Saturday, June 20, 2020

Born Of The Earth

The following began as an essay about eco-biology; about how the human realm needs to be seen in ecological context to overcome the tendency to human exceptionalism. Over time, it morphed into a meditation on race and the spiritual bypassing that the misunderstanding of the 'two truths' doctrine can foster. Hopefully, it all comes 'round to making some sort of sense.... 

Two space aliens, one of which is holding a stick, are facing a dog standing in front of them expectantly wagging its tail when one alien says to the other, “The Earthling seems to be waiting for us to do something with the gift he has given us.”

We laugh at this cartoon because we harbor, whether consciously or not, a view of human exceptionalism that is so pervasive that we forget we and ALL OTHER FORMS OF LIFE are Earthlings! All life is ‘born of the earth’ and there is no hard and fast demarcation between the human and the rest of living beings.

Th Millennium Ecosystem Assessment estimates the total species on Earth as between 5 and 30 million. The gulf between those two numbers is evidence of the gulf in our knowledge, further compounded when we realize that fewer than 2 million have been described scientifically. Even at 7 billion, humans make up less than 1% of the biomass on Earth. To get a sense of this, imagine one fistful of moss from the forest floor: in that one fistful we may find 150,000 protozoa, 132,000 tardigrades, 3,000 springtails, 800 rotifers, 400 mites, 200 larvae and 50 nematodes, all Earthlings! And then, not to be forgotten, there are the myriad life forms found in the oceans where all life began!

We humans who consider ourselves the peak of “creation” were shocked to find that the human genome consists of 20 – 25,000 genes. That may sound impressive if you didn’t know that C. elegans, otherwise known as the nematode has about 20,000 genes.

One of the more famous and oft-repeated quotes from Albert Einstein – but still not taken as seriously as it should – reminds us:

A human being is part of the whole, called by us the universe. A part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures.
Quoted in Peace, A Dream Unfolding ed by P. Crean and P. Kome

Sadly, the gendered language itself dismisses just over half of all the human beings!

All Earth life is based upon carbon with upwards of 40% of dry biomass being this single element!
After carbon, the next five elements ALL EARTHLINGS -- from the miniscule paramecium to the largest, the Blue Whale -- are made of are hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. The human body is mostly made up of oxygen which makes up more than half of your mass but only a quarter of its atoms. Carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen together with oxygen make up more than 99% of the atoms your body is composed of. Hydrogen was made at the Big Bang and all the other elements found in the human body, including elements such as iron, calcium, sodium, zinc, copper, and chlorine were created in stars that exploded as supernovae. These are not “exceptional” elements unique to humans, these are the elements we find not just in living beings but the so-called “environment”, the rivers, mountains, soil, rock and air of this Earth. We are born of the Earth AND the Earth is our body; our body is the Earth. This is the perfection of wisdom (prajñparamita) taught in the Diamond Sutra.

In fact, The Diamond Sutra asks us to see beyond the concept of “living being” since all living beings are made of non-living elements. Again, we see no strict demarcation between life and “non-life” which is why the cultivation of “reverence for life” (the first Buddhist precept) includes cultivating reverence for minerals.

We are all of us, born of the Earth, and for as long as we have existed, human beings have failed to act accordingly; today, specifically, one group with less melanin sees people with more melanin as being of a different race than them, and not only that, the lighter colored people see darker colored people as being of an inferior race, when the reality is that there is only one human race. We have created a system of oppression called White Supremacy literally upon what may be the most superficial thing about us, our skin color.

There is no scientific grounding for the concept of “biological race”. Despite what a political scientist like Charles Murray says about the concept of race being a good way of describing genetic variation, he is simply wrong. In 1972, evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin showed that very little of the genetic diversity among humans can be explained by the social category of race. Indeed, only about 6% of such genetic variation can be attributed to race categorizations!
More recent research shows that the variation between you, dear reader, and me – or between any two individuals – is very small, on the order of one single nucleotide polymorphism, or single letter change in our DNA per 1,000.

In fact, it has been discovered that genetic variation within groups that societies tend to lump together as one “race” can be greater than it is between “races.” On average, two individuals in Africa are more genetically dissimilar from each other than either one of them is from an individual in Europe or Asia. This is the result of what is called the founder effect.

While science shows us the lack of any justification for the biological categorization of race, the prajnaparamita or “perfection of wisdom” teachings of Buddhism teaches the “absolute truth” of emptiness, which tells us that race – like all phenomena – is empty of any self-nature; that is to say, race is a socially constructed concept which makes it “conventionally true.”

Mahayana Buddhism distinguishes between what it calls the two truths: the “absolute” and the “conventional” or “relative.” Too many Buddhists have made the mistaken assumption that the absolute is “real” while the conventional is “merely” or “simply” illusory and thus tend to hyper-valorize the absolute while dismissing the conventional. When “socially constructed” is conflated with this misunderstanding of “conventional truth,” as illusory or “less true” than the absolute truth, it is assumed that whatever is socially constructed has no real causal power and that what is constructed socially is simply an error screening us from the absolute truth of emptiness. In the realm of race discourse, this takes the form of asserting “color blindness” and that “color” or “race,” being empty, can be dismissed and ignored as a factor for practice or consideration! I’ve even heard some practitioners say that those engaged in racial discourse are “caught in views” with the not so subtle implication that we are less “enlightened” than those who assert that they “see through race.” But, as Zenju Earthlyn Manuel writes in The Way of Tenderness: “… our identities in terms of race, sexuality, and gender cannot be ignored for the sake of some kind of imagined invisibility or to attain spiritual transcendence.”

Those who argue that race, being a relative truth, is therefore not “real” and can therefore be dismissed, ignore the fact that the absolute and relative or conventional truths are understood to be both equally true! The concept of race has had, and continues to have, real and profound impact on living human beings, their bodies, their relationships, and their experiences. In the socially constructed system of oppression delineated as “White Supremacy” real Black humans suffer the inequities that are real and unjust.

Many seem to think that “oneness” should somehow exclude marks of diversity, yet inclusivity means that everything in our lives is really and truly included. Manuel calls this “multiplicity in oneness.” Race (as well as sexuality, gender, and ethnicity) are not simply categories but are made manifest in physical bodies as tangible lived experiences. Something that is also true of socially constructed concepts and systems is that they can be changed and deconstructed. To engage in this, however, first requires a heartfelt acceptance that race is real conventionally and that because of this, the oppressive system of White Supremacy is real and diminishes all of us held in its grip whatever the color of our skin.

While “empty” and not based upon any biological reality, race is real: not biologically, but it is a culturally created phenomenon that has real-world consequences. In the U.S., slavery based upon the false notion that race is biological ended only 150 years ago. It’s been over half a century since the pivotal Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, and still the notion of race as genetic remains a governing ideology. And ideologies can be changed. It is well past the time when racial categorization should have been scrapped.

Black (and Brown) lives matter because all lives SHOULD matter and the lived reality of our darker brothers and sisters is that under the racialist ideology of White Supremacy they haven’t and still don’t. Saying “Black lives matter” in the context of White Supremacy means “Black lives matter, too!” When someone reacts to “Black lives matter” with “all lives matter,” they are either willfully and cynically ignoring this fact, which very likely is evidence of racism, or they are reacting out of a deep-seated fear and insecurity about the mattering of their own lives which blinds them to the reality. Perhaps due to some trauma they were made to feel that their life didn’t matter. They respond “all lives matter” as a plaintive cry from a wounded and hurt place in their lives. It’s “all lives matter, even mine!” I’ve tried to keep this in mind when discussing this with yogis who have responded in this way and have found that when what is meant and what is at stake in saying “Black lives matter” is explained to them, they come around to understanding why we need to say Black lives matter and mean it! Until the lives of Black people – and all other peoples who have been oppressed by racialist ideology – matter, all lives don’t matter.

Sunday, June 3, 2018


“Is suffering brought about by myself alone?” asked Kassapa.
“No, Kassapa,” replied the buddha.
“Then is it brought about by another?”
“No, Kassapa.”
“Then both together, myself and another?”
“No, Kassapa.”
“Then is it brought about randomly by chance?”
“No, Kassapa.”
“Then there is no suffering?”
“No, Kassapa, it is not that there is no suffering. For there is suffering.”
“Well then, perhaps you neither know nor see it, dear buddha.”
“It is not that I don’t know suffering or don’t see it, Kassapa. I know it well and see it.”
“But… to all my questions, you have answered ‘no,’ and yet you say you know suffering and see it. Please teach me about it.”
“Kassapa, there are two wrong views: One says that oneself is the entire author of a deed and all consequent suffering one brings upon oneself and this is so from the beginning of time. The other says that it is deeds done by other people that bring about one’s own suffering. You should avoid both these views, Kassapa. Here we teach another way: All deeds, whether your own or another’s, are conditioned by ignorance and that is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. By ending that ignorance wisdom comes into being and suffering ceases.”
---Samyutta Nikaya

In this exchange between Kassapa and the buddha, we see the buddha rejected some common views regarding suffering that were popular in the time of the buddha and are still often found promulgated today, especially in the contemporary yoga world so influenced by ‘new age’ thinking.

First, Kassapa asks if suffering is brought about by oneself. Today this is often voiced in the context of karma with some teachers and practitioners saying that all one’s suffering arises based upon one’s karma. The buddha rejected this idea and offered several other catagories of causality beside karmic actions which he characterized as only those actions done volitionally. Additionally, there are those who hold this view in new age circles claiming that one “manifests” their reality and if one is suffering it’s because they created it themselves. This is a pernicious idea that adds suffering to suffering: I’ve seen yogis dealing with serious illness like cancer being asked what they think they did that brought this upon themselves. They are told that if their practice is “pure” enough, they should not experience suffering.

When this view is shot down by the buddha, Kassapa then assumes that one’s suffering is caused by others. In a response later in this exchange it’s clear that other’s actions can create the conditions for one’s suffering, here the buddha is denying that others are the root cause of one’s suffering. But, in this exchange with Kassapa, the buddha is telling him that others are not the ultimate cause of one's suffering. Today, in our culture, there has been a growing sense of victim consciousness that disempowers individuals. I am not denying that most likely every one of us has been victimized at some point in our life. Some have had to endure truly horrendous conditions. In this sense, those of us who suffered because of the behavior of others have been victimized. The trouble begins, however, when victimization becomes the whole of one’s identity, and with the rise of “identity politics,” there has been a rise among many who have been victimized that their identity is one of being a victim. As psychotherapist Barbara Frazier writes:

Being victimized is different than being a victim. A person who is victimized is still first and foremost that same person. It is a person who has had an experience or a series of experiences, and who is likely changed as a result or these experiences, yet is not reduced down to only those experiences.

A victim becomes the experience and stays there. He begins to see all of his life through this narrow window. He attributes his feelings, thoughts, and experiences going forward to his reaction to the original victimization event. He talks about it, thinks about it, and holds on to it almost like a badge of identity. Strangely, it becomes his point of reference for his life.

So, after the buddha denies that others are the cause of one's suffering, Kassapa suggests that perhaps it's both oneself and another, but the buddha shoots down this possibility as well. The buddha is pointing to a more nuanced view regarding conditions that he shares toward the end of this exchange. 

Kassapa keeps at it and then asks if suffering's arising is random and the buddha denies this is so as well. Today, there aren't that many I know of who would argue this, but there are those who speak of 'fate' and this too the buddha would deny. Fate implies that there is nothing one can do about suffering (or any other situation) because our actions do not have causal significance. Finally, a view many hold today is that suffering arises because it's the 'will of god' (or 'the gods') and the buddha again rejects this possibility because again, if it's the will of god, then there is really nothing we can do about it.

Still, the buddha teaches that though we do not bring on our suffering ourselves, nor do others, there is still something we can do in response to ameliorate suffering and even end it! This is because suffering, he says, arises based upon myriad causes and conditions (many, if not most, that we have not chosen for ourselves) and that the root cause of our suffering is ignorance.

Ignorance is generally the translation yogis use for the Sanskrit word avidya (avijjā in Pali). Avidya more literally means "not know," "not understand," or "not see." It is a cognate with the Latin vidēre ("to see") and it's echoed in the English "vision." It's the understanding that the unawakening being doesn't know nor do they see the reality of emptiness, the absence of any essential self-nature in any phenomena.
But, I also think that when we say "ignorance," we can also understand it as "ignore-once," or as we might say nowadays, "denial," because so much suffering arises through ignoring what we do not wish to acknowledge; we know it's there at one level, but choose to ignore it.

And the final point of the buddha is that because it is ignorance that is the ultimate cause of suffering and not any "individual" (which in a real sense doesn't even exist) then our focus in practice should be the removal of ignorance -- in ourselves and in others. Thich Nhat Hanh would often remind his students that "Man is not the enemy; our enemy is hatred, ignorance and fear." The bodhisattva works for the liberation of all, knowing that none can be truly free if all are not free, while knowing also that there are no 'beings' to be freed! 

The bodhisattvas, grounded in perfect understanding, find no obstacles for their minds. 
Having no obstacles, they overcome fear, liberating themselves forever from illusion, and realizing perfect nirvana. 

All buddhas in the past, present, and future, thanks to this perfect understanding, arrive at full, right, and universal awakening.
---The Heart Sutra


Thursday, April 5, 2018


A puzzled man asked the buddha: "I have heard that some monks meditate with expectations, others meditate with no expectations, and yet others are indifferent to the result. What is the best?"

The buddha answered: "Whether they meditate with or without expectations, if they have the wrong ideas and the wrong methods, they will not get any fruit from their meditation. Think about it. Suppose a man wants to have some oil and he puts sand into a bowl and then sprinkles it with salt. However much he presses it, he will not get oil, for that is not the method. Another person is in need of milk. She starts pulling the horns of a young cow. Whether she has any expectations or not, she will not get any milk out of the horn, for that is not the correct method. Of, if someone fills a jar with water and churns it in order to get butter, they will be left only with water.

"But... if somebody meditates with a wholesome attitude, with right attention and mindfulness, then whether they have expectations of not they will gain insight. It's like filling a bowl with oil seeds and pressing them or milking a cow by pulling the udders or filling a jar with cream and churning it. It's the right method."
---Majjhima Nikaya

There are some stories in the suttas where the buddha really comes across with a subtle sense of humor, using some pretty funny examples of behavior that is unskillful. This is one of my favorites and I especially enjoy that it's in response to a question about expectations.

How many of us have heard -- perhaps repeatedly -- that we need to practice free of all expectations? In zen, it's been held up as a kind of emblematic feature of practice. And certainly, I am not denying that expectations can become a hindrance to practice. A beginner especially can fall victim to expecting things that are ultimately not possible or unrealistic or even nor useful. Also, if one holds too fast to expectations, they can become an obstacle keeping one from seeing what is actually happening because they are focused on what they expect to happen.

That said, though, it's a bit ingenuous to suggest that anyone actually takes up this practice, which can be incredibly challenging, completely free of expectations. Perhaps with greater experience, expectations become less relevant, but the response of the buddha is pointing out that whether one has expectations or not, if one practices with right determination, a wholesome mind (which I take to be one committed to sila (the ethical training including the five precepts), and practicing the method correctly, then insight, awakening, will be the result.

This points out the importance of practice, and of practicing correctly. Right attention and right mindfulness are aspects of correct method. Attention needs to be focused on what is free of reactivity so that mindfulness -- which includes an analysis of how what is arose, what keeps it present, what leads to its passing away -- can be honed and directed. It is this which leads to the insights that embody and promote liberation.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Not Too Tight; Not Too Loose

A comfort-loving student named Sona was making violent effots to become physically and mentally vigorous. But he seemed so unsuccessful that the thought came to him: “My family is wealthy; perhaps I can enjoy my riches and yet do good. What if I were to give up the training and return to a rich but worthy life?”

The Buddha understood what Sona was thinking and said to him, “Sona, were you not skillful at playing the lute when you were a layman?”
“Yes, I was,” replied Sona.
“And what do you think, Sona, was it possible to play in tune when the lute was overstrung?” asked the Buddha.
“No, indeed not. The strings could snap if too tightened,” replied Sona.
“And what do you think, Sona, suppose the strings were slackened and became too slack. Could you play then?” the Buddha asked.
“Again, no. Without any tension, the strings could not produce any tones” Sona answered.
“But when they were neither overtightened nor too slack, but keyed to the middle, not too tight and not too loose, then could you play harmoniously?” the Buddha asked.
“Certainly!” responded Sona.
“Then, Sona, take heed that when effort is too strenuous it leads to mental and physical strain and when too slack to laziness and dullness. So, please make a firm determination that you will adopt the middle way, not allowing yourself to struggle or to slacken, but recognizing that confidence, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom are the fruits of a calm and equable middle way” the Buddha exhorted.

Sona followed the buddha’s advice and in due course awakened.

Based upon this story and the teachings of Patanjali where he describes Iccha or the proper “yogic will” toward practice as requiring both abhyasa and vairagya or continuous, diligent effort and a dispassionate, non-clinging attitude, I offer a course called “Not Too Tight; Not Too Loose.” It’s been my experience that many students without a firm understanding and connection with a teacher can often fall into one of these extremes and then give up altogether.

Some students seem to throw themselves into practice and I am always concerned with such aggressive determination because it tends to burn out swiftly and if anything, this path of practice requires long-term commitment. Which is already something not held in very high esteem in our quite superficial, sensation-oriented culture. Others get interested, but never make a real commitment, remaining almost aloof or lackadaisical in their approach to practice. No roots are ever really planted and practice withers with a whimper.

Confidence and energy must be there for a student to be able to commit to practice, and mindfulness helps to balance efforts to concentrate. The middle way, neither not too tight nor too loose allows one to practice in the face of all changing conditions without losing sight of why we practice.

That said, I always emphasize that it’s a disastrous mistake to take this teaching as some kind of fairy tale where once the middle way is found we can live happily ever after. Not too tight and not too loose is absolutely NOT a static position or orientation.

I play guitar and ukulele and if you are at all familiar with string instruments (actually this goes for all instruments, but keeping with the analogy the Buddha uses when speaking with the lute-player, Sona, I’ll stick with string instruments) you know that if you tune your instrument in a room that is 68-degrees F and 30% humidity, and then walk into a room that is 95-degrees F and 80% humidity you will have to re-tune your instrument.

Not too tight and not too loose is ALWAYS in relation to circumstances and conditions. If you are well rested and feeling at ease, you can relax a bit in your meditation practice, but if you’ve had a rough night tending your sick child, and you are feeling tired, you will have to ‘tighten up’ a bit and use more energy (that you will feel you don’t have!) in order to practice.

Sensing the ‘sweet spot’ of not too tight, not too loose itself is the practice of mindfulness. Seek the ever-changing middle way and practice in harmony with your present conditions.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Guarding The Senses

The Buddha was talking with Uttara, a young pupil of a teacher called Parasariya.
“Uttara, does Parasariya teach you how to control your senses?” asked the Buddha.
“Yes, Parasariya does indeed teach us how to control our senses.”
“And how does he do this?”
“We are taught not to see material forms with the eye nor hear sounds with the ear. This is how we are trained to control our senses.”
“But, in that case, Uttara, the blind and the deaf must be in total control of their senses, for the one does not see and the other does not hear,” the Buddha replied.
Uttara was silent.
After several moments, the Buddha continued, “Well, Uttara, Parasariya teaches you one way and here we teach a different way. Let me tell you what we teach. When a yogi sees a form with the eye, usually a feeling of liking or disliking comes into being. The yogi understands that liking or disliking has arisen but that either one is not inevitable but is conditioned and dependent upon myriad causes and conditions. So, the yogi cultivates a state in which there is equanimity and finds that in so doing, the liking or disliking begins to fade and the yogi can then see things as they are. This is how the yogi can control their senses. That is what we teach.”
---Majjhima Nikaya

I am often asked what are the differences between the yoga taught by the Buddha and that taught by Patanjali or the Classical Yoga tradition. While there are quite a few, this passage points to a fairly central difference in actual practice. But first, it’s helpful to remember that the earliest definitions of the word yoga emphasized the practice of yoking. And this “yoking” was itself described as the practice of meditation. A common analogy of yoking the senses, breath and mind was to parallel it to the yoking of horses to a chariot, where the horses were the senses, the charioteer the egoic self and the owner of the chariot, sitting within, the ‘True Self.’ The implication was that the horses or senses, given free reign would cause havoc and needed to be restrained.

In Classical Yoga, pratyahara, the fifth limb of the eightfold path described in the Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, was often defined as “withdrawal” and described as sensory inhibition. The most popular image for this process of sensory inhibition is offered in the Goraksha-Paddhati (2.24): “As the tortoise retracts its limbs into the middle of the body, so the yogin should withdraw the senses into himself.” Of course there are other understandings of the process of pratyahara as in “the pleasant state of consciousness that beholds the Self in all things” as stated in the Tejo-Bindu-Upanishad (1.34) but in the contemporary yoga world it is the former view of the tortoise withdrawing inwardly that is most encountered. As Georg Feuerstein said to a group of us in 2002, “For Patanjali, yoga was a process of in-up-and-out.”

In this passage from the Majjhima Nikaya, Uttara is describing his teacher’s teaching on sense control as a process of shutting down the process of perception: “We are taught not to see material forms with the eye nor hear sounds with the ear.” It might be easy to miss the Buddha’s wry sense of humor as he responds, “But, in that case, Uttara, the blind and the deaf must be in total control of their senses.” I can picture poor Uttara standing there, now mute in the face of this subtle smack-down!

The dramatic tension exists in those moments where Uttara remains silent, until the Buddha rescues him with his teaching. And note, he doesn’t completely negate Parasariya’s teaching as “wrong,” but rather just says “Parasariya teaches you one way and here we teach a different way. Let me tell you what we teach.”

And what the Buddha teaches is what my teachers more accurately describe as “guarding the senses” in that the senses themselves are not “controlled” or “yoked” but the conditioned reactivity to the sense perceptions. In other passages, the Buddha exhorts his students: “In the seeing let there just be the seeing; in the hearing let there just be the hearing.” What the Buddha is getting at is that just about immediately upon a sense organ making contact with a sense object (eyes making contact with form/color etc. or ears making contact with sound) and the arising of sense consciousness, a conditioned reaction of a feeling-tone of pleasant or unpleasant arises. Without mindfulness, that conditioned reaction will condition and determine how we then react through action that is either clingingly desirous or aversive. The feeling-tone will present a kind of ‘veil’ that prevents us from actually seeing or hearing with more objectivity and clarity. We react to our feeling-tone and not the actual sense object (form or sound, in the case of eye and ear).

With mindfulness, we can stop, take a backward step from the conditioned reactivity and then choose a more skillful and beneficial way of responding. While Parasariya’s way may lead to a deep samadhi-like state of peace, it ultimately is very limiting as there can be no engagement with the world of “sound and vision.” With the practice of satipatthana (mindfulness), the yogi does not have to disassociate from the world, but rather changes the way they relate to the world. From conditioned reactivity to creative response, the practice of mindfulness can cultivate greater freedom here and now in the realm of inter-relationship, or perhaps even more the reality of “interbeing.”