Search This Blog

Thursday, August 21, 2014

American Buddhism and Racism, a Dismal Record

Recent events in Ferguson, MO, where an unarmed young man named Mike Brown was shot six times and killed by police officers, have caught the attention of the world. Clergy and people (a curious conventional phrase which somehow implies clergy aren't people) from across the country have flocked to the protests. Even Tibetan monks from India have traveled to Ferguson to join in the protests. As you might expect, American Buddhists...oh, wait...American Buddhist leaders are sitting comfortably ensconced in their homes holding a statue of the American Buddhist Bodhisattva, as traditionally depicted with six arms - two hands over the eyes, two hands over the ears, and two hands
American Bodhisattvas?
over its mouth.

A search of the Internet this morning reveals no American Buddhist voices speaking out on the murder of Mike Brown by Ferguson police on August 9th. The only mention I could find was over at Rev. Danny Fisher's "Off the Cushion" blog at The problem is that it's a coverage piece that hardly constitutes speaking out. Today Joshua Eaton had a blog piece at that covered the Tibetan monks' arrival in Ferguson and standing in solidarity with the people there, but made no call for justice. In fact, what has been missing in the paltry, virtually nonexistent response of the American Buddhist community is any call for justice and any willingness to even admit there is a problem. Even a visit to the website of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship revealed nothing, despite Rev. Danny Fisher having credited the people at BPF for making him aware of the arrival of the Tibetan monks!

Gracefully, there were two exceptions I could find speaking out over the last several days. One is Roshi Joan Halifax, whom I adore, and the folks at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, NM. You can visit their web page and follow them on Facebook. Also, Roshi Bernie Glassman has been excellent in advocating for social justice, but the list pretty much ends there. It's no accident that Roshis Joan and Bernie are friends.

Here's the heart of the problem: when you put a bunch of relatively comfortable, largely liberal, white folks in a room and give them permission to focus on themselves, they take the ball and run with it.
Oh, sure, they are only too happy to send their checks to end oppression in far flung corners of the world, because it's a sanitary sort of compassion in that it doesn't actually require you to rub elbows with anyone who doesn't look like you, dress like you, eat the same high quality vegetarian fare including the best of poor nations' rice crops exported for your enjoyment while the native people eat whatever is poor quality rice didn't make the cut, and smell like you (which means not being over-perfumed, in all likelihood). "Send them a check and pray they don't show up in our neighborhood!" would seem to be the battle cry of American Buddhists, and I am sad to say that even the segments of the American Buddhist community that claim to be "engaged Buddhists" seem to prefer the limited engagement of the check book rather than the full engagement of their boots on the ground. That's sad, and it reflects one of the major shortcomings of Buddhism as practiced in America: despite more than a little being written about the dangers of become self absorbed through Buddhist practice and the absolute necessity of compassion, American Buddhist compassion would seem to exist more in theory then in practice, more as a concept than as actual solidarity.

The truth is that if we in American Buddhism don't work for change we become nothing more than a bizarre blend of liberalism and fundamentalism that waits for the world to destroy itself because we believe that will usher in liberation. I grow increasingly less content with American Buddhism's tendency to be of, by, and for the wealthy, and its lack of impactful concern for social justice is the largest reason I identify as a Buddhist Christian, by which I mean my Buddhism informs my Christianity, rather than a Christian Buddhist. It breaks my heart that my body will no longer allow me to travel to Ferguson myself, as I did to Jena, LA some years ago, but the least I can do is use my voice to call for change and call others to action. Apparently, most American Buddhist leaders are reluctant to do so. Might it be because they don't want to upset their largely white, liberal base? If it is, what does that say about their teaching?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Reconciling Laughter and Pain - the Legacy of Robin Williams

The loss of Robin Williams to apparent suicide seems to have triggered a massive episode of cognitive dissonance in America. Those who either do not understand or choose to write off mental illness as something other than it is - an illness - are dumbfounded by the notion of a man who brought so much joy to so many, a man who made so many laugh, living in the depths of a depression that seems to have led him to take his own life at sixty-three. Of course, there is much we don't know yet. He may have received a terminal diagnosis that he couldn't cope with or his death may have been immanent due to a disease other than mental illness, but can we look for a moment at what we know? Here was a man who had everything, but despaired of living. His transition from this life flies in the face of the
American dream and Consumer Capitalism. When we wonder how he could be depressed while having everything we believe we want and need, we misunderstand the power of both material goods and depression.

I saw a post last night from a fundamentalist Christian that asked how Mr. Williams could have killed himself knowing the pain that act would cause his family, friends, and loved ones. I think the writer of that post was really wondering how he could kill himself and in so doing call her world view into question, a world view that doubtless doesn't allow for mental illness, psychotherapy, or psychology. When we ask "how could they?" in situations like this, we are really crying out in pain because the act makes us uncomfortable. We merely use concern for their close friends and loved ones as a method of denying our own pain.

The truth is that mental illness destroys lives and families every day. People neither choose to contract a mental illness nor can they choose to "snap out of it." Their perceptions are often distorted, yet very real to them. Robin Williams suffered from bipolar disorder, and like so many with bipolar disorder tried to use substances to control his pain, leading to some stints in rehab. There is no cure for bipolar disorder, right now we can only try to control symptoms. I have encountered it in several people close to me, and can attest to its ability to destroy lives while the rest of us sit by and watch, feeling the horror of our own powerlessness. I've seen it in the biological mother of my children and in one of our children and stood by helplessly as they and our relationships come unraveled.

I have been dealing with my own diagnosis of depression most of my life. I can tell you that laughing is a great defense mechanism. I use it to mask my own pain, to ward off questions about how I am feeling, and convince others that I am fine - and, gracefully, most of the time I am fine. It's no mystery to me how Mr. Williams could take to a stage and make people laugh while feeling horrible inside, and it's no mystery why the adulation of millions of people couldn't assuage his pain. When our brain chemistry is out of balance, the only thing that will make us feel better is restoring our brain chemistry to its proper levels. Just as you can't laugh your way out of diabetes or a thyroid disorder, you can't laugh your way out of mental illness.

I hope that the tragic death of Robin Williams leads this country to see that insurance companies' classification of mental illness as a different sort of illness than any other physical illness and their refusal to pay for treatment at the same level they do for other illnesses is a civil rights issue and nothing less. We need parity for mental health treatment, and if the Sandy Hooks of the world won't convince you, I pray that Robin Williams does.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The New Desert

In the early centuries of Christianity, the Church was an underground organization that hid to avoid persecution. All of that changed in the early fourth century, when Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the religion of the Empire - ironically because he believed that doing so would allow him to vanquish his enemies more effectively. Out the door went Christ's teachings on non-violence and resisting the status quo, and replacing them were bishops instructing people to be good citizens who were loyal to the Empire. Gone was concern for the least of these, our brothers and sisters, and in was the lust for power and control. In response, many of those who truly understood the teachings of Christ fled to the desert and established what today we see as early monastic communities. Many chose to live as hermits. Whatever the specifics of their vocation, they all had a sense that they could not be loyal to the God of their experience and understanding while living in the population centers of the Empire.

Sometimes, especially in our western lives of air conditioned comfort, I feel it's easy for us to imagine that these early contemplatives headed to the desert because they liked uncomfortable places or thought them beneficial for spiritual advancement. Perhaps that misses the obvious point that the desert was what lay outside of the cities, and it wasn't so much that they were headed to a desert as it was that they were getting out of Dodge City! Had the cities been surrounded by a different sort of wilderness, perhaps they would have fled to the mountain, or the forest, or the sea. I believe the point was they were getting away from the population centers to a place of more freedom and less scrutiny so they could clear their heads and listen for Divine guidance. The fact that it happened to be a desert is something of a secondary detail.

I believe that the contemporary desert is the spiritual but not religious state.

It's no secret that the Church has focused primarily on a dubious theology of the groin over the last fifty years rather than anything even remotely connected to the teachings of Jesus. Forget about the poor, forget about social justice, the real question seems to always revolve around genitals and who does what with theirs. Gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, people started moving away to the desert, and at some point the floodgates opened. People stopped identifying with what most of the Church was saying and elected instead to follow the voice of the Spirit dwelling in them. Rather like the heresy hunters of days of old, many inside the genital circus decried those who left as somehow being unfaithful to God, but can any reasonable person honestly believe that following the Spirit is being unfaithful to God?

It's also true that the SBNR landscape isn't a perfect place. There are good ideas there, and there are some rather dubious ones as well, but that's the nature of any human enterprise - Spirit led or otherwise. Many if not most of those who went to the SBNR desert went because they reached the point where they simply could not stomach being preoccupied with genitals all day and night - just as their ancestors who went to the literal desert couldn't stand being preoccupied with propping up the status quo - a fascination that remains to this day, and which I am sure also accounts for more than a few SBNR exiles as well.

Instead of engaging in SBNR bashing, we should be applauding their courage and their commitment to the spiritual journey, whether or not it is our own particular path. We should be learning from what they have discovered, incorporating the good and letting the dubious pass us by. Most importantly, we should reflect on our own paths and ask ourselves if we are really being loyal to where we are called to be!

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Death of Joshu Sasaki

Zen fraud (not a master, in my opinion) Joshu Sasaki is dead at 107. He leaves behind him a legacy that includes sexually assaulting the female students in the interview room - perhaps all of them - yet here is how Tricycle Magazine memorialized him, in part: 

Yet if Joshu Roshi was extraordinary in his reach, he was depressingly common in what we might call his grasp. As I reported in The New York Times last year—outing what had long been common knowledge in the Zen Buddhist world—Joshu Roshi had for decades groped and harassed female students, often quite violently. Although the board of one center received letters about his conduct as early as 1991, it was not until one of his former monks, Eshu Martin, posted an open letter on in 2012, that the board took action. An independent “witnessing council” of Zen teachers also initiated an investigation, publishing a report last year that described incidents like “Sasaki asking women to show him their breasts, as part of ‘answering’ a koan”— a Zen riddle—“or to demonstrate ‘non-attachment.’” When women reported sexually assaultive behavior, they found the male monks unsympathetic. And when I reported on this story last year, after Joshu Roshi had largely retired from active teaching, a reservoir of sympathy for the man still remained.
Bob Mammoser, a resident monk at Rinzai-ji, told me that he had been aware of allegations against Joshu Roshi since the 1980s. And he didn’t seem to doubt them. “What’s important and is overlooked,” he told me, “is that, besides this aspect, Roshi was a commanding and inspiring figure using Buddhist practice to help thousands find more peace, clarity, and happiness in their own lives.” He said that with teachers “you get the person as a whole, good and bad, just like you marry somebody and you get their strengths and wonderful qualities as well as their weaknesses.”
Joshu Roshi’s behavior was all too typical of the early generation of Japanese teachers in America, who arrived just in time for the explosion of interest in Eastern religion. They often embodied the dark side of the sexual revolution that was also underway, taking license with students, who often felt pressured by their immediate culture to give way and who found little support when they complained.
In the 1960s, four major Zen teachers came to the United States from Japan: Shunryu Suzuki, Eido Shimano, Taizan Maezumi and Joshu Sasaki. Andy Afable, a former resident monk at a monastery founded by Eido Shimano Roshi, told me that three of the four—Maezumi and, more recently, Shimano and Sasaki—caused widely publicized sex scandals that brought great distress to their zendos and organizations. Even the one who was not tainted by scandal, Shunryu Suzuki, handed the San Francisco Zen Center off to Richard Baker, who became embroiled in scandal after it surfaced that Baker had had carried out affairs with several female members of his community.
Joshu Roshi’s impropriety with many of his female followers—and the collusive secrecy of his male followers—should not be forgotten. But it would be wrong to reduce the man to just this. He did have a grand side. “He’s both the friend and the enemy,” Leonard Cohen said of Joshu Roshi in the film Leonard Cohen: Spring 1996.

This article is but one more in support of rape culture in America. If I may be absolutely clear, enlightened teachers do not rape their students. People who rape their students are not enlightened teachers. To assert otherwise is to say that women are but so much rubbish to be disposed of however men wish. It is telling that no female students of Sasaki came forward to sing his praises. I am disappointed that Leonard Cohen, whom many see as a cultural icon in America, didn't have the moral strength to walk away and report what was happening to the police rather than depict Sasaki as both friend and enemy. The truth is that rapists are the friend of none, for they diminish us all. There is no grand side to rapists, no matter what else they do in life. How many would say of Roman Catholic priests who assaulted children that they were both the friend and enemy?

If there is a lesson to be drawn from this it is that we must not place our spiritual teachers, no matter the tradition, on a pedestal. Once we encourage people to believe that the teacher is fully enlightened, or a guru who has already finished the journey and is just hanging around for our benefit, or that the guru IS the Buddha, or that the priest IS Christ, we open the door for unscrupulous men like Sasaki to destroy lives in the name of religion and spirituality.

Perhaps we can only judge if people are fully enlightened in retrospect. Certainly Christ, Buddha, Muhammad, Moses, Elijah, and the other founders of the great traditions were. We can argue that some more recent teachers who have transitioned this life were as well, including some of the Hindu adepts, Dr. King, Thomas Merton, many of the Saints of the Christian tradition, and so on. Being fully enlightened isn't about never making a mistake in life, because as we move toward enlightenment we are going to make mistakes. Surely, however, an unrepentant serial sexual assault perpetrator can safely be said to have never seen the light. How much safer would we be to postpone judgment on enlightenment until people have passed, and instead settle for Lama Surya Das' answer to the enlightenment question when it was posed to him on "Buddha at the Gas Pump?" He answered, "I am enlightened enough for now." Refusing to join the many teachers today who claim full enlightenment to prop up dubious teaching legacies consisting mostly of plagiarisms, yet acknowledging some progress on the path, Das' honesty is to be commended in a world full of self promoting charlatans. Sasaki seems in part to have gotten away with his crimes because people were only too willing to see him as enlightened and therefore give him carte blanche to do whatever he wanted - and what he did was cause great damage.

Even Tricycle Magazine is complicit in supporting his crimes, refusing to be honest and call him what he was - a horrible criminal surrounded by conspirators before and after the fact in the name of the Dharma. How sad. How strikingly unenlightened. How criminal in that they, too, continue the cover up.