Tag Archives: American Buddhism

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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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”

“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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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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Sensitivity, Samvega, Buddhism and Alcoholism

Roger Ebert, american film critic.

Roger Ebert, american film critic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Clinical research shows Buddhist mindfulness t...

Clinical research shows Buddhist mindfulness techniques can help alleviate anxiety , stress , and depression (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m taking a course at University of the West called “Buddhism and Addiction Recovery.”  The class is taught by Tom Moritz.  Great class (my teachers and fellow students at UWest are absolutely wonderful) and I’m learning a great deal about Western Buddhist approaches to alcohol and addiction recovery.  Present practice mostly consists of using the mindfulness practices made famous by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn to break addictive and counterproductive patterns of behavior.   This mindfulness practice has its basis in a modern Theravada Buddhist practice called vipassanā.[1]

Tom has frequently brought up how often alcoholism is found in creative people.  In popular culture this link has long been made, but now science seems to agree.[2]  Recently we lost the wonderful Roger Ebert to cancer.  Ebert was a well-known and extremely influential film critic.  What is less well known is Ebert struggled with alcoholism, finally, in desperation, turning to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in his thirties.[3]

Why this link between alcoholism and creativity?  I’m not sure science really knows.  Two theories have long been put forward to explain the link; first, drinking alcohol helps the creative process.  Second, alcohol is a form of self-medication for some underlying pain that tends to associate itself with creativity.   For example, depression has long been linked to both alcoholism and creativity.  Recently creativity and high environmental sensitivity[4]  have also been found together.  For some alcoholics, high environmental sensitivity may also be a form of pain:

[A]lcoholics are more sensitive. This sensitivity relates especially to nuances of interpersonal relationships. Alcoholics have a “low rejection threshold.” They feel more apart or left out. Incidentally, a drink or two “works wonderfully” to deal with this feeling. Yet, it is known that sensitive people are often especially creative. Alcoholism seems to selectively strike gifted people. Most American Nobel Prize winners in literature suffered from alcoholism.  – Betty Ford Center website[5]

The sensitivity of the alcoholic and how this sensitivity can be used in Buddhist practice as part of the recovery process will be the focus of this blog entry.

Alcohol numbs.  And for people overwhelmed by their sensitivity to the world, alcohol can initially appear as a great release.  The reality, of course, is that alcohol and other numbing drugs are a terrible trap.  Many of the steps in the twelve-steps of AA can be thought of as a de-numbing process, bringing the alcoholic back into contact with the world and giving the alcoholic the emotional support and skills necessary to touch the world “raw.”  For AA, spirituality is a key part of the de-numbing process.

Buddhism can also be thought of as a de-numbing process.  In basic Western Buddhist practice de-numbing is achieved through present moment mindfulness.  Present moment mindfulness breaks the practitioner out of the shell of numbness they have built around themselves.  One of the key purposes of this shell is to protect the practitioner from the emotion of samvega which I will discuss later in the article.

In my style of Buddhism[6] de-numbing can be taken to extraordinary levels.  Buddhism[7] is about taking the practitioner’s innate sensitivity and making this sensitivity so trained, so powerful –via the practice of jhāna– that even the most refined, pleasurable conditioned states of human experience (the highest states of jhāna) are seen to be stressful.  This realization allows the practitioner to let go of the conditioned world as seen through and experienced by the human brain (as represented by the five khandhas), thus allowing an experience of Nibbāna, and finally a mind that feeds upon Nibbāna; unborn, unconditioned, undying.

The sensitivity of the person bewildered by the pain in the world, who sometimes is a person susceptible to alcohol, causes emotions to arise.  The Pali term for this complex association of emotion is samvega[8].  Samvega is said to be the emotion the Buddha felt when he first saw the effects of aging, death and illness.  Samvega, as Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu translates it, is a complex mixture of shock, fear, and urgency. Fear that there is no way out of the suffering.  Shock that life, as normally lived, is so hard and meaningless.  Finally an anxious urgency arises causing an effort to discover a way out of this terrible suffering.  Samvega is considered the emotion leading the sensitive person onto the path.  On the path, the sensitive person converts samvega to the joy of pasada, the emotion arising in the heart when a path leading out of suffering and stress is seen.

Why is samvega so important to the sensitive alcoholic, even one not interested in Buddhism?  The experience of samvega is normal for a sensitive human being and is not something that needs to be avoided[9].  Sadly, most people drown the emotion of samvega when it arises in their heart.  Some drown it with distraction.  Some drown it with forms of German Romanticism.  Some drown it with alcohol and end up drowning themselves.  One of the greatest and most destructive delusions is that ageing, death and illness can be dealt with by numbness.  Understanding the normalcy of samvega gives it a constructive place in our lives.  We no longer need to numb this wise emotion.  In addition, for those interested in Buddhism, Buddhism is a powerful path to transform samvega into joy.

Just as important to the sensitive alcoholic is the high esteem Buddhism gives to those of great natural sensitivity.  Without sensitivity samvega does not arise.  Without sensitivity the path is not taken.  Without sensitivity wisdom does not arise, ignorance is not left behind.  Sensitivity is a blessing, not a weakness[10].

Breaking bad behavior patterns is critical when an alcoholic is struggling to live skillfully.   The secularity of mindfulness allows it to reach those not interested in Buddhism.   But for the alcoholic interested in the path Buddhist practice has much more to offer.  At the beginning of recovery, when the human brain has not yet healed from the damage of heavy drinking, fear and confusion are overwhelming.  Buddhist devotional practices can help the alcoholic deal with these powerful emotions.  As the alcoholic’s brain begins to recover, mindfulness practices can help.  Metta meditation can help the alcoholic begin to forgive themselves and construct a complete moral inventory.  The five precepts give gentle, constructive, guidance on how the recovering alcoholic should behave.  The Buddha’s teaching of non-harming give the alcoholic direction on how to act in each moment.

Further in the recovery process, when the brain has more completely healed and more skillful patterns of behavior have been established (through AA or other organizations), the alcoholic can use their sensitivity to deeply understand the world using Buddhist teachings and use jhāna and other more advanced forms of Buddhist meditation.  Through the act of helping other alcoholics, and through overcoming ignorance via the practices of Buddhism, the recovering alcoholic can transform their experience in hell into deep compassion and joy.

I would enjoy hearing your thoughts?  Is sensitivity and alcoholism linked, or is the concept of a sensitive alcoholic just a cop out?  Have I missed some aspect of Buddhism that would be useful to an alcoholic?  Do you have specific practices that would be of use to an alcoholic?  If your understanding and practice of Buddhism is different than mine, does this difference have advantages for an alcoholic?  I’d love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to use the comment feature of this blog to respond.  May all beings be free from suffering!   May you be happy and safe!


1. Though vipassanā is often claimed to be ancient practice, vipassanā, at least as we know it, is a modern invention that arose in Burma as a response to Western Colonialism.  Vipassanā was created as a “scientific” meditation practice in order to keep Buddhism relevant in the scientific world forced upon the Burmese by Christian missionaries and the colonial government.  In the Pali Canon, the term vipassanā is rarely found and when it is found it is often linked to samatha, perhaps a form of concentration practice.  This compares to the prevalence of the type of meditation called jhāna (which is likely not what the Pali Canon calls samatha and is absolutely NOT the same as the so called vipassanājhāna”).  References to jhāna are found throughout the Pali Canon.  As Polak says, “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.” If you wish to read more on this subject, I suggest reading “Race and Religion in American Buddhism:  White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaption,” by Joseph Cheah. He has two chapters on the origins of vipassanā and how it has moved to the U.S. , “Strong Roots” (http://www.bcbsdharma.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/StrongRoots.pdf) and “Reexamining Jhāna, Towards a Critical Reconstruction of Early Buddhist Soteriology”, by Grzegorz Polak.

2. For example, “Verbal creativity, depression and alcoholism: An investigation of one hundred American and British writers,” in the British Journal of Psychiatry (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8733792).

4. For example, see “Higher sensory processing sensitivity, introversion and ectomorphism”, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3409988/

6. And other forms of Buddhism, also.

7. Again, I am speaking about the form of Buddhism I practice.  Buddhism is too rich for this to be the only path of practice.

8. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu has this to say about samvega:  “Samvega was what the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first exposure to aging, illness, and death. It’s a hard word to translate because it covers such a complex range — at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle. This is a cluster of feelings we’ve all experienced at one time or another in the process of growing up, but I don’t know of a single English term that adequately covers all three. It would be useful to have such a term, and maybe that’s reason enough for simply adopting the word samvega into our language.”  http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/affirming.html

9. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu:  “As the early Buddhist teachings freely admit, the predicament is that the cycle of birth, aging, and death is meaningless. They don’t try to deny this fact and so don’t ask us to be dishonest with ourselves or to close our eyes to reality. As one teacher has put it, the Buddhist recognition of the reality of suffering — so important that suffering is honored as the first noble truth — is a gift, in that it confirms our most sensitive and direct experience of things, an experience that many other traditions try to deny.”  http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/affirming.html
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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.

And

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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Another ‘Lonely’ White Chick With a (Buddhist) Blog

“Lord Buddha on TV in front of two monitors,” by Wonderlane via Flickr.com

Buddhism in the 20th and 21st Centuries has taken on a new medium, perhaps its first new medium since the introduction of television a century ago. That new medium is the internet, a connective web born from a U.S. Department of Defense research initiative in the 1960’s.  So one could say that digital Buddhism is, in a way, American Buddhism.

Of course, the internet is now no more American than the printing press is Chinese. Scott Mitchell, in his MA thesis for GTU, argues that the internet, by it’s nature, is a tool for 1) democratization and anti-authoritarianism and 2) commercialism and the growth of passion/greed, both of which are, in a sense, “anti-Buddhist.” A very interesting theory. Regardless, one could also argue it is a global tool which reflects the character of its users to at least some degree. It is that subject I wish to explore.

In that sense, although the internet is no longer uniquely American, it is rather dominated by the English language, which accounts for 57% of all websites.  What’s really interesting, though, is that English speaking users only account for 27% of the people on the internet.  The next largest user group is Chinese, at 24%, but only 5% of the internet is written (or spoken) in Chinese, according to W3Techs (W3 is the international consortium that standardizes web programming language, so they’re pretty reliable).  In fact, according to Internet World Stats, Asia accounts for 45% of all internet users, while North America comes in at a piddly 12%.

Given the language dominance, it’s no surprise then that we see a dominance of English-language Buddhist blogs.  In fact, when you translate the phrase “Buddhist blogs” into Asian languages (using Google Translate) and do a web search with the translation, the number search results in Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Hindi, and Tamil combined don’t even amount to half of the 79.6 million search results for the English-language phrase. (This is a highly unscientific study, which would get you a solid “F” in any academic paper, but I still think it’s interesting.)

The other factor which may be contributing to this market dominance is what we might call “market penetration.”  Internet use among North Americans was 79% in 2011, according to Internet World Stats.  So more than three out of four people you know (if you’re North American) are on the internet.  It is similarly high in Australia/Oceania at 66% and at 61% among Europeans.  In contrast, Asia is much closer to the world average (33%), with just 26% of all Asians having internet access.

So what does it mean for the character of “digital Buddhism” when the vast majority of practicing Buddhists aren’t contributing?

Every technological revolution in history has spread unevenly, with the most affluent societies leading the way – from the mastery of fire to the fires of industry – from the transportation revolution of the 20th Century to the telecommunications revolution of the 21st Century.  This uneven spread of technological revolution has a nasty history of cultural hegemony (word of the day!) and even outright war, colonialism, and enslavement.

But we’re Buddhists, so we should be better than that, right?

Well, the Angry Asian Buddhist doesn’t think so.  He points out in his blog that

…it’s common parlance among English speaking American Buddhists to use the term American Buddhist or Western Buddhist to refer to White people—or at the very least at the exclusion of American Buddhists of Asian heritage. I can certainly concede that the prototypical “American” in the media is a White American—but I hold the American Buddhist community to a higher standard. Especially since most American Buddhists are not White.

The rhetoric which has led to the normalization of the “American Buddhist” as a white convert has also led to the exclusion of Asian American Buddhist voices from the table, according to AAB.

They are angry when they hear people write about the history of Buddhism in America without reference to the hundreds of thousands of Buddhist Asian Americans who have been and who continue to be the greatest part of American Buddhism. Who will speak out for them when they’re ignored? Who will stand up to let them know they’re not alone?

That’s why I’m the Angry Asian Buddhist.

Does he have a point?  I think so.

A quick Google search of “Buddhist blog” will show what I mean in the top 10 search results.  Three are themselves lists of the “best Buddhist blogs,” but those which are personal blogs have a distinct flavor.  Only one is operated by a person(s) of Asian decent, while the other six are quite obviously white folks (four guys and two gals).  Results 11 through 20 are little better, a few personal blogs, a few group blogs (still dominated by white folks), and one Asian person’s blog. (Please note: This evidence is cursory and far from conclusive.  However, if that’s what I find in a cursory search, it’s what others will find in a cursory search. Consciously or unconsciously they may draw certain conclusions from the results.)

Does it matter?  Or am I just race-baiting here?

This is where it gets personal.  I have a blog dedicated to Buddhism.  And what am I? A white chick.  So am I contributing to the white digital Buddhism dominance?  Maybe.  That’s not why I started blogging, but you could say the two are related.

I started blogging as a way to reach out to other Buddhists.  As a white chick living in a very white part of the country, surrounded by Christians and hemmed in by cultural homogeneity, there simply weren’t very many other Buddhists for me to talk to.  Those I found were often as lost and clueless as I was, relying on books and the occasional retreat at a distant meditation center to try to build a sangha-less practice.  So I used the internet to reach out.  And I found that there were a lot of other lone Buddhists who were also reaching out – and most of them were like me.  Go figure.

In fact, there is actually research to show my anecdotal experience is not even remotely unique.  A study by Ostrowski in 2006 (in Contemporary Buddhism, volume 7) found that a third (33%) of people looking for Buddhism on the internet did so because they didn’t have the ability to become involved with teachers or sanghas in real life.  A further fifth (20%) turned to the internet simple because it’s convenient.  (Nor is this phenomenon unique to the United States.  Kim found similar behavior in 2005 among urban Koreans due to the fact that most Buddhist temples in Korea are located in rural areas.  However, Korea may be a unique case in Asia.)  Ostrowski found that people using the internet to learn about Buddhism were overwhelmingly white (72%) and over half (53%) had been raised as Christians. Yet despite their obvious interest, three-quarters (74%) were not members of a Buddhist center – just like me.

So why is that?  Is geography really so powerful?  What about white converts who live in big cities with lots of temples?

Even in large cities, where Buddhists can gather and build temples and centers, those of us who are converts  to Buddhism tend to continue living in our culture of origin.  So while we may be able to build a sangha, that sangha is spread out and geographically diluted.  Rarely are our sangha-mates also our physical neighbors, let alone family.  And we tend to build sanghas with those who have similar experiences to ourselves, people with whom we can relate.  This may explain not just some of the unfortunate racial segregation in American Buddhist sanghas, but some of the socioeconomic segregation as well.  It’s no wonder Buddhists of color, Buddhist women, and LGBTQ Buddhist retreats have become so popular.  Everyone wants that experience of mutual empathy only a shared background can bring.

In many ways, I think the Asian American sanghas have an advantage.  I live in a mixed Latino/Asian immigrant neighborhood.  The Vietnamese Buddhist temple three blocks from my house is supported and patronized by the Vietnamese families who live in my neighborhood.  In contrast, my fellow convert Buddhists frequently drive long distances to their centers.  The Chinese temple I sometimes visit on Sundays is patronized by the Chinese families who live in its surrounding neighborhood and practice Tai Chi and Qi Gong and tennis in the park next door.  When I see them, I always think how nice it must be to have fellow Buddhists all around you like that.  Perhaps if I had that feeling, I wouldn’t see the need to reach out to other lonely Buddhists on the internet. (Perhaps not.  I’m kinda a geek.)

Now, you might ask, “Why don’t you go to the Vietnamese temple? Or make friends with the people at the Chinese temple?”  It’s a fair question.  After two and a half years of living in such proximity to so many wonderful Buddhist resources, the more I learn about Asian culture, the more I come to appreciate how truly different they are from my own.

I’m becoming more and more aware that Asian American Buddhists look to their temples and sanghas differently than I do.  I come loaded with Protestant presuppositions about the role religion should play in one’s life, presuppositions which look very different from how Asian and Asian American Buddhists actually engage with Buddhism. (At least, according to Wendy Cadge and Carolyn Chen, as well as my own ignorant observations.)   When I left the United Methodist Church at the age of 15, I created a gap in my pscho-social life that I’ve been trying to fill, consciously or unconsciously, ever since.  So trying to engage with an Asian American sangha on my terms is unlikely to leave me feeling fulfilled.

I also worry that the presence of an outsider like me would not be entirely welcome.  That may just be my projection, but it creates a strong anxiety.  Finally, I don’t speak the language and that’s a huge barrier.  I appreciate different cultures, but I’m too intimidated to try to scale that wall just yet.  At least, not while I still have the internet.

In fact, the very notion that I could fill in the gaps in my relationships and connections by reaching out online may be a product of my upbringing. I have noticed a curious reluctance in my Asian classmates and coworkers to do business and communicate via the internet that may speak to deeper cultural biases, my own as much as theirs.  It may well be that white, middle-class Americans are simply more comfortable with the internet.  Just like my Asian friends are more comfortable with chopsticks.  (Stereotypical, I know.  Please forgive me and remember I looked stupid trying to use chopsticks for a very long time.)

In conclusion, my personal experience (backed by a modicum of research) leads me to believe that Asian and Asian-American Buddhist voices on the internet are not being intentionally excluded or ignored at any systematic level (although certain projects or sites may be in need of scrutiny).  The internet is rather brilliant in that it has a very low barrier to entry (Scott’s criticized democratization).  Literally anyone can get a blog (myself, case in point) with even the most limited of resources.  Of course, not being ignored is a far cry from being heard and an even greater distance from being heeded.

However, my experience attending an ecumenical Buddhist-founded school, where I am exposed to a plethora of Asian, Asian-American, and “American” (white, black, brown, and rainbow) Buddhist voices also leads me to conclude that “digital Buddhism” is not an accurate representation of Buddhism.  It’s skewed and biased, lacking broader perspectives and concerns which are valid and valuable.  With such a large demographic chunk of Buddhists under-represented, it must be.  I want to see more Buddhist bloggers of all backgrounds sharing their experience and teachings in the medium to which I typically go to find those teachings.  And I honestly think we’ll get there, but it’s going to take effort.  That’s why I’m so delighted that this blog will feature the voices of my fellow students, who are most assuredly not all white chicks like me.

Post by Monica Sanford

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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 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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