Sunday, November 25, 2018

Contrary Ways

"She insulted me, she hurt me, she defeated me, she robbed me."
Those who think such thoughts, will not be free from hate.
"She insulted me, she hurt me, she defeated me, she robbed me."
Those who think not such thoughts, will be free from hate. 
- Dhammapada[1] DHP 1:3-4

I haven't attended any of Ed Brown's Peaceful Sea Sangha sittings, but he used to visit Green Gulch to give the talk for the Sunday Morning Children's Program a few times each year, and it was always a treat. We came to look forward to his easy way with the children and his repertoire of wonderful dharma stores and his warm friendly presence.

Where other teachers avoided the weekends with the Children's Program or opted to read a story from a book, Ed had a number he could tell from memory, and even brought puppets with him to help tell the stories (Poncé!). It was always sweet, and it brings tears to me eyes remembering those times before I began to feel that Green Gulch might not be a safe space for me.

For hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love. This is a law eternal. 
- DHP 1:5
So when I heard that Ed Brown had been barred from teaching at all Zen Center campus due to a letter of complaint which was leaked to the Buddhist underground and bounced around Facebook like a piece of Russian propaganda or Anti-Vax Meme, and then read the shit-show of a response from SFZC's leadership, and then listened to the tapes, and then read the commentaries, it set loose ten thousand things in my mind.

After listening to the recordings, the letter of complaint reads like a carefully crafted concern-troll which perfectly achieved it's aim: provoke an authority into committing to a knee-jerk and disproportionate response. It's the religious equivalent of SWATing someone: calling in a hostage situation with spoofed caller-ID so that the police will break down the door and start throwing flash-bangs into cribs and shooting dogs.

It also feels completely—almost laughably—predictable. My experience with SFZC in general being so PC it hurts, the script here seems like it could have been a lifetime special or an awkward Saturday night live sketch or something Trump would put on his twitter and disclaim as "So Sad" or a "Total Witch Hunt".
Many do not know that we are here in this world to live in harmony. Those who know this do not fight against each other.
- DHP 1:6
"A More Welcoming and Inclusive Community" is something that it's hard to argue against, but of course we find that there are limits to what a society can be accepting of. Here we all are in 2018, trying to deal with a malignant narcissist in the White House trolling the world more or less 24/7, and the shit really does seem to flow downhill, with even the most venerated institutions getting caught up in dividing our culture into extreme right wing authoritarian and extremely left wing, also authoritarian, politically correct culture which revolves around the statement, "He insulted me, he hurt me, he defeated me, he robbed me."

Those who think such thoughts will not be free from hate. My advice to the letter writer is to reflect on this Dharma teaching. But in this case we are also dealing with Abbots of the middle way, and their behavior, across the board, in this has been at best disappointing and at worst should seriously raise questions about how Zen Center chooses it's leaders and trains it's staff. As has been pointed out elsewhere, dealing with this kid of situation is something that an organization the size of Zen Center should have policy and process to implement to prevent an ad-hoc and transparently personal response.

[1] The Dhammapada, Translated by Juan Mascara, Penguin Classics 1973

Monday, June 18, 2018

One Hundred Thousand Million Kalpas

According to the big bang "theory" It's been ~13.8 Billion years (13.8 * 10^9) since the beginning of time, and roughly 10^100 years until our universe ends (that's a Googol of years, btw).
We're always going on about one hundred, thousand, million (really ten thousand) Kalpas before lectures: a Kalpa is 4.32 Billion years (4.32 * 10^9 years) so we're talking about 4.32 * 10^18 years all together, which is more than 3.13 * 10^8 times the current age of the universe.
Grated, that's only one 2.31*  10^72 th the projected age of the universe (due to "heat death" when the last black-hole evaporates and it becomes impossible to create any new information) but the good news is that the universe will be reincarnated out of quantum vacuums fluctuation or tunneling in another 10^56 years, which is a long time to wait for Maitreya, but at least we get some quality Nirvana time while we wait.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Right Speech & What We All Know

Some Wrong Speech

One Sunday morning a few years back, when there was no Children Program, I went to Green Gulch to hear a talk by my teacher, Furyu Nancy Schroder. This particular talk was very painful for me personally, and it was hard for me to remain in the Zendo for the entire program. Even now I feel that getting up and leaving would have been the correct response.

Unfortunately I've been unable to find the recording or a transcript, so I can't quote verbatim but thus have I heard:
The now sitting Abbess related teaching an anger management course for a group of men who had been arrested, charged and sentenced in family court to attend these classes following an incidence of domestic violence in their homes. After making that statement, she further elaborated: "It's always men. We all know that men are the problem."
Following that statement the room erupted in a chorus of "um-hummms." Which is the first time I can recall the congregation spontaneously calling out in response to something said at a dharma talk.

What We All Know

If you are an adult raised in the western world this will sound exactly correct to you. The story that we have been told and re-told to ourselves about domestic violence goes exactly that way: a boorish, probably drunk man, aggressively controls and abuses his family, sometimes violently. Women and children are his victims and our response is to lay the blame for the situation on his shoulders, then economically and socially punish him.

This narrative was codified into the Duluth Model and then legislated into the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), championed by Vice President Joe Biden when he was a Senator. VAWA's original form specifically legislated the above story about domestic violence into a totally pervasive story and legal framework that we still live within today.

This characterization of All Men as the controlling, entitled and violent in the home goes back at least as far as the Women's Temperance Movement of the late 18the and early 20th century, when the behavior was presented as the inevitable consequence of excessive drinking:

Of course, we now know that prohibition was more damaging than drink alone, and we are quickly making the same determination about the failing War on Drugs and working to decriminalize and legalize in the more libertine parts of the country. Unlike the narrative about drinking and drug abuse which has evolved from being a religious problem to a criminal problem to a public health problem, the narrative on domestic violence remains nearly completely unchanged over the past century.

Certainly, we cannot afford to ignore violence against anyone if we hope to have a peaceful and just society. But by sticking to the old one-sided story we completely ignore violence committed and instigated by Women in the home and in public. Our collective response to violence in the home is to lay the blame on the man, and provide protective services and institutions for women and children, at the exclusion of men and adolescent boys.

Right Speech: More than just Truth, Kindness and Necessity

Now, the Abiding Abbess of Green Gulch has begun promoting the teaching of Right Speech, no doubt in response to the rise of the Tweeter in Chief's blatantly wrong style of public address. The Facebook-able quote about right speech you may have heard asks that you consider three things before speaking: 
"Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?"  
Of course, that's the sound-bite version, the Sutras ask you to consider a couple more things before opening your mouth:
[1] "Do I speak at the right time, or not?
[2] "Do I speak of facts, or not?
[3] "Do I speak gently or harshly?
[4] "Do I speak profitable words or not?
[5] "Do I speak with a kindly heart, or inwardly malicious?
From The Patimokkha
Right speech is the critical middle ground of the Buddhist moral compass: Right Thoughts lead to Right Speech lead to Right Action, in that order, resulting in more favorable karmic conditions. Conversely, Erroneous Thoughts, lead to Erroneous Speech and Erroneous Action lead to less favorable karmic conditions. By encouraging Right Speech we hope to make the world a better place for more right speech, as the improved karmic conditions continue to roll forward on the great wheel of life and death.

An Unnecessary, Unkind, Harsh Lie, told with Malice

As a man who has been the target of abuse and violence from women in my life, I was more than saddened to hear that "We know men are the problem". Here was my spiritual teacher telling me that my experience wasn't valid, or perhaps that I was the true cause of it. The community reinforcement of her statement made it clear that this was a popular if not quite unanimous belief of the Sangha.
To suddenly find myself surrounded by people who's thoughts and words and actions so clearly dismissed even the possibility of my personal experience was devastating. My personal suffering and life-long struggle to heal the holes in my heart left behind by growing up under the control of and eventually—as many survivors do—marrying a women with a capacity for abusive, violent and manipulative behaviors totally disregarded because of what "we all know."
While my personal case may be in the minority (it's hard to say for sure, there are deep reporting and prosecution biases) it's not unheard of. Ignoring the violence and abuse of women means that other women and children, who are often the targets of violent women, are ignored. These pre-conceptions are particularly harmful to people who experience violence with a same-sex partner, as the model breaks down completely without easily identified abuser and victim roles.

How Should We Think, Speak and Act About Violence In Our Lives?

Another lesson of the Buddha is not to place too much stock in reports, legends, traditions, scripture, logical conjecture(!), analogy, argument, probability or even the words of a teacher. We should instead decide who to trust based on their skillful qualities, and then to only trust that adopting those qualities will help us in our lives (again, the moral hierarchy values action before words before thoughts):
“Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’
When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.” 
~ Kalama Sutta
My personal experience tells me that domestic violence is not exclusively a women's issue, that despite our preconceptions, women are just as capable of abuse and violence as men. We are all equally human in that regard, driven by a complex evolved set of evolved behaviors which include altruism, violence and the entire spectrum of interpersonal interactions.

What is needed when facing issues resulting from our long and painful evolution from mute completely self-concerned single cells to the social, cooperative, sentient beings that we are now is the well timed, factual, gentle, helpful and kind words and actions. It is imperative that these are to extent to both parties, the abuser and the abused, as these roles are not static, any more than they are strictly assignable to one gender or the other.

We should approach difficulties such as these with as few pre-conceptions in our minds as we can manage, and we should review those pre-conceptions when we see that they are harming us and the people around us. As it says in the liturgy:

This is what should be accomplished by the one who is wise, Who seeks the good, and has obtained peace 
. . . 
Not holding to fixed views,
Endowed with insight,
Freed from sense appetites,
One who achieves the way
Will be freed from the duality of birth and death.
~ Loving Kindness Meditation

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Missing Priests Koan

Each month, families gather at the Temple
Hoping to hear the words of the Buddha
Where have all the Priests gone off to?

Friday, May 5, 2017

Multi-Level Meditation: how Zen Priests Packaged and Sold the Dharma to Google

The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute ( is selling Mindfulness Meditation as the next Great Leap Forward in Business Productivity. On their web site they list the results you can hope to achieve from mindfulness meditation, including:

- Reduction of Stress or Emotional Drain from 58% to 24% [Citation Needed]
- Increases in Focus and Performance from 36% to 68% [Citation Needed]
- Leadership's Calm and Poise increased from 17% to 46% [Citation Needed]
- Greater Perceived Well Being [Citation Needed]
- Deeper Emotional Intelligence [Citation Needed]
- Increased Creativity and Innovation [Citation Needed]
- A Better and More Mindful Company Culture  [Citation Needed]
- 36% Reduction in Stress Levels [Does not match the 58-24% range above!]
- An Additional 62.0 Minutes of Productive Work per Week [Citation Needed]
- 7% Lower Healthcare Costs [Citation Needed]
- Productivity Gains Totaling $3,000/year [Citation Needed]
- 13,000 employees have participated

On the web site you can book a two day personal package at a public event for $1250-1350 and if you have a group, well, contact them for a quote. For all that you have to gain, it's really a good deal.

What's More Valuable Than the Three Jewels? 

I could go on about the prohibitions on selling the Dharma or the multitude of Gaining Ideas  above or the contrived "data marketing" full of meaningless numbers which don't match (I really wonder what units are used to measure stress? Is there a calibrated reference?). However, the really interesting thing is the model for further engagement and teacher training.

The Engage program is the next step after attending the Individual or Group programs and cost USD $6700 for the San Francisco sessions and AUD $6500 for the Sydney sessions. Which is on the high end for this kind of business training seminar, but not unreasonable.

Graduates of the Engage program are encouraged to share the practices they learn in the context of a work environment. I.e. the tools of mindfulness are applied to making teams more effective and productive teams with lower stress, more wisdom and greater respect for each other.

Once the Engage program, and some outside training not provided by SIYLI, are completed there's a Leadership program, an additional USD $7500 for which you get a training program, test and shot at a certification. Once certified you can co-teach (and share teaching fees with) more experienced teachers while training towards becoming a senior teacher yourself, allowing you to co-teach with more junior members.

While it's not a Ponzi or Pyramid scheme exactly it does smack a bit of Multi-Level "marketectures" like Tupperware or Avon. There are significant benefits to getting in early in a social marketing system like the one that SIYLI has designed: classes are run, some people will be interested in more in-depth training and enter the Engage program, the eventually the Teacher Training (paying the program's total USD $15,250 tuition over the course of perhaps 18 months).

Much of this money will go to facilities and running the conferences no doubt, but the teachers need to eat as well, and the certification program guarantees them a cut of whatever future revenue their students make: co-teaching with a more senior teacher is required. So, the students do the foot-work to setup gigs for themselves, and effective do all the lead generation and sales work for the more senior teachers.

Don't the Ends Justify the Means?

As presented, the benefits of the program can be summed up into: Happier and More Productive Workers, better able to deal with the stresses of the modern work environment. Given the audience, business executives (who want the productivity) and human-resources managers (who want the happiness) it makes sense to put those features up front, even if you have to slap together some nonsense numbers [Citation Needed] to really sell it.

Mindfulness practices, which predate Buddhism and likely all of recorded history, are powerful tools for understanding ourselves and our relationship to the world around us, applying them to business problems is perhaps inevitable, and teachers making money selling training is completely reasonable.

In order to get to this business appropriate form of secular Mindfulness Meditation from Zen as understood by American Zen priests, some important parts of the tradition are left behind: the history (which many of the priests aren't well aware of) and the social, community and moral traditions which surround and support the practice and the teachers (no further comment). 

In the realm of business, stripping the moral lessons of Buddhism from the method of Mindfulness means that the focus and enhanced productivity promised by the program can be put enhance any program, from collecting and analyzing the personal data of billions of people, to optimizing advertising placements, to competing fiercely in the mobile phone marketplace. Why not have a quick thirty minute sit and some yoga after a long day of selling trivial things to people who don't need them?

Outside the social fabric and moral framework of a functional religious community, the tools of meditation and mindfulness can be used for any purposes, good, evil, approaching or crossing the creepy line. Like a knife which can cut diamonds there is a sharpness to the Dharma, and it is often depicted as a sword which requires much training to wield effectively and with compassion.

Putting Business First

Setting aside my despising Google and their acquisitive gathering of personal data, it's disheartening and disappointing to see the Zen Center priests involved in putting together this very elaborate, slickly presented and well funded program are choosing to focus their efforts on Business and developing revenue streams from it. Of course temples and teachers need support, but selling out to big business smacks of selling indulgences. It's a deep and complete corruption of the tradition and the role of priests.

Along this twisting, profit driven road the Zen tradition in America becomes exclusively a tool of big business, an efficiency exercise to improve production and optimize worker happiness. With VIP spa retreat centers staffed with priests driving the sports or luxury vehicle of their dreams, who get up early and sit in the Zendo then drop their kids off at private schools after chanting their vows of poverty and homelessness.

This is, of course, simple heresy.

[Edit: removed "and Zen Center has some challenges" from a sentence where it wasn't adding anything.]

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Shame on you Old Man…

Shame on you Shakyamuni for setting the precedent of leaving home.

Did you think it was not there?

In your wife's lovely face?

In your baby's laughter?

Did you think you had to go elsewhere (simply) to find it?

- Judyth Collin "The Layman's Lament" from What Book!?: Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop