Tag Archives: United States

THE FIFTH PRECEPT PROJECT Reducing Substance Abuse in Thailand…

Thailand

Thailand (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

THE FIFTH PRECEPT PROJECT

Reducing Substance Abuse in Thailand

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

GRATITUDE TO FORGOTTEN VETERANS

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

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

GRATITUDE TO FORGOTTEN VETERANS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Reframing Transformation by Anny Shi

Skid Row, Los Angeles

Skid Row, Los Angeles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To me, as an Asian I don’t quite understand American culture. This is the first time I visit LA’s Skid Row and observed homelessness from a different point of view, and it was an eye opening experience. When I visited Skid Row and the fifty square blocks of downtown, I felt like I was dropped into an illusion, some place between the heaven and hell. Mostly, because only one block away, there are modern and luxurious buildings and apartments, then from where I was standing “the other side of the tracks” ironically there was extreme poverty and homelessness. According to Institute for the Study of Homeless and Poverty, there are about 254,000 people are homeless at LA County each year. It’s quite a large number.

First, I smelled the air heavy with a stinky odor; this even though I don’t have a good sense of smell. I saw piles of personal belongings covered with plastic and people sitting on the sidewalk. Most of the homeless I saw were males between 25 to 50 years old approximately. I was afraid to look at these homeless people directly, because I don’t know how they would react to my presence. Then I heard one of the homeless men greet us and I realized they are people just like us. I tried to find out who the man was, and I found he had a natural, easy smile and not the wretched frown I had imagined someone in his situation to have. My previous concept of homeless, as ragged and wrinkled faces showing signs of misery, despair, and hopelessness was wrong; I was surprised to see the resilience of their human spirit as they made the best of their situation. Especially, since in Taiwan most of the homeless I’ve seen show their misery and pain more obviously.

Later, as more and more of the men greeted us I began to feel more at ease and hopeful for something positive possible in their lives. I began to have more confidence looking at them and interacted with them more naturally. In a short time, I changed my prejudice of these homeless human beings. After some more detailed research of the homeless, there is usually not just one reason, for their situation, there are many other causes, including drugs, bankruptcy, violence, abuse, mental problems and unemployment. Consequently, I became more curious about how difficult it is for them to change their situation and end their homelessness?  Why do they take drugs, it is for money or is it about escaping from the real world? Is drug abuse psychological or physiological addiction? What is the benefit for them? If I were homelessness, what would I do?

This world can be warm with humanity and compassion. There are many Non-Profit Organizations and other agencies like The Midnight Mission and volunteers who offer support by means of food, job training and other educational opportunities.

I think that’s our social safety nets are reason these homeless people will not feel such deep sorrow for having nothing or no one to depend on. However, how many people can get educated or receive vocational training opportunities to help them get out of extreme poverty or social exclusion? But only if they are willing to take these opportunities to improve their standard of life can they have a chance to get out of homelessness. However, just as the book Cross Cultural Awareness and Social Justice in Counseling, categorized different cultures and people has having different characteristics, I cannot judge them only from my own perspective or my country’s culture. I need to respect all people even though they are now at the bottom of the socio-economic status. On the hand, I should more aggressively seek opportunities to be a volunteer and serve people who need my compassion and understanding; it’s a kind of dharma practice. Consequently, I will be taking some action steps in the immediate future. Mostly I will work with organizations that have the experience to help such people in effective ways that will have the greatest impact to change lives. I often feel that giving money to homeless people on the street directly only passes the buck, as it were, and only facilitates their drug and alcohol abuse. Instead by volunteering with professional organizations, I ensure that my efforts are making a real difference in their lives.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What Do You Know?

Gini since WWII

Gini since WWII (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, over 5000 Americans were asked about income inequality in the U.S.  Amazingly, wealth inequality in the U.S. is now greater than it was in the 1920s, just before the Great Depression.  Wealth inequality here is worse than the inequality found many poor third-world countries.

So, how many of these questions on wealth inequality can you answer correctly (answers at the end of the post)?

  1. When asked respondents to the survey mentioned above said the top 20% of Americans own this percent of the total American wealth:
    1. 32%
    2. 59%
    3. 84%
  2. What percentage of the wealth does the top 20% of Americans actually own?
    1. 32%
    2. 59%
    3. 84%
  3. 92% of the respondents (yes that is right, 92%) think this country has the ideal amount of wealth inequality:
    1. Mexico
    2. Russia
    3. Sweden
    4. France
  4. In this ideal country, what percent of the wealth does the top 20% own?
    1. 32%
    2. 59%
    3. 84%

If you are like most Americans, you will be surprised by the correct answers, and that brings up the question about how best to educate people about what is going on in today’s America. We have so many problems that we need accurate facts to determine what we want and to begin the process of making America work better. Now, I realize there is a percentage of society that prefers their own facts (the authoritarian 20%), but how best to reach the rest of us? There is a lot of innovation going on right now on to use social media to engage people on social issues. I don’t know if anybody knows yet what works best, but in my project I will be building small quizzes on different social issues.

Hopefully answering them will be fun for the people taking the quizzes as well as educational. I promise I will not create any quizzes purporting to tell you how to stay in a relationship with your partner, or how your horoscope will affect your life in the next three months. But I will try to engage and educate you, or even better, you will engage and educate me! If you have any ideas about what quizzes you would like to see, what quizzes you don’t want to see (!!!), or if you have a better idea how to engage and educate (or anything else), I’d love to hear from you. Write me a comment or two, or three (or…) if you have any feedback.

Okay, answers listed backwards to make it a bit harder for you to cheat look ahead.

4. (A); 3. (C); 2. (C); 1. (B)

P.S., the amount of total wealth owned by the top 20% is probably underreported since a huge amount (billions, trillions?) of U.S. wealth is illegally hidden in overseas accounts.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Skid Row: Reality and Hope

Skid Row in Los Angeles, California is a place that shows the reality of biggest gap between the rich and the poor in America. Listening to a discussion about Skid Row in the Spiritual Leadership class, I was not able to capture the image of that area. How the rich works and lives in Los Angeles and how the poor occupies and sleeps on the streets were not easy for me to imagine. The reality has shocked me when I followed my class to visit Skid Row to observe how life was.

I was taking a bus with some classmates to Skid Row. When we almost approached to the station where we were supposed to get off, I looked out the window and saw two young people on the street. They were trying to tie their stuff carefully from a cart to a steel fence. The hand-written sign “not abandoned” was on the fence. I suddenly realized that the hair on my body stood on end, and my empathy arisen. I just felt sad for those young people. They were younger than me, and they have already struggled with their hardships in life.

We got off the bus, and began walking towards Pershing Square. Scattered amongst people who were wearing clean suits were some people with dirty clothes. They wheeled carts with several bags, slowly moving down streets and alleyways. I don’t know if those people were homeless or not. I am ignorant about it, but their presence caught my eyes about the reality of America. This reality was made clearer as much as our class, led by Rev. Danny, walked towards Skid Row from Pershing Square.

Around Pershing Square are high glass buildings. I raised my head to see how tall it is, and my head almost lies on my back. I don’t know how many stories they have. I saw the large and big sign on the wall of a tall buiding: it read “JewelryCenter”. People were in restaurants, or subways, or Starbucks for breakfast. I did not see any one with dirty clothes in those places. There were some poor people sitting on the dirty pavement, looking at us while we passed. Going towards 6th and 7th street, the smell of urination was so strong. Many poor black people occupied the streets.  Although it was 9:10 AM, some of them were still sleeping on the street. Their “properties” were next to them. When we were across from them, marijuana smoke, the smell of their bodies, and the property created strong odors throughout the streets. Their poor bodies and clothes were covered with dirt and dust. I guess they have not taken a shower for a long time, or cleaned their clothes.

Instantly, the word “hygiene” popped up in my mind. I don’t think those people who live on the streets still think of hygiene in the same way as other people who do not, or care much about it. They don’t have place to rest or stay overnight. They don’t have a room for storing their clothes and sleeping blankets. On the way to experience how poor, homeless people live, I have seen Midnight Mission and Los Angeles Mission buildings. I guess there are other missions around Skid Row too, but I’m unaware because we didn’t have time to visit the whole area. However, as discussed with my classmates, I know that those missions don’t have enough space for all the homeless. At two missions, many homeless people gathered around those buildings, waiting for food and drink. It is under the charitable heart of these missions that the homeless live day-by-day.

I left Skid Row heavy hearted. That area is just the representative of many minority groups across the country, which experience poverty and hardships. The rate of people who become homeless is increasing and very few people from this class or poor escape to have a better life. People look down at them with all sorts of stereotypes: they use drugs, they smoke marijuana, they drink alcohol, they are lazy, and they have mental problems, et cetera. The more people keep those judgmental labels in mind, the less those poor people have a chance to escape their current situation, and the more self-destructive they will become.

Skid Row is the case of dehumanisation. America is considered the richest, most dominant country in the world; however, there are many people falling into the homeless class. They live on the street, begging for help, and facing discrimination from people. They are ignored by society and many people treat them as not equal as dogs. It is really sad to observe this in this country.

I don’t want to say the situation of homeless people is a fault of the mainstream, who has economic, social, and political privileges. I also don’t want to use the concept of karma to make a conclusion about the situations where people live in. Karma is not something permanent clinging to people for the rest of their lives and determining their destiny. Karma can be changed by individual effort and collective support. We live on earth and all experience the same effect of global warming. Everyone of us has contributed to this change, either building up the environment and making it more fresher and greener or destroying it by cutting down trees or throwing away garbage on the street. We cannot call ourselves as human beings if we separate ourselves into independent, separate entities. Thus, we are “perfect human” in the way we connect ourselves with others. The way we help others to improve their lives is what in turn helps us to improve ourselves.

After this field trip, I want to devote my life to do something for them, such as to advocate for them to have a place to live, to have clean food and fresh water, or to help them have a life of a normal person. When I say normal person, I mean that people look at them with respect, understand their need, and have a space for them to work and to build up their lives. I hope that there are more concerned individuals visiting those poor people with an open-mind in order to experience how hard those lives are. When they directly experience and understand that, hopefully, they will embrace those poor people as parts of their lives, and try to help them in different ways, such as showing the reality in newspaper and media to raise people’s awareness of humanity.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Compassion on Skid Row

On March 19, 2013, Spiritual Leadership class instructor Rev. Dr. Danny Fisher and sixteen other students had a field trip to Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. On 9:00 A.M., I met with the group in Pershing Square Garden. I was very excited because I never walked in downtown Los Angeles before. I have been living in Los Angeles for seven months after I moved from West Palm Beach, Florida to continue a master degree at the University of the West.  Before this I spent many years as a Buddhist monk in Thailand.

During the trip to Skid Row, the teaching of the Buddha arose in my mind. The teaching is about a method to practice with each other the four sublime states of mind or we call Brahmavihāra. The Brahmavihāra is loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity:

  1. Loving-kindness (Mettā): I wish that all of the people will be well. I hope that all human beings without any exception will be happy also.
  2. Compassion (Karuṇā): I wish that a person’s found to be free from suffering and will be diminish from suffering.
  3. Sympathetic joy (Mudita): I sympathetic joy in the accomplishments and pleasure on the well-being of person oneself or each others.
  4. Equanimity (Upekkhā): Learning to be neutral and confidence between love and hate, praise and blame, achieve and failure, good and bad emotions. It is not a wrong course in behavior between friend, enemy or stranger, but regards every human being as equal.

So the Brahmavihāra is the Buddha’s way to share with each other and to be in harmony. I saw people in skid row all around the street. I wish all of them to be well and to be free from suffering.

We walked through Skid Row together. We had Ray and Jason as security behind the group. During the walk, I saw many people; some were sleeping on the sidewalk, standing and talking to each other and many others were sitting in wheelchairs. It was nice to hear that some of them greeted us, too. “Oh Monks! You must be monks, how are you?” They spoke with happily sound to me and my monk friends. Between the various areas, Professor Fisher stopped and explained to us what is going on here at Skid Row.

The term “skid row” originated in the following way:  a 1931 dictionary of American Tramp and Underworld Slang gives the earliest evidence for skid row, “the district where workers congregate when in town or away from their job.” From that it is easy to derive the modern meaning of “a squalid district inhabited chiefly by derelicts and vagrants” in the words of “The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition.”

Why do people live in Skid Row? I think it is because of alcohol problems, drug problems and maybe mental illness. People end up on Skid Row because they do not have family to help them pull themselves back up the right way. Therefore, they go along and not take care of themselves because of alcohol problems, drug or maybe mental illness. They are living and sleeping on the street. The people who have been there so long and they don’t want to move away. They also get used to their living style. Luckily, there are many Missions in Skid Row. Therefore, when the weather becomes cold and wet, they can go inside to a mission. The mission is run by Private Christian groups by donations from individuals and the government. The missions act as shelters by providing help to the homeless. When we walked nearby the San Julian Park, the Professor said “This Park is in the center of Skid Row, but the gate is closed to during parts of the day to cut down on the drug problem.”

The drugs and alcohol destroy their mind, thinking and the ability to work. So they can not find a job, work or start a business. And also, a lot of people live there because they may have had mental illness when were younger. Their family should be taking care of them.  If the children have a mental illness and nobody takes care of them they end up walking on the street.  This is not a simple problem, and there are a lot of reason why people end up on Skid Row. But I believe the main reasons are drug abuse, alcohol abuse and mental illness. This is what contributes the most to people  living on the street in  Skid Row.

After we walked around to visit Skid Row, we did a ten minute meditation before we gave reflection about what our thinking and feelings were when walking in Skid Row.    During the meditation, there are many things arising in my monkey mind. For instance; “What happens to them? Why doesn’t someone help them? How is it possible to have a Skid Row in the richest country in the world? ” Actually, I liked this trip, because this trip teaches me many things. And when I seen the people on Skid Row, I have grown my compassion for them in my mind. As a Buddhist monk, I will try to help as much as I can. Let us give our compassion, loving-kindness to our friends who are here on Skid Row. I would like to thank  Professor Rev. Danny Fisher and all of my classmates for this trip. I learned a great deal.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Communal Debt and Marginalized Suffering

The Jewelry District, a center for the trading of rocks and minerals priced beyond reason, a symbol of affluence and social status.

Skid Row, a center for the trading of disbanded souls and tormented economically realities of those without enough to sustain shelter or sustenance, a symbol of economic repression and public disenfranchisement.

As I ventured from the split realities of these two very contrasting societies, separated by an imaginary line of only a few city blocks, I was astonished to see the cost of wealth stratification and socially accepted poverty. People could be seen strung out across sidewalks, existing within shelters crafted from the most easily attained resources, who were trying to carve out a sense of belonging and ownership over what little they had left. Whilst I journey around in a group of peers, it was easy to be aware of the rift between these two worlds within one city.

Skid Row was an island surrounded by what resembled a city infused with fame and world-wide recognition as one of the most famous places in the USA, LA. Within her arms lay a different type of society, a group ravaged by infamy and untouched by the American Dream. This area of 4.31 sq mi., where an estimated 20,000 people live, has become a center where the city officials have now recognized and deemed poverty on the street legal.

Yet as I was made to witness this different side of the great LA city, I was not struck by its inhabitants or the means in which they are attempting to hold on. I was only reminded of the places I had once visited as a youth where the cold shoulder of society had allowed people to play house on the street. Towns like Bisbee, where homeless people had reinhabited the remnants of an abandoned gold rush town, began to surface images that I had forgotten over the years. Skid Row was a reminder of all the people I had seen in my past that remained almost untouchable, an all too distant people far removed from the great society and the middle class American who can always rely on the helping hand from the government. These people were the tired, sick, and hungry who were called by our statue of liberty. But what happened for them? Where was their relief? How were they any better here then anywhere else? Could this be just a facility where the lesser half could be reminded all that they are denied, just outside the consumer based greed in the jewelry district? What does this represent?

After my visit I though long and hard and find only one conclusion in my own heart. Skid Row stands to be a testament to the ability of people to bear witness and even endorse the disenfranchisement, poverty, and misfortune or others. By no other means would it be made so easily possible for some many to go with so little within one of the largest cities in America and just right outside a district, whose wealth is extracted from individuals who care more for a mineral than other human beings. I see humanity residing in the communities on the curb, rather than those dressed, clean, and employed in the stores surrounding them.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: