War”
Bodhin Kjolhede Abbot of Rochester Zen Center


Interesting contrast between the domestic and foreign policies of these teachers and leaders of the Zen community dontcha think? Not much overlap. Of course there are thousands of other teachers who don’t bother with this kind of thing at all. And many of the above listed are very fine teachers. As are most of the Zen teachers in America. Check the AZTA website and Sweeping Zen for more names. I’m not saying it’s necessary to bother with any of this either. It just seems rather interesting that so many jump on board for these high profile (I mean the President himself will possibly read one’s name! And who knows maybe having one’s name on the same page as the President will sell a few more books. ) international campaigns but few can bother with issues at home.

And another thing that is noticeable is that quite a number of folks who have signed the petition are students of some of the teachers who have signed the letter. (Yeah I looked them all up too) As well there are far more “establishment” teachers on the Burma letter and far more “independents” if you look at lineages, on the petition side.  Another strange dichotomy to be sure. Maybe someone should do a sociological study on risk aversion (or self-examination) among the establishment.

One might consider it to be a matter for the Rinzai sector (a very convenient categorical dodge) or something that doesn’t concern the Zen community as a whole or one that, if kept under wraps, won’t tarnish the convert Buddhist community. Hmm that sounds an awful lot like denial.

I suppose in such instances it is necessary to become gardeners in everyone else’s back yard because of all the Astroturf in the local gardens.

And with the continuation of the cult of Shimano there are more questions to be asked. Of course it is unlikely they will now be asked on ZFI since some heavy hitters have arrived to quash this kind of dissent. So it’s up to bloggers I suppose to keep the bellows pumping. Feet to the fire and all that.

It just strikes me as an exercise in extreme cognitive dissonance to fete someone (see below) with so much baggage as one is simultaneously trying to oust him. The ZSS hired a group to assist with their process of reconciliation and redress, yet completely ignored the group’s recommendation to fire Shimano immediately. And then they have gone on to celebrate this man!?! That is the most ethically vacant situation I can possibly think of.

No coincidence that I am posting this today. From the Zen Studies Society website:

Harvest Jukai Sesshin, Oct. 30–Nov. 7  To commemorate his 50th anniversary living in the United States, Eido Roshi is going to conduct a Jukai Ceremony at Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji on the closing day of Harvest Sesshin, Saturday, November 6.

Congratulations to all those who have vowed to undertake the journey to the cessation of anger, greed and delusion. I can’t think of a better place to learn about that in depth. Don’t forget to check your ethics at the gate.

Musical Accompaniment:

The Who-Won’t Get Fooled Again

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.


Here’s a little something extra along the same lines for those in the mood-

Beyond Spiritual Activism: Creating a Just and Sustainable Movement for Change by Be Scofield

And a further discussion-

Off the Mat Vs. the Old New Left: Subverting the Dominant Paradigm, With Love by Carol Horton

A big thanks to Sweeping Zen website for providing so many of the biographical details as well as interviews. It’s a hugely useful resource.

Travels of Unreal and Real Monks

Travels of Unreal Monks

Recently a blog and a twitter account @themonkblog sprung up that purported to belong to a monk who was traveling in North India and Nepal. Within two weeks there were over 1200 followers.  The About page of the blog reads as follows:

Hello Friend!

My name is Tenzin. I am a 23-year old theravada buddhist monk. I currently travel Nepal by foot, figuring out what to do in the future. When my old monastery was turned into a tourist location, my grandmaster Xi returned to his home monastery and said that I could not go with him. He said I needed to find my own way in life.

My interests are people, and their stories. I am also interested in english language and the computer. Of course I study much buddhism and how to live in harmony with my surroundings.

I am happy you want to read about me. Comment, so I can get to know you also!

In the past couple of days this person has revealed via further blog posts (here and here) that they are actually a young psychology student named Mikael who lives in a suburban city and “Tenzin” is a character he has created.

There was discussion on Twitter about it (check my timeline @NellaLou for Aug.12 for some of it) and some folks were surprised and disappointed. That is the reason I am posting about it here. So that others aren’t taken up by the ruse.

Upon reading that little bio the contradictions are rather stunning. A Tibetan name for a Theravada monk, who travels in Nepal after training with a Chinese named teacher. It is basically a set up for a Kung Fu, Kwai Chang Caine retelling. Which basically it is, as the author admits.

Grasshopper there are more than enough fake monks, teachers, priests, sociopaths and con artists with alleged dharma on their lips running around already.  So please give it a rest.

Travels of Real Monks

Bhante Kovida has studied in Asia for much of his life. Here is a little from his biography:

Bhante Kovida grew up on the tropical island of Jamaica, West Indies, of Chinese descent. He immigrated to Canada… then traveled overland from Europe to India and Nepal (via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) during 1974-1975, where he began the study of Indian history and culture, Hatha Yoga and meditation, classical Indian music, and Buddhism…

…in Sri Lanka, Bhante Kovida took ordination with Venerable Balangoda Anandamaitreya, a noted scholar, teacher and meditation practitioner, in January, 1991.

Bhante Kovida left Sri Lanka towards the end of 1993 and began traveling and sharing the Dharma in the Toronto area with occasional visits to Hamilton, Ottawa, Halifax and Vancouver. He has also visited inmates at Warkworth Correctional Center near Campbelford, Ontario, AIDS patients at the Casey House hospice in Toronto for a period.

He continues to give teachings in Canada as well as in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

His approach is unique in that he discusses the dharma with a solid eye on the reality of today and contemporary viewpoints, both East and West.

He has produced a couple of e-books that are available for download and free non-commercial distribution on his website.

The first is titled An Inquiring Mind’s Journey:a book about a life with Buddhism. In the first chapter he discusses his early life in Jamaica, his burgeoning interest in science and discovery of his questioning nature.  Taking university studies in North America led to more questioning particularly with regard to the materialistic nature of the culture there. He then discusses his early journey to India and embarking on learning from gurus and others there. Like so many other seekers he moved from place to place and met people from all over the world.

And during this time his sense of himself in the world and the universe changed. Perspective broadened and viewpoints were altered.

When I returned to Canada, I experienced horrendous reverse culture shock. I was so
open and childlike, and profoundly affected and transformed by my experiences in India and Nepal that I felt very vulnerable to the realities and superficialities of modern, materialistic society. After being in a culture where communication in public was easy and effortless, I found people quite self-centered, isolated and lonely, and shopping in supermarkets terribly cold and impersonal. It seemed really amazing that one could buy a lot of groceries, go through the checkout counter, pay your money, and not have to utter a single word. In Asia, it is the human contact that is important, the product that you are purchasing is secondary; in modern society it is the product and its cost that are important, human contact is secondary, seemingly unimportant. I found the environment very sterile, uninteresting, superficial and isolating. (p.13)

Having shared a similar feeling upon occasion I understand where this kind of statement comes from. At times though I do find some of Bhante’s descriptions somewhat idealized and even slightly romanticized. Now that may just be the writing style or a function of memory or my own distrust and questioning attitude towards idealism in general.  However this point, about social relations and human contact is one of the main reasons I stay in India as much as I do-and that has changed my perspective and practice of Buddhism tremendously.  So in some ways there is an impulse to credit the environment but I feel not at the expense of the reality of the place, which can be as harsh, even brutal, as it can be enveloping. He does touch upon that harshness occasionally though.

He goes on to discuss the first thoughts he had about becoming a monk while he was in Sri Lanka and the process of making such a decision and the meetings with the man who became his teacher.

Succeeding chapters include a question and answer portion about Buddhism that is very comprehensive and suitable for beginners. Further chapters include the texts of two talks given at the University of Toronto entitled Self-knowledge and Freedom and The Nature and Ending of Fear. This is followed by a section on travels and commentary on South-east Asia particularly Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore and Hong Kong. He spent considerable time in these places within both English speaking and Chinese speaking sanghas and groups so the contrasts are quite interesting.

The second book is called The World is Myself:a monk’s travel journal part 1 It covers his travels from Thailand, Malaysia and India.

I’ve really enjoyed reading this journal. It’s written in a conversational style that gives the reader the sense that they are sitting sharing tea and stories with the author.

If you want to know what the day to day life of a monk is like, this book gives a detailed view. He describes how it feels to go on an alms round, the camaraderie of the monastic sangha, what life is like in these parts of Asia both the joys and frustrations, as well as his critical viewpoint on certain of the practices such as merit accumulation. The latter is not too favorable. In that regard his viewpoint is somewhat similar to Bhante Dhammika‘s, whose book, The Broken Buddha,  I reviewed previously.

He gives more of his history prior to becoming a monk, in which he was a development worker for the Canadian government in Sri Lanka as well as other details of his life before that time.

He is very well read and discusses the philosophies of Krishnamurti, as well as the series of lectures by Krishnamurti himself that he attended, and Ramana Maharshi with ease equal to his discussions of Buddhist Suttas. He tells of his meetings with interesting people including during the time he volunteered at the hospital set up by Mother Theresa in Calcutta, throughout his journeys and it gives an almost documentary feel to the writing.

The descriptions of locations, people and events are scintillating. I felt like I was right there as I read. Bhante Kovida has an exceptional memory for details as well as a very sharp observational ability. And this is complemented by his honesty and humor in documenting his reactions, both positive and negative to every situation. He doesn’t make himself out to be either a hero or a victim of any situation, only a participant and experiencer. Here is an example when he helped guide a group of Americans in northern Thailand.

The rising sun is warming up the awakening landscape and slowly burning away the night mist and fog. The roosters and hens are stretching and flapping their wings and for the first time I recognize some guinea fowls with their unique grey and black
colouring and tiny white spots. It’s a peaceful village setting. After breakfast, tea and chitchat about the night spent in mud-walled huts, we gather up our gear, bid farewell to the villagers with thanks, and start walking down a lane towards the main road. We walk about one kilometer along this road admiring the surrounding bamboo-covered hills, corn and vegetable fields, already harvested paddy fields, and then we begin to ascend on the other side of the road along a footpath. Up and up through bamboo forests, up and around the hill side, using bamboo poles for support, as we head to the next village which they say will take around 4-5 hours to reach. It is hard going at times and we stop occasionally to rest, drink water, catch
our breath and admire the view of the surrounding hills and river valleys below. It is an amazing and vigorous hike in Thailand’s northern hill region even though wearing Theravada robes for this adventure isn’t quite suitable; I long for a more practical dress with two sleeves, but at least I can wear running shoes in these remote parts. The green hills turn to shades of blue the further away they are. The high mountains in the distance are so awesome and majestic that they seem as if they’re holding some ancient, mysterious secret which present- day man cannot possibly comprehend; one can only gaze at them in wonder at their beauty, aloofness and unreachable distance.


His cross-cultural observations are anthropological in description sometimes, in that he doesn’t judge but observes, analyzes and compares. Here’s a portion from his visit to a Karen (hill tribe people in Northern Thailand) village.

The Karens, who also live across the border in Burma, are very friendly, hospitable
people, rice and vegetable cultivators, part Buddhist, part animist, and very much in harmony with the jungle environment, using the abundant and fast-growing bamboo for everything imaginable including food, building material and disposable cooking pots. Formerly, they grew opium poppy but they’re now growing soya beans, sweet and Irish potatoes, and other foreign crops thanks to an anti-drug campaign funded by the U.S. Government. At times we can smell opium being smoked by some village elders who are addicted to the habit; they get
it from villagers elsewhere. It’s an old crop in these parts of SE Asia and smoking opium is an old relaxing pastime which also helps to alleviate the aches and pains of old age, physical labour and mental worry. Ingested, opium is medicine for stomach troubles including diarrhea, and for pain, in general. These people cannot understand and relate to the drug abuse and money-making, crime-related culture in America and Europe, although they’ve become more aware of the demand for raw opium to be used in heroin production and that, because of this, opium poppy cultivation has become increasingly profitable which is very tempting
indeed. Now the American-backed Government in far away Kreung Thep [Bangkok] is telling them to stop this old [and now lucrative] crop and its traditional uses and they cannot really comprehend what the fuss is all about. If the Americans and Europeans want to kill themselves with heroin injections that’s their stupid business, they muse. Why don’t they just leave us alone in peace? In these parts, habitual opium smoking is seen as no more harmful than smoking and chewing tobacco, chewing betel nuts, and drinking tea.

(p. 22)

This is very similar to the attitude of people in the high Himalaya as well. These things are not demonized but dealt with according to their usefulness. And as there is not much by way of excess, in terms of crops, money or goods, chronic overuse of such things is not generally an issue. And the view that many Western countries should be more concerned with the health and control of their own populations rather than what people in remote villages are doing is also common in India.

Throughout the book there are discussions and musings on the Dhamma as part of every day life and situations.

I’m in Kwan’s village, somewhere outside of Chiang Rai, and we have some Americans to deal with. I’ve slept quite well considering. I recognize the smoky,
musty smell of the mud-walled hut and the noise of pigs and chickens come to mind. It got chilly during the night and I had to put on a sweater. I use our host’s toilet and it’s not as bad as I’d expected; and I reflect on how our mental projections are often worse than reality itself. Once I was an intrepid world traveller, now I’m behaving like a spoilt, pampered westerner from suburbia. I smile at the change in myself; no permanent, concrete self or personality to be found in this mind-body process, only a constantly changing and rapid sequence of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking and imagining. (p.24)

The quoted sections above are all from the first section of the book on Thailand.

In the section on Malaysia we have such delicious descriptions as this:

A waiter brings us two pieces of banana leaf recently cut from the tree which we wipe with a little water then shake off onto the floor. It’s a cheap, organic and plentiful material that is easily disposable; there’s no need to wash plates and sometimes utensils, you only have to wash your hands before and after eating. I can still recall my first banana leaf rice meal during my earlier travels in. S. India towards the end of 1978 – it was such a novel and unique experience! The waiter puts a heap of rice on each of our leaves, then places three small portions of different vegetable curry next to the rice with some hot lime and mango pickle plus papadam chips made from legume flour. Then he pours dahl, a spiced split pea soup, on top of the rice together with another kind of spiced soup-like mixture, and he brings us small stainless steel cups of liquid yoghurt and a spiced liquid concoction called rasam to be consumed at the end of the meal to aid digestion. I dig in with the fingers of my right hand and start mixing wet rice with small amounts of vegetable curry, adding a bit of hot pickle and broken pieces of papadam chips, forming small balls of the mixture and popping them expertly into my mouth.

I got hungry reading that.

There are often a number of parallel narratives going on throughout this book. Situations bring up recollections of other situations, people or experiences. Isn’t this just the way our being in the world operates? The connections, memories, apparent continuations and social settings combine to create this appearance of personhood and solidity of existence. Yet it is interesting how unique each of these combinations are, rather like recipes.

Additionally Bhante Kovida has some critical thoughts on many schools of Theravada practice, as well as Vipassana and other techniques. The very devout might be a little uncomfortable with that. However sometimes well considered critical reflections, particularly of those intimately involved, contain valid points that need addressing.

He is equally concerned with some of the trends that occur in the North American context.

If you care to examine more closely this sectarian attitude in people and Dharma practitioners in general, you’ll see that in essence they’re all clinging to their egos, their self-centered “spiritual trip,” their personal preferences, desires, ambitions and attachments. And behind it all is fear and insecurity, isn’t it? (p.52)

As well he examines, equally openly, his own motivations and reasoning regarding the Buddhist path and practices.

I also remember that when I first began to give talks in Malaysia I had this immature desire to give the “perfect” Dharma talk; I would jot down all the important pointers that I wanted to include on a piece of paper but I would keep forgetting to look and check my list as I tend to be more of a spontaneous rambler than an organized speaker. And after each talk I would go over it in my mind recalling in vivid detail what I’d said and only to realize that I’d once again left out a few things because I’d forgotten to look at the piece of paper and check my list. And I could see the suffering and disappointment in my mind: that I was again unable to deliver the “perfect” talk; I took these talks so seriously. Talk about craving and clinging!…

…I would discover to my surprise during discussions that not only did people not understand what I’d said during the previous talk but that they had totally misunderstood what I had been trying to convey. This was indeed a good lesson for me! So much for trying to give the “perfect” talk! (p.54)

His travel tales are wide ranging and interesting. The focus is generally on the interrelationships and dynamics between people, groups, Buddhist and other viewpoints, practices, nationalities, languages, cultures, geography and so many other aspects. The fluidity with which these intermingle, influence, exchange and flow is very well captured by Bhante Kovida’s writing.


If you want to know what a monk’s life is really like Bhante Kovida has provided a thorough and honest assessment. His frankness is one of many compelling features of the book.

He is knowledgeable, sincere, well-traveled, open minded as well as discerning and occasionally critical  in this account of the events of his life. It’s kind of a refreshing change from some of the sugary frosting that coats many bookstore shelves. And these fascinating books are available for free without a trip to the store. That in itself makes a statement.

Musical Accompaniment

If you are suffering from the vertigo of what’s real and what’s not…