Take It From A Lady Who Spent 12 Years Meditating In A Cave

Some of you have probably heard of Ani Tenzin Palmo — a Britisher who left home at age 20 to spend the next quarter-century practicing Tibetan Buddhism as a nun in India.  Twelve of those years she spent living in a cave, with walls and a door built onto it, in the valley of Lahoul in northern India.  Kind of her bad-ass claim to faim — though the way she tells it, she just wanted some real solitude and was tremendously happy there: plus the cave was actually warmer than the traditional mud-wall houses everyone else lived in.

Anyhow, this paragraph from one of her books, Reflections On A Mountain Lake, caught my eye:

Many people ask how to get rid of anger, because it is an uncomfortable feeling.  We don’t like feeling angry.  We don’t like feeling hatred.  But nobody has ever asked me, “How can I deal with my desire and my greed?”  Yet greed and desire, along with ignorance, keep us trapped in samsara.  But greed and desire are not really regarded as negative emotions in the West.  After all, what would our consumer society be if we didn’t have desire?  On the whole, desire is regarded as a positive thing, especially if you can satisfy it.  Desire is seen as a motivating force.  It propels people to go out and buy more and more and more, and that keeps the economy churning.  This is the idea behind all this.

Imagine living in an economy based on contentment, compassion, and generosity, rather than desire.

Western Socially Engaged Buddhism: At What Cost?


When I discovered the website for the Zen Peace Center’s Symposium for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism, coming up this summer, I got all excited.  Spiritual and social liberation!  Sharing strategies!  All about it.

Then I saw the price tag.

$600 for tuition, breakfast, and lunch.  Dinner and lodging not included.  (Not to mention the cost for me to travel to Massachusetts.)

Six hundred dollars?  Probably closer to a thousand, all told?  Now where’s the social engagement in that?

Of course, this is not a dilemma unique to the Zen Peacemakers.  As nathan and I have been discussing lately, it’s a huge challenge to make a sangha’s economy reflect its philosophies.  And when I called the ZPs to inquire about a sliding scale or some other option, it was clear that they were at least considering the contradiction between the symposium’s mission and its prohibitive costs.  Within a couple of months, they had designed and posted a volunteer application, which would cover the cost of tuition — though still leaving the problem of travel and lodging.  My new friend Ari, ZP assistant to Bernie Glassman, says they’re also pursuing possibilities for free places to stay: either camping on the property or staying with local sangha members.  If you’re interested in attending, hit up the volunteer app!  (Unless, of course, you can afford to pay — in which case you’d be helping make things more affordable for the rest of us.)

It’s important to keep in mind, I think, that the point of keeping entry costs low isn’t only a matter of accessibility.  Of course, we want to make teachings and community-building events available to poor and working-class folks.  But for a group explicitly interested in social justice or “social engagement,” there is also the problem of reproducing oppressive, class-based structures.  Inclusion is not enough: we need transformation.

For example: what does it mean when social justice -oriented sanghas establish endowment funds, which invest donors’ contributions into the financial market, strengthening the capitalist structures that exploit and crush workers?

We don’t need to rely on this model.  Check out this definition of a “dana economy” from the rad-sounding Eco-Dharma Center:

All our events are offered in the spirit of dana, a Sanskrit/pali term meaning giving and gift. The ethical practice of generosity expresses the transcendence of separate selfhood and constitutes a basic ethos at the heart of creative community. The economic forms of consumerism and capitalism highly condition our relationships in the world – encouraging us to experience ourselves as discrete subjective entities, producers or consumers, insulated from responsive engagement with others. Rather than emulate this, it is our intention to support economic relationships which contribute towards a culture of sharing.

We do not intend to enter into relationship with you as the providers of a service for a consumer. We intend to enter into a wholehearted human relationship with you, as co-producers and collaborators in the transformation of ourselves and our world. To support this intention we ask for contributions to make this work possible, rather than offering our work as a service to be bought. The basic principle of the Dana Economy is, “give what you can, take what you need”.

The suggested donations in our programme reflect the very basic income required to make the events viable. We do not have any independent means of financing the events and we do need that those attending offer financial support to make the events financially viable. If you can offer more, please do. If the incoming donations for an event are insufficient we will be unable to give them freely. So, please look at the suggested contributions and enter into the spirit of this approach by giving what you can. We are also willing to discuss donations in the form of skill sharing and offers of work to support the project.

(from http://www.ecodharma.com, on "radical ecology")

I know we need to be realistic, and as Ari reminded me, most sanghas do not dedicate themselves exclusively to offering retreats, a la Goenkaji’s Vipassana centers, so that’s not a viable model for everyone.  And I want to emphasize that I’m not trying to guilt-trip anybody.  Rather, I’m eager to talk more, and more openly, about the real costs of maintaining sanghas, and how we can reproduce and sustain radical dana economies: economies of insight and generosity. I’d love to hear y’all’s thoughts.

In addition to volunteering in order to earn my way at the Symposium, I’m hoping to host a workshop on using the Internet as a tool of dharma.  So wish me luck!  Seems like it’s a popular subject these days, and I’m psyched to hear how others are theorizing it.

Meanwhile, here’s a bit of info on the ZP’s newsletter — for which they often solicit contributions.  I checked out the issue on prison meditation this month, and there were a number of really solid articles.  (Also made me that much more eager to see Dhamma Brothers: a documentary on the introduction of a Goenka-style 10-day silent Vipassana course into an Alabama prison.)

Take care, y’all!

— — — — —

Zen Master Bernie Glassman and the Zen Peacemakers invite you to enjoy


A Newsletter for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism

The Zen Peacemakers founder, Bernie Glassman has created the a clearinghouse on Socially Engaged Buddhism in the West. We are pleased to invite you to receive our FREE monthly online publication.

You will learn about:

·      Who?: Profiles, links and articles on the individuals and groups practicing service and working for social justice as Buddhist practice

·      What?: Emerging service projects and social actions, including opportunities to train and get involved

·      Why?: The history, ethical bases and philosophies that inspire the global movement of Buddhist communities towards social engagement

Previous issues include Bernie’s meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well as surveys of Buddhist chaplaincy programs and work in prisons.  You are invited to e-mail submissions for our March issue featuring Dharma-based mental health programs to editor@zenpeacemakers.com.  For your free subscription, please go to: http://www.zenpeacemakers.org/subscribe

We are also building two related directories:

Groups and Activists


Learning Resources

It’s easier than ever to access information and to get involved!

I’m Not That Kind Of Girl…But My Boyfriend Is

Ryan and I have come to an understanding on the subject of gift flowers.  He’s into them, insofar as he enjoys flowers in general.  Me, I like them in the wild, and in other people’s gardens or homes…but I told him if he’s ever thinking of getting me flowers, he can offer a bouquet of kale, instead.  Now that would set my heart aflutter.

Our little inside joke came to mind Saturday morning as two friends and I were drinking in the Alemany farmers’ market (best show in town, far as I’ve seen).  Small, tight brussels sprouts glowing like alabaster; giant purple-and-green sugar cane stalks; heaps of bright, cartoon-shaped carrots — well, an inventory isn’t the point.  Let’s call it heaven for shorthand.  (Especially given the row of prepared food vendors, including a lovely older lady at the helm of a large pupusa stand.)

So I’m browsing and reveling, already saddled with a heavy shoulder bag of asparagus, beets, and all manner of Brassica oleracea (broccoli, cauliflower, b-sprouts, and my beloved lacinato kale), when we come upon some buckets of fresh flowers.  I picked up these beautiful tulips to give to Ryan.

Feeling cheerful and rather delighted with the low-risk gender role reversal, I parted ways with my friends and boarded the bus home to downtown SF, where Ryan and I planned to meet up on Market Street.  A fellow rider — gaunt with thick bangs and a charming toothless smile — complimented my kale and flowers, volunteering that she would actually prefer the former to the latter.  I was in good company.

When I arrived at 8th and Market and settled against a wall to wait for Ryan, I discovered another perk to the gender bending.

A much older man walked straight up to me, staring intensely.  He looked a bit off.  Started talkin all this about Do I want to spend some time, and What am I up to.  I smiled and said, “I’m waiting for my boyfriend, to give him these.”  It wasn’t exactly a brush-off or an evasion tactic — though, like many people, I sometimes have to use those with aggressive men.  Here, I was simply relating to the situation, with more warmth than irritation.

The man glanced down at the flowers, mumbled a goodbye, and strode off toward 9th.

When Ryan did arrive, even though I handed him the tulips, he assumed I’d just bought them to dress up my own bedroom.  Took him a while to realize that they were for him.

And the rest of the morning we spent cooking kale.

Friends On Friday

Well folks, it’s been quite a week!  Yesterday was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time: not because everything went smoothly and pleasantly (although some things did) but because the quality of my own engagement was extraordinarily high.  I felt able to respond with grace, patience, humor, and at least a little wisdom to whatever arose.  A raucous 4am awakening by an unexpected visitor.  Fraught group living negotiations.  A friend bravely nursing a broken heart. Dicing potatoes to feed 100 homeless men, running home to lead evening group meditation at the Fools, then hopping the train to Oakland for the East Bay Meditation Center’s People Of Color night.  Joyful or painful, every experience held its own wonder.  And because the capacity to appreciate this wonder has come to me with practice, over time, and not just because of my inborn abilities, I know that all of us are capable of this same freedom.

Next week, maybe, I’ll share some details of the day’s events, but more importantly I’d like to give thanks to some of my teachers and inspirations for living happily.

First of all, I dedicate yesterday to my dear friend Cat (above, perched), who’s been a tremendous inspiration to me on the path.  I’ll have to introduce her to y’all sometime soon, but for now I just want to say I love you, sorry I missed you yesterday at EBMC, and can’t wait to see you next.

A few online founts of inspiration have blessed me lately, too.  New to my blogroll these days are The Luscious Statyagraha; Feminist Marxism In Motion; generation justice; and queer. black. revolutionary. And I’m excited to spend more time over at Firehorse and Dangerous Harvests.

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My Day Off With Jan Willis

It’s been a lovely Wednesday.  Bánh mì sandwiches and reading in Golden Gate Park with Ryan; trees and sun and tea and vegan coffee-whiskey-fudge gelato.  Plus, I finished Jan Willis’ memoir, Dreaming Me (wisely re-subtitled, I think, in a later version: Black, Baptist And Buddhist — One Woman’s Spiritual Journey).

It’s well past my grandmotherly bedtime and I’m too tired to get into the autobio too much, but I will say it spoke to me, and I enjoyed it.  Raised in the 1950’s in a Klan-rife Alabama town, Willis attended Cornell as one of the first waves of black Ivy League students. (She and my dad, apparently, likely rubbed shoulders during the Straight Takeover  — in which an armed Black Students Association occupied the student union in the spring of ’69, protesting a local cross burning and demanding an Africana Studies department.) After graduating, she faced a soul-rattling decision between joining the Black Panther Party (the obligation, she believed, of “any thinking black person” in the U.S. at the time) or traveling to Nepal to study Buddhism.  Gotta love choices like that.

One of my favorite passages:

Of course, the next day things would return to normal and I’d find myself again in a divided camp, with whites on one side and blacks on the other.  This spiritual connection with all things did not erase the racism of the everyday world I inhabited.

Yup.  And:

Talking with the Dalai Lama brought this truth home again.  Buddhism was a process; one did not need to delude oneself or pretend to be other than oneself, and one did not have to become completely passive in order to embrace the notion of peace.  Choosing peace did not mean rolling over and becoming a doormat.  Pacifism did not mean passivism.  Still, patience and clarity were essential.

And finally:

[Baptists] knew that misery and joy can stand side by side.  Indeed, it is this very knowledge that black people call “the blues.”

The teachings, at least as interpreted by these African-Americans, were about overcoming suffering, about patience, strength, and the cultivation of true love.  And they were delivered with compassion.


Spiritual Realism

Having used the literary concept of “magical realism” on a few occasions to describe my experience at Goddard, I’ve lately begun exploring an idea of “spiritual realism.”  It’s a phrase that speaks to many of my experiences in the last two years, and to my spiritual philosophy in general.  I’m interested in the spirituality of everyday life, in the most mundane places — ugly, resplendent, boring, and everything in between.  I’m especially drawn to spiritual practices that address the suffering inherent in social oppression.  That’s why I practice Vipassana meditation at donation-based centers; that’s why I sit with a sangha led by and for people of color and queer folks (also on a donation basis); that’s why I live and work with the Faithful Fools, a street ministry in the Tenderloin of San Francisco.

Spiritual realism is the antidote, the flip-side, to the “spiritual materialism” against which Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche warns us.

I’ve got a lot of thoughts on it, but for now I want to share one of its proximate inspirations, left as a gift on my Facebook wall.  Too good not to pass along: especially, I think, for those of us working for justice in some way.  The goals can seem so urgent that it’s easy to overlook the larger realities — the importance of process.  Thanks for the reminder, bk!

The Trans/Woman (Blogger) Question

At right is the cover of a book recently compiled by my Uncle John: a collection of the letters, writings, and photos of his godmother, Nellie Briscoe Perry.  His introduction to the book names the “why’s” of the project:

This compilation of writings is my way of sharing with others a rare opportunity to 1) learn about the lifestyle of African-Americans living in the historic Shaw district of Washington, D.C., which was rich in culture and the arts in the 1940s; 2) understand how the events of the early 1940s impacted all walks of life; and 3) know the feelings and thoughts of an African-American woman as she lived through and was affected by the events of those times.  Most of the contents of this book are in Nellie’s own words.  So too is the title, Forever Waiting, which was a loving message she used to end many letters to her future husband, Mutt.  You are invited to take this journey and hopefully find it to be an enlightening and enriching experience.

This week, Uncle John (known affectionately to me as “Tall Meat”) will be meeting with the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., which is interested in housing the letters and photos in their collection.  What were once personal articles will now become public pieces of shared history.

I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, and nonetheless it’s been heavy on my mind the last few days.  Mainly, I wonder: what if Nellie’s documentation and communication didn’t take the form of old letters, but a modern blog?  Would their social value and interest change?  Diminish?  In general, when do we treasure personal communications, diaries, and scrapbooks, and when do we dismiss them as trivia or junk?  What makes the difference?

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