Monthly Archives: April 2013

What Do You Know: The Hidden Costs of 401(k)’s.

retirement

retirement (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

I’ve started posting my quizzes in my blog “What Do You Know.”  My first quiz is on the hidden cost of retiring using 401(k)’s.   There are must less expensive ways of paying for the common good of retirement, so why has the American political system chosen this path?  Is it because 401(k)’s pump tremendous amounts of wealth into Wall Street?  Is it an attempt by corporations to externalize the cost of doing business onto working people?  Is it to force people to take care of themselves and depend less on government?  After you have taken the quiz and perhaps viewed some of the links I’ve supplied, tell me what you think.

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Hungry Ghost Economy: Concluding Thoughts

As Spiritual Leadership enters its final weeks of the semester, it is time to invite everyone to provide feedback on this project.  Likewise, I will summarize and engage in critical reflection.

What is Spiritual Leadership?  The term connotes transcendence.  From the perspective of Liberation Theology, I would reject this definition.  Rather, I would argue that Spiritual Leadership is a reorientation to the potential to be realized in the immanent, in the mundane.  Thus, I chose to illustrate this point through the particular case of Snack Pack Pudding.

Looking deeply into Snack Pack Pudding, its non-pudding elements, and its connections revealed suffering including links to illness and oppression (viz. slavery)!  In cases when corporations and governments are jointly and severally responsible for suffering, extra-governmental organizations, such as the press and/or religious leaders are called to engage their asymmetrical agency, responsibility, and accountability to be spiritual leaders and organize the collective will of the oppressed.

Per Allan G. Johnson, Power, Privilege, and Difference, society channels people’s behaviors towards paths of least resistance.  These paths are not easy.  Deviation from these paths is harder, at least initially.  Yet, the essence of spiritual leadership is to deviate from these paths of least resistance in order to change society if we are to transform individual and collective experiences of suffering as pain and oppression into love and justice.

In consumer-driven society (i.e. the hungry ghost economy), people unwittingly and, often, inevitably, participate in the creation and perpetuation of suffering by engaging in mindless consumption represented by tens or hundreds of individual and seemingly trivial and innocuous transactions every day.  The sum of these decisions have tremendous impacts upon world suffering.

No one person can do everything.  Every person can do something.  Spiritual leadership is not about creating guilt and paralysis.  It is, at least from this perspective, about orienting people, promoting awareness, and facilitating contemplation and action.  It functions on the faith that each person, in his or her time, will gradually or suddenly achieve insight into an issue and take action to change it.

Orienting people to the mundane topic of Snack Pack Pudding has been an intentional statement that no topic should be particular to spiritual leadership.  Mindfulness practice is powerful in orienting people to the possibilities available for agency, responsibility, and accountability at every level.

The key lesson learned, the fundamental challenge in spiritual leadership, is identifying the media that will connect a particular issue with a particular constituency.

To date, Hungry Ghost Economy

generated 64 views on dharma dialogues

created a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/HungryGhostEconomy) with 13 Likes

created a petition on http://www.whitehouse.gov (http://wh.gov/eMAA) to ask the Obama Administration to ban the import, distribution, and/or sale of products produced using slave labor  with 6 signatures.

created a twitter account with several tweets.  It gained 0 retweets or replies and 1 follower (surprisingly, a local business)!

I value the opportunity to inform.  At times, the internet has demonstrated its power as a means to raise awareness and funds, and to create, organize, and sustain action; at times, it has helped initiate high levels of coordinated global activity.

Yet, research indicates people look to shift their attention within seconds, and shift topics or pages in 7 minutes or less.

It is a lot of effort to maintain an internet presence and create “fresh” content for a small audience.

As a result of this experience, I think the internet can be a place for the exchange of ideas and a resource where people can learn more, exchange ideas, and coordinate efforts.  However, I emerge with the belief that the spiritual leadership models of grassroots activism are still relevant and needed.

The right issue at the right time can begin in a congregation, sangha, temple, mosque, or meeting.  Spiritual leaders, engaged in common causes in solidarity with the oppressed, can promote awareness and action within their organizations.  Tens, hundreds, or thousands, still attend religious services and meetings of various types.  These groups can initiate movements that transcend religious differences.  I think there is an experience of solidarity when people are in the physical presence of one another that can be empowering.  There is something about physical presence that promotes different forms of relationships.  These empowering relationships can collectively engage in actions that serve as the impetus for movements that gain momentum and expand across space and time to effect change.

This assessment of the Hungry Ghost Economy project is a statement about fit between the issue, communication/presentation, media, culture/zeitgeist, and skillful means.

In June 2010, according to ConAgra, Snack Pack owned 84 percent of the $210 million category of shelf stable puddings and gel packs.  As discussed in earlier segments, ConAgra co-packs the pudding for all or almost all of its “competing” store brands.  So, Snack Pack pudding, one consumer packaged good selling at approximately 25 cents per pack, generates millions in advertising and promotion.

This is the landscape in which Spiritual Leadership, typically operating with $0.00 budget, must operate.  Spiritual Leadership is about overcoming these odds.  It is, as aforementioned, about the transcendent potential in the immanent and mundane.  It is a calling.  There is no promise that the work will save countless sentient beings.  There is only the individual and his or her vow to save countless sentient beings.

27 million slaves continue.  Old age, illness, and death continue.  Suffering created by Snack Pack Pudding, and other consumer packaged goods, continues.  So, too, therefore, have I vowed to continue.

I will tell the story and try and change the world, 1 person and 1 action at a time.  I can do no other.

I hope you, having read this testimony, will do likewise.

With bows.

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THE FIFTH PRECEPT PROJECT Reducing Substance Abuse in Thailand…

Thailand

Thailand (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

THE FIFTH PRECEPT PROJECT

Reducing Substance Abuse in Thailand

I choose to do this topic on a social network level and specifically chose to create a Facebook group named “The Five Precepts of Buddhist Practice” because  realize that substance abuse is a global problem that exists in big and small scale. Recently, I had to the opportunity to walk the streets of Skid Row in Los Angeles. It was very depressing and it is hard to believe there are people in America, the most powerful nation in the world, living in that kind of condition.  The problem maybe many things combined, it is evident that the majority of the people there are drug and alcohol abusers.  Whether in a big country like America or a small country like Thailand where I am from, substance abuse will ruin lives the same way.  Drugs and alcohol, once they take over a person’s life, they will ruin not only health, but destroy relationships, properties, and eventually take lives.  Addictions can be very hard to break.  I am hoping this forum I am creating will get people to come together and raise awareness.

I find that education is the key to enlighten people of the risk of substance abuse.  Educating people on what to do and how to prevent it from happening, I think, will help people live their lives better and happier. You do not have to be a Buddhist to follow the Five Precepts.  But it would help if you understand it and try to apply the rules to your life.  This topic is most beneficial to young adults who may be faced with peer pressure and on the verge to taking drugs.  If this forum will somehow reach someone and help them choose the right path, it is worth it.  I hope a lot of people will participate and I hope Buddha’s teaching will be helpful to everyone involved directly or indirectly in the way of spiritual leadership training.

The topic I choose to discuss about is addiction in Thailand.  Whether it is addiction to alcohol, drugs, or any kind of outside influence, it causes a person to be careless and mindless.  It alters a person’s mental ability and, more often than not, causes them to make bad judgment.  Being influenced by alcohol and/or drugs changes a person’s mind, attitude, judgment, and if a person is dependent on it, they can become highly addicted to it.  Once it gets to the point of addiction, it can ruin their health, tear up a family/relationship, cause them to lose their job or social status, and many other unpleasant and destructive circumstances

To be addicted to something causes you to lose your freedom – you need to have it, drink it, inhale it, inject it, or use it in order to survive and go on with your life.  That is a form of attachment.  In Buddhism, this form of addiction is breaking of the fifth precept (there are five main Precepts), which is to refrain from intoxication whether it is alcohol or drugs.

Poverty and homelessness issues often times stem from drug and alcohol abuse.  Once people become addicted to substance, they use more to forget their problems and to escape from pain.  The more they use, the more addicted they become.  The more addicted they become, the more trouble they are in.  It is a vicious cycle.  It is an addiction that requires both physical and mental help.

I believe the Buddha’s teaching, although set over 2500 years ago, can be applied back then and can be used in this day and age as well.  Drug and alcohol abuse is a big problem everywhere in the world.  It is the cause of many health issues.  Overdosing on drugs causes instant death while alcohol abuse shortens a person life.  It is a death sentence waiting to happen, and it is all from the addiction.

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Hungry Ghost Economy: Karma, Effort, and Charity (#4 in series)

ConAgra, through the manufacture and distribution of Snack Pack Pudding©, causes and/or perpetuates multiple chains of negative karma.  ConAgra attempts to counteract this negative karma by a campaign entitled “Child Hunger Ends Here®.”  Noting the problem of childhood hunger that, according to its charitable partner, Feeding America, affects 17 million children daily, ConAgra is engaged in a campaign to donate a minimum of 1 million meals ($125,000) up to a maximum of 3 million meals based upon consumers entering a code from ConAgra items purchased.  For each code, ConAgra donates 12.5 cents, “the cost for Feeding America to provide one meal through its network of local foodbanks.”

This is a positive action.  ConAgra’s objective is to positively associate its brands and products with Feeding America.  ConAgra wants to be defined by its positive actions.  However, positive actions do not cancel negative actions.  Each action is part of its own causal chain.  Feeding 1 person does not undo the suffering caused by ConAgra’s activities.

As the nutritional content of Snack Pack Pudding© deteriorates, there are implications for malnourishment.  The new milk reduction formulation of Snack Pack Pudding© will not deliver the same nutrition as the previous formulation.  By reducing nutritional content of one of the most affordable and widely distributed food items, the poorest and most nutritionally deficient will be among those most impacted by the reduction in nutrition of Snack Pack Pudding©.  Yet, this fact will be obfuscated by advertising.

It should not be a case of “either/or.”  It should be a case of “both/and.”  ConAgra should be engaged in both the production of high nutrition food at the lowest cost possible and charitable giving.

It is also worth mentioning that charity, known in Buddhism as dana, values material giving as the lowest form of benefit.  Giving knowledge is the highest form of benefiting others.  Moreover, intention is a central determining factor in whether or not an action is positive, neutral, or negative.  If production of a low cost product is understood as a material gift, the utilization of common resources for the common good, then, if those resources are used to create a consumer packaged good (i.e. gift) that is deceptive and withholds or obfuscates information intentionally, as suggested by the advertising practices of ConAgra’s Snack Pack Pudding©, the item cannot provide the desired positive outcome.

I believe if companies spent even a fraction of their massive advertising and promotion dollars on creating affordable low cost and high nutrition foods, the lobbyists, “food” regulations, and adversarial scheme that pits companies against consumers would not be necessary.  It is self-perpetuating and a misallocation of our common resources against our common good.

Is it possible?  I think a society where millions go hungry when we can feed them for 12.5 cents per meal demands it!

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So What’s Been Going On Here?

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Rev. Danny Fisher (pointing) with the students in University of the West’s “Spiritual Leadership” class at Pershing Square before their walking tour of Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Photo by Anny Shi.

Over at her fabulous, fabulous blog Dharma Cowgirl, the great Monica Sanford (who was integral to the creation of this blog) notes all the recent posts here about my class’ recent visit to Skid Row, as well as their announcements about social media projects they’re working on. She continues, in reference to the projects:

It would be interesting to see what exactly the assignment description entailed, because right now these projects seem somewhat random and aren’t really well related to American Buddhism.

This was a good reminder that I’ve been running behind on my own post to frame the direction of the blog this semester. As Monica mentioned in her post, Dharma Dialogue began last fall in UWest Religious Studies Department Chair Dr. Jane Iwamura’s “Buddhism in the U.S.” class. This semester, it has been handed off to myself (representing the Buddhist Chaplaincy Department) and the students in our “Spiritual Leadership” class.

In the catalogue, “Spiritual Leadership” is described this way:

The course will introduce students to spiritual leadership, and consider values, responsibilities, functions, and resources for spiritual leaders. Special attention will be given to looking at examples and archetypes of spiritual leadership in Buddhist and other religious traditions…

This semester I also added a wrinkle: a very specific emphasis on poverty. I did this for two reasons:

  1. I felt it was one major common denominator in the work of the various figures who serve as conversation starters in this class (Gandhi, King, Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi, A.T. Ariyaratne, Maha Ghosananda, and others). Part of leadership as exemplified by these people is serving and speaking up for the most vulnerable among us. From Dr. Ariyaratne’s Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement to economic justice in the vision of Dr. King (and everything in between), the lives of the poor are front and center.
  2. As chaplains-in-training — and, heck, just as persons living in America — our students really need to be paying attention to poverty if they’re not already.

As to point #2, you might ask “Why exactly?” Well, let’s consider a few facts. According to the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy:

In 2010, 15.1 percent of all persons [about 46 million Americans] lived in poverty.  The poverty rate in 2010 was the highest poverty rate since 1993. Between 1993 and 2000, the poverty rate fell each year, reaching 11.3 percent in 2000.

Poverty in the United States experienced a huge spike in the last decade, after declining steadily in the previous year. In addition:

The poverty rate for all persons masks considerable variation between racial/ethnic subgroups. Poverty rates for blacks and Hispanics greatly exceed the national average. In 2010, 27.4 percent of blacks and 26.6 percent of Hispanics were poor, compared to 9.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 12.1 percent of Asians. Poverty rates are highest for families headed by single women, particularly if they are black or Hispanic. In 2010, 31.6 percent of households headed by single women were poor, while 15.8 percent of households headed by single men and 6.2 percent of married-couple households lived in poverty. There are also differences between native-born and foreign-born residents. In 2010, 19.9 percent of foreign-born residents lived in poverty, compared to 14.4 percent of residents born in the United States. Foreign-born, non-citizens had an even higher incidence of poverty, at a rate of 26.7 percent.

Worst of all…

Children represent a disproportionate share of the poor in the United States; they are 24 percent of the total population, but 36 percent of the poor population. In 2010, 16.4 million children, or 22.0 percent, were poor. The poverty rate for children also varies substantially by race and Hispanic origin…

Add to the mix several disquieting facts about income inequality in the United States and a poverty map of the U.S. (below), and you’ll probably start wondering — as my students have — what this means when it comes to thinking about Buddhist ministry and doing professional spiritual care and counseling.

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Graphic from VisualizingEconomics.

Our walking tour of Skid Row — which included meditation and discussion at the Los Angeles Central Library afterwards — was my way of getting the students to truly bear witness to those suffering some of the very worst effects of poverty.

Getting back to Monica’s question, though — the purpose of the social media projects and their relationship to American Buddhism — I think the best place to start is with the social media project assignment.

One seed of the idea was in what I saw as the incredible effectiveness of this blog for Dr. Iwamura’s purposes, and the possibilities of technology/social media. We’re being encouraged more and more to use social media and such in higher education, and watching Dr. Iwamura and her class last semester really inspired me. I also saw it as an interesting new way that the students could do what we’re ultimately asking them to do in the “Spiritual Leadership” class: that is, begin to, in the words of Dr. Cornel West, show us that “justice is what love looks like in public.”

As we look at the issue of poverty and the ways that different spiritual leaders engaged the problem, the students have each found things to be inspired by and things to critique in terms of approaches to spiritual leadership around poverty. “To be a great leader, you must habitually envision greatness,” says Dr. West. This is a very personal/subjective/individual undertaking, of course. But, by studying and critiquing the attempts by others to do this, while examining the same issues for themselves, the students are beginning to discern what approaches and meaningful to them and who they are as leaders.

So here’s what I asked the students do specifically:

I would like you to propose an educational social media project on a social issue of concern to you. You will be educating others from your place as spiritual leaders-in-training. Maybe you would like to create a Facebook page or group devoted to exploring the epidemic of violence against women in the military, with a view to how spiritual resources can help combat the problem. Maybe you would like to use Pintrest to collate sets of infographic and other visual information about global poverty and development, while also appealing to the viewers spiritual side with photography and quotations. Maybe you want to run a Twitter “mini-course” (as Stephen Prothero and I have done) in which you use tweets to share readings and reflections, as well as dialogue with others about something like racism. Or maybe you want to do a series of YouTube videos in which you talk about Buddhist responses to globalization. You can pick any topic or social media platform. The only requirements are (1)  that you use a social media platform;  (2) that you discuss the parameters for your project with the instructor (sign up for office hours!); and (3) that you share the proposal as a post on the Dharma Dialogue website. In addition, you are expected to comment on your colleagues’ posts and offer ideas and constructive feedback.

While I did not require that they do a project about poverty, the students’ unique projects demonstrate (to me, anyway) some of the things they’ve each learned for themselves about spiritual leadership from looking at Buddhist and non-Buddhist approaches to offering spiritual leadership to the poor and disenfranchised.

As to the second part of Monica’s question — what do these projects have to do with American Buddhism? — I think one thing to say is that the work we’re doing probably has more to do with American Buddhism implicitly than explicitly. By asking our students — many of them either Buddhist Americans or Buddhists living and working in America — to thoughtfully, deliberately engage with a social concern near and dear to their heart, I hoped we might contribute to the mission of this blog by bringing attention to aspects of Buddhist life and practice that, generally speaking, are not as much a part of “Buddhism in America” as others.

That said, while I understand completely where it comes from, I do think it is a bit of problem that many Buddhists might look at the students’ projects and ask Monica’s same question, “What does all this have to do with American Buddhism?”

A few years ago, I was fortunate to do a long interview with my friend Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi in which he said (among many other brilliant, striking things):

I lived in Sri Lanka for about twenty-three years. There I observed that the Buddhist temple is the social and cultural hub of the community, and the resident monks are the ones who take the initiative in looking after the well-being of the people, regardless of religion and ethnicity. But as Buddhism is rooting itself in the U.S., I see a danger that it might become an elitist methodology for discovering inner peace, or for living happily in the here and now, at the cost of its capacity for transforming broader systemic causes of suffering. It seems to me that both the ultimate liberative goal of the Buddha’s teaching, and the active compassionate application of the Dharma to the alleviation of socially caused suffering, are at risk of being pushed to the sidelines in favor of a ‘feel good about yourself’ version of Buddhism, or a Buddhism that functions as a mere existential psychotherapy. This risk is especially serious as Buddhism becomes integrated into mainstream American culture.

On the one hand, we could say that the particularly strong emphasis in North America on meditation over other aspects of Buddhism is right on in certain ways. Meditation is a key soteriological tool in the endeavor to minimize and ultimately end one’s own suffering, and then be of benefit to others. On the other hand, though, we might also say that too exclusive a focus here will miss the full breadth and depth of what Buddhism has to offer.

In the Samyutta Nikaya and the Visuddhimagga, for instance, it is said:

…When a wise one, well established in shila,
develops Samadhi and prajna,
then as a bhikkshuni, ardent and sagacious,
she succeeds in disentangling the tangle [emphasis added].

So we need not just meditation but also ethical conduct and wisdom in order to “disentangle the tangle.” We certainly place a great deal of emphasis on meditation in the U.S., but comparatively very little about the Buddhist teachings on ethical conduct. And it’s supposed to be the most foundational aspect of practice in the original formulation of the teachings! How are we to “disentangle the tangle” without solid grounding in morality and virtuous action?

Though there is a thriving engaged Buddhist movement in North America, there is nonetheless a sense that the lessons of Buddhist ethics have not yet fully sunk in as fully as they have elsewhere in the world. My friend Joshua Eaton observed this in an absolutely brilliant article he wrote recently for Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly about the need for Buddhists to open their temple and center doors to social service and justice efforts (even things as simple and basic and cost-free as hosting recovery meetings) like their sisters and brothers in other religious traditions:

I [am] struck by how absent my own religious communities [seem] to be. I’ve never visited a Buddhist center that hosts outside community groups or one whose members regularly volunteer together outside their center. An acquaintance who spent a year serving in New Orleans after Katrina once asked me, ‘Why is it that Buddhists are always talking about compassion but they’re the only group I’ve never seen volunteer down here?’

This whole issue calls to mind the prophetic warning of another great socially engaged Buddhist leader, Sulak Sivaraksa of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (one of the figures we are studying in class), who said:

Buddhism is not concerned just with private destiny, but with the lives and consciousness of all beings… Any attempt to understand Buddhism apart from its social dimension is fundamentally a mistake. Until Western Buddhists understand this, their embrace of Buddhism will not help very much in the efforts to bring about meaningful and positive social change, or even in their struggle to transform their ego.

So our students need to grapple with and engage social problems not just as caregivers-in-training, but also as Buddhist practitioners. Indeed, as Sulak and Bhante remind us, from a traditional point of view, we won’t get very far as practitioners if we’re not thinking about the suffering of others and working to benefit beings as much as we can.

There’s a terrific book about Buddhist and Christian monasticism that I like very much for quite a few other reasons, but I especially love its title: For the Sake of the World. I think this title alone serves as an important reminder to us about why we undertake religious practices, especially those of the most intense (and/or secluded) variety: “for the sake of the world.” If we lose sight of that, we’re not only not leaders, but I might argue that we’re also not really fully practitioners either.

GRATITUDE TO FORGOTTEN VETERANS

Members of 1st Recon, Vietnam, ca. 1967 From the collection of Michael R. Travis (COLL/5158), United States Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections Creative Commons License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

Members of 1st Recon, Vietnam, ca. 1967
From the collection of Michael R. Travis (COLL/5158), United States Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections
Creative Commons License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

GRATITUDE TO FORGOTTEN VETERANS

Around 7 o’clock in the morning, I arrived at Pershing Square where my class would meet for the field trip to Skid Row.  Since it was still early; I set my GPS to Skid Row and drove by the area.   My heart was about to stop because I could not believe what I saw along the sidewalks of San Julian Street from 4th Street to 6th Street.  There were hundreds of soiled fabrics or plastic tarps covering “cardboard made beds” surrounded by wheeled carts piling up with blankets, filthy clothes. Every corner of those blocks was occupied with homeless people covering themselves with ragged blankets.  Skid Row, the town for homeless people is only a short walking distance from the flower wholesale area I have visited at least once a month for the last three years, but I had never realized that I was this close to abject poverty.

Since then, I hardly sleep through my nights.  Every time I close my eyes, I cannot get my mind off what I saw at Skid Row.  Then, the touching documentary film “the 5th Street Homeless in LA” made by John Gilbert with music background “On the Nickel” written by Tom Waits, plays over and over in my head.[i] The smell of urination and dirty clothes still bothers my nose.  My classmates’ chat about the reality of Vietnam Vets during the walk through Skid Row made me wonder whether somewhere of Skid Row, there are any soldiers who used to stay at the Army Base across my house in Vietnam.

I do not remember their names, their faces.  In my fading memories, those American soldiers who always looked solemn in the uniforms and joyful with their smiles, were heroes because after they left Southern Vietnam, our lives had dramatically changed.  Now I recalled they visited my neighbors every Sunday.  Sometimes, they asked my dad’s permission to give my brothers and me chewing gum, candy, and take us around the neighborhood.  I guess that they missed their families and their kids. They left; we lost our freedom and happiness.  The country fell in the Communist hands.

After they left, I never thought of what they had been through after returning home.   Who would remember them?  I used to think that the monument of two life-sized bronze soldiers representing the US Armed Forces and the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam in .  It is beautiful work Vietnamese Refugee Communities did to show our gratitude for their sacrifices.  Now, I know there are more we should do about our gratitude because there were many veterans who were surviving from Vietnam War but struggling with unhealed wounds left in their heart and mind.

What about those who are still alive, who now live with mental illness, with alcohol or drug abuse from depression, with the poverty just a few blocks away from the tall luxury business buildings in downtown Los Angeles?  They are out of sight so that there was no political pressure from the public to do anything about it.[ii]

Speaking of the Four Noble Truth, let’s consider what these veterans’ sufferings are?  They are alcoholic and drug dependence, mental illness, hunger, cold, wet etc….  What caused their sufferings?  We can say the involvement of drug or alcohol was their choice, but we should understand addiction is not the only reason they are here in Skid Row.  There is mental illness, PTSD etc… It is the responsibilities of the mainstream that put them through the terrible wars.  Later, they have been forgotten and got very little attention from the system.

After fifteen minutes to meditate and reflect on the trip, a homeless guy approached my group and I was picked as “the best meditate practitioner of the group”.  Although I felt so funny about that, I still answered his question “According to Buddhism, what part of the human body the mind comes from?”   I told him maybe the brain or the heart.  Then, I confirmed it was the brain.  Until now, I believe it must be both the brain and the heart together in my Buddhist view[iii].  Wisdom should blossom from compassion and strong will in order to attain freedom from sufferings[iv].  These homeless in Skid Row really should be freed from their daily sufferings.  They need our hearts and mind together to make a difference for their days.  The Midnight Mission and LA Mission are already handful, but still not enough.

The sky and the earth are immense.  My arms are so tiny to embrace the poor.  My heart is sobbing every time it is windy or rainy outside.  I visualize thousands of homeless poor people out there are soaking and shivering if they are unable to find some places to spend the night at Skid Row.  I feel so helpless.

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Hungry Ghost Economy: The Karma of Snack Pack Pudding (#3 in series)

Karma is intentional action connected to its context in space-time. In this chapter of Hungry Ghost Economy, we explore the karmic consequences of the consumer packaged goods production and consumption through the example of Snack Pack Pudding©

These are the listed ingredients in Snack Pack Pudding©.

Water, Nonfat Milk, Sugar, Modified Corn Starch, Vegetable Oil (contains one or more of the following: Palm Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Palm Oil, Sunflower Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil), Cocoa (Processed with Alkali), Less than 2% of: Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Artificial Flavors, Color Added. CONTAINS: MILK

But what about the unlisted ingredients? Disease? Destruction of habitats? Slavery?

Here is the nutrition information for a 92g single-serving container:

Calories                                   120

Fat                                              25

Total Fat                                     3g          5%

Saturated Fat                          1.5g          8%

Sodium                                 130mg        5%

Potassium                            130mg        4%

Total Carb                                21g          7%

Sugars                                       14g         —

Dietary Fiber                             2g         0.8%

Protein                                        1g

Vit A                                                           0%

Vit C                                                           0%

Iron                                                            4%

Calcium                                                   30%

Based on a 2,000 calorie diet

ConAgra Foods, Inc. emphasizes “All Snack Pack products contain 30% DV calcium, with the exception of Bakery Shop Lemon Meringue Pie, Lemon Pudding, and Snack Pack Gels.” It emphasizes “CONTAINS MILK.”

Viewing the ingredients and nutrition information in isolation from advertising, would you describe Snack Pack Pudding© as”

“Nutritious?”

“Sensible?”

“Wholesome?”

Would you serve this to yourself or others “without the guilt?” The fact that ConAgra Foods, Inc. advertising tries to assuage feelings of guilt suggests an effort to overcome one’s innate sense that there is something wrong in consuming this manufactured product sold as food.

Is this all overly dramatic? Can’t one just eat Snack Pack Pudding© and consider it “empty calories?” No! Robert Lustig, M.D., a Researcher and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital, summarizes the position of metabolic disease researchers in debunking the “empty calories” myth. These calories are not “empty;” they are toxic. For more, click here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-lustig-md/sugar-toxic_b_2759564.html

The ingredients tell the story.

14 of 21 grams of Total Carbohydrates come from refined granulated white sugar. That’s 3.33 teaspoons. That’s 54 of the 120 total calories in one serving of Snack Pack Pudding©. Would you eat or feed your child 3.33 teaspoons of sugar?

The majority of the remaining 7 of 21 grams of Total Carbohydrates comes from modified corn starch. Carbohydrates are saccharides. Corn starch has two major components, amylose (a straight chain polymer of glucose) and amylopectin (a branched chain polymer of glucose).

Modified corn starch refers to corn starch that has been treated with acid(s) (e.g. sulphuric acid) to alter its viscosity.

In the body, simple carbohydrates like sugar and modified corn starch are converted to glucose. Spikes in glucose levels cause the pancreas to release insulin and the liver to convert glucose to triglycerides. Excess (unused) glucose is stored as fat.

The increase in consumption of these ingredients in Snack Pack Pudding© and other foods driven by consumer packaged goods companies has been linked to heart disease (the #1 cause of death in the United States), obesity, and metabolic diseases including diabetes (the #7 cause of death in the United States).

Obesity has increased from 13 to 34 percent in the last 50 years. For more on the economic costs of obesity, click here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/30/obesity-costs-dollars-cents_n_1463763.html

Snack Pack Pudding© also contains Vegetable Oil (contains one or more of the following: Palm Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Palm Oil, Sunflower Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil).

These fats, particularly in hydrogenated forms, are linked to cardiovascular disease.

Palm oil is the most widely used food oil in the world. It is valued for long shelf life and low cost. But, the low cost comes at a price. Palm oil monoculture is destroying the environment through deforestation. In other words, eating Snack Pack Pudding© is part of a causal chain that not only negatively impacts human well-being, but destroys entire ecologies including animals, plants, and minerals.

Per WWF Australia, approximately “300 football fields worth of forest are cleared EVERY HOUR to make way for palm oil production” (emphasis added). For more details, click here: http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1750468/Explainer-What-is-palm-oil-and-why-the-controversy

Per the Rainforest Action Network, slave labor has been documented on palm oil plantations. Cargill is a supplier to ConAgra Foods, Inc. (the manufacturer of Snack Pack Pudding©) and a major supplier of palm oil. Cargill refused to ensure its supply chain was/is not purchasing SLAVE-LABOR produced palm oil. For more, click here: http://ran.org/palm-oil-controversy-escalating

In reducing the milk in Snack Pack Pudding© and increasing the water, nutrition is further compromised. Milk is a source of protein. It contains 18 amino acids. 9 are essential amino acids, six are semi-essential amino acids, and three are non-essential. Amino acids are proteins referred to as the “building blocks of life.” Water does not.

Then, there are those ingredients we are advised not to worry about because they only constitute 2% or less of the total volume.  These are:

Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Artificial Flavors, Color Added.

According to the Food Chemical Codex, 7th edition, Sodium-Stearoyl Lactylate (SSL), an extensively used food additive, is non-toxic. It continues by describing SSL as

a cream-colored powder or brittle solid. SSL is currently manufactured by the esterification of stearic acid with lactic acid and partially neutralized with either food-grade soda ash (sodium carbonate) or caustic soda (concentrated sodium hydroxide). Commercial grade SSL is a mixture of sodium salts of stearoyl lactylic acids and minor proportions of other sodium salts of related acids. The HLB for SSL is 10-12. SSL is slightly hygroscopic, soluble in ethanol and in hot oil or fat, and dispersible in warm water. These properties are the reason that SSL is an excellent emulsifier for fat-in-water emulsions and can also function as a humectant.[1]

In other words, this is not food. It is only legally rendered “food” through Government regulation because Consumer Packaged Goods companies and Food Scientists determined that when fed to rats, lambs, and people, there were no observed adverse effects at the indicated levels.

Non-toxic ≠ food.

Can you trust that artificial flavors are any better for you or the environment?

The ill effects of Snack Pack Pudding© extend beyond human consumption. In manufacturing Snack Pack Pudding©, frequent power outages, errors, and other deviations from manufacturing specifications result in tons of pudding not fit for human consumption. This pudding, including sugar free pudding, is either applied to farm land or fed to pigs. Pigs consuming Snack Pack Pudding© suffer the same health problems as humans and, in turn, are consumed by humans.

The manufacturing process creates waste and is part of a causal chain that contaminates and destroys the environment. The one-time use packaging destroys the environment in production and disposal.

“But it’s fortified with 30% of my DV for calcium?!”  That is a high price to pay for a calcium supplement!

Disease. Destruction. Slave-labor. This is not just a snack. This is karma.

This has been just part of the complex interdependent web connected to buying and eating consumer packaged goods. I encourage people to engage in mindfulness. Look past the advertising. Is the thing you are buying and eating food or “food?” What are the effects of your purchase and consumption? Look for the hungry ghosts and beware that you do not become one yourself.

Please spread the word and share your thoughts in the comments.

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Hungry Ghost Economy: 100,000 Signatures can help 27 million slaves

Please sign this petition at Whitehouse.gov: http://wh.gov/eMAA

we petition the obama administration to:

ban the import, distribution, and/or sale of products produced using slave labor.

There are more slaves today worldwide than in any other time in history, an estimated 27 million slaves.  Many of them are engaged in the production of raw materials and finished goods sold in the United States.  Domestic and international slave labor produce goods as part of the supply chains of companies doing business in the U.S., including U.S. companies.

This petition asks the United States Government to require all companies manufacturing, distributing, and/or selling products in the United States to verify via internal and third party supply chain audits that their goods are slavery-free.  In addition, it proposes that all raw, semi-finished, and finished goods found to contain ingredients produced by slavery be subject to seizure, along with fines and criminal prosecution.

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Building Extropia Together

How to Help1

In my previous posts at 3Ratna3Kaya and Dharma Dialogue, I have written a little bit about the concept of Extropia. Extropia, a non-Utopian/non-Dystopian future characterized by continual successful efforts to meet societal stretch-goals, probably sounds like a distant ideal. In actuality, I have a strong conviction that Extropia is not only our future, it is also being built brick by brick at this very moment.

Decade after decade, the technologies that enable the achievement of societal-stretch goals are developing at an accelerating rate. Consider for example, the ninety years that passed between the invention of the Light Bulb and the Moon Landing vs the mere nine years that passed between the invention of the World Wide Web and the Sequencing of the Human Genome. The best news about this current stage of progress is that we can all play a meaningful role in it.

When people think about most forms of charity, various obstacles arise: “I hardly have two nickels to rub together. How am I supposed to make a difference?” “I’d volunteer my time and labor, but I am swamped with academic and professional obligations.”

Luckily, there is a new way to practice philanthropy and help build a better future. The method I am speaking of is the relatively new phenomena known as “Online Crowdsourcing.” Within Online Crowdsourcing, there is a movement of “Citizen Scientists” that I find particularly impressive.

The advantages of online philanthropy is that you can help without “opening your wallet.” In terms of labor, you do not even leave your home, and  with regards to time investment, as little as five minutes can still produce valuable data for researchers.

Unfortunately, not nearly enough people know about Citizen Science, its successes, its value, and ease of participation. For this reason, I have decided to start a project to promote Citizen Science websites that collect data for bio-medical, psychological, and other scientific research.

My project is mainly built around my Pinterest Page: 3Ratna3Kaya. However, I will also try to garner interest by featuring teaser pins on my more established Word Press Blog: 3Ratna3Kaya and a couple relevant Facebook pages of which I am a member. For a full look at the content I have created for this project though, people will still have to access my Pinterest page.

My page features three boards and 12 total pins currently. These boards are as follows:

“Building Extropia Together” – The pins on this board are advertisements I have made to get viewers interested in current Citizen Science projects and the websites that host these projects.

“Call to Action”- This board looks at Transhumanist thinkers and frames their ideas through a Buddhist lens.

“Inspirational Case Studies”- The pins on this board highlight Buddhist spiritual leaders’ ideas on science and technology. Most of these pins feature quotes from those leaders.

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The Nattering Nabobs of Nibbāna

Footprint of the Buddha. 1st century, Gandhara...

In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4 H Clubs – the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history. – Spiro T. Agnew, 1970

I’ve noticed something interesting about the Secular Buddhist movement. Many Secular Buddhist practitioners don’t seem to be comfortable with the idea of Nibbāna. Fascinating, but I find this makes me very sad. It seems in their attempt to make Buddhism more palatable to themselves some Secular Buddhist are willing to throw out the most extraordinary and life changing event that the Buddha has to offer to us – the experience of Nibbāna and for some, the complete ending of suffering and stress.

This isn’t surprising, really. Those of us that have grown up in mainstream U.S. society pride ourselves in a “realistic,” “hard-nosed,”  “down to earth” attitude. You can’t build a continent spanning railroad by reading tarot cards nor can you decide which mountain pass to cross by reading tea leaves. But this attitude has two downsides, both of which are present in a conversation I recently had with another Western Buddhist. I’ve edited our conversation to make it easier to read and to remove names. Emphasis is mine:

Them: [1] I for one can’t accept anything that is based on mystic beliefs…the Buddha said not to believe anybody, including himself, and to be a light onto yourself. If I can’t verify an experience for myself it really holds no value to me. My religion is Kindness and my faith is forgiveness…

Me: Do you think the experience of Nirvana is a mystical experience? It is an experience outside time and space. It is an experience is completely outside the normal experiences of the six senses. Is that mystical?

Them: [1] I don’t believe in Nirvana or Enlightenment as my goal in practice. I believe in chipping away delusion and developing compassion and forgiveness. [2] Maybe I go against the stream of the traditional Buddhists, but I like to see myself as an American Buddhist.

First, many mainstream Westerners hold onto a rigid view that the current orthodox views of science offers a complete picture of the world and of the human experience. I don’t think this is true. My first two academic degrees were in Mathematics and Physics and one of the best parts of my scientific training was that I learned the strengths and limitations of the scientific method. I don’t believe science explains everything. Perhaps someday science will advance to the stage where it can explain and predict the aspects of our lives that currently are considered spiritual, but it isn’t there yet.

The second issue is more subtle and, I hate to say it, something I missed. When I showed this paper to a friend of mine who has studied Orientalism, the first thing she said was that the statement “Maybe I go against the stream of the traditional Buddhists [e.g., Asian], but I like to see myself as an American Buddhist” was on the edge of being racist and at the very least showed a dismissive attitude towards Asian culture. I have to agree. At some level (probably unconscious) a belief in the superiority of mainstream Western culture helped form that statement. “Americans are too advanced to believe in the nonsense of mysticism, unlike the Asian practitioners.”  I realize it is impossible to know the intent of the speaker. I doubt this person meant harm, but from my multicultural studies here at the University of the West, and from my training in Buddhist Chaplaincy, I have learned this doesn’t matter. If we want to follow the Buddha’s ethics of non-harming we must be extremely mindful of the often unexamined biases we have about our own cultural superiority.

We also need to remember a very powerful philosophy, something mainstream Westerners call pragmatism (e.g., William James). “If it works, use it.” Westerners, of course, don’t own this concept. Before humanity discovered germs, we found that pouring alcohol into a wound reduced the number of people who died, so we kept pouring alcohol into wounds. Humanity found (using primitive statistics) that keeping sewage away from wells kept people from getting sick, so we kept sewage away from wells even though we didn’t know why this worked. If it worked, humanity used it, though often we didn’t have a scientific explanation.

The same holds true for the practice of Buddhism. If, as Dr. Grzegorz Polak says in his book, “Reexamining the Jhānas: Towards a Critical Reconstruction of Early Buddhist Soteriology”

It seems very possible that if one started reading the suttas without any previous knowledge on Buddhism, he would see the jhānas as the most important element of the Buddhist doctrine.

Then perhaps we should find someone who uses the jhānas and ask them how this practice helps them on the path. If we know people we trust who we believe have experienced Nibbāna, then maybe we should open our minds to the possibility that we can awaken, either partially or fully and do so in this very lifetime.

Because I believe so strongly that awakening is possible in this very life, when a respected teacher such as Stephen Batchelor says this, I’m deeply saddened:

I am a secular Buddhist. It has taken me years to fully “come out,” and I still feel a nagging tug of insecurity, a faint aura of betrayal in declaring myself in these terms. As a secular Buddhist my practice is concerned with responding as sincerely and urgently as possible to the suffering of life in this world, in this century (our saeculum) where we find ourselves now and future generations will find themselves later. Rather than attaining nirvana, I see the aim of Buddhist practice to be the moment-to-moment flourishing of human life within the ethical framework of the eightfold path here on earth. – Stephen Batchelor, “A Secular Buddhist,” Tricycle Magazine, Fall 2012, emphasis mine.

Because of firmly held cultural views about what types of human experience are acceptable (and because of the mistaken belief that striving for Nibbāna is incompatible with Engaged Buddhism and the path of the bodhisatta), Secular Buddhists such as Mr. Batchelor downplay Nibbāna. Since Batchelor is a widely respected teacher there will be those who will follow his teachings and believe they represent the total possibility of Buddhist practice. When I started practicing, one of the aspects of Western Buddhism that so excited me was the teaching that lay people as well as monks could awaken. This is not a teaching that has existed throughout the history of Buddhism. Using Theravāda Buddhism as an example, there appears to be a period in time, which lasted as long as perhaps a thousand years, when many Theravāda practitioners believed the world was so corrupt that no one, lay or monastic could awaken. For most of Buddhist history lay people were expected to work toward a better rebirth by collecting merit. It was not expected that they could or should try to awaken. It was the people of Burma, oppressed by colonialism, who realized that Theravāda Buddhism was dying in their country and something needed to change. They started teaching that people could awake, yes, even lay people. And thus begin the revival of Buddhist meditation and the revival of the belief in Nibbāna within the Theravāda tradition, a revival that arose independently in many other Buddhist traditions during that same era. It is my deepest hope that Convert Western Buddhism will not throw away the great gift given to us by those who practiced Buddhism before it came to the West, the gift of Nibbāna in this very life.

My thanks to my reviewers for their help improving this post. All opinions expressed and mistakes made in this post are my own.

On 4/19/13 I edited the post slightly to clarify a couple of points.

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