Saturday, September 26, 2015

International Blasphemy Rights Day

Nilroy Neel is the fourth atheist blogger in Bangladesh hacked to death by machete-wielding Islamic fanatics in six months. Six men entered into his house and while four of them “confined” his wife in another room, the remaining two brutally beheaded him. While such barbarity is not unheard of in Pakistan, prior to 2015, there were six attacks against free-thinkers resulting in two deaths over a period of fifteen years. But, this year alone, four brave secular writers have been hacked to death for the crime of raising their voices against extremism and encouraging equal rights for all.

And this is at least one reason I celebrate International Blasphemy Rights Day and invite and encourage all who value free-thinking, religious freedom, and the free expression of all to join me. What many fail to recognize is that all other recognized rights ultimately depend upon this right to freedom of expression. After all, how could the oppressed have fought for the right to vote, the right to be free from slavery, the right to due process, and the equal rights of LGBTQ people without the ability to publically criticize traditions, dogmas, and ideologies that have kept in place unjustifiable restrictions on liberty, dignity, and autonomy?

Without the right of freedom of expression, there’s no way to openly investigate and determine the truth of any claim, whether in science, politics, philosophy or religion. The right of free expression itself has value for the dignity of the individual in that only with the guarantee of such expression can one express oneself as an individual.

As of 2012, nearly a quarter of the world’s countries (including some among the European Union, Canada, and several of the States of America) has anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and ten-percent penalized apostasy and atheism, with punishments varying from fines to capital punishment! And as we might expect, all thirteen countries that penalize apostasy with execution are Muslim.

Sadly, many “liberals” and “progressives” who, while not favoring punishment of speech critical of religion, all-too-often will condemn criticism of religion, especially when it takes the form of satire. And, if that satire is directed at Islam, the accusation of “racism” or “Islamophobia” is invoked. But make no mistake, those Muslims who object to satire (and any and all criticism) of their religion (including Muhammad) pay little attention to the color, religion, or nationality of the satirists and critics. Raif Badawi, the founder of an online forum allowing diverse views to be expressed freely is currently serving a ten-year prison sentence in Saudi Arabia and has been sentenced to one-thousand lashes and a huge monetary fine. Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a Muslim, and Minister of Minorities Affairs in Pakistan, was assassinated for criticizing that country’s blasphemy laws. Lawyers representing individuals accused of blasphemy have also been targeted.

Blasphemy laws privilege beliefs over individuals. Such laws are used to suppress individuals, minorities and dissenters. Governments are empowered to use these laws against dissenters, but extremists are also empowered and encouraged to take it upon themselves to violently punish blasphemers and their defenders.

Though such oppressive laws are often touted as necessary to promote religious harmony, they actually lead to religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence. Historical evidence shows that countries that protect freedom of religion for all – including those of the majority faith, minorities, dissenters and those holding no religious beliefs – tend toward greater stability, prosperity and tolerance.

An in-depth exploration of the lasting influence of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, “The Importance of Being Blasphemous: Literature, Self-Censorship, and the Legacy of The Satanic Verses” by Stephen R. Welch published in the October/November 2015 issue of Free Inquiry details the chilling effect of the liberal appeasement of religious extremists. He writes:

“It is deeply troubling that the lesson learned from Khomeini’s fatwa over the past twenty-six years has not been how to better champion and protect our writers, playwrights, and scholars but rather how to best emulate the ‘rage of Islam’ in order to suppress any speech and art that an aggrieved party can claim has offended them. Free speech has become an indulgence, whereas grievance culture is now an equal-opportunity entitlement.

“The Rushdie affair, as Malik observes, was a watershed. Rushdie’s detractors ‘lost the battle in the sense that they never managed to stop the publication of The Satanic Verses,’ but, he says, ‘they won the war by pounding into the liberal consciousness the belief that to give offence was a morally despicable act.’ We have internalized the fatwa

But perhaps, the tide can still change. In some circles the realization that free expression simply must not be curtailed in a mis-directed, naïve attempt to avoid giving offense to extremists who, if they were to succeed to greater power, would extend no such courtesy to us. For the sake of those who have died for the sake of speaking their minds, we must do all we can to sustain free thought and expression for the sake of all.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Impermanence Permeates Us

Every morning, during prostration practice, our dharma students shout a line from this gatha after every 25 prostrations:


Before anyone thinks we're encouraging ever greater "productivity" and more things to do and accomplish with that last line, we're not. We're exhorting ourselves and anyone with the ears to hear it that we should actually be here for the life we have! We squander it when we fail to actually embody our life; when we take it for granted -- as we tend to do when we live as if we have unlimited time. The contemplation of our mortality is designed to wake us up to this. Whatever this may be in any moment.

The original second line of the gatha was "Impermanence surrounds us" which to my ears sounded like we were these islands of permanence amidst an ocean of impermanence, so I changed it: "we" are permeated with it; it's not some defect or add-on.

And here's something we can add to our contemplation when we consider the impermanent nature of the earth herself:

1. In about 1.1 billion years, the sun will be 10% brighter. This will mean that Earth's oceans will begin to boil off into space. No more yachts; no more cruises; no more lemonade.

2. In 3.5 billion years, the Earth will look like a true twin of Venus: dry, hot and dead. Yup. We and all life will be over.

3. In 5 billion years, the sun itself is running down, its hydrogen fuel growing depleted. Its diameter expands out beyond the orbit of the Earth. Two scenarios here: the Earth may either be engulfed by the giant sun OR -- with the expansion of its size, it will lose weight and thus -- its lower gravitation may push the Earth away spiraling out into a more distant orbit.

4. In 5.4 billion years, the sun is a full-on red giant, with only a little bit of hydrogen left in a shell around its helium core.

5. By 6.4 billion years from now, the sun's outer layers will slough off, leaving behind a white dwarf, so dense that a teaspoon of it weighs 15-tons! If the Earth hadn't already been engulfed in the red giant stage, now the extreme gravity of the white dwarf may cause the now molten wasteland of the Earth to fall into the remains of its star,

Enjoy your day!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


There’s a story about the human condition that is quite well-known that goes like this:

A woman is running from some tigers that are chasing her. They are gaining on her when she comes to a cliff. She looks and sees a vine growing out from the cliff, so she climbs out onto the vine and holds on tightly. The tigers are now just above her head, pawing at the ground and sniffing the air. Then she looks down and sees that there are tigers down there as well. Just then she notices the mouse that had been there gnawing away at the vine above her head, just out of reach. She also sees a few ripe, red strawberries growing from a nearly clump of grass just within her reach. She looks up at the tigers, she looks down at the tigers, she looks at the mouse. Then, she picks the largest of the strawberries, pops it in her mouth and chews. It is lusciously delicious and she enjoys it thoroughly.

The first time I heard this story was at a yoga ashram back in the 70s, and the metaphor was made even more obvious by having two mice, one white and one black, gnawing away at the vine. Yes, day and night is eating away at our lifeline. We were born and we will die and each moment is just what it is. At the ashram, I was told that this is the human predicament, and that we commonly and foolishly ignore the reality of life and death and distract ourselves with “strawberries.” The swami said that, rather then indulge in the sensual pleasures of life, we yoga students should dedicate all our energies to getting out of this predicament. After all, for much of yoga philosophy, moksha, or “liberation,” is understood as the ceasing of reincarnation, the constant ‘wandering forth’ from life through death to life, again and again and again. 

Early buddhism, too, teaches that the point of practice is to end the cycle of rebirth. In this way, early buddhism is a world-weary, world renouncing path. This is what is behind the perennial criticism of buddhism as ‘pessimistic’ and ‘life-denying.’ Now, to be clear, the fact that early buddhism also teaches that there is indeed a transcendent state beyond the suffering of the world, and that this state can be realized should be enough to see that it is not pessimistic. But it is life and world-denying. Its "optimism" is based upon this transcendent experience outside this world.

Now, the second time I heard this story was in a zen monastery and the teacher mimed the act of reaching for the strawberry, popping it into his mouth and chewing with obvious delight. Only this time, the message conveyed to us zen students was that given our life situation, with each moment our life hanging by a thread, being caught in anxiety, resentment, bitterness, and anger prevents us from fully experiencing our life; Such reactivity keeps us from fully seeing, hearing, tasting and delighting in "just this." This might be the only moment of our life; this may be the only strawberry. Do we really want to miss it because we are anxiously focused on our existential state? Given our life situation, we can be depressed about this, or we could appreciate our life, as Maezumi Roshi would encourage.

I can see how this plays out in my own life. When I find myself caught in anger or anxiety – usually about how things are going in my life or the fears about what may happen in the future – I completely lose the reality of this moment. Please don't misunderstand; this moment may be painful, indeed. It’s not all sweetness. Some strawberries are sour. But, as difficult as it may be, when push comes to shove, I’d much rather taste that sourness completely then be swept away by mental fabrications.

All this isn’t to say we should be all polly-annish about life and the circumstances we must face. There’s a lot of oppression in this world, with lots of injustice that we must resist, fight and change. And practice can challenge us to do this while engaging in each moment with as much integrity as we can muster. And that includes tasting all the tastes life has to offer. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Confronting Abuse of Power...

The Winter 2014 issue of Buddhadharma had a dramatic, stark cover with “Confronting Abuse of Power” emblazoned across its center. Under this, was written, “How it harms practitioners and communities; What can be done to prevent it; How to address abuse when it happens; Steps you can take to protect yourself and others.”

When I saw this at the newsstand (I’ve let my subscription lapse as I’ve grown increasingly disappointed with what passes for contemporary buddhist ‘journalism’) I scooped it up and eagerly looked forward to reading it with relief that finally at least some buddhist media was willing to actually confront abuse. What I found was weak and frustratingly superficial.

In the same way, now a group of 90 zen teachers has published an open letter at Lion’s Roar (a website sponsored by Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma), initiated by Abbess Myoan Grace Schireson of the Empty Nest Zendo and Rev. Genjo Joe Marinello of the Choboji Zen Center. To my mind, it is yet another anemic response offering too little and coming, if not too late, certainly long overdue.

The letter pointedly mentions in particular the wonderfully researched and written article written by Mark Oppenheimer for The Atlantic that covered the abuses of zen teacher Eido Shimano over the course of several decades. Only now, with this “revelation,” the mainstream zen teacher community pledges “to build more visible ethics codes” and work “toward consensus on national standards of behavior.” The letter goes on to state that, “as Zen Buddhist community leaders we are committed to changing the culture of silence and the idealization of the teacher’s status that has been so detrimental to students.”

After referring to “scoundrels and sociopaths,” some of whom become teachers and priests, the letter states that “revelations concerning Eido Shimano” are now taken “as a wake-up call to each of us to pay close attention to the safety of the members of our community and to monitor our own behavior as well as that of others.”

So, all this sounds good. What do I have to criticize about such a sincere response? Am I simply being a curmudgeon? Well, to begin, the letter suggests that Oppenheimer’s article “exposed” a problem with Eido Shimano, and yet I – at best described as an outlier of the zen community – had heard about such abuse twenty years ago. Stripping The Gurus notes that "rumors" about Eido were already spreading in the early 70s, just before I began practicing at the New York Zendo. What I hadn’t known until only a few years ago, but still way before the Oppenheimer article, is that such a respected teacher as Aitken Roshi had known for even longer and had kept quiet about what he knew in order to “protect the dharma.” Of course this is a classic excuse for justifying and maintaining silence when the right thing to do is clearly to speak out. For someone who has written a classic on zen ethics (The Mind of Clover) this is one major ethical fail! It speaks to the tightly wound web of secrecy that is endemic to zen tradition.

Second, why only now after this particular scandal are mainstream zen teachers pledging to do something? This after Richard Baker Roshi, Taizan Maezumi Roshi, Genpo Marzel Roshi, and Joshu Sasaki Roshi which is already too many. And it’s not about sex. Or finances. It’s about power, hierarchical structures of power that become oppressive and de-liberating. It’s about secrecy and the  obfuscation promoted by much of zen culture. For too long, teachers and students have turned a blind eye to the problem posed by “scoundrels” because they are merely the symptom of a problem that lies at the very heart of zen culture. And that’s why the focus on “scoundrels and sociopaths” is ultimately the safest, most anemic, and irresponsible position the zen teacher community can take! The problem is not simply “a few bad apples,” but the mythic-based structures that enshrine dysfunctional power relations within zen communities, most particularly the magico-mythos of “transmission” and the elevated ideal of the “teacher” found in zen, and in particular Japanese zen, which has had the biggest influence on American zen.

Interestingly, even James Myoun Ford has written at his blog, “So, I think we need teachers, but they need to be taken down a peg or two. The analogy I’ve used in the past continues to hold for me. In the Christian tradition the myth of Catholic apostolic succession and bishops as magical successors in a lineage gives way to an Anglican view, where the form of bishop is retained but seen as functional rather than magical. We need Zen teachers in succession who see themselves not as magical inheritors but as long time students entrusted with a terrible and beautiful responsibility.” What I find ironic is that this is the same man who authored a book entitled Zen Master Who? In that book, Ford writes: “This transmission – perhaps more correctly with a capital T -- was clearly about spiritual authority. It was the acknowledgment of realization and the right to teach in the name of the lineage. This Transmission was now clearly distinguishable from simple ordination into the monastic sangha.” I would assert that transmission (most especially with a capital T), authorization, and lineage are at the heart of zen’s dysfunctional relationship to power.

The legendary biography of the buddha has him a Prince, the son of a King who ruled autocratically, as kings do, in his kingdom. The reality, however, is that the buddha was born into the Sakiya (Sakhya) republic. Republics were named after the ruling clan. His father was elected to a position equivalent to president of the republic and speaker of the assembly. I think this is important to remember because it was upon the structure of the republic and the council that the buddha modeled his sangha, and not the kingdoms that were forming at that time.

It appears that the buddha did not grant himself autocratic control of the sangha, though I’ve no doubt his word generally received greatest respect and was mostly followed. That said, there is a story I’ve found amusing about a time when the monks were caught in an argument amongst themselves, and when they refused to take the buddha’s advice, the buddha left the sangha for a few weeks, finding the monks tiresome! It was only after they had resolved their issues that they approached the buddha and requested he return to the sangha.

Before he died, the buddha was explicitly asked by Ananda, his cousin and attendant, for “some last instructions respecting the community of bhikkhus.” To this, the buddha responded: "What more does the community of bhikkhus expect from me, Ananda? I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ananda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathagata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back. Whosoever may think that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him, it is such a one that would have to give last instructions respecting them. But, Ananda, the Tathagata has no such idea as that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him. So what instructions should he have to give respecting the community of bhikkhus?

The Tathagata held no idea that he led the community or that the community depended upon him! But zen’s founding myth is the mysterious, subtle “direct mind-to-mind transmission” from the buddha to Mahakashyapa, the first of such “transmissions.”

What American zen teachers choose to ignore is that zen’s origins in China were as an upstart sect that created the “transmission outside the scriptures” supposedly creating a lineage of enlightened masters as a way to create a sense of legitimacy and to gain acceptance of the Chinese populace. This is already a far cry from the buddha’s assertion that he made no distinction between esoteric and exoteric doctrine.” Along with this myth, the emphasis on “authority” and “lineage” comes as the inheritance of Confucian ancestor worship that encouraged the reverence for the patriarchs of zen. Finally, with the “transmission” to the fifth Chinese patriarch, Hui-neng, we see more mystification and secrecy, the transmission taking place in the dead of night, with no witnesses, only teacher and disciple.

As I write in my essay on Hui-neng, lineage “has come to mean the “certification,” the “seal of sanctioned approval” of one Master’s enlightenment by another through a “mind-to-mind” transmission, certifying the legitimacy of the succeeding teacher to be a teacher and leader of the Sangha. It is this idea of lineage transmission  that is greatly emphasized in Zen. This practice can be seen as a means of ensuring that only properly certified and genuinely enlightened people are allowed to teach, which would be seen as a protection for those of us who are unenlightened from being exploited, or it can be seen as a system for maintaining priestly power and creating mystique.”

The elevating of the teacher found in zen is the consequence of these various factors: the myth of “mind-to-mind transmission” certifying one’s enlightenment; the emphasis on lineage inherited from Confucianism; and the obfuscation to make the obvious non-obvious that I write about in the above linked essay.

The blog post from James Ford, and the open letter signed by 90 zen teachers both speak of the need to “take teachers down a peg or two” and to “change the culture of silence and the idealization of the teacher’s status that has been so detrimental to students.”

I’ve been arguing this was needed for decades. I’m happy to see the more established, mainstream zen teacher community finally getting onboard. But as long as the focus is on “scoundrels,” I won’t expect too much to change.

My teacher, Samu Sunim, created a seminary program with a curriculum of training leading to ordination as a dharma teacher (poep sa). This is a move of great transparency. But the term “dharma teacher” has itself become idealized through structures that treat the title and the person as “magical inheritors.” A well-respected zen teacher told me that he thought decades of practice and study are required before one can be authorized and authenticated to be a dharma teacher. Yet, the fact remains that every one of the teachers mentioned above who have shown themselves to be “scoundrels” were “authenticated and approved” to be inheritors of mind-to-mind transmission and enlightenment. Why not just treat them as teachers? Folk who know a bit more about the subject and who can give guidance and advice? Like, you know teachers!

It may be relevant to note that while such examples of grievous misconduct are all too easy to find in the traditions that idealize the role of teacher such as zen and Tibetan buddhism with its guru-centric practice (to the point of adding going for refuge to the lama as a fourth refuge!), there doesn’t seem to be the same issue in western vipassana (mostly lay teachers who manage to keep precepts better than the zen priests!) or Theravada buddhism. Perhaps among the reasons for this is that structurally, the Theravada traditions view teachers as teachers! They are not idealized, but rather appreciated, with reverence, as friends-along-the-path (kalyana-mitta). This is the difference Ford points to when he compares the apostolic succession of Catholic and Anglican bishops. It is a function served, not mystical, magical or even about the person per se.

Here in Tucson, our sangha is modeled after the republican council of the buddha’s sangha. All our meetings: community planning meetings, board of director meetings and membership meetings are open to the public. Not just members of the sangha: the public. All decisions other than practice related (and some of them are open to discussion) are made by consensus. I have no unilateral, absolute power to make decisions outside of spending two-hundred dollars a quarter. This commitment to transparency has empowered all our members to speak up and speak out whenever anything seems less than obvious. These are structural issues that were put in place prophylactically, so to speak. And, despite this, we are currently working on a Code of Ethics, as well as a Grievance Process, because being prepared with eyes open truly is already the best protection for teacher, student and community.