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Using a Blog to Gain Mutual Understanding

Mutual Understanding. Conceptual Illustration Royalty Free Stock Photo - Image: 29836205

© Zibedik | Dreamstime.com

This semester, I created a blog, between ignorance and enlightenment. It’s a good opportunity for me to manage my life and thinking, and then condense everything into something that is manageable. Although it is a kind of social platform, I think the greatest benefactor is myself. Throughout our life we are always learning, however, the most important thing is to manage our knowledge and experience, and to give feedback to society. Consequently, this social platform is meaningful.

In the MDIV670 Spiritual Leadership course, many issues related to spiritual leadership and social issues were discussed. I am one talks less and just listens, because my English not quite good enough to express what I want. The other reason is Asian people are less likely to express themselves in public. MDIV670 is a kind of international classroom; there are some students from Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, and Taiwan. Of course, the majority are American. By the project proposal, we shared the same platform, DHARMA DIALOGUE: BUDDHISM IN THE U.S., and created our own platform. Although I have experience to create a blog, the wordpress.com based platform took me several days to understand it. Finally, I am satisfied with my first English version blog. My friend misunderstood that it is another blog I suggested. She told me there are too many words; she only looks at the pictures not the articles. My other classmate told me it had a good design but she did not have time to see it.

By such an opportunity, we uploaded our reflection on skid row visiting. Everyone has a different point of view based on their family environment, experience and nationality. From the other classmates’ article, I knew that although we are unique we have the same spirit. We are willing to see, learn, reflect and improve. The different points of view from different people, helped enlarge my world and encompass more opinions. There is another thing I quite appreciate; we shortened our distance between classmates. Although every time we just greeted by smiling, the article sharing let us understand each other’s philosophy of life and values.

There are a total of 130 viewers till now, May 14, according to the following viewing data. The highest number of views in one day was 30. I am happy that one viewer’s reply to my skid row article, reframing transformation, said, “Yes, the reality of social injustice is there in Skid Row. We can observe it clearly. But the reality of homeless people in Skid Row is not only drug, alcohol, bankruptcy, but also humanity, self-esteem, humor, love and compassion. If we take time to make some contact with them, our view of those people is changed. They have self-esteem. They have love and compassion.” He shared with me the homeless people still have lo2ve, self-esteem and compassion. The comments once again broadened my firm thinking.

I am thankful for having such an opportunity to create our own blog, it’s our baby. It’s just a good beginning to move forward to the road of spiritual leadership. How to keep running suitability our blog and intercommunicate with people is very important.

I also thank my instructor Danny Fisher for introducing many spiritual leader topics, such as Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Martin Luther King, for us to discuss. And, I thank my classmates for sharing their values and ideas. Thank you for enlightening my seed of spiritual leadership.

May everybody be a good spiritual leader in your field of life.

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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Buddhism in the U.S. Beyond the Color Lines

Blue Cliff Monastery by dzungvo via Flickr.com

This past summer, I had the rare opportunity to attend the Buddhist Geeks Conference: The Emerging Faces of Buddhism. I was disappointed, though not surprised that there were only four Asian faces (myself included) among the crowd of participants. Furthermore, the “emerging faces” of Buddhism only had one Buddhist monastic in the audience. This disparity in representation was highlighted in the popular blog, Angry Asian Buddhist: “Discover the Emerging Faces of Buddhism (Are Mostly White).”

I hope that the future faces of Buddhism bring much more openness and honest discussions on ways to improve the demographic representation of people of color (POC). Discussions that reflect the diversity of the United States’ rich Buddhist landscape. Buddhism as a tradition has come far by penetrating North American society and culture, becoming much more ingrained in Americans’ consciousness, and providing an open path for both convert and Asian American immigrant communities alike. To establish an enlightened foothold in the West, emerging Buddhist organizations must represent the constituencies they attempt to serve. Otherwise, they will miss the 16-18% of Latino/Latina, 12-14% of African American, 5% of Asian, and 1-2% of Native Americans in the U.S. population (2010 Census figures).

Throughout the history of the U.S., many generations of people of color have come before us on this diverse landscape and have experienced centuries of oppression, resulting in physical and psychological suffering. Hilda Gutiérrez Baldoquín, a queer Zen Latina priest drives this point home:

When speaking of the history of Western Buddhism in general—and its presence in the United States, in particular—it is imperative that the point of origin not be located in a white, European context. The story of how the Dharma reached the shores of the United States is embedded in the history of immigrants of color.” She goes further to say: “Teachings of liberation heard clearly in a culture driven by ignorance, fear, and anger, and hate is like the breaking of chains after centuries of subjugation. This is the gift the Buddha Shakyamuni gave us. (Baldoquin, p. 18)

I can only speak from my own personal experience as a participating person of color (an 1.5 immigrant Vietnamese American) at the Buddhist Geeks Conference; contributing to Shambhala PublicationsUnder 35 Project; living and working at Shambhala’s city and land centers. I also have had the wonderful opportunity to spend three months as a staff member at the Shambhala Mountain Center and one month at Karme Choling. I highly enjoyed my time at these centers and wished I could have stayed longer to learn, practice, and contribute further. Overall, I think that centers like Shambhala, Karme Choling, Thich Nhat Hanh’s PlumVillage, Insight Meditation Society (IMS), Spirit Rock, and other trailblazing traditions have greatly influenced American religious culture and may one day be household names.

In terms of racial diversity, I noticed that Shambhala International has done a wonderful job promoting and providing access and resources to people of color. I commend them for providing access, resources, and emotional support to people of color as well as white practitioners who have just started on the Shambhala path. Shambhala International has also conducted conferences to promote and strategize on ways for people of color to have increased representation and a voice in their organization. I have witnessed people of color actively involved in center activities such as conducting Umze, one of many activities that give them a sense of ownership and identification.

Despite these efforts, I still am concerned about the representation of people of color at Shambhala, especially when it comes to sustained presence and leadership.  During my extended stay at the center, I noticed that the participation of people of color on staff  and as leaders decreased dramatically. In a nutshell, people of color often ventured through the door and then left because they did not feel a part of the Shambhala family. While there are no easy answers as to why this is, I do find it troubling and very unfortunate.

In order to have future leaders in Shambhala as well as other Buddhist organizations, POC participants need teachers and peers they can identify with at these centers. After all, most POC American Buddhists and converts who came from monotheistic faiths walk away from their inherited traditions because they no longer identify with them at a deeper level. They do not need to be further isolated by having a teacher they can not identify with.

Furthermore, as people of color enter Shambhala’s door, it helps if they are surrounded by peers who look and feel like them and share their background and experiences. Most importantly, when people who have been marginalized for many generations — who have been historically oppressed, their civil and human rights trampled upon, and voices not heard —these individuals need a sense of solidarity, empowerment, and a sense that their own destiny is not at the hands of the majority, but their own. I wonder if these empowering experiences can ever be gained when POCs are in communities where they are constantly reminded that they are in the minority.

My question then is this:  Can these various Buddhist channels represented at dharma centers, conferences, publications, and various other outlets, promote an enlightened society when their constituency is primarily white?  Can a tradition be called “American” (or even Buddhist) if it does not have people from diverse backgrounds? Furthermore, can these Buddhist organizations help alleviate Americans’ suffering if the staff, teachers, and participants at these centers do not represent the society that it attempts to serve?

One does not need to go far to see this. Let us take a closer look at the Under 35 Project by Shambhala Publications; the number of people of color writing and contributing to this project are few.  Since the Angry Asian Buddhist posted his critique of the project (“Why is the Under 35 Project So White?”), only 14 (myself included) out of 280 articles published on the Under 35 Project site were authored by Asians or Asian Americans. That is 5% of the total contributing pool. According to a recent Pew Forum Study, those of Asian descent make of the majority of the Buddhist population in the U.S. (67-69%).  It’s hard to believe that Asian American Buddhist youth don’t have anything to say or are not making significant contributions to their religious communities.

One may argue that people of color are just not interested in contributing to the conversation, or for that matter, Buddhism in general. To answer the former part of this question, it is fair to ask who oversees the Under 35 Project, or in a larger context, runs the organization. Jack Daw, in his comments on the Under 35 Project blog, states,

Shambhala Publication has a pretty notorious reputation at promoting to affluent white hipsters. The Under 35 Project was originally overseen by Susan Piver, which may have been when most of the Asian Americans submitted and had their work promoted. Since then I believe it was moved over to Lodro Rinzler who, predictably, moves more towards the trendy IDP [Interdependence Project] crowd rather than more of an open exploration of Buddhism in America.

I would posit that the Buddha’s teachings and other spiritual ancestors over the past two millennia traveling from Asia to the western shores have and will provide great insight toward alleviating the sufferings of sentient beings. One of the world’s leading Buddhist teachers and peace activists Thich Nhat Hanh also states,

In this world there is violence, discrimination, hate and craving, but if you are equipped with Right View, the wisdom of interbeing and nondiscrimination, you don’t have to suffer. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. (Baldoquin, p. 63)

I further believe that the Dharma is universal and speaks to those who want a way out of suffering and towards an authentic happiness.  People in minority status, who have experienced years of oppression, can only do this if they are given a voice to do so. They are not asking to be tokenized, but instead, given a voice and an opportunity to walk alongside others on these many wonderful paths—paths that have a long rich history laid out through teachings and wisdom passed down for many generations through the sweat and blood of everyday persons of color.   In Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faiths, the author quotes African American scholar W.E.B Du Bois: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.”

I hope Buddhism in the United States in the 21 Century moves beyond that line.

Post by: Anthuan Vuong (aka Dancing Yellow Monkey)

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