Wednesday, June 29, 2011

No Blather From Me This Morning

After my enforced vacation from blogging, I don't know what on earth I would prattle about that anyone wants to read. So I'm going out to scrape paint, preparing the house for new colors. A period of samu that ends when the sun gets too hot to work outside anymore.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Blog Waylaid by Theatre Camp

For the past two weeks, my wife and I have been immersed in a performing arts camp for local youth.

It is the third year my wife and I have run this program. We direct a musical production and put the kids through a rehearsal schedule similar to a professional summer stock schedule. This year, demand for the camp was higher than ever: registration peaked at 52 kids between the ages of 5 and 17. There were so many, our show featured 42 performers and a design team and crew consisting entirely of kids. They designed and built costumes, props, and scenery.

It has been all-consuming and exhausting. Especially as parents of two children. In the photo above, you see my wife choreographing with our three month old, Lucca.

This blog should see renewed activity soon.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Maha Hee Haw

While my family napped, I found myself reading a few different blogs about the Great Big Super Duper Garrison Institute Gathering of Buddhist Teachers and Up and Coming Buddhist Leader People.

Is that the official title? Anyway.

A friend of mine was there and is posting several blogs about it at Natural Wisdom. James Ford has also consented to blog from the event, and to host a guest blogger once he left the conference, over at Monkey Mind.

Then I noticed that the most honestly interesting thing, for this reader, were Ji Hyang's photos of the grounds around Garrison. It's a pretty place. The flowers are exploding in lascivious colors, it seems. If I were there, I'd probably be found on my back among the flowers gazing up at the sky. Sort of similar to how I would eventually get fatigued at the Kwan Um School's big sangha events, and slip out to admire the pond by the monastery.

There are interesting questions and ideas being written about from outside this event. This is from what James Ford refers to as the "Zen commentariat" or maybe it is the "Buddhist commentariat," the unruly hordes of people who wrote lengthy or multiple articles on their blogs expressing criticisms about "Nice Buddhism" and why Brad Warner wasn't invited. (Or was he?) And of course Marnie Louise Froberg's examination of the event.

So, among people who are not there, many questions, many concerns, many ideas: who decides who is mainstream, how the "consensus" (as David Chapman puts it) is enforced through the books and magazines that define North American Buddhism.

Among a couple of people I know who where there, the sense that it was benevolent at best and benign at worst. Some parts better organized than others, some encounters more fruitful than others.

Something here reminds of something I noticed when I left the Zen Centers of the northeast and moved west. At farther-flung Zen Centers of the Kwan Um school, I have heard grumbles that the major sangha events all take place in Rhode Island at our head temple -- which limits participation to those who live near there or can afford to travel there. (This is the reason I haven't attended one myself in years.) The annual sangha "town meeting" is thus limited to one or two occasions per year at one location. That is a problem for a school as spread out as ours, but there is a solution: regional events. Less travel, less expense, more local participation.

Of course, that means actually planning the event and hosting it. We've been talking about a southwest Kwan Um sangha weekend for years. Hasn't happened.

Seems to me that people can put together their own Maha Hee Haw and invite people to discuss whatever they want, or even set up video participation -- or it could all be online.

Call it the first council of the Maha Buddhist Commentariat.

If the Maha Council at Garrison felt exclusive, well -- yes, it was an invitation-only event held in one place. That doesn't mean the conversation about North American Buddhism needs to be ceded to those invitees. The red aspect of my personality wants to say to the disgruntled, "Organize! Hold your own thing and see what happens!"

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Upaya and the Buddhist Blogosphere, Part 2

The previous post concerned upaya, the "expedient means" a keen-eyed teacher might use to respond to a student's question, intended to point at the truth in a vivid and spontaneous way rather than making a beautiful explanation about it.

The point we want to carry over to this post is that even when a keen-eyed teacher pokes at our ego, and even when the face we are shown is flat or stern, behind the face is great love and compassion. There are no "stupid" questions. Everyone has "Buddha nature." This is so, even when the questions are clearly arising from anger, fear, or ignorance.

Now, this blog will address a kerfluffle.

This week at the Garrison Institute in New York, there is a large conference of famous Buddhist teachers in North America. It is a private and invitation-only event. As such, the organizers felt no need to publicize the agenda or the list of attendees. In fact, there is no compulsion for them to do so. People can get together and have private events if they want.

The conference has become a topic on some blogs interested in Buddhism and many questions have been aired and discussed. Who organized the event, what were the criteria for invitation, and what was the agenda? In light of recent scandals involving teachers, sex, and money, there have been recent debates about organizing bodies that would have authority to intervene if a teacher was judged to be abusing their power with no one reining them in locally. Some people wondered if this might be on the agenda. Others wondered, to what extent is this group seeking to define the mainstream of Buddhist teaching and practice. Why were certain well-known people invited, and certain others not. How come so few Zen people. Would whites predominate? And so on.

Here, for example, is perhaps the definitive, highly detailed blog post airing out the questions and concerns, on Mudhusala.

Some of the participants in this conference are now hearing from -- well, the rest of us. People who practice, people who are interested in this event and what outcomes might emerge. People who aren't authorized teachers. Long-time students, newer students. Just folks. People. The peanut gallery. That includes the "Zen commentariat," a label coined by one American roshi to poke at people who ask lots of questions on their blogs.

(Sidebar: I guess the Burning House is part of the commentariat, for better or worse.)

One of those teachers, prompted by these questions, has consented to blog the event. James Ford's posts from Garrison can be read here.

While it may appear to some of the "maha council" (as the event presents itself) that people's questions are motivated by undue suspicion and lack an assumption of good faith -- and while that may even be true in some cases -- I hope they will openly blog, write, or speak about the event, addressing people's curiosity and even the fear or anger with love and compassion.

Secrecy has done much harm in more than one local sangha, and where there is an appearance of secrecy, we can hardly be surprised that some "checking mind" would appear.

This morning, I received a lengthy, beautiful letter from one of my school's Zen Masters in Europe. He addressed a difficult and emotional situation that has erupted in one of our centers, and he did so with transparency, honesty, and compassion, out of a deep respect for the parties involved and everyone involved in the sangha who would have questions about it.

That's the way to go. It helps democratize the dharma, making our communities more open and more safe for all beings. May we all plunge deeply together, awaken together, and assist each other with respect and love.

Thanks for reading, and sorry to be so long-winded this morning.

[Photo: the Garrison Institute]

Upaya and the Buddhist Blogosphere, Part 1

Last night, Deming Zen Center hosted its regular Wednesday evening practice with consulting interviews. A "consulting interview" is a less formal interview intended for discussion of practice, Zen, Buddhism, and other questions a student may bring; no koan practice is done.

A recent newcomer came in with lots of questions: all the wonderful, familiar questions that attend the beginning of Zen practice. As we spoke, I felt such appreciation for his adventurous spirit, the quality that Zen Master Seung Sahn called "try-mind."

Encounters with the higher-level teachers, those who have been authorized as Zen Masters or hold the title of Sensei or Ji Do Poep Sa, are sometimes difficult for newcomers. One of the skills I have noticed in these people is an ability to distinguish the student's genuine aspiration from the ego-centered traits that we all bring along with us. The personality traits and games are familiar to most adults: approval-seeking behaviors, behaviors intended to impress others, behaviors intended to hide oneself, and the list goes on but you get the point.

Zen teachers sometimes answer questions (privately and publicly) in ways that seem abrupt, enigmatic, or even rude. When a skilled teacher does this, they are aiming at the student's genuine aspiration to wake up, and seeking to point directly at the truth instead of explaining it. At times, they will deflect or take the piss out of a student's idea or the personality stuff (ego).

Around my school this is sometimes called "hitting the person's mind." Another word for it is upaya, or expedient means during teaching. When we read the ancient Zen anecdotes recorded in the Mu Mun Kwan or even more modern books of anecdotes involving Zen Masters, such as the Soen Roku or Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, we are reading about these teachers' spontaneous upaya.

(Sidebar: Occasionally, younger students try to imitate this behavior and if they don't quite know what they are doing, they just succeed in coming off as assholes; and yet, sometimes these assholes are unwittingly helpful. They can shake you up just when you are feeling content and going on auto-pilot.)

Returning to the point, however, it is important to remember that when a Zen Teacher is being firm on the dharma, and refusing to coddle our desire for personal verification or flattery or whatever, they are still holding the deepest respect for the original substance of our being, our true nature, the self that has no identity. When we can see that, nothing the teacher says or does can really "hit" us. You can even hit the teacher back!

At our May retreat, which was led by Judy Roitman JDPSN, we had a participant who has been sitting for a while but has not had much retreat experience or face-time with teachers like Judy. He became visibly irritated during the dharma talk that preceded the retreat, and carried that into the silent, formal atmosphere of the Zen retreat. As sometimes happens, he became angry and abandoned the retreat, later emailing me that he could not stand to be in the presence of our teacher any longer.

A keen-eyed teacher will exhibit a merciless bullshit detector, and this can be tough to whatever extent our ego is involved in the encounter. But their purpose is not to knock you down. If you take a breath and watch and listen, they are holding your true being with the greatest respect and appreciation even if they are choosing to be a little hard on the ego.

(Sidebar: Yes, upaya also means knowing when to ease up. Zen Master Seung Sahn, for example, had a famously fierce aspect and wow! could he shout, but at other times he would be very tender and grandfatherly.)

This post started off as an introduction to a comment I was going to make about the big Buddhist teacher conference going on at the Garrison Institute this week, but has evolved into its own piece. The connection to this topic is no longer clear, but in a subsequent post perhaps we can connect the dots.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Indicting the Floating Apostrophe

The copy editor is a vanishing guardian of consistent English in our papers of record.
Over the last few days, there have been a great many headlines about the indictment of former presidential candidate John Edwards. The same glaring grammatical error appears in many of them; very sad to observe in some reputable newspapers.

Okay, here is a representative sample from the El Paso Times. For those who know what I'm talking about, the error leaps out and hits you right in the eye.
Edwards' foibles lead to criminal indictment

Sigh. If this is the story of more than one person named Edward, then that is correct use of the apostrophe. However, we know this is the story of one man named Edwards. Therefore, this is what the headline should say in standard English:

Edwards's foibles lead to criminal indictment

Do not deny your tongue the exercise of pronouncing "Edwardses" when reading the headline out loud. Both sybilants make the 'z' sound. Ah, the simple pleasure of making speech.
That floating apostrophe in the first example above gets drilled into so many of our heads at an early age, because we learn one rule and apply it globally.

Friday, June 03, 2011

This Is Not a Game

As regular readers of this blog know, here at the Burning House we often try to engage telemarketers and pollsters in conversation. Do not underestimate the potential for a living encounter to emerge from a dehumanized relationship.

The phone rang and the first thing I heard was a long recorded message from Dick Morris, a disgraced member of President Clinton's inner circle who has remade himself as a writer and Fox News personality. The gist of it was that I should hold the line to participate in a survey, because I have been selected as a leading conservative or Tea Party activist in my area. (News to me.) There was stuff about Obama's "socialist agenda" and his alleged failed presidency, a promo for Morris's forthcoming book release, and another plea to stay on the line and talk to "Morris's assistant" to participate in a conservative poll.

In other words, they were pretending to be taking an opinion poll, but were only interested in talking to people who identified as "conservative."

So I waited and a man in his thirties (I'm guessing) thanked me for taking his call.

His first question was: "Who among our conservative leaders do you feel most confident about?"

To which I responded, "Conservative is a label. I don't care how a leader is labeled by the media. I am concerned with their analysis of our problems, and whether their solutions are effective and fair."

He continued, from his script. I imagined him on a headset device with his script laid out on a cheap fiber-board desk at some call center in Virginia or Maryland. "Which leader do you think will do the best job defeating Obama's agenda?"

"Let me ask you, what part of Obama's agenda do you oppose? There's probably more than one, so pick the worst thing."

"Well, obviously, there's his socialist agenda."

"Obama is not a socialist -- at least, not any more than George W. Bush or his father were. Has Obama nationalized any industries? Has he democratized economic policy? Are you telling me Larry Summers and Tim Geithner are reds?"

He was well-trained. Instead of arguing the point he moved on. "There's our pro-muslim foreign policy!"

"First of all, the Islamic religion is not our enemy. Secondly, we don't have a 'pro-muslim' foreign policy."

"What Dick is saying is, we need to find the leader who can win our battle against Obama's agenda."

"Okay. Let me go back and ask you this again: put your script down for a second. You're a smart guy and have your own convictions. I could tell you why I'm unhappy with President Obama, but tell me your own thoughts. Tell me something about Obama's agenda you want me to oppose."

Loooong pause. These guys aren't supposed to think for themselves and speak those thoughts aloud. It's the same pressure we put our candidates under: don't veer from the packaged message, no matter what. If you think and speak spontaneously, you might go "off-message."

After his pause, his tone of voice had a sense of bewilderment. And he said: "What's not to oppose?"

After that sank in, I spoke. "Is that your answer? What that sounds like to me is that you oppose Obama just because he's Obama, or a Democrat, or a liberal, or whatever. It doesn't matter what he says, thinks, or does: you just oppose him."


"This is not intelligent. This is what you might call 'opposites thinking.' You divide us up into 'conservatives' and 'liberals' and you only want to hear from 'conservatives.' This does not help people, and where I live, people are truly suffering."


"This is one of the poorest counties in the entire United States, did you know that? Luna County, New Mexico. Look it up. Do you think the children who go to bed hungry in this area care who is a 'conservative' or a 'liberal?' You work for people who are playing a game. To us, this is not a game. We need fact-based analysis of our problems, and solutions tested in the real world. Your game makes money for political handlers and media figures. It does not feed one hungry child."


"That's nothing about this in your script, is there?"

"Thank you speaking with me."

"Good luck."

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Letter to Steve Jobs about WinAmerica

Mr. Steve Jobs, CEO
Apple, Inc.
1 Inifinite Loop
Cupertino, CA 95014

Dear Mr. Jobs,

This will be brief as I know you are far too busy to read much unsolicited mail from the public.

The "WinAmerica" coalition, an association of multinational corporations lobbying for a tax holiday on profits they've earned overseas (over $1 trillion worth), is a most unfortunate association for Apple. I hope you will reconsider the corporation's support for this campaign.

WinAmerica's message is that these corporations must receive a tax holiday on overseas profits so that they may invest domestically and create U.S. jobs. A similar tax holiday in 2004 led mostly to investments in stock and dividend payments, rather than increased employment in the United States. In fact, many of the corporations benefiting from these tax concessions cut jobs. Therefore these promises have a familiar hollow ring about them.

Many of the corporations involved with WinAmerica pay little in corporate taxes to begin with. Apple pays a 25% corporate tax rate, but the low end is below 2%.

Mr. Jobs, our nation needs revenue. Nothing prevents the corporations involved in WinAmerica from repatriating those holdings and paying taxes on them. That would itself be an important investment in the United States.

There is also nothing preventing these corporations, certainly not Apple, from narrowing its Foreign Direct Investment and reducing its subcontracting, spending a bit more money for production in the United States. The subcontractor that produces most of the iPads we enjoy in the U.S. operates under conditions that would shock most of your customers.

Making these changes would cut into profit margins and thus are a difficult sell to your Board, perhaps. But if WinAmerica truly believes in investing in the United States, is it not worth a try?

I am not naive. I suspect WinAmerica's real intentions are to extend an already privileged tax status for multinational corporations, without actually fulfilling the vague promise of job creation. Meanwhile, people in my community are paying the price for that privilege while suffering the economic crisis and its subsequent cuts to human services just as so many people need them.

Yet I believe the person of Steve Jobs is in a position to be a moral leader on this issue, if that is what he wants. It begins with repudiating the WinAmerica campaign. If nothing else, you can certainly achieve that. Will you consider this?

Thank you for your time.