Sunday, July 31, 2011

Prison Dharma in New Mexico

Yesterday I made my first visit to the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility, outside of Las Cruces, NM. This photograph is from the state's web site, and shows the door where I entered the facility following the prison's chaplain.

When I wrote to the chaplain volunteering to come and teach meditation at the prison, he called me back with some surprising information: There was already a meditation group at the prison, and he himself, the prison's chaplain, was a practicing Buddhist.

Not what I expected in this part of the country, but you really never know.

The prison is business-like, clean, efficient. I had to sign things, turn in my keys and license, be aware of some do's and don'ts. The chapel is simple yet designed to accommodate many different religions: Christians of various schools, muslims, indigenous American religions (I saw supplies for a sweat lodge in the chaplain's office), and more. Not a bad room, actually: large ceilings, carpeted, air conditioning. No pews, just a bunch of red plastic chairs.

After dinner and medication line, the guys in levels 2 and 3 had rec time, or a chance to come to meditation class. About ten guys in clean green uniforms came in. Many of them have been meditating with the chaplain for a while -- ages 20 to 70, some Christian, some not. Two guys came for the first time and wanted instruction.

Polite. Interested. Asked good questions. Strong zazen. Sometimes, the chaplain told me, they are fidgety or chatty. Today, not so much; they were checking me out, the new visitor. But when everybody is sitting Zen, you can feel what's going on in the room. The chaplain has done a nice job with this meditation group. Muslims and Christians and non-religious sitting together with very little bullshit.

They asked me to come again, and I said I would. I would love to. It was a pleasure.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Retreats, Acting School, and Right View

Challenges and barriers.

Great undertakings tend to involve confronting those.

So it is with retreats. The discussion of Zen retreats, and their importance, continues over at the Tricycle magazine blog. In this post , "How important are meditation retreats" there is a short quotation from what was posted here at the Burning House.

One of the commenters wrote,

No one is doubting the spiritual value of retreat. But I will say the point in the Dharma Talk when the teacher inevitably references the value of a long retreat is the point which I am most uncomfortable -- not only because of my natural aversion to organized religious activities (this is the moment to me that feels the most like proselytization), but also because there is an air of naivete about what people can and afford to commit to their practice.

This had a ring of familiarity to it. It reminded me of another occupation of mine.

By the age of seven, for some weird reason, I knew that I would be spending most of my life as an actor. It was not a choice, it was like gravity. This is not to say I had much talent; in fact, more than one teacher pointed out to me that I was not impressively talented and it would take an awful lot of training and practice to be proficient in a rehearsal room or on stage. (One memorable quote from someone I respected in New York: "You're cute but you're not a good actor." Zowie.)

No one asked me to be an actor, but for some weird reason -- the woo explanation might be ancient karmic bonds -- I had to do it, and this meant finding a way to train. There are lots of ways to do this but they involve spending time and money. One can take acting classes on some ongoing basis, in addition to auditioning and working as much as possible. If the cost is too high, there may be other options: a lot of studios will let people work for discounts or scholarships.

One can enter a full-time acting school, but this involves enormous sacrifice unless one is wealthy. I entered a three-year conservatory knowing I could not afford it. I borrowed heavily to pay for it and some of my living expenses. The demands of the conservatory did not permit me to hold down a steady job. It was a difficult life, and 15 years later I'm still paying the loans.

But it's not just loan payments -- the conservatory took up so much space and personal cost that the entire shape of my life has been, and is, different. I've joked that it "ruined my life," but what I really mean is that it changed me in ways that are permanent, such that I have had to reconsider my basic notions about "success," "abundance," and "meaningful work."

If going to the conservatory can be likened to a monastic commitment for a moment, the question arises: is the conservatory actor somehow "better" or "more committed" than the actor who includes acting classes and/or doing plays with job and family life?

Well, no. Even if the conservatory is very good, there is no guarantee that the actors graduating from that school are any better than a hard-working actor who takes lessons and acts in plays when she has time. The conservatory is a very good way to train, but that does not dismiss the practice and effort of actors who don't go.

At Providence Zen Center, there used to be several Vinaya-following monks living side by side with lay people. I observed some people, with hair and without, who created an ignorant division in their minds. I heard some people remark that the monks weren't living a "real life" because their situation was so protected and exalted; I heard monastics utter sentiments that people tied down to jobs and families were not able to "really practice."

These are familiar expressions but they are not Right View. A monk has a different life than I do, but we are both working with our lives and confronting what we have made up about the world. A monk's experience will always be different than mine, and the reverse is true. Both are valid.

It is the same with other ignorant divisions we make up among ourselves: parents / non-parents, veterans / non-veterans, young people / old people , religious people / secular people, and so on. A combat veteran has seen things I likely will never see, but that doesn't make my life less valid. Maybe there are things I can learn from that person; nothing wrong with that.

So let's return to retreats. It is hard to make the commitment to do a long retreat, even if one really desires to do so, in an economy where we must compete against other workers and devote a great deal of time and energy to earning cash. There is nothing inherently superior about those who find ways (usually entailing sacrifice) to do retreats. They wanted to do the retreats and they found ways to do it, bully for them.

If going off and doing a retreat at a temple is not possible, there are other ways. People do lots of things to make a space, unplug the phone, hang a "not right now" sign on their door, and spend a few hours or a day or a weekend on silence, just practicing hard. The experience will be different than sitting a retreat at a Zen center with a teacher, but so what. Personally, I've done a lot of apartment retreats and even tent retreats when I could not get to a retreat center for reasons of time or money or distance or whatever. Why did I do that? It had to be done, that's all.

If you want validation for this kind of solution, I'll give it to you and it is sincere. Thank you for doing such a wonderful thing and making a retreat situation so you could commit to some intensive practice. You don't have to depend on a Zen center and buy your way into a retreat. You can set something up and do it yourself.

Just one caveat: Sitting with a community and working with a teacher or an older student is a very good, healthy thing. So keep looking for ways to do that, please, even if it means asking for work exchange or something.

Challenges and barriers. The old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. The roots reach for water. If you need to do it, find a way. If you don't need to do it, what's the problem?

Returning to that commenter above, I don't know what teachers he or she has been listening to, and the commenter could be right. Yet I am wondering what those teachers actually said, and what the actual sentiment was. Perhaps they were not being "naive" about the costs -- maybe they are well aware of the cost and urging their students to find a way to do it.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Article on Elephant Journal

Hello friends.

I am actually heading out the door to finish a radio script that is due -- oh, nowish. Before I go, just want to let you know I have an article up at Elephant Journal. The article appears here.

Long-time readers of this blog may recognize it as an improved version of an old entry on this very blog. (The editor who invited me to write for EJ told me that would be okay.)

More original content in this space soon. In the meantime, all we have to say about our life in Deming at the moment is: DO. NOT. LET. YOUR TODDLER. FLUSH!!! STUFF!!! DOWN THE TOILET!!!

Reporting from the house of E. Coli.,


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pricing Buddhism and its Personal Cost

Monty McKeever has a piece on the Tricycle blog entitled Why Is Buddhism So Damned Expensive?

The morning will not permit a long and considered response to this, but a couple of thoughts come to mind.

Financial barriers should not present an absolute barrier to practicing Zen or interfacing with other Buddhist centers. Most of these places, as McKeever points out, want people there and will arrange something like a scholarship or work-study. The Kwan Um School had a center in Colorado once that had a special fund for this, and a lot of us would round up our retreat fee a few dollars to endow it. If you were having trouble affording the full retreat fee, you could take from this fund.

What I would emphasize even more than McKeever does is the importance of asking. Requesting assistance can be a very interesting experience. The Buddha and his first sangha were beggars. I have always suspected there was more to their practice of begging than simply sustenance. When Bernie Glassman first began doing street retreats, one of the first phenomena they had to address was the middle-class social conditioning around asking for help. (This is recounted in Glassman's book, Bearing Witness.) In the middle class and above, people are used to simply buying what they need or else doing without. Asking for something without the ability to pay for it was not an interaction people were used to. Coincidentally, or not, many of Buddha's followers had also been people of means, suddenly wearing rags and asking for handouts of food.

The ability to pay can be a barrier. It has to do with asking, and interacting, rather than simply signing up and saying, "Here's my check." I have noticed this in everyday life when it comes to things like repairs. Instead of fixing something myself, I could just make a phone call and pay someone to do it -- without having to touch or examine my own home, without going on the journey of figuring out how to do it and risking dissatisfaction.

We are not talking about begging in its extreme -- I'm talking about asking, making oneself a tiny bit vulnerable. To pick up the phone and order "off the menu" of options presented, to ask for an opportunity that has not been explicitly laid out in a brochure -- asking for a favor, even -- is for some a very unfamiliar way of encountering other people.

Buddhist centers are in a bind because the dharma should be free for all. This value does not apply to rent, repairs to a roof, heating and cooling a space, utilities and insurance, or flying a teacher to the location for a retreat. Deming Zen Center is almost 100% donation-only, and sometimes that bites us in the back. Operating a Zen Center on the basis of dana is very difficult even when everyone chips in. Sometimes people don't.

So there is a need for fees, even though it establishes financial gates and is a factor in the oft-reported trend that Buddhist practitioners are middle-class and up. Privileged, in other words.

One of the commenters on this article also points out the difficulty of retreats, not just because of fees but also time. Very few people are able to take time away from work to participate in 7-day retreats or longer. Many centers (including ours) do shorter retreats on weekends to allow for more participation, but this is a compromise: a short retreat is very different than an extended retreat.

Unfortunately, the commenter is led to question the importance of retreats: "It's possible that the problem lies not with the cost of retreats but with over-emphasis on the retreat model altogether." Note we are now embracing the language of capitalist enterprise: the retreat is spoken of as a product, part of a business model.

I will not deny that the amount of time I have spent on retreat has cost me financially. At a certain point, I made a decision to make myself available for retreats as much as possible, and it was possible for me to do this because I had few obligations at the time. I sacrificed money and career opportunities in order to live at Zen Centers and to spend periods of as much as ninety days on silence and unreachable from outside the monastery. Within the logic of capitalism, I was committing suicide.

When I made a commitment to sit an entire Kyol Che, I went to my employer and offered my resignation. When I explained the situation, the boss said goodbye and shook my hand. Later that day, he called me into his office. He had called national headquarters and gotten permission to grant me a very rare unpaid leave of absence: my job would be there when I returned.

This may sound a bit woo -- it certainly isn't something I can demonstrate with scientific rigor -- but generosity often does appear when people make a commitment openly to something like a long retreat. I've heard many stories about this from Zen students. I've heard Appalachian Trail hikers describe a similar phenomenon: they announce that they are going to spend months hiking this trail, and people find ways to help them, as if they were going on a pilgrimage. (And who's to say they aren't?)

The benefits of sitting a 7-day retreat even once is worth the imposition, and it may turn out to be less of a burden than you thought.

That said, it does cost. Buddhism, at least the kind that is part of my life with daily meditation practice and intensive training, is an imposition. It requires time and some energy. It is time you will not be able to spend cultivating other things. Some possibilities, we gotta let go. We're talking about sacrifice. Besides giving up time and opportunities, I have had to spend money, and sometimes I have had to ask for special accommodations (like work exchange). Sometimes -- oh, how the bourgeois conscience reels -- I even let certain bills pile up and become "delinquent" so as to put the retreat first. Putting the credit score in jeopardy, I know -- unthinkable.

Yet for me it never felt like a choice. Acting was like this, as well. I had to do it, so I found ways to do it wherever I was. It may not be equivalent to the begging that Shakyamuni Buddha and his followers did, but I sense a parallel: they had to do it, so they took responsibility, made the imposition, and made ways to do it.

This is going to have to be a one-draft post, folks; I apologize for the bad quality and hope something worthwhile came through.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How's the Weather in Bangalore?

The affable Bill Boomhower, doing business as Computer Consultants here in Deming, has excellent bedside manner for a computer doctor. He and I sat in my office stooped over the three year old PC, our ears to the CPU as it clicked repetitively.

He winced sympathetically. "That sound is probably bad news about the hard drive."

It had gone bad suddenly. I had just about enough time to back up our files one last time before it would not even boot up in "safe mode."

There was worse news still. Sarah and I thought we had been meticulous when setting up the computer in 2008, carefully storing the CDs with all our software and drivers along with the license keys in case we ever needed to reload them. We neglected to order back up disks for the operating system. You need to do this if you buy a computer with Windows already loaded on it. We forgot. Now we had a problem.

All right then, lemonade from lemons. We are now operating on Windows 7 -- an upgrade from Vista. Installing everything made for an interesting evening. When it comes to mechanical problems, and I have trouble getting a human being to help me ("Press 1 to hear more recordings; Press 2 to return to this menu; Press 3 if you want to smash your phone to pieces"), my buttons get pushed. I can feel my body temperature change, feel the energy move in my body, note the thoughts that appear -- the increased likelihood of uttering something sarcastic if/when a breathing person ever does get on the phone with me.

It was a great relief. With the help of a lot of breath, I did not utter nasty comments ("So how's the weather in Bangalore??") and the person who got on the phone from Microsoft support was knowledgeable, clear, and quite helpful. What do you know.

So we are back. Not that you've missed us terribly -- there is plenty to read in the great blogosphere.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

A Dramatizement

It's a bit long for a commercial, and not really an infomercial so much as a lengthy commercial (perhaps 7 minutes or so) dramatizing the need for the medical services supplied by the advertiser. Would we call this an advert-drama? Have we just coined a phrase?

The first day of filming this -- maybe dramatizement? -- was, for me, at the Mesilla Valley Hospice in Las Cruces. The hospice is down a rather sorrowful block of Montana Avenue. Slowly driving down this lane, one notices a retirement home, assisted living facility, the hospice, and -- sitting prominently in the middle of everything -- Baca's funeral chapel.

It was an odd location because this is, in fact, a working hospice. We filmed a scene in an unused room, walking lights and camera equipment past occupied rooms trying to raise the least ruckus possible.

The woman cast as my mother is in fact 15 years older than me. She looks great for her age and I don't, so she could pass for my older sister.

As we waited (which is 90% of what actors must do on a film set -- wait, and don't get in the way) I wondered where the actress playing my wife was. Eventually we were told she could not make it and rewrote the scene so that I was speaking to her on my cell phone.

After the day's wrap, I got a call saying the actress could not make it at all, and filming at our other locations -- scheduled for tomorrow -- will now be delayed until they cast another wife for me.

Well of all the things for an actor to hear! "We are having trouble finding a wife for you, Mr. D'Ammassa."

Cue up Tom Waits. (Note to Sarah: joke!)

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Gabriel and the Monthly Review

Gabriel enjoys my subscription to the Monthly Review nearly as much as I do.

For him, it is because every issue of the magazine is in a bright, bold color -- sometimes primary colors.

More days than not, I will talk into the office and find our collected issues of Monthly Review scattered across the floor, or piled just like this. All of them.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Adler's Economics for the rest of us

Economics for the Rest of Us: Debunking the Science that Makes Life DismalEconomics for the Rest of Us: Debunking the Science that Makes Life Dismal by Moshe Adler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Written for the layman, Adler does an effective job of teaching some of the basic precepts of neoclassical economics, the prevailing paradigm and its influence on public policy.

This does require getting into some technical material about wage theories and the Pareto model of "efficiency," which are the more difficult parts of the book for readers not trained in economics. Difficult, but not impenetrable, and well worth it for understanding the substance of Adler's critique.

View my other reviews on Goodreads

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Dump Trucks and Elephants

Not so long ago, during my early morning sit, Gabriel (three years old) woke up and stumbled into the living room. He found me and made a beeline for me on my mat and cushion. Plop, down he went onto my lap and together we sat that way, enjoying the sunrise. Since then, this has happened many times. After a few minutes, he gets up and goes about his life: dump trucks and elephants.

That's the simplicity of a Zen group. You sit together for a while and then go back to your respective dump trucks and elephants. Keeping things that simple and direct within the workings of an organization is a good trick. It can be done.

Since March, I've put quite a bit of work into making the local Zen group an institution. We needed to have a bank account and non-profit status, and there are requirements for achieving these things. It's an amusing process for me to watch, as it involves work my personality does not like: lots of form-filling-outing, and asking for money.

What's wonderful about it so far is that yes, there is now a dharma room and a sign on the door and bank statements and a website and all that. As a result, more people are hearing about us and walking in the door, trying it out. This is a good stage. There is very little drama. I'm not a Zen Master, so nobody gets possessive or makes a big deal about me. People come, sit, chat a little bit while putting on shoes, and then they go back to their dump trucks and elephants. Maybe the sitting makes a difference, helps them return to a clear mind in the midst of all that whirli-dango.

There is suffering, of course, but it's not suffering about Zen or rank or "American Buddhism" or other things that turn into mental battlegrounds. My blog reading lately has been full of arguing. There are lots of insightful things being said/written in the midst of the noise, so I keep looking, but wow -- um. Let's just say Zen practitioners as a set don't have the market cornered on grace and compassion. Arguments about sex scandals and how people respond to sex scandals, male teachers who keep misplacing their penises, kerfluffles about who gets invited to which conference. The latest dust-up on blogs I read has to do with a woman of color who wrote about her painful encounter with white converts to Buddhism, and was so candid about her emotional reaction that it unsettled a great many people -- oh, the comments. Wow.

I did give a listen to a recording of a strange guest dharma talk in New York City. The guest speaker is a well-known author and Zen teacher, young (mid-forties), who has adopted a style very different from other Zen priests. (Yes, I'm referring to Brad Warner.) He was invited to give a talk at a well-reputed Zen center and got some hostile questions from his hosts -- which, in my own judgment, included some inappropriate public psychoanalysis. Is this dharma? More like a pissing match. Whatever your feelings about Brad Warner, they invited him. Was it so they could do this in public? How weird.

So there's something here about practicing with controversy. Sometimes the best reply really is just to listen. (You don't have to buy anything, just listen.) Something about blogs and the media of instant response trains us to reframe, rewrite other people's words, and rebut rebut rebut. I've fallen into it many times, so I won't put on airs. Blogs and websites don't offer the equivalent to silently bowing and listening to another person's pain, without passing judgment on whether the presentation is right or good. Maybe simply leaving the "thank you" comment. Or one of those cute emoticons I see on Facebook that simulates the palms-together hapchang gesture. Don't know.

Eventually, if it lasts, there will be conflicts within the Deming Zen community. It's human. Right now, I'm just enjoying this early stage, where everybody in the room is new to practicing, trying it out with a shared spirit of adventure. The blogs are reminding me how easily "dharma" (our ideas about it that is) and the Zen Center environment become battlegrounds for the same old egotistical games.

It's all right. I can always take a break and do some more work on the house: we're painting. Hot physical labor is good for checking-mind.

[Photo: dharma room at Deming Zen Center, set up for a ceremony]