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Engaged Buddhism in This Time of Pandemic (3)

This is the third in an open-ended series of posts exploring some of the principle teachings of Buddhism for insights into how we might conduct our lives more skillfully during these challenging times of the coronavirus pandemic. For an overview of the entire projected series, please see the first entry.

 

The Three Characteristics (“Marks”) of Existence:

(2) Unsatisfactoriness

There are three characteristics (frequently referred to as “marks” in traditional Buddhist texts) that are said to fully describe the nature of our human existence – impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self.  While each of them is present to some degree in just about any given circumstance, it seems to me that all three of them are manifesting in particularly unique and unmistakable ways in the current conditions that we are collectively living through during the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are some thoughts on the second of these three characteristics – unsatisfactoriness. (And, in case you’re interested in the first characteristic, impermanence, but missed that post, you can read it here.)

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The characteristic of unsatisfactoriness brings us face-to-face with the root teaching of Buddhism, the fact of suffering (often referred to as “dukkha”, the Pali word used in the canon of ancient written texts upon which all contemporary Buddhist teachings are based).  It is reported in these writings that the historical Buddha said near the end of his life that, throughout his forty-five years as a wandering teacher, he had taught only two things: suffering, and the cessation of suffering.

It also seems to be the case that he defined suffering, or dukkha, in two very distinct ways: one of them describing a general, universal kind of suffering; and the other one describing a specific, individual kind of suffering.  The definitive description of the first kind of suffering – the universal type – comes from this often-quoted passage in the Pali literature where, having been asked by a follower what constitutes suffering, the Buddha purportedly answered “Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering”.

The second kind of suffering – the individual type – refers to how each of us finds our own unique way of “adding on” to the first kind through our reactive habits of grasping after everything that we find pleasurable and pushing away anything that we find displeasurable.  We might think of this individual kind of dukkha as “invited suffering” – something that we bring upon ourselves almost (but not quite) willingly, a dukkha that is potentially avoidable.

Since this second kind of suffering is dealt with at great length in the Buddhist teachings concerning the second and third “noble truths”, and since in the near future I plan to discuss the four noble truths as part of this continuing series, I shall hold off further consideration of “invited suffering” until then.

For now, we will keep our focus on the first, universal kind of dukkha (old age, illness, death, etc.), which we can think of as “uninvited suffering” – something inflicted upon us by the very nature of existence, almost always against our wills, a dukkha that is completely unavoidable.  And there is probably no better contemporary example of unavoidable, uninvited suffering than the current coronavirus pandemic.

One could, of course, argue about just how unavoidable the pandemic itself was – given the various, possibly more effective public health and safety measures that might have been taken by the governments of all the countries that have been affected.  But remember that here we are considering not the pandemic itself, but rather the suffering caused by the pandemic.

This suffering – by the ones who have fallen ill, by the families and friends who have lost loved ones to the virus, by the health care providers working under extreme conditions of duress and danger to themselves, by those deemed “essential workers” risking their own health and safety to meet the pubic’s need for food and groceries and other critical supplies, by the elderly and infirm living in extreme social isolation, by the needy and homeless living in extreme desperation, and by just about every single one of us dealing as best we can with our fears and anxieties about the future – this massive amount of suffering all across the globe can surely be described as universal, unavoidable, and uninvited.

A fundamental teaching of Buddhism is that we should always look not to the actual event that’s causing us to suffer, but to the ways in which we are experiencing that event.  And for many of us, experiencing this pandemic involves such unpleasant emotions as frustration, boredom, anger, worry, fear, anxiety.  Right here is where we can begin an inquiry into what suffering – dukkha – might teach us about living more skillfully in this time of pandemic.

One of the principle features of the suffering being caused by this pandemic – alluded to in the list compiled two paragraphs above – is its massive, universal nature.  By keeping that in mind as we take note of our own individual (and especially our own negative) responses to the pandemic, we can also take note of how many countless others are suffering right along with us.  Going one step further, we can also take note of how many of these countless others are suffering to a much grater degree than we are.

When we adopt this expansive view of all the suffering, and of all the greater degrees of suffering, that are occurring outside the narrow confines of our own limited experience – when we truly take it all in – we cannot help but to begin experiencing a deep sense of compassion for the vast number of individuals across the globe who have been afflicted in far worse ways than we ourselves have by this unexpected, uninvited suffering.

The experience of compassion, as defined in the Buddhist tradition, necessarily includes the desire to somehow help to alleviate the suffering that’s arousing our compassion.  In the case of this current pandemic, the ways to help are practically infinite.  Just about every one of us knows of at least one person (and probably quite a few more than that) in need of some kind of emotional support or physical assistance.

Whoever the person, whatever their need, there has never been a better time than now for each of us to reach out to those persons and to offer whatever help we’re able to provide.

There has never been a better time than now, in the midst of this pandemic, for each of us to meet the universal unsatisfactoriness of existence with an unstinting personal practice of compassion, both for ourselves and most especially for others.

Stay well, everyone …

The next post in this series will focus on the third of the three characteristics of existence – no-self.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Engaged Buddhism in This Time of Pandemic (2)

This is the second in an open-ended series of posts exploring some of the principle teachings of Buddhism for insights into how we might conduct our lives more skillfully during these challenging times of the coronavirus pandemic. For an overview of the entire projected series, please see the first entry.

 

The Three Characteristics (“Marks”) of Existence:

(1) Impermanence

There are three characteristics (frequently referred to as “marks” in traditional Buddhist texts) that are said to fully describe the nature of our human existence – impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self.  While each of them is present to some degree in just about any given circumstance, it seems to me that all three of them are manifesting in particularly unique and unmistakable ways in the current conditions that we are collectively living through during the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are some thoughts on the first of these three characteristics – impermanence.

*          *          *          *          *

While we all know that things are always changing, and that nothing lasts forever, we often act as if we didn’t know.  We do so, of course, for the very good reason that, on a day-to-day basis, the persons, places, and things that were there in our lives yesterday are usually still there today, and (we can reasonably presume) will still be there tomorrow. We rely on this day-to-day continuity for our ongoing sense of identity and purpose.  In its absence, our lives would be chaotic beyond imagining.

The mistake we typically make, though, is to conflate this essential aspect of continuity with the erroneous attribution of permanence.  We naturally expect things to continue on a daily basis as we’ve become accustomed to, because that’s been our lifelong experience.  But our presumption that this will remain the case indefinitely into the future is in fact just that – a presumption.  And this presumption flies in the face of the first characteristic of our existence, the impermanence of all things.

On the first day of social distancing and stay-at-home directives, we awoke to find that so much that we take for granted as permanent features of our experience – commuting to our jobs, seeing our kids off to school, shopping for groceries, dining at a favorite restaurant, taking a stroll through the park, visiting with friends – could practically vanish into thin air, like so many random pieces of paper blown out an open window by a sudden unexpected gust of wind.

Today, more than one month into this new normal, we have an opportunity to reflect upon the tenuous nature of our mistaken sense of continuity-as-permanence, and to correct that erroneous perception with a newfound awareness that every aspect of our experience is ultimately impermanent.

Such an awareness would not only put us in better alignment with Buddhism’s first characteristic of existence, but would also almost certainly change for the better how we experience life going forward.  Imagine what it might be like if, instead of thoughtlessly presuming that whatever it is we’re enjoying today will automatically be there for us again tomorrow, we took the more thoughtful attitude of appreciating today’s experience all the more because we know much better than to simply presume that it will still be there for us tomorrow.  Hopefully, of course, it will.  But now we would know that, perhaps, it won’t.

Embracing the characteristic of impermanence in this deep and lasting fashion would, I think, enhance our experience of every present moment – including each of the very challenging moments we are living through, and enduring, right now.

Stay well, everyone …

The next post in this series will focus on the second of the three characteristics of existence – unsatisfactoriness.

 

Engaged Buddhism in This Time of Pandemic (1)

Under normal circumstances, most of the essays I post on this blog focus on some current event or situation in contemporary American politics, which I then attempt to examine through the lens of Buddhist teachings, with the hope that whatever light passes through that lens might usefully illuminate the issue at hand.

Of course, we are currently living under anything but normal circumstances, and while I, like many others, have pushed political matters further and further away into the background of my daily concerns, I’ve begun to notice with each passing day that I’m pulling those Buddhist teachings closer and closer into the foreground of my concerns.

In particular, I find myself thinking about what a socially engaged Buddhism has to offer with regard to the social behaviors being asked of us during the pandemic. What insights can it provide through such traditional teachings as the three marks of existence, the four noble truths, the five remembrances, and the eightfold path?  And what particular forms do the essential Buddhist virtues of generosity, compassion, and wisdom take on in the throes of this pandemic?

Over the next few weeks, I plan to write exclusively on this topic.  Each post will explore some aspect of living in these days of the coronavirus pandemic through the lens of one of the above sets of Buddhist teachings.

I’ve long believed that, even in normal times, Buddhism has much to teach us about how we can live together more skillfully.  Now, in these anything-but-normal times, I suspect that what Buddhism has to offer is of more value than ever.

Stay well, everyone …

The next post in this series will focus on the first of the three characteristics of existence – impermanence.

 

Bhikkhu Bodhi on the Coronavirus Outbreak

{Note from the blogger … For the second time in the past three months, I am pleased to be posting the published remarks of Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, the renowned Buddhist scholar and social activist.  The following essay appears in the latest newsletter from his charitable organization, Buddhist Global Relief.  It speaks eloquently to how we, as liberal Buddhists, can best respond to the ongoing coronavirus crisis …

Responsibly Facing the Pandemic

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Just a month ago, when I left New York for California, the coronavirus was considered a problem that the Chinese would have to grapple with in Hubei province. Today it has reached every continent and has forced major American cities into lockdown. Not only does the virus bring illness, death, and economic hardship to many, but wherever it spreads it sows the seeds of fear and discord. It is fomenting nationalism and racism and divides populations up on the basis of economic, social, and racial privilege. Yet because no one is immune from this virus—not even those with the most sturdy social protections—the dangers it poses to us, personally and collectively, should draw us all together in an unflinching effort to stop its spread. Just as the attack on the U.S. on 9/11 led the whole world to say “Now we are all Americans,” so it is time for us to say “We are all infected with the virus.”

The unified effort needed to end the epidemic may have consequences more far-reaching than merely stopping the spread of the disease. The pain of the crisis might be seen more broadly as a tremendous opportunity, as a wake-up call for us to examine the values and goals that drive us both individually and as a society. The values that dominate in our frenetic, market-based culture are the quest for wealth and power, but these must not be permitted to govern our response to the pandemic. The response called for, rather, must be grounded in a moral vision that gives primacy to people—a primacy that has to be extended universally. We must be able to see every person as a center of intrinsic dignity, to regard every human life as worthy of being cherished, helped, and protected.

To respond in this way, we need to bring together in our own hearts two crucial qualities, compassion and moral conviction, which should function in unison as spurs to responsible action, almost as the inward and outward faces of a single disposition. Both should be guided by wisdom. Wisdom teaches us that our lives are inseparably intertwined. We do not live caged within the confines of our skins, but breathe and move in an intricate net of relationships governed by mutual lines of influence. Most of these lines are invisible to us, but beneath the range of perception our own thoughts, decisions, and actions are constantly exercising an impact on countless others, just as the thoughts and actions of others are having a subtle impact on us.

Compassion is rooted in the recognition that all human beings share the same basic aspiration—the aspiration to be well, happy, and healthy, to be free from suffering and affliction. Under the critical conditions brought on by the virus, compassion must be extended universally, to every person who shares this planet with us, whether they live in China, India, Iran, Kenya, Brazil, on the next street or in the next apartment. The Buddha says that it is hard to find a person who, during this long course of rebirths, has not at some time been our mother or father, our sister or brother. We must apply this lens of understanding—in imagination if not through direct contact—to everyone without distinctions, wishing them to be free from suffering, and resolving to act in ways that safeguard their well-being just as if they were actually our own beloved parents, our own dear siblings.

Guided by wisdom, compassion generates a keen sense of moral responsibility, which operates on two fronts: in protecting ourselves and in protecting others. On the one hand, we must act in ways that prevent us from picking up the virus and falling ill ourselves; on the other, we must avoid behaving in ways that turn us into vectors transmitting the virus to others. Our strongest impact will naturally be on those in our own immediate circle of contacts, but to varying degrees our deeds potentially affect everyone. A careless move on my part here in New York, and within weeks a woman in Spain may feel a compression in her lungs or a man in Lebanon may be admitted to the hospital with a raging fever.

When this sense of moral responsibility is shared widely by people throughout our society, this confers on us a collective power to turn the tide of this pandemic. If we all act responsibly, together we can flatten the growth curve of the virus, so that instead of spiking it levels off and drops. The key is being vigilant, thoughtfully and persistently, not sliding down the slope of heedlessness and complacency.

To succeed in our efforts we must adhere to appropriate guidelines. Experts in public health stress that the key to hindering the spread of the coronavirus is to observe “social distancing,” that is, to maintain physical distance from other people. Ironically, while the natural tendency of a compassionate heart is to draw us toward others to offer our support—by hugging, holding hands, speaking softly, or simply sitting close by—the pandemic teaches us the opposite, that the most effective way we can express compassion is by maintaining a bodily distance. This does not mean that we remain caged in psychological isolation. From the safety of our solitude we can offer others help, consolation, and companionship, sharing our hopes, fears, aspirations, and concerns. But we must do this while keeping physically aloof.

The reason social distancing plays such an important role is because, as the word suggests, a virus spreads virally—not in a linear progression, not by the simple addition of cases, but exponentially, multiplying numbers through expanding lines of transmission. For example, if in the span of a few days one person transmits the virus to three others, and those three interact socially with others, each of them might spread the virus to three more people; so within days the virus has expanded ninefold. This explains the sharp spike of cases in such countries as Spain and Italy and in such busy cities as New York.

Expansion at this rate can have a debilitating impact on our health-care system, increasing the demand on hospital space, medical personnel, and medical supplies—all of which are already under strain. As the number of patients rises, it tends to burden the system beyond its capacity to cope, resulting in escalating numbers of deaths. Doctors and nurses, already poorly equipped, fall ill themselves, reducing the corps of frontline fighters. Thus social distancing becomes the most compassionate thing to do. It literally saves lives, perhaps the lives of our loved ones.

To act ethically, to be morally responsible, we must adhere rigorously to the guidelines proposed by health officials in relation to the ways we interact with others. There is, however, still another side to compassionate action called for in this time of crisis. This involves heeding the call to social justice. Even before the pandemic arrived, some 140 million people in this country were either poor or low income—that’s 40% of the population. Some 30 million do not have any form of health coverage; over 40 million are dependent on food stamps just to feed their families. Now that the virus has struck, the people being hit the hardest are low-wage workers and the poor, those who were already struggling just to subsist from one day to the next.

For many of these, the epidemic will be devastating. These are people who don’t have the monetary resources to meet high medical costs, who aren’t granted paid sick leave, who can’t afford child care when their children are not in school. Low-wage workers can’t take days off when they feel unwell but are compelled to work even when doing so risks making their own condition worse and spreading the virus to others. Struggling just to survive, they now face food shortages, water shutoffs, and eviction from their homes. As we respond compassionately to the crisis, we can’t leave them behind, but must stand up in defense of those who can’t defend themselves, demanding of our elected representatives that such people be given paid sick leave, that their food stamp benefits be expanded rather than cut, that they be allowed to stay in their homes, that their health-care needs in dealing with the virus be met without charge.

In the long run, this epidemic may be teaching us a powerful lesson about the imperative of fundamental social transformation, pushing us to lay the foundations for a more equitable society and a more sustainable world. It is unconscionable that here, in the most affluent nation on earth, the least among us languish in their time of urgent need. The time is ripe for us to see that everyone’s basic human needs are met. Above all, we must replace a profit-driven health-care system with an alternative system built on the premise that health care is a fundamental human right, something to which every person is entitled by reason of their humanity regardless of income and social status.

To bring about the change we need requires concerted action from all of us, beginning with the simple task of contacting our congressional representatives and asking them to support such policies as the “moral agenda” proposed by the Poor People’s Campaign.

The Buddha said that the truly great person lives for his or her own welfare, for the welfare of others, and for the welfare of the whole world. This is one of those special times when we are being given the chance to meet this call to greatness, when we are being asked to act for the welfare of the world. To act in such a way we do not have to perform extraordinary deeds of self-sacrifice or unparalleled feats of creative innovation; we don’t have to be the ones who discover a vaccine for the coronavirus. The requirement, rather, is very simple: to adhere faithfully to the guidelines of social responsibility and to heed the call of social justice. By acting responsibly, even with our own best interest as our motivation, we will be putting compassion into action. We’ll be promoting the good of our loved ones, of our neighbors, of our community and nation, and ultimately the good of the world.

 

Bhikkhu Bodhi on the Climate Change Crisis

Our House Is On Fire, Yet We Still Play with Toys

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

 {Note from the blogger … Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, the renowned Buddhist scholar and climate change activist, gave this keynote address at a recent event at the United Nations. The following edited version of his prepared remarks was printed in the latest newsletter from his charitable organization, Buddhist Global Relief.  I am posting it in its entirety here for all readers of The Liberal Buddhist blog, as it speaks so eloquently and so urgently to what we all need to be doing – individually and collectively – in response to the looming climate crisis.}

The Buddha is often praised as the embodiment of peace, tolerance, good will, and compassion. However, while he certainly exemplifies these qualities, in no way do they exhaust his role or the content of his message. The Buddha was not merely a benevolent sage, but was above all an astute analyst of the human condition, one whose insight is perhaps unrivaled in the entire history of human thought. He was a physician who provides an acute diagnosis of human suffering, and a surgeon who draws out the darts of suffering that have pierced the human heart. The texts describe him as mūladassāvi, “the seer of the root,” the one who has seen into the deepest and most obscure roots of human misery. These he has summed up in the twin vices of ignorance and craving, and in the three stains of greed, hatred, and delusion.

The ancient discourses of the Buddha speak of the causal origins of suffering primarily in the framework of the quest for individual emancipation. They show how the mental afflictions ravage our personal lives, and the texts lay down a path that enables us as individuals to free ourselves from inner bondage. Today, in a world that has been joined into a single interdependent global order, we need to examine how this process of causation operates at wider levels, how it generates suffering in the collective dimensions of our lives. On the basis of this examination, we can then determine what changes are needed in our societies, political institutions, and global policies to avoid the adversities we face as an international community.

Of all the dangers we face together, the most formidable, most overarching, and most ominous is without doubt the one usually called climate change, but which should more correctly be called “climate destabilization” or “climate disorientation.” We live at a time when the climate has become increasingly erratic, unpredictable, and destructive. Almost every week a new report comes out about new thresholds being crossed in our descent into climate chaos: rising levels of carbon emissions, increases in global temperature, warmer and more acidic oceans, endangered species, vanishing glaciers, melting ice sheets. Yet these reports gain hardly any attention in the mainstream media, which in itself is a symptom of how subtly we conceal from ourselves the true gravity of our situation.

The Buddha’s discourse known as the Fire Sermon opens with the stark declaration: “Everything is burning, everything is on fire.” A Mahayana scripture, the Lotus Sutra, elaborates on this image with the parable of a burning house. Inside the house, the children continue to play with their toys, oblivious to the flames blazing on all sides. In the sutra, the house represents the world, and the foolish children playing inside represent people—we ourselves as we enjoy our fleeting pleasures amid the flames of old age and death.

Today the image of the world as a burning house has become literally true. Each year we see the signs of a destabilized climate becoming ever more destructive, ever more deadly. Powerful hurricanes and cyclones rip across whole regions, reducing them to shreds. Heat waves become hotter and last longer. Extended droughts turn fertile land barren. Coasts are being eroded and whole island-nations swallowed up by the sea. Violent floods pour down upon towns and cities, and wildfires reduce millions of acres of precious forest to cinders.

The long-range consequences of our escalating carbon emissions are even more ominous. These will take decades to become fully manifest, but as we continue pumping carbon into the atmosphere, they become ever more imminent. If we continue with business as usual, by the end of this century whole regions of the planet may become unfit for human habitation, leading to hundreds of millions of tragic deaths and mass migrations on a scale not yet seen. The world’s food supply will be drastically reduced, sharply increasing the numbers of people afflicted by hunger and malnutrition. In some countries the very foundations of social cohesion may collapse, plunging those nations into chaos.

We know what lies behind climate change. The causes have been described with scientific accuracy. They include our reckless burning of fossil fuels, our unwise practices of land clearance, the dominant industrial model of agriculture, and an economy that thrives on the dizzying cycles of production and consumption. The Buddha’s diagnosis would take us a step deeper and trace the origins of the climate crisis to the human heart, revealing that what underlies it is the interplay of craving and ignorance, of greed and delusion—especially the wrong view that we can recklessly exploit the resources of the planet and expel the toxic waste into our environment without eventually having to reap the consequences.

Greed and ignorance operate as a pair, both in the mind and in the wider dimensions of our social systems. Decades ago, even in the 1980s, the fossil fuel corporations knew that the burning of oil and coal would alter the climate, but they hid the evidence and promoted skepticism about the science, preventing the public from seeing the real dangers of increased carbon emissions. They put greed for profits over sanity; they followed the rules of corporate success rather than the decrees of social responsibility. Criminal behavior hid behind a cloak of ethics, as respectable corporate executives wreaked havoc on our planet. Even today, rogue institutions, lobby groups, and “think tanks” funded by fossil-fuel interests continue to spread disinformation, often with the help of a gaggle of maverick scientists.

But we are not completely innocent ourselves. It’s the delusion in our own minds that lets us flow along complacently in the established routines of everyday life instead of rising up to take necessary action. Again, it is delusion, or ignorance, that makes us think we can flourish while the earth’s geophysical systems spin wildly off course. Just earlier this year, the U.S. Secretary of State even spoke of how, once all the Arctic sea ice is gone, new trade routes will open up to facilitate trade and vast resources of oil, gas, and minerals will become available to us. As if anyone could thrive on a desolate planet!

If we go on retreating into denial, or drifting along in bland complacency, we will soon reach a point where all we can say is, “It is now too late!” If we are to avoid that endpoint, that cliff of despair, we have to act effectively, and to act without delay.

The Buddha once compared his disciples to four kinds of horses, which differ in how they respond to their master’s whip. The best horse submits to its master as soon as it sees the shadow of the whip. The dullest horse must get a beating before it submits. Decades ago we already saw the shadow of the whip, and we are now receiving blows. To avoid the most brutal beating we have to act fast, with courage and a clear understanding of the changes demanded of us.

We need definite changes in the ways we generate energy, in modes of transportation, in building design, in industrial and agricultural technologies. But the Buddha would say we also need internal changes, changes in our values, in our ways of life, in the way we think and our habits of mind. Ultimately it is these mental attitudes that lie behind the climate crisis.

At the communal level, we need to dismantle a social system driven by the quest for limitless profits in a finite world. We need to get rid of a system that endorses ruthless competition, exploitation, and violence against other people and the natural world. We have to dispel the illusion that it is possible for a few to flourish while millions die of hunger and poverty and billions live at the very edge of survival. Instead we must adopt new values that give priority to cooperation and collaboration, to living in harmony with nature. We need to enshrine kindness, mutual respect, and compassion at the center of our policies and institutions—in our educational systems, too, beginning with the elementary level. We must envision modes of communal life that enable all people to flourish economically, socially, and spiritually, and then find ways to actualize our visions.

It is said that the Buddha appears in the world out of compassion for the world, for the good of all humanity. His task is to point out the path to liberation; our task is to walk the path. We now have a clear idea of the collective perils we face today, and we can see on the horizon glimmers of hope for a better shared future. We may not know in all its details the path that can redeem us, but we know the direction in which we must move. Now we have to start moving, and moving fast, before it’s too late.

Review: Ann Gleig’s comprehensive report on the state of Buddhism in today’s United States, “American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity”

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An important account of how modernist and post-modernist trends in contemporary culture are transforming the way Western Buddhism is being practiced in America, this book is invaluable reading for anyone concerned with the future of Buddhism, and especially with the future prospects for a socially engaged Buddhism, in this country.

Here’s the review I recently posted on Amazon and Goodreads …

 

“Growing Pains”

Zen, Chan, Tibetan – all well-known names for the distinctive versions of Buddhism associated with three of the countries that have been home to the dharma for thousands of years, namely Japan, China, and Tibet.  However, here in the United States, where its presence is more appropriately measured in decades rather than in millennia, Buddhism has earned the far less distinctive, almost bland, name of “Western Buddhism” – as if it is still too immature and too undeveloped to merit a more memorable name.

In her remarkable new book, American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity, scholar Ann Gleig makes a compelling case that Western Buddhism, as it currently exists in America, is anything but immature and undeveloped.  On the contrary, in the relatively brief half century of its presence here, Buddhism has already passed through two important transformative stages – the first mostly completed, and the second well under way but still in process.

The first transformation has its origins not in Buddhism’s migration to the West, but rather in colonialism’s intrusion into the East.  Gleig contends, convincingly, that the British and other European colonizers exerted a subtle but powerful influence on the traditional Buddhism being practiced in India, by virtue of their forceful introduction of Enlightenment values into the native culture.  This colonial culture gave rise to the radically new idea of meditation as the pursuit of individual wellbeing, rather than an expression of community among individuals following shared traditions and rituals.  It was this novel Enlightenment-based approach to mindfulness that was taught to the American students who arrived in India in the late 1960s to learn meditation from “traditional” masters.  When these students returned to America in the 1970s to pass along what they had learned on their pilgrimages to the East, they were in fact spreading modern, not traditional, Buddhism.

While the modernism of Western Buddhism may have its infant roots in the post-colonial culture of the East, its growth and maturity are firmly rooted in contemporary America.  Here, over the past four decades, Buddhism has attracted a mostly white, mostly well-educated, mostly well-to-do group of practitioners – overwhelmingly liberal in their political sympathies, devoted to European Enlightenment ideals of science and reason, and drawn to the psychotherapeutic benefits of mindfulness.  Gleig refers to this meditation-centered, mostly secular, and highly psychologized version that has become the dominant form of Buddhist practice in America as “convert Buddhism”, underscoring the deep divide between it and the more traditional forms of Buddhism still practiced in the West by what she terms “the immigrant community” of mostly Asian-American, usually more religious, and generally less well-to-do practitioners.

This first transformative stage of Western Buddhism into its modernist form is now largely complete, but the split just described between “convert” and “immigrant” communities has laid the groundwork for a second, more dramatic transformation which is just getting started.  It is this second wave of transformation that Gleig’s research has detected, and that defines the core thesis of American Dharma.  Gleig proposes that the characteristics of “Buddhist modernism” – firmly established by the success of the convert communities in the first wave of transformation – are now, in response both to internal pressures building within the convert communities themselves and to external forces occurring in American culture, entering upon a state of radical transformation into what she designates as an emerging form of “postmodern Buddhism”.

In three key chapters in the first half of her book, Gleig examines three different manifestations of the impact of modernist American culture on convert Buddhism – the secular mindfulness movement, the sexual revolution and its attendant abuses, and the growing confluence of psychotherapy and meditation.  Here she shows how this modernist form of American Buddhism, with its predominantly white culture and its primary focus on individual wellbeing, contains within itself the seeds of the diversity challenges – both racial and generational – that are opening the doors to a variety of postmodernist trends.  Her detailed account of how one such community in the convert lineage has struggled valiantly, but ultimately in vain, to overcome the racial divide between its majority white membership and its minority persons-of-color group is heartbreaking to read.

In the second half of the book, Gleig switches focus away from the modernist communities and their leadership, and toward the voices and the projects of the emerging postmodernist influencers in the American Buddhist community.  Once again, three key chapters explore in depth three significant developments – the emergence of a radically new emphasis on social and racial justice as a necessary component of Buddhist practice, the growing popularity of online communities and social media networks with younger practitioners, and the tensions brewing between the aging “boomer” generation of teachers and the much younger “Gen X” teachers getting ready to assume leadership roles as the boomers begin to retire.

As she documents each of these manifestations of postmodernist challenges to the existing modernist ideals, Gleig is careful to point out how these new developments should be seen as simultaneous continuations of, and corrections to, the established forms of convert Buddhism.  Her message is that Buddhism in America is growing into postmodernity; it is not being overthrown and reborn into something radically new and unfamiliar.  It’s an evolution, not a revolution.

And yet, a careful reading of American Dharma leaves one with a palpable sense that Western Buddhism is, at this particular moment in the United States, experiencing severe growing pains that make its future at best unpredictable, and at worst unsustainable.  Especially in the latter half of the book, Gleig necessarily devotes a significantly larger portion of her narrative to the postmodernist developments – this is, after all, the story she has set herself to tell in support of her thesis.  For readers whose practice has been grounded for many years in the modernist tradition, it’s easy to feel unsettled, as if we are being completely overlooked, or even worse, being altogether set aside – in the gloomy metaphor of one longtime Zen teacher and blogger, “like a dinosaur”.

But perhaps the better perspective for us “dinosaurs” to hold as we read this book is one of appreciation for Gleig’s in-depth reporting on the various post-modernist trends impacting contemporary Western Buddhism.  By letting us more clearly “see things as they really are” – a hallmark of wisdom in the Buddhist teachings – American Dharma can help us to respond more skillfully to the changes that are all but certain to come.

 

A Few Words about the June Democratic Debates

In my last post, I declared that I would be listening to each of the participants in the first round of the Democratic presidential candidate debates for some hint of generosity, compassion, and wisdom in their remarks.  Well, not long into the first evening’s debate, I started feeling a little like the hapless hero of that old pop tune, the guy who was “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places”.  There I was, looking for compassion on a debate stage whose ten occupants were focused mostly on creating a visual moment that could go viral on social media and thereby boost their poll numbers. What I heard instead was a lot of interrupting, grandstanding, and in a few cases, personal attacks. Hardly what Buddhism refers to as “skillful speech”.

With hindsight, I guess this was to be expected.  The format of these early debates – crowded as they are with so many candidates – all but guarantees this kind of behavior. Attention goes to the ones who speak up the most forcefully, and at this early stage, media attention is to a campaign what oxygen is to a person – the very substance that keeps one alive.

The fact that Kamala Harris is considered to have scored the biggest “win” – largely if not entirely due to her impassioned verbal confrontation with Joe Biden – would seem to validate this assertion.

My conclusion:  we’ll have to wait until the candidate field has been narrowed down before this form of one-upmanship abates.  Ironically, it will probably take even more of this one-upmanship in order to accomplish the very narrowing down that will hopefully bring about its end.  Then, perhaps, the debate stage will morph from one of the above-mentioned “wrong places” to, in fact, the perfect place to listen for words of generosity, compassion, and wisdom.

I’ll be waiting.

A perspective on the upcoming Democratic candidate debates

Two years ago, on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, I argued in one of my final posts on my old blog that no practicing Buddhist could in good conscience support the candidacy of Donald Trump for the simple reason that his entire public life prior to his entry into politics had been marked by Buddhism’s “three poisons” – greed, hatred, and delusion.

Two years later, I would make a similar argument that no practicing Buddhist can in good conscience support his presidency, ravaged as it has been by those same three poisons. And few, if any, Buddhists of my acquaintance would need that argument presented to them.  There is simply no way to reconcile the policies of what many pundits have termed “Trumpism” with the ethical principles of Buddhism.

So, whether politically engaged or not, most American Buddhists will likely find themselves aligned with the Democratic party in the 2020 presidential election, and thus I suspect that quite a number of us will be watching the upcoming Democratic candidate debates with a particularly keen interest.

What criteria might a liberal Buddhist apply in order to differentiate among the twenty candidates who will be participating in the first of these debates, scheduled to take place in two separate sessions, with ten candidates in the first and the other ten in the second, on the successive evenings of Wednesday, June 26th, and Thursday, June 27th?

Certainly one essential quality needed in the eventual nominee is the “electability” factor. Undoubtedly, every person in this country – Buddhist or not – who has for the past two years been appalled by the spoken and tweeted words of Trump, horrified by the inhumane actions being taken at the southern border, and terrified by the reckless climate-change-denying policies being implemented throughout the nation, passionately hopes to see the current president soundly defeated at the ballot box next November.

And while I too will be watching the Democratic debates with an eye toward discerning who among the candidates has the most realistic chance of actually winning the election, I will also be listening to what each of them says with an ear for detecting who among them is speaking in terms of the Buddhist virtues of generosity, compassion, and wisdom.  These three traits, of course, are considered to be the antidotes to the “three poisons” – greed, hatred, and delusion – which have been the shameful hallmarks of the Trump presidency, and of Trumpism in general.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, there was a memorable TV and billboard advertising campaign for a popular packaged bread at the time, Levy’s real Jewish rye. The ads featured the smiling faces of persons of indisputably non-Jewish ethnicity (a burly middle-aged Irish policeman was one such happy face), each of whom had just bitten into a delicious-looking sandwich made on rye bread, with the tag line “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Real Jewish Rye.”

In a similar vein, I would like to propose that you don’t have to be Buddhist to be in favor of generosity, compassion, and wisdom.  And I’m hoping that some of the Democratic candidates are in favor of them as well, regardless of whether or not they’ve ever meditated or sat through a dharma talk.

Generosity.  Compassion.  Wisdom.  These are what I’ll be listening for during the debates this week, and again during the next round of debates in July.

In my next post, shortly after the July debates, I’ll report on whether or not I heard them.

 

 

 

Skillful Speech and Skillful Action in Uncivil Times

“When they go low, we go high.”  – Michelle Obama, former First Lady, 2016

“When they go low, we kick them.”  –  Eric Holder, former Attorney General, 2018


During the raucous months leading up to Election Day in 2016, Democrats across the country – establishment and progressives alike – were inspired by Michelle Obama’s iconic statement, “When they go low, we go high.”  For many of us, hearing that often-repeated phrase throughout the otherwise disturbing news cycle that marked (and marred) the final days of the campaign was one of only two things that constantly lifted our spirits – the other being those daily polling reports that consistently gave Hillary Clinton upwards of an 85 percent likelihood of winning the election.

Well, we lost the consolation of those polling predictions when we lost the election.  But throughout the raucous two years that have followed Donald Trump’s inauguration, we could still take heart from going high no matter how low his administration went.

Until recently, that is.  Eric Holder’s unfortunate revision of Michelle’s phrase into “When they go low, we kick them” has struck a chord with some prominent Democratic leaders.  Not all of them, though.  Many continue to plead for civility, and caution that such uncivil behavior will only further inflame an already polarized public, and may have the unintended consequence of firing up wavering supporters of the Trump administration and coaxing them back to the polls for the midterm elections.  But many others, outraged by the increasingly inhumane words and actions of this administration, argue that incivility needs to be met with incivility, that expressions of outrage are necessary to protest outrageous policies, and that only intense methods of protest can rally an increasingly demoralized Democratic party.

For a liberal Buddhist, these conflicting arguments from pundits and politicians on the left can be perplexing. After all, among the many different – and most difficult – ways of practicing the Buddhist virtue of “not clinging” is by avoiding attachment to being correct.  And so, a Buddhist strives to listen with an open mind – a mind willing  to have its own views modified by a better view, rather than a mind determined at all costs to defend those views even when they are demonstrably not better. 

When I read, or listen to, an appeal from either side of this debate among liberals with this kind of openness to being influenced, I find myself being pulled in the direction of whichever position is being espoused.  Both sides have appealing arguments on behalf of their point of view.  On the one hand, I don’t want to permit myself to be dragged down to the levels of incivility that Mr. Trump and his cohorts have ushered into the national discourse.  “When they go low, we go high” has always seemed innately correct to me, and in the current climate, indeed more indispensable than ever.  But on the other hand, their words and especially their actions are stirring up an anger in me that cries out for expression.  A few rough words, or some occasional rowdy behavior (including some kicking??), could be most cathartic.

Fortunately, Buddhism offers some very straightforward guidance to perplexed liberals such as myself.  I’m speaking, of course, of those two closely related virtues prescribed in the eightfold path – skillful speech and skillful action. 

“Skillful” in this context means that the speech or action in question has the effect of lessening suffering  (the inherent stress and/or dissatisfaction) implicit in whatever situation the speech or action is addressing.  So, the question to be considered is whether or not uncivil speech and uncivil actions as a response to inhumane government policies can ever be deemed “skillful” in this Buddhist sense.

I would argue that they cannot.  

First of all, uncivil speech and uncivil actions inevitably increase stress for all involved – the speaker/actor as well as the recipient of the speech/action – in the immediate situations in which they occur.  And secondly, in our day and age, such speech and actions are all but certain to fan the flames of intolerance and hatred across the social media landscape and the cable news networks.  On both counts, then, uncivil speech and uncivil actions fail the Buddhist test of skillfulness, because they invariably increase, rather than decrease, suffering.

Which is not to argue that liberals must politely accept the torrent of hateful speech and the flood of inhumane actions continuously being emitted by the Trump administration.  Rather, in the spirit of “When they go low, we go high”, let’s undertake a serious, sustained look at appropriate forms of civil, nonviolent speech and action – skillful behaviors, in the truest sense of what Buddhism teaches.

We have Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela to serve as our models.  And we have the Buddha himself to serve as our guiding teacher.  What a remarkable group of wise leaders.  Long before Michelle’s felicitous phrase, they each knew exactly what it means to “go high”. 

So can we.

Review: Joseph Goldstein’s most recent book, “Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening”

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There’s not a single reference to politics – liberal or otherwise – in this scholarly book by the renowned co-founder of Insight Meditation Society, Joseph Goldstein.  Nonetheless, this comprehensive treatise on mindfulness, written by such a gifted teacher of meditation and Buddhism, is essential reading for every practitioner, regardless of one’s level of political or social engagement.

Here’s the review I’ve posted on Amazon and Goodreads …

 

“A Master Class in Mindfulness, Conducted by a Master Teacher”

As the word “mindfulness” increasingly comes to be featured in the titles of books, blogs, apps, websites, online courses, corporate seminars, and meditation retreats, one might wonder whether there is room in the marketplace of ideas for even one more such entry bearing this remarkably overused, and perhaps somewhat misused, word.  Renowned meditation teacher and Buddhist scholar Joseph Goldstein’s latest book, simply but confidently entitled “Mindfulness”, answers this query with a resounding “Yes, absolutely!”.

Using one of the most well-known discourses in the Buddhist Canon – the Satipatthana Sutta, which he translates as the “four ways of establishing mindfulness” – as his foundation, Goldstein embarks upon on a 400-page exploration into the historic roots of mindfulness, based upon the instructions laid out with such specificity in the verses of this discourse.

The suttas can be challenging to read in direct translation from their original format, but there’s no need for alarm at the central role the Satipatthana plays here.  Its demanding, intentionally repetitive style is simply the core around which Goldstein constructs a thoroughly engaging and erudite narrative, enhanced by a generous supply of personal anecdotes drawn from a lifetime of practicing meditation and immersing himself in the teachings of the Buddha.  Reading this book is as pleasant and educational as sitting in the meditation hall listening to one of Goldstein’s dharma talks.

Which brings me to the one caution I feel bound to include in this review.  Goldstein makes so many repeated references to incidents and insights that have occurred to him on the countless retreats he has either attended or taught over the past five decades, that it could feel overwhelming – perhaps even somewhat off-putting – to readers not all that familiar with sitting in meditation, listening to dharma talks, or attending retreats.

But this warning is not meant to discourage anyone – novice or otherwise – from undertaking to read Mindfulness.  Rather, it’s intended to guide everyone – and especially beginners – in setting appropriate expectations for their reading experience.

And here are two expectations every reader can bring to this incomparable and invaluable book: you will finish it with a much richer understanding of mindfulness than when you began it, and you will almost certainly return to its pages again and again in the future to continue enriching that understanding.