Tag Archives: University of the West

A REFLECTION ON MY EDUCATIONAL SOCIAL MEDIA PROJECT: Spiritual Leadership

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Spring 2013

Time flies! The semester has almost ended. I think that all students must be very busy with paperwork or final exams just like I am.  During the Spring Semester of 2013, I had a good chance to learn and a good opportunity to create a personal blog posts under the user name “thaitriplegem. These personal blog posts were something that I have never made before. I also contributed a couple posts here at “Dharma Dialogue” such as my “Skid Row Reflection,” in which I give a reflection based on my trip to Skid Row. My personal blog post was on the topic, “What Does the Theravāda Buddhist Religion Have to Say about the Poverty on Skid Row?”  This reflection considers the poverty of Skid Row from the perspective of Theravada Buddhism. In my previous blog post, I said the following:

If our religion means anything in today’s society, it must be able to address in a significant way the conditions of the poor in places like Skid Row.  What follows is divided into two parts.  First there is a consideration of the Theravāda Buddhist teaching of kamma.  Second, the divine abodes (brahma-vihāra) of loving-kindness and compassion are discussed.

These projects are for the Spiritual Leadership Class taught by Professor Danny Fisher.

The Midterm Proposal Project is my Educational Social Media Project, which I have posted on the same website and created a Facebook group for named “Healthcare Needs to Improve in Thailand.”  In this group I presented information about the healthcare system in Thailand, the problems that it has, and what you can do to help change it.  My media project can be found on my Facebook page.  I am very happy to see all your feedback.  And I would really like to see the healthcare system in Thailand be more like the Healthcare system in European countries.

My personal blog, “thaitriplegem,” has a post on the topic, “What Does the Theravāda Buddhist Religion Have to Say about the Poverty on Skid Row.” It has received seventeen comments as of May 15, 2013. I think this is a very important way to use social media or the Internet in the right way. We should employ right thought and right understanding when using social media in the modern world, a world without borders. At the same time, we can propagate Buddhism worldwide, too. All of your comments have been encouraging for me. Now I feel confident to share more on the Buddha’s teaching.  And all the comments were very helpful for me and my blog posts. They have even been of help to the people who read or who will read my blog posts, too. More than that, the comments also helped me to improve my way of thinking and writing for future blog posts. I would like to share what I have learned from the comments on the blog. These comments encouraged me to write and share more about the teachings of kamma, or in English what we call causes and effects, which the Buddha showed us more than 2,600 years ago.

First, on April 1, 2013 at 8:19 PM, I got the first comment from my classmate named 3ratna3kaya, who said, “Thank you for your teachings, Venerable. Your explanation of kamma was very clear and insightful.”

Second, on May 10, 2013 at 10:52 PM, Anonymous said, “What an interesting topic! I believe the readers must have some idea about the Theravada Buddhist religion on the skid row in order to easily clearly understand what it’s all about the article. However, I have to thank you for providing this useful knowledge in a friendly way.”

And third, on May 11, 2013 at 2:09 AM, there was a very interesting comment from

Du Wayne Engelhart, who stated, “Thank you for the discussion about kamma. What you say can be seen in a wider context. There is not only, roughly speaking, white kamma (with good effects for actions done), black kamma (with bad effects for actions done), and black and white kamma (with mixed effects for actions done). As the Buddha teaches us, there is also no kamma at all. No kamma at all is the state of Enlightenment. I think many times we worry too much about getting the effects of good kamma (in this lifetime or in future lifetimes) for the good actions we perform. We should, however, not worry too much about simply good kamma. We should try to reach the state where we are beyond kamma–where we are enlightened. We can reach this happy state by letting go of everything in the world, and that means everything–even letting go of trying to get the results of good kamma.”

Next, my project proposal titled, “Healthcare Needs to Improve in Thailand” has received fifteen comments as of May 15, 2013. I have gotten comments both in Thai and in English.   In the project proposal, many people agreed with my opinion on the subject.  For instance, on May 10, 2013 at 8:22 AM, Saranya Kim said, Yes, I agree with you. I had an experience about this ‘Only wealthy families can afford health insurance. If the average Thai becomes sick, unfortunately they have to pay their medical bills by cash. If they have to go to the hospital, they would have to wait in line for a long time before seeing the doctor. If a wealthy person needed to go to the hospital, on the other hand, they would just pay extra to see the doctor right away.’” This must be painful situation for the oppressed group because of privilege and poverty in Thai society. Also, Wattana Suriyawararak agreed with my project and said, Yes, I am sure that someday Healthcare in Thailand will be better! (Someday, I do not know not how long.) This comment comes with the hope that good healthcare will improve in Thailand someday.

I wish her dream will come true soon.

Also on May 10, 2013 at 11:53 PM, Daniel Terestenyi, my good Dhamma friend who just moved to Europe made a comment. His comment helped me get more understanding about the healthcare system in Europe. He said, “Andrew, you might consider being specific to one country in Europe, rather than the whole of Europe. Mainly, because healthcare does change some radically from country to country, and is not based upon EU law. France has an extremely good healthcare system, which I have used while living there.” Thank you very much, Daniel, for your information.

Lastly, Facebook’s group page still does not get many comments or much feedback. I am not sure if the members have enough time to read it all. Mostly, they just click on the “Like” button, but that made me happy enough. I got a nice comment from Anonymous that I would like to share. People should understand about the healthcare system in Thailand more, because many people like she or he just hear the news from friends who have enough money to go to get good treatment in Thailand. The comment from Anonymous on May 11, 2013 at 1:51 AM says: Thank you very much for the information in your Facebook group. I thought what you said was very informative. It is a good idea to make information available about the health care system in Thailand. I did not really have a good understanding of the situation. I thought the system was much better than what you describe. I didn’t really know: I based my ideas on what I heard from Thai friends waiting to go back to Thailand to have dental work done or to get glasses. I thought the health care was pretty good and the costs low. Now I understand that many Thais are not able to participate in the health care system. Now I understand the need for reform. Thanks for the information.”

Once again, thank you very much for all the comments that I have received on my Skid Row Reflection, my Project Proposal, and also on my Facebook page. All your comments were a very good source of encouragement for me. Thanks again for all the comments made by family members, my classmates, friends, professors, and also from people I do not know.  You can find my blog posts and my Facebook page at these URLs:

https://dharmadialogue.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/what-does-the-theravada-buddhist-religion-have-to-say-about-the-poverty-on-skid-row/#comments

https://dharmadialogue.wordpress.com/author/thaitriplegem/

https://www.facebook.com/groups/273506612786732/

With much Metta,

Palms together,

thaitriplegem

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What Do You Know? Reflection

English: Infographic on how Social Media are b...

Infographic on how Social Media are being used, and how everything is changed by them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Social Media is a fascinating subject.   Do a quick web search for how to create a great social media project and you are inundated with “how-to’s” and “don’t do’s” all of them saying different things.  The commercial world has lept into social media.  In your search you will find that to many social media now means corporate advertisements using “social” media.  No longer is social media a way for people to connect.  It has quickly become just another, more subtle way, to sell mostly unneeded stuff to increasingly poor customers.   “Social Media” also has a dark, hidden, side.  Go to news or progressive action site that tells a story different than allowed in the mainstream (corporate) media and you will find the comments filled with rebuttals, all taking a very similar pro-corporate, pro-inequality, pro-oligarchy line.  Almost always the first few comments are in support of the economic and social policies that are creating and increasing income, wealth, and power inequality and slowing killing the middle-class society constructed after WWII.  A groundswell of opposition by “Real Americans” to the DFH’s (look it up)?  Or the comments of “astro turf” organizations and companies paid big money to counter small-d democratic thinking and organization?

That said, for those of us trying to address various problems around the world, social media and the internet is a great resource.  Since most of our mainstream media outlets no longer discuss or present any options other than those that support the status quo (and domination of society by a very small group of extraordinarily wealthy men), the internet and social media is one of the best ways we have to communicate with people who know something is seriously wrong with society but don’t know what to do about it.  It is the only game in town.

In my project I didn’t get much in the way of comments, likes or followers.  I’m not sure at this point that I can call it a success.  The most people that have taken one of my quizzes is three (and one of them was me).   I can think of several reasons for this:

  1. Any social media project has to hit a sweet spot.  In other words, a need in people to express themselves or solve a common problem.  The areas that I covered (inequality, the distortion of capitalism to maximize profit for banks, etc.) are covered in great depth by other social media actors.  Perhaps potential readers are overwhelmed with bad news since so much is going wrong.
  2. I think a good social media project allows people to interact and contribute.  It is not enough to just push ideas out into the “blogosphere” and hope people will read it.  How can the person reading your post, quiz, Pin, etc., join in helping solve the problem?  How can they express their own concerns?  How can they self-organize?  My project at this point is too much push and not enough interaction.
  3. I wonder if I am taking on too many subjects?  Do I need to concentrate on a more specific social issue?
  4. Consistency.  A general rule of thumb is that a content provider (me) needs to put out some sort of post (quiz) every week.  With the demands of school and my general sense of fatigue caused by nearly a year of school, I’ve not had the energy to generate quizzes and posts on a consistent basis and to keep new viewers coming back to my site.
  5. Time.  I think this just takes time to grow an audience.
  6. Perhaps quizzes aren’t the best way to present this type of information.

I plan to continue this effort over the summer and see if I can grow an audience.  I’m going to investigate how to use Pinterest as the core to my project rather than a blog.  That way I can post my quizzes, images and other media in a place where people can interact and respond to the issues I present with their own thoughts and media.  I can then respond to the interests of my audience based upon what they post.  I also want to use twitter to present my posts to those that are interested so they can keep track of my project without having to pay close attention.   I will look around to see what other, new, mechanisms are available, and there are a lot of them.   It will be very interesting to see how this project has evolved by the end of summer and the start of a new school year at University of the West.

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Hungry Ghost Economy: Concluding Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To date, Hungry Ghost Economy

generated 64 views on dharma dialogues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With bows.

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THE FIFTH PRECEPT PROJECT Reducing Substance Abuse in Thailand…

Thailand

Thailand (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

THE FIFTH PRECEPT PROJECT

Reducing Substance Abuse in Thailand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GRATITUDE TO FORGOTTEN VETERANS

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

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

GRATITUDE TO FORGOTTEN VETERANS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are the listed ingredients in Snack Pack Pudding©.

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

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

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

Calories                                   120

Fat                                              25

Total Fat                                     3g          5%

Saturated Fat                          1.5g          8%

Sodium                                 130mg        5%

Potassium                            130mg        4%

Total Carb                                21g          7%

Sugars                                       14g         —

Dietary Fiber                             2g         0.8%

Protein                                        1g

Vit A                                                           0%

Vit C                                                           0%

Iron                                                            4%

Calcium                                                   30%

Based on a 2,000 calorie diet

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

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

“Nutritious?”

“Sensible?”

“Wholesome?”

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

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

The ingredients tell the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non-toxic ≠ food.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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