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Spiritual Realism

February 16, 2010

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!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Momin permalink
    February 16, 2010 9:10 pm

    Another gem from the Zhuangzi (Chapter 22):

    Master Dong-guo asked Zhuangzi, “This thing called the Way—where does it exist?”
    Zhuangzi said, “There’s no place it doesn’t exist.”
    “Come,” said Master Dong-guo, “you must be more specific!”
    “It is in the ant.”
    “As low a thing as that?”
    “It is in the weeds of the ricefields.”
    “But that’s lower still!”
    “It is in the tiles and shards.”
    “How can it be so low?”
    “It is in the shit and the piss.”
    Master Dong-guo made no reply.

    Then Zhuangzi launches into a long monologue that’s rather preachy and boring. But it’s just that line, “it is in the shit and the piss” that I love. It’s got such a nice punch.

    By the way, I’ve spliced Burton Watson’s and A. C. Graham’s translations here to my taste. Just so you know, for the key phrase Watson has, “it is in the piss and shit.” and Graham has “it is in shit and piss!”

    A similar sentiment in the Daodejing (Section 8, Ivanhoe translation):

    The highest good is like water.
    Water is good at benefiting the myriad creatures, while not contending with them.
    It resides in the places that people find repellent, and so comes close the the Way.

  2. Momin permalink
    February 16, 2010 9:11 pm

    *comes close to the Way.

  3. February 17, 2010 11:09 am

    Hi Katie,

    These communities you’re involved with sound really cool. I’m interested in the donation-based aspect of your Buddhist communities. How does it work in terms of finances? Are they supported by larger groups, are they just small enough to not need a lot of funding? I ask partly because I’m currently the board president of my zen center, and I’m trying to figure out ways to diversify our approach to finances. Frankly, I’d rather be in a more progressively financed community – donation based or some other method that didn’t feel like a faux capitalist approach, but that isn’t what we have, and in a lot of ways, my views are pretty far out there compared to the rest of my board.

    On the flip side, we have rent to pay, salaries to pay, and a big enough community that it wouldn’t function with volunteer energy alone. Couple that with people who don’t talk a whole lot, at least while we are together, about economics and how it impacts practice life, and you have a lot of hurdles to overcome.

  4. February 18, 2010 8:07 pm

    You know, I think the funding is a bit mixed. The Vipassana centers organized by S. N. Goenka originally did charge the cost of room and board, then later moved to a total dana system. Sometimes old students will donate property and big, big sums, so I think that’s part of what keeps it viable. But of course it’s a huge challenge. Another aspect is that they kind of stand as independent communities and the labor is all volunteer and residential: most people live on-site while serving. So in a way it’s a bigger commitment than the urban centers I’ve seen, even though no one really gets paid per se. Long-term volunteers might stay up to six months or more, and volunteer center managers might stay on for two or more years.

    The East Bay Meditation Center is officially a non-profit and also operates with an “all-dana” model, though I’m not sure whether they seek out grants from foundations or anything like that. They also might get some sort of support from Spirit Rock, which is kind of a parent center and does charge money, but don’t quote me on that. If you contact them, someone more knowledgeable might be able to explain better than I can.

    Thank you for your work in encouraging your center community to think and act differently around finances! Good stuff.

  5. February 18, 2010 10:41 pm

    The large donor thing, or having some kind of funding reserves, seems pretty key when it comes to working with dana-based, or volunteer heavy efforts. Maybe not the only method, but without something to fall back on, or fill in the financial cracks, it’s pretty difficult. I was part of a team that started a non-profit adult ed. organization 6 years ago, and it’s managed to stay afloat on almost entirely volunteer energy, but without the church it’s housed in giving free space and access to other resources, there would be no organization.

  6. February 19, 2010 11:47 am

    Right, yes. And in a way I think that’s a product of the broad appeal of meditation (rich folks can benefit, too) coupled with the emphasis on generosity: it’s not about giving the minimum, but giving out of a desire to see it continue, and benefit others. Maybe this perspective on giving leads deep-pocketed people to give in proportion to their material wealth?

  7. February 19, 2010 9:13 pm

    “Maybe this perspective on giving leads deep-pocketed people to give in proportion to their material wealth?” Yes, I think so. I’ve seen a few wealthy folks in my own sangha giving at the perfect time what was needed without expecting anything in return. In fact, we’ve received anonymous gifts that I, as a board member, know about and can guess who it was that gave the gift, but clearly the giver simply saw a need and offered because almost no one in the community had any idea there was even a gift given.

    Nice to see, since so often, gifts like this are filled with strings.

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