Category Archives: Family & Children

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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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”




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:

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:

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:

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:

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

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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Hungry Ghost Economy: 99 cents (#2 in the series)

Snack Pack Pudding© is extremely sensitive to price. Its target price has been 99 cents per 4 pack. It is sold via discounted promotional pricing for up to half the year. Any increase above 99 cents causes and sales fall. 2011 reported annual retail sales for Snack Pack Pudding and Gel Snacks was $177 million.[i]

Price sensitivity is the degree to which a change in the price of a product changes consumers’ purchasing behavior. It is measured by own-price elasticity of demand, an internal measure of sensitivity of demand based on changes in the items price. It is measured by cross-price elasticity of demand based on changes in the price of substitutes for the item.

How the Price of Gas Affects Snack Pack Pudding©

In the United States, the average price of gasoline increased from $1.101/gallon (12/17/2001) to $4.146/gallon (6/30/08).[i]


When the price of gas was low, the claim “Real Nonfat Milk is Our #1 Ingredient along with a graphic of a cup of milk.

Non Fat Milk, Water, 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

The increase in the price of gas increases manufacturing and distribution costs. Price sensitivity requires Snack Pack Pudding© to be sold at a target price of 99 cents or less or sales will decrease. Something’s gotta give.


ConAgra Foods creates “milk reduction formulas.” The claims displayed on packaging change to “made with REAL NONFAT MILK” and “AS MUCH CALCIUM AS AN 8 oz GLASS OF MILK.” The graphic of a cup of milk remains on the front of the package.  The ingredients list on the back tells a different story.

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

Real Nonfat Milk is [NO LONGER] Our #1 Ingredient.” Water is. Yet, ConAgra’s advertising and packaging go to great lengths to obfuscate the change. Through continued association with milk, ConAgra is conveying the message that the product is as “wholesome” and “nutritious,” as an 8 oz. glass of milk. Click on the website,, and you will see an 8 oz container of milk turn into a container of Snack Pack Pudding©. In fact, it has only been fortified to include “as much calcium as an 8 oz glass of milk.”

Thinking you will buy the store brand, instead? ConAgra manufactures most private label and store brand shelf stable puddings, as well. A few resisted the change and tried to retain their own formulas. However, ConAgra has converted all, or almost all, of these puddings to milk reduction formulas.

Individuals become consumers through an insatiable hunger for processed foods and their key ingredients: sugars, starches, fats, and salts. Consumers participate in the front-of-package labeling and advertising illusions of low cost, convenience, and nutrition and/or rationalize that it is “part of a healthy diet.” The back of the package hints at a deeper truth.

.  .  .

Next in the Hungry Ghost Economy series, we will look deeper into the ingredients and their direct and indirect negative effects on humans, animals (yes, humans are not the only consumers of Snack Pack Pudding©!), plants, and minerals.

[i] U.S. Energy Information Administration, Weekly U.S. All Grades All Formulations Retail Gasoline Prices retrieved from

[i] ConAgra Foods, “Snack Pack” in ConAgra Foods Brand Book, 24, retrieved from

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Hungry Ghost Economy: Introduction

Billions served.  What difference does one purchase make?  In The Hungry Ghost Economy series, I will explore the answer to this question.

Mindlessness drives a consumer driven economy.  Consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies perpetuate greed, anger, and ignorance.  Our economy is composed of CPG companies holographically arrayed like Indra’s net.  Any single product’s story is contained in the story of all CPG products through similarity or contrast.  Likewise, all products stories are contained in the story of a single product.  So, the Hungry Ghost Economy will invite you to look deeply at the phenomenon of mindless consumption and its effects through the example of Hunt’s Snack Pack Pudding©.

Looking deeply, Snack Pack Pudding© is revealed to be made up entirely of non-Snack Pack Pudding© parts.  We will investigate the whole, the parts, and the causes, conditions, and effects in widening circles of ecological influence on humans, animals, plants, and minerals.

The Hungry Ghost Economy is written as a component of the Spiritual Leadership course in the Master of Divinity program at the University of the West in Rosemead, California.  I invite participants to engage in its material as an exercise in mindfulness meditation/mindful consumption.  I will engage the public in cutting through the illusions of advertising to see things directly.  By providing links, surveys, and information, I hope to create an interactive dialogue with readers.

Everyday billions of people, so-called consumers, each make multiple decisions.  Each decision seems individually insignificant.  Only by understanding the full impact of each individual decision and how these decisions add up to create and perpetuate non-dual suffering in ourselves, others, and our ecologies, can we engage in right individual action that will add up to re-orient our society and its businesses to constructive rather than destructive ends.  In short, the objective of this project is to facilitate Right Understanding leading to Right Action.

What is a “hungry ghost?”  In Buddhism, a hungry ghost (Skt. preta) is a form of being/mode of existence.  According to Buddhism, a being is reborn as a hungry ghost due to the karma of prior existences in which the being was compulsively driven by greed and gluttony.  Hungry ghosts are depicted with mouths too tiny to eat, necks too tiny to swallow, and unusually large stomachs.  So they suffer from insatiable hunger.

About the author.

I am a Master of Divinity student at the University of the West.  I also hold a MBA from the University of Southern California.  I have worked in the consumer packaged goods industry in marketing, operations (i.e. manufacturing), supply chain, and retail.  I have participated in new product development and commercialization.  I will endeavor to leverage my education and experience to offer what I hope will be unique insights and connections.  Likewise, I hope you will join me and help me more fully develop the story through your participation via surveys, questions, comments, concerns and in the purchases you make and don’t make.

I also invite you to participate in our Facebook Like Page:

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Dharma Dialogue Spins Off

Spin off Blogs by Dharma Dialogue contributors.

Spin off Blogs by Dharma Dialogue contributors.

It’s finals week here at University of the West and the contributors of Dharma Dialogue have been busy completing their final projects.  Please look for some of them to be adapted and appear on the blog over winter break.  Classmates are working on papers, infographics, story collecting, and even websites of their own.  In latter case, we have three exciting spin off blogs to announce.  It appears some of our contributors have enjoyed blogging so much, they’re going to attempt to take it up as a habit.  Please check out their wonderful blogs and continue to check back at Dharma Dialogue: Buddhism in the U.S. for ongoing posts.  Although the class is over, the contributors were unanimous in their desire to keep the blog alive.  Look for exciting contributions from other members of the UWest family in the months ahead.

Family Dharma is “Practicing in the midst of life” thanks to Joseph and Sarit Rogers.  Per the site:

Joseph Rogers is a group facilitator, trained under Noah Levine, with Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society.  He is also a Masters of Divinity in Buddhist Chaplaincy candidate at University of the West under the supervision of Reverend Danny Fisher.  He currently teaches meditation to at risk youth, and co-facilitates the weekly young people’s group at ATS Santa Monica.


Sarit is a photographer specializing in fine-art portraiture, creative commercial photography, and  lifestyle photography primarily made up of musicians, yogis and the occasional pinup. …Sarit writes for Visions Teen, covering a wide array of issues surrounding addiction, recovery, mental health, adolescence, and parenting. She also has a blog of her own dedicated to her photography. Some of her most inspired subjects is the integration of mindfulness, breath, yoga, and meditation into family and recovery.

Their blog will seek to explore 1) Buddhism in America as a minority religion, 2) Family in Buddhist practice, 3) Lay practice in American Buddhism, 4) Relationships out of context, and 5) Finding time for formal practice.  Also, read Joseph’s first post on Dharma Dialogue if you haven’t already.

Path of Pleasure is “Using the Jhanas on the Buddha’s path to awakening” with classmate Buddhakaruna.  He describes himself and the blog this way:

I practice the jhanas as taught by Ayya Khema and Leigh Brasington. These are often called the sutta jhanas to distinguish them from the Visuddhimagga jhanas, which may be an entirely different creature from what I practice (a form of cessation?).

I also may discuss my experience as a Master of Divinity student at the University of the West, an accredited Buddhist University in Los Angeles. This degree will allow me to be a professional interfaith chaplain.

My hope is that blog will help those interested in, or currently practicing the jhanas to awaken themselves. There are so few of us relative to the dry-Vipassana practitioners that it is often difficult to connect and share our experiences.

Recent posts discuss self-compassion and fear.  Also check out Buddhakaruna’s earlier discussion of jhanas on Dharma Dialogue.

The Monkey King is “Taming the monkey mind in the Dhukka jungle” from Dancing Yellow Monkey.  This is a collaborative blog and a place for story telling and experience sharing, so please join in the conversation.

Welcome to the digital hub for a new generation of young adult practitioners of the Dharma.

This is a place for young adult Buddhist practitioners and scholars to share their experience as a person of color in the U.S.  Writings about one’s personal practices, relationships, work, parenting, social action, or various topics related to Buddhism in the U.S. are greatly encouraged. I invite you to share your experience.

This is a site for you. Please share your personal essays, poems, screenplays, short stories, art, photography, and video. Let your voice be heard!

Also, please read Dancing Yellow Monkey’s first post about young people of color in American Buddhism on Dharma Dialogue.

Finally, I shall continue to help edit and contribute to the blog along with our fearless leader, Dr. Jane Iwamura, Chair of Religious Studies at University of the West.  You can read more about my adventures at Dharma Cowgirl.  We hope you will keep following Dharma Dialogue, commenting, and contributing to the growing conversation about Buddhism in the U.S.

Post by Monica Sanford.

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Religious Rootlessness

‘Sand Drifting Trees’ by (r)DS via

I’ve been dreading having to write this post since it was first assigned at the start of the semester. Despite efforts to convince myself that it’s just a blog post and there are way scarier things in life, it still felt like an insurmountable task. Why?  Maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with the fact that I’m a Jamaican-born Canadian of Chinese ethnicity, who was raised Catholic and is not currently practicing a religion.  What could I possibly have to say about Buddhism in the U.S?

Furthermore, my interest in studying Buddhism has been mainly to gain an intellectual understanding of the teachings and practices for how to live and to inform my work as a future mental health practitioner.  That, in a nutshell, is what drew me to the University of the West and to this class.  Truth be told, I feel like a bit of an imposter in the company of people who seem to know much more about about this topic, many with direct experience as practicing Buddhists and/or Buddhist scholars.  At times I’ve had to remind myself that I’m here to learn and should expect to feel challenged and even a little intimidated.  What I didn’t expect, was to be thrown into a deeply personal exploration of my own religious/spiritual identity.

It started with a class discussion on Buddhism coming to the West by way of migrant workers from Asia.  The topic of ancestor worship came up and it got me thinking about how little I actually knew of my ancestors.  All I can say for sure is that they were Hakka Chinese and left China to settle in Jamaica over three generations ago, where they opened and ran businesses selling everything from hardware supplies to groceries.  But I knew nothing about how they lived, their customs, religious beliefs or practices.  As I contemplated this, I became aware of a longing to know, connect with, and honor them.  The only problem was, I didn’t know how.

It became clear to me then that the religion I had grown up with was not the same religion that was practiced by my ancestors back in China.  What was that religion?  I wondered.  How was it practiced?  What were their beliefs?  Did they have rituals?

With these and other questions swimming around in my head, I called my parents on the break, hoping they’d be able to shed some light on the big dark void I saw when I thought of our family history.  They weren’t able to say for sure, but believed that my ancestors in China practiced some form of Chinese folk religion.

Then came the next question, which I’m a little ashamed to say I’d never thought to ask before, “How then, did we become Catholic?”   Well as it turns out, when my grandparents were born, in order to get a birth certificate one needed to have a “recognized” religion.  I wasn’t quite sure what to think in that moment but I was saddened by the idea that the transmission of religious traditions over so many generations came to an abrupt end because of a legal requirement.

There were more questions, addressed to my father, “Did they pass on any beliefs or rituals? Do you remember anything of their practices?”  I was desperately hoping he’d say “yes”, willing to settle for whatever fragmented, faded memories he could conjure up.

He had none.

Since that day I’ve called home to Canada at least half a dozen times with even more questions, hoping with increasing desperation to make some kind of spiritual connection to the past and feeling disappointed as I came up empty each time.

An internet search into the history of Chinese people in Jamaica provided some explanation for why many of them abandoned their traditional belief systems and “took up” a form of Christianity.  Many first generation Chinese parents came from poor families and recognized the importance of education as a primary vehicle for a better life for their children.  They also realized that they stood a better chance of success if they were highly acculturated, so they were reluctant to pass on any cultural or religious practices to the next generation.  A conversion of convenience was further necessitated by the desire for children to attend English-speaking schools, the majority of which were Christian-based.

My parents, like their parents, adopted Catholic practices and did their best to pass these onto their children.  We attended mass most Sundays and my brother and I went to Catholic schools.  Sure, there were rituals.  We were baptized and received all of the sacraments one often does when growing up as a Catholic child.  My parents didn’t play a very active part in our religious upbringing and relied heavily on the school system to educate us on and instil religious practices and beliefs.

Thinking back on it now, it seemed like there was something missing.  Perhaps it was the meaning behind the religious practices that my parents were unable to provide.  In fact, I recall when I was a teenager being asked by my mother if I believed in God and Heaven and Hell and all that.  She was looking for answers from me.  Over the years as I’d searched for a religious identity, it seemed so too did my parents.  There was a time when they took a greater interest than I did in the books on Buddhism that I brought home.  Not long ago my mother expressed a desire to learn more about meditation and we visited a Tibetan meditation center together.  My father recently engaged me in a discussion about Buddhist and Christian views on evolution.  I can’t speak for them, but I hypothesize that my inability to feel connected to the religion I was raised with is due in part to spiritual rootlessness and a lack of real meaning.

For most of my life, I’ve felt free to explore and create my own religious and/or spiritual identity.  The journey seems to have brought me full circle and sparked a longing to connect with my Chinese roots.  I don’t know if I‘ll ever be able to make that spiritual connection with my past, which seems to have been lost generations ago.  For now, I continue to remind myself that I am everything that came before me and try to connect with and honor my ancestors through everything I do.

Post by Stephanie

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A Buddhist Family: Redefining the Myth

Photo courtesy of cat gwynn © 2011

If you are browsing for dharma books in the religion section of your favorite bookstore, chances are that most books you pick up will begin with some version of the historical Buddha’s life story.  Usually the story will tell you how prince Siddhartha led a privileged life, protected by his father from the influence of the outside world until he had his three encounters with sickness, old age, and death.  The story continues with the decision of Siddhartha to leave his family to renounce the world until he can find an answer for the problem of suffering.  We are told that for seven years he struggles valiantly until he finally achieves liberation under the Bodhi tree.  Having become the Buddha, he sets the wheel of Dharma in motion, teaching for the rest of his life, and encouraging others to abandon their worldly concerns and enter into homelessness.

There is no doubt that the Buddha was a home wrecker.  Many who joined the Sangha did as the Noble One did with his example: leave their families behind.  The path of going into homelessness caused problems between wives and husbands, between parents and children.  The Buddha’s wife brought his young son before him and told Rahula to ask him for his inheritance.  I’m sure the single mothers of many a deadbeat dad delinquent on their child support can relate to this moment.  The Buddha himself recognized how the problem created suffering in the community and many rules in the Vinaya (the guidelines for Monks and Nuns) reflect his responses to these sticky domestic situations.

In many American import lay sanghas (especially amongst those who practice “Vipassana”), this model of homelessness and renunciation still appears to be the template for practice.  Partly due to the influence of IMS teachers who returned from Southeast Asia with a monastic model that they grafted onto American culture, practitioners often take long retreats, varying from 7 days to 3 months.  These retreats are conducted in noble silence, with no contact with the outside world.  Rates of marriage and childbirth are consistently lower amongst convert Buddhists than compared to the general population.  And although I haven’t seen any statistics on this issue, my own experience with Dharma teachers is that they tend to be single, or divorced.

Clearly there is a benefit to the practices that have been laid down in the Satipatthāna Sutta, the Vinaya, and in the many varied teachings of the Buddha and other teachers since.  I have the greatest respect for those who bravely enter into the Sangha of monks and nuns, and I am grateful for the support and fruits of their practice.  I know the value of retreat from experience.

But the question for me (especially being a married father) is, do we have to be single to practice, do we still have to follow this example of the Bhikkhu Buddha and abandon our families?  Can we as householders find practice beyond merit making and worship, which are the traditional practices of Buddhism for householders in many Asian countries as well as here in the U.S.?

I’m not sure how many of you reading this are in a relationship, but I can tell you that explaining to your spouse/partner that you need to go away for 10 days by yourself when you haven’t been on a honeymoon/vacation yet, and how it’s going to cost $1200 dollars, or however much plus Dana (what is the percentage tip on Dana anyway?), and how you won’t be available for conversation, so essentially any problems that arise will be the burden of your spouse/partner – this isn’t an easy conversation.  I don’t think this model works well for the health of relationships, and I don’t want my Buddhist practice to create more suffering.

I remember having to decline an opportunity to help lead a teen retreat at Spirit Rock over the New Year holiday.  I explained to the woman who invited me that it was the one-year anniversary of proposing to my wife.  Her response seemed appropriate to me, “Of course you can’t come, after all, isn’t that what we are doing all this practice for?”

Perhaps the model that we are following is the wrong one for us married / committed / parental householder types.  Perhaps that story at the beginning of all those dharma books is the wrong one for us.  I think it’s time for the myth to be retold.  Stephen Batchelor’s recent book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, certainly has given us some reasons to take a look at the historical validity of the Buddha myth.

Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan was born into a large, loving family who had the means to support his development.  When his mother died of complications from childbirth, another of his father’s wives stepped in to help raise the boy.  As a member of the ruling warrior class, Siddhartha would have received vigorous training in weapons, hunting, and horseback riding that would have increased his stamina, strength and mental endurance.  His father, after all, did hope for him to become a great leader of men.  He would have also received a quality education.  To be a ruler requires the ability to administer, to read, and to think critically.  The qualities that allowed him to become, “the enlightened one,” physical endurance, mental clarity, and tenacity existed because of his upbringing.  Far from being a lone bull elephant, Siddhartha’s achievements were due to the support and connection to his family.  Even his entering into homelessness was due to the support of his family, or do you believe that the Noble One would have left his wife and infant son in poverty, alone and without protection?

Upon his awakening, the Buddha chose to return to the world, not to remain in the forest, not to slip into final nibbana.  In fact, he returned to his family.  The Buddha returned to the role of father, ordaining and teaching his son.  He also ordained his mother, who is the mythic/historic founder of the nuns sangha, and his wife.  Many of his clan entered into the Sangha, the men of the Sakya clan, and many of their abandoned wives who had nowhere else to turn for support did likewise.

It is doubtful that he would have found as many followers without his clan’s support network.  He wasn’t the only Śramana heterodox teacher on the scene after all.  Because of his connections and good table manners, he was able to teach to Kings, and the wealthy merchants who offered protection and large tracts of lands to the fledgling teacher.  These gifts of support were the Oprah Book Club of their day and because he was allowed the means to teach, we have today heard the Dharma of the historical Buddha.  However, had the Buddha ever truly abandoned his family, or had he been without family, I have doubts that “Buddhism” would even exist.

There is power in myth.  Storytelling teaches us on a level that is cellular, if not genetic.  So while I don’t always know how my practice as an American, married householder will continue to develop, I do know the power of a good tale.  Our mythology contains our view of the world, informs our intentions, and of course guides our actions.  If we are to find an “American” Buddhism, we may struggle when attempting to graft the mythology of another culture and time upon our own.  Perhaps it is time to embrace a different version of the story if we are to find our own way in the dharma of American family life.

Post by: Joseph Rogers.

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Forever Young, Forever Invisible, Part II: Night-Light Buddhists

“Night Light” by sighmon via

In my last post, I argued that scholars have addressed the topic of children and Buddhism in America through three different but mutually reinforcing narratives. I also argued that not only are these narratives all problematic, but they support a dangerous and oppressive hegemonic understanding of Buddhism in America that marginalizes all but convert Buddhists. Once the politics of these notions has been revealed, positive steps forward become necessary. How might we make the invisible visible? Or to put it a more straightforward way, what is it like to grow up Buddhist in America?

One way of summing up my previous post is the following: it all comes down to lineages. In order to maintain this power dynamic, the lineage must remain pristine; American Buddhist converts must have a direct connection to the Asian source (albeit, as is often the reality, this can be done by just claiming “I read a book”). This connection is generally built on a relationship with  the prototypical “oriental monk” figure. (In her text Virtual Orientalism, Jane Iwamura further expands upon this relationship as well as deconstructs it.)

Focusing on Buddhist children or second/third generation Buddhists on their own terms would muddy this chain of authority. This focus would show how Buddhist lineages often (and usually) follow alternate models of the passage of Buddhist traditions—namely from parents to children, rather than from monk to pupil. As the representations of these lineages multiplied, the hegemonic structure would collapse because it is predicated on maintaining the “novelty”, universality and purity of the Asian monk-convert relationship. As is so often true, children get in the way.

At this juncture, one might object, “But perhaps scholars continue to raise the same points exactly because a second generation of Buddhists continues to fail to appear.” The problem with this objection is that they do exist, and in numbers. This is unsurprising because Americans have converted to Buddhism for over a century. Of course, most of these converts had children. Just because we have failed to discuss them does not mean they do not exist (and have not existed).

Nor can one object to this reality by merely mentioning the fact (that I do not dispute) that many American convert Buddhists have had ambivalent feelings about “religion,” often connected with many of the converts’ roots in the countercultural movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Certainly, many of these parents tried to keep from “indoctrinating” their children in a religion as they felt their parents had done. The intentions were there. But were the results?  Perhaps these parents did not take their children to a temple or monastic center. Perhaps they succeeded in keeping their children from formally learning Buddhist doctrines, or even meeting other Buddhists. Yet these same children learned about the world from their Buddhist parents, and if that identity marker means anything (as it certainly has to these parents), then there can be no doubt that Buddhism has impacted these children’s identities in crucial ways. Even just observing a parent meditating a few times a week, when the child knows that their friends do not meditate, will undoubtedly shape how the child lives within and sees the world. Does it really make sense to say that the norms and worldviews these children learn (with adaptation, of course) from their parents somehow are less Buddhist than their source material? Are we really prepared to say that these children and many second generation adults are less Buddhist than their parents, or that Buddhism has not affected these children in ways that should be examined?

In my mind, scholars have been incredibly generous (and rightly so, given the complicated features of religious identity) with examining the nuances and differences within the convert Buddhist community, broadly construed. For instance, in his essay from Westward Dharma entitled “Who is a Buddhist?” Thomas A. Tweed popularized the phrase “Night-Stand Buddhists” to describe the people that “sympathize” with Buddhism: perhaps by meditating, decorating the house with specific kinds of art, or reading popular books on Buddhism—hence the moniker. These individuals may never formally convert and might not even describe themselves as Buddhist. Regardless, with some important exceptions, they still generally follow the outline of the structure of hegemonic American Buddhism above:

  • they are racialized as white
  • they are presented as individuals in a vacuum (apart from a community or family)
  •  they are represented as being partly in control of the destiny of American Buddhism (in fact, the reluctance to convert, I suspect, might be an attempt to prevent the relationship from being reversed, i.e. allowing “Buddhism” to dominate their fate)
  • most importantly they still maintain a pure, uninterrupted lineage (mostly through the various forms of media they consume).

If we are to challenge the dominant “convert” paradigm of Buddhism in America, I think we can learn from Tweed’s approach. In order to render the invisible visible, we should uncover the nuances, complex aspects and differences within a previously homogenized and marginalized group—in this case, “cradle Buddhists,” as some scholars have called individuals born into Buddhist families. What are all the different ways we might examine what it has been like to grow up Buddhist within different contexts?

I cannot hope to respond to that question fully here (Sumi Loundon has edited two wonderful volumes—Blue Jean Buddha and The Buddha’s Apprentices—that give other glimpses of possible responses to this question) But allow me to give one brief answer to show what I have in mind. I ask you to consider: what would it like to be a child of a “Night-Stand Buddhist?” This group of children I playfully call “Night-Light Buddhists.” While their relationship to Buddhism might not help them to read any Buddhist texts (at least at first), because of the influence of their parents, it will certainly help them to see in the world and orient themselves within that space. Their parents, knowingly and unknowingly, will inculcate a kind of Buddhist ethics, Buddhist narratives, and Buddhist awareness in these children.

However, these children will also often be aware of the ambivalence of their parents toward Buddhism and religion in general. The child might ask (although perhaps not explicitly) “why don’t you say that you are Buddhist?” and the probable follow-up question “am I Buddhist?” Of course, this ambivalence is not determinative; the child might react in different ways (i.e. come to explicitly identify with Buddhism, reject it, etc.). This ambivalence shapes the context—the home—the child lives within. Unlike their parents, these children will often confront a more brutal face of religious oppression than their parents ever have or will, thanks to their attendance in schools. Schools—through peers, teachers, parents, and the structures of education itself—are generally the most potent sites of religious oppression (via the double-headed hegemonic hydra of secularism and Christianity). This too will not remove their agency—they have and will react in different ways—but it will remain part of the air they breathe, exacerbated by the ambivalence they have interiorized. In moments of religious hegemony and oppression, they might be unsure: are they Buddhist? Are they nothing? Should they join in prayer?

But do not misunderstand me, this is not solely a tragic tale, a simple story of movement from the Buddhist cradle to the grave. These children will have unique perspectives shaped by the interaction between the Buddhism their parents raise them with and experiences outside of the “home.” In other words, they are not reducible to their parents, and yet are indebted to their parents for their Buddhism. A new and different lineage. They see the world in a new light; a light with important continuities and differences from the other American Buddhist lanterns (to carry the metaphor). The point is that our understanding of Buddhism in America is enriched when we see and recognize all of this diversity. To further understand what is “Buddhist” about “Night-Light Buddhists” would take more scholarly work. But that is precisely the point, that we should devote ourselves to that kind of work.

After all of this reflection, perhaps the phrase “Night-Light Buddhist” is a misnomer. Consider this: it is the hegemonic structure of “American Buddhism” that is under siege from every side. Even its attempts to reinforce itself culturally and through scholarship actually reveal its own precarious position in its attempts to keep otherness and the “invisible” at bay. All of us, but especially Buddhist converts, must consider—why are we afraid to think of American Buddhism apart from the Oriental monk-white convert relationship? Let me be clear: as is generally true of any hegemonic structure, this is not a simple us vs. them, “converts” vs. everyone else dynamic. My goal is not to demonize the religious lives of Buddhist converts, but rather only to relativize them. And to further complicate the relationship, let me say this: as a child of one of those converts, I write in their lineage, and I draw some of my own authority as a Buddhist from that lineage. I learned from my father (a counterculture convert Buddhist) the value of rebellion in the name of justice and truth. I cherish that relationship; my Buddhism is inseparable from that relationship. That is my “Night-Light Buddhism.” And it is in that spirit that I ask the following question—let’s even call it a koan: who is actually afraid of the dark?

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Forever Young, Forever Invisible, Part I: The Forces of Conversion

Cunarimbau, source: Wikimedia Commons

Hundreds of thousands of children have gone missing. They never made it out of the cradle.

Or so one might come to think if one browsed the corpus of literature on Buddhism in the United States. With a few exceptions, if one looks for discussions of Buddhist children (or families) in these texts, one will generally search in vain. In fact, even more striking are the three exceptions to this rule. Examining these exceptions helps us to uncover three narratives that together serve as an important part of the foundation of contemporary understandings of Buddhism in America.

These narratives are:

  1. Scholars have written about Buddhist family dynamics within Asian immigrant and Asian-American communities; these references are generally confined to discussions of ‘intergenerational’ strife related to younger generations within these communities seeking to ‘Americanize.’ As the story is often told, these youth either leave their Buddhism behind as something un-American, or they transform their Buddhism into something more ‘appropriate’ to Western tastes.
  2. The more pessimistic scholars make claims about the children of the so-called Buddhist “converts,” but only about their absence in order to predict a precarious future for Buddhism in America. This refrain goes something like this: “if Buddhist converts continue not to raise their children as Buddhists (or those children leave Buddhism as they become adults), Buddhism will certainly decline and/or die in America.” In other words: not only are there no Buddhist children of these converts, but if Buddhism does manage to survive, it will be because these children suddenly appear.
  3. The more optimistic scholars acknowledge that Buddhist children within the “convert” population actually do exist; we must simply wait until these children grow up to be adults to see how they will impact Buddhism. As Thomas A. Tweed puts it, “25 years” should be enough.

These narratives are not exactly grounded in fact. To recognize this, one only has to look at scholarship on Buddhism in America from different periods. The appearance of these same arguments over the course of nearly four decades should be enough to raise eyebrows. After all, tell me once to wait 25 years, fair enough; tell me dozens of times over the course of forty years to wait 25 years and I’ll begin to get suspicious—a period eternally delayed. This audacious fact is even true of multiple editions of the same textbook (for instance, Richard Hughes Seager asks for a waiting pattern in both his 1999 and 2012 editions of his book Buddhism in America)! At first, the statement “Buddhism in America will perish unless more ‘American’ children are raised Buddhist” sounds like an empirical claim that can be shown to be true or false with time. However, if those kinds of claims were being made forty years ago, and Buddhism in America still lives on (and is growing!) today, I should probably realize there is something sneaky going on when I continue to be told the same line.

The first point is just as problematic. While the various Buddhisms of Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans undoubtedly change with time, this is just as true for the particular religious and other cultural formations of other Americans. Indeed, to change is to be human. However, to imply that immigrants are more subject to the winds of change and external pressures than white converts (who are often represented as living forever in a static 1960s “golden age”) or those converts’ children (who are often represented as being perpetually children that never seem to grow up) would be extremely misleading. Further, who is to say that the later generations are any more or less able to resist or address the forces of “Americanization” than their parents and ancestors? Or that there is even a singular American norm not wrought with contradictions that we are all approaching?

Truth be told, these narratives have little to nothing to do with the reality (whatever that is) of Buddhism in America, and everything to do with the power-laden representations that dominate the “American” hegemonic understanding of Buddhism in the United States. These representations are absolutely normative. While they are presented as facts, they are designed to shape (or create if necessary) a “Buddhism” as it should be (as preferred by some), a “Buddhism” that reinforces the power of particular groups and individuals.

Nor are these norms confined to scholars. A close examination (as others have done) of the popular representations of Buddhism follows similar lines. This is unsurprising. Counter to the rhetoric of the ivory tower, i.e., that scholars are removed from the “real” world (whether this is seen as positive or negative), scholars are first and foremost embodied people in specific cultural contexts. If there even is a line between popular representations and scholarly representations of particular phenomena, it is a fine line indeed. As such, opposing these structures entails countering the parallel dimensions in both popular and scholarly cultures. In other words, we must stop thinking of Buddhism in America in every sphere of life through only one key.

Since hegemonic structures support themselves with illusions and fictions (in fact, their logic is predicated on using sleight-of-hand in addition to a closed fist to make lies appear to be true), it is not always easy to discern their inner workings. Normally, one might ask “who benefits from these structures?” In this case, a close examination of the common themes within the points above provides a unique glimpse of the foundation of this particular hegemonic structure, a dominating and dominant representation we might term “American Buddhism.”

Consider the first narrative. Asian immigrant and Asian-American Buddhists are both caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, to the extent that the younger generations within these groups “Americanize,” either by altering their Buddhism to resemble the Buddhism of American converts or by dropping their Buddhism all together, these groups are seen as losing their “exotic difference” and can thus be ignored as a distinct topic of study (beyond their process of “Americanization”). On the other hand, to the extent that these groups resist ”Americanization,” they remain broadly outside of the “American” bubble and can be ignored since they are therefore not thought to be American Buddhists (yet… since the forces of “Americanization” are always presented as inevitable).

The second and third narratives make sure that the children of Buddhist converts remain invisible, since both share a common assumption that these children do not yet exist,at least in any important sense as “adults.” (As an aside, I might add that all of these narratives rest upon the problematic and generally unsupported but surprisingly common presupposition that only the religion of adults is worth scholarly study.) So what groups are left? What people find representation under this model?

Only the convert community (tellingly racialized as “white,” and mostly localized within, although not coextensive with, the countercultural generation) remains. Within this picture, while Asia is the “mystical” source of Buddhism, the converts themselves are the sole shapers of the destiny of Buddhism in the West; the future of Buddhism in America is in their hands. While some of their authority comes from an Orientalist representation of a pristine Buddhist Asia and the mysterious Asian monks who teach the converts (who necessarily cannot become American for this mechanism to function), the power to determine the nature of Buddhism itself lies precisely with the converts. In this case, conversion does not simply symbolize a change of heart, a transference from one tradition to another; it represents a locus of power. To convert means to be at the center of the new and exciting Buddhism—Buddhism in America. Buddhism itself is being converted.

Check back later for Part II of this series.

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