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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Classism in Western Spirituality

There is something about white Americans that really disturbs me, I have to confess. Give us something good and we immediately start trying to figure out a way to keep anyone who doesn't look like us out. Unfortunately, Buddhism and other Eastern spiritualities in their American expression is no exception.

As someone who has knocked around ministry circles for more than two decades now I am certainly aware of the need for financial support to sustain a ministry regardless of denomination or tradition. It costs money to pay rent and utilities, and teachers need to eat - I don't dispute that for a moment. Many of us need to get better at asking for money from those we serve. We also need to recognize that there is a vast, untapped pool of people who could benefit from our teachings and simply cannot afford to pay for them. Many religious and spiritual centers have made it quite clear that people are welcome regardless of their ability to pay. These centers should be commended for their generosity and inclusive spirit.


Buddhism in America, to cite but one example, generally teaches that if people want to advance in their practice they really need to sit extended retreats at retreat centers. I'm not convinced that's the case, but for a moment let's leave that aside and address those retreats. Retreat centers in the United States are located in just a few areas: New England (including upstate New York), Colorado, and northern California. That means that for most of the country sitting a retreat involves not only the cost of the retreat and the teacher donation, but also the cost of travel. Other centers offer retreats but cannot include lodging, which adds to the cost even further. To be fair, some centers do offer partial scholarships on the cost of the retreat, but that doesn't help with the travel costs. The truth is that retreats in  America are the domain of the well to do, and that isn't representative of traditional Buddhism. Of course, Christian retreat centers in America are no different, though perhaps even less generous in terms of scholarships, but they are more local and so the travel problem doesn't exist

In Asia sitting a retreat meant going to the local monastery or cave and sitting it. To be sure, people's needs were simpler that most westerners, and they would often go on alms rounds to get their daily food. Celebrity teachers were not brought in to teach these retreats, and there weren't optional massage and spa treatments. My point is that these retreats were affordable to all, if not exactly in accord with western assumptions around creature comforts. We also need to remember that in the Eastern traditions there are many examples of teachers who were "householders" and still reached advanced stages of practice while attending to their duties at home. For us in the RHIMES lineage, then, the challenge becomes creating a spiritual environment that is accessible to as many people as possible while meeting minimal western standards of comfort.

It seems to me that local centers are key because they eliminate travel and allow the person the option of spending the night at home. I recognize that isn't the idea in terms of immersion, but it is better than not being able to attend at all. These would be smaller centers that also offered weekly spiritual classes and so were not dependent on the retreat income to survive. I feel this also keeps a center more grounded, unlike retreat only centers like Omega in New York that would offer a retreat on spiritual farting if it would fill the cushions (pardon the pun). Then we staff the centers with bi-vocational teachers and staff who don't need to make a living from the center, though they certainly deserve to be compensated for their efforts. If we want celebrity teachers, we invite them by purchasing their DVDs (and, of course, obtaining licenses to show them) and have local teachers offer commentary and discussion. Perhaps most importantly, we locate the centers in urban areas that allow access by all people and strive to create a multicultural environment in which all people are welcome. We do not allow people of privilege to dominate our boards and committees - and we are freed to do that by keeping costs low so that we do not become dependent upon their money. For many if not most spiritual and religious leaders this type of model will require some degree of paradigm shift, and some will not be able to make the transition and that's okay because the comfortable and decaying need to be served, too...

We also need to end our fascination with things foreign that devolve into discriminatory practices. Asians sit in lotus on cushions because that is how seating developed in Asian culture. Westerners sit in chairs. Not being able to sit on a cushion means being relegated to the back rows of seating in most meditation centers. Of course, I realize that putting chairs in the front row would block the view of people on cushions, but the implied message that somehow those in chairs are practicing a kind of second class meditation because their bodies don't allow them to assume a culturally unnatural position comes through loud and clear. Westerners generally speaking do not remove their shoes for spiritual practice, and as one who lives in the Midwest I can attest to the fact that the shoeless practice may work well in a tropical climate but doesn't transfer well to winter in Milwaukee!

In the final analysis we need to shift the religious and spiritual culture in America from the racially segregated and classist beast it has become to a truly inclusive representation of the American population. I believe that to do that we will need to strip the cultural accretions from the various spiritual traditions and focus on practice - and then in our centers display multicultural images that speak to the people who attend them. To do that well we will need to have multicultural staff and advisers, because there isn't much worse than a white person trying to be multicultural without help. Can we do it? I believe we can!

Saturday, May 18, 2013


Buddhism does not subscribe to a creator God, and for that reason many people say that Buddhism is atheistic. I believe it is more accurate to say that Buddhism is non-theistic, and that there is an ever growing body of progressive Christians who are non-theistic as well.

In short, the God of theism is some kind of super-human writ large, the thing of several centuries of bad religious art, the old guy with long white hair and beard. Under this kind of view people image God creating the universe and everything in it out of some kind of physical workshop. These images aren't in the Bible, but they have evolved over millennia of imagining God as a parent figure in the sky. God came first, before all else, and then God created everything that is from Godself. Presumably God was wearing a T-shirt with a very large "God" emblazoned on the front so we knew what to call God. Fast forward to the last fifty years and not only is God presented as all knowing, all seeing, all powerful, and all everything else imaginable but God also has become our little buddy. We have a personal relationship we God, and we invite God, Jesus, or both over to our house for Cheerios in the morning. You might say we have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous without abandoning any of it. If that works for you I think that's just great, but to me and many others it's nothing but a big hot mess.

What if it's really a question of the chicken and the egg? Which came first, our existence or our awareness of God? Mind you, I'm not asking if God existed before us, I am asking if we became conscious before we became aware of that which we call God. Since there aren't any pre-conscious beings hanging around the local coffee shop for me to ask (though I confess there are some who seem to be post-conscious), I have to assume that homo-sapiens became self-aware, then eventually took a look around and marveled at what s/he could not explain and said, "Holy cow, God must have done this!" They must also have realized that some of that which was beyond their ability to explain was a bit frightening, and so they started devising schemes to manipulate God into stopping the scary stuff from happening and replacing it with good stuff. If you have studied behavioral psychology you know how this works. All it takes is one naked guy wandering out into the desert before a rain storm and before long you will have quite a few guys with unfortunate sunburns and the fictional belief that you can make it rain.

On the other hand, what if we abandon the behavior control business and the God control business and spend some time observing our experience? What if we were to set aside judging (as much as humanly possible, anyway) and just watch? I believe we would marvel at the mystery that is the complexity and intricacy of creation and reasonably come to the conclusion that there was some force behind or underneath is all and call that force "God." We might look at the mystery that is the inter-relatedness and inter-connectedness of everything that exists and see something holy at work and so call that "God" as well. We might find something mysterious and beautiful about the dedication of people in a long term relationship that perseveres even through illness and death and know that we see holiness - God - there, too. We don't have this vision of God over for Cheerios in the morning because this God isn't a "person," but we will see God in those Cheerios and the many causes and conditions that had to come together to get them to our breakfast table. Was this God present at the Big Bang? No, this God was the Big Bang. This God is the collective unconscious. This is a non-theistic God, and this is the God of my experience. This isn't God as manipulator, this is God as lover, God as relationship, a God in and through whom we have our being but who has no interest in striking anyone dead or playing cosmic chess games of control and manipulation.

The non-theistic God doesn't care what you call It and certainly doesn't see any need to convert people to another way of understanding It. This God doesn't become angry when you hurt another person, but rather because this God exists in that other person and in the relationships we share this God is injured when you injure another - and you are injured as well because you are a part of that same web of life and interconnectedness. Best of all, that web of life and interconnectedness and every other attribute I have described of God continues to exists even for those who call God by another name or say there is no God at all. In this view worship become community building, improving living conditions throughout the world, working for peace and equality, ending poverty, racism, and hunger. This is a much more demanding God that the old God of punishment and anger because this God demands you give of your very self, abandon selfishness, develop compassion, and truly change your life in an ongoing way. It's a God completely compatible with every religious and spiritual system, but because It requires you to abandon privilege and prestige and see that when we get ahead at the expense of others we in fact damage ourselves deeply. It's a God who leads us toward enlightenment and the action that flows from enlightenment.

Do you have the courage?