Elaboration on the BARS Banner

The Radical Sangha banner (also pictured in Monday’s post) has raised a few questions. This might be a good space to engage with some of them.

1. What’s a sangha?

I’ve heard a couple different translations for sangha, which is a Pali word. Loosely, it means something like “community.” In a Buddhist context, it’s one part of the Triple Gem in which practitioners take refuge. Triple Gem includes “buddha” (the historical Siddhatha Gotama from around 500 BC, as well as other buddhas or enlightened folks); “dhamma” (the teachings of the buddha; truth; or practices that lead to understanding truth through direct experience); and “sangha” (sometimes explained as an advanced practitioner to whom we might look for inspiration; other times explained more as a supportive community or assembly of practitioners). So sangha is a group of two or more people practicing dhamma, and helping one another to discover deeper and deeper truths about reality.

2. What’s your understanding of the phrase, ‘by any means necessary?’

Good question. I associate the phrase with Malcolm X and Black liberation movements that bucked norms by insisting that they had a right to use violence, among other tactics, to win their social freedom.

Put in a dhammic context for the banner, I love the apparent tension between the imperative to “Liberate,” and the famous militant phrase. The way I think about it, the Buddha himself did not rule out violence as a means to liberation. He didn’t rule out any means, and indeed gave a good honest try to many of the highest spiritual trainings available to him in his youth. He explored for himself (and encouraged all of his students to explore) the ways that mental negativity (almost always concomitant with doing acts of violence) undermines the quest for liberation from suffering.

What I would love to see among politically active dhamma practitioners in the Bay is a greater spirit of bold experimentation, in the tradition of the Buddha and other awakened folks. Too often we get stuck with a closed-case of nonviolence, or even pacifism. Too often this justifies and hides our fear of confrontation. Fear of conflict. Fear of pain.

And even among the dhammic people who exhibit extraordinary courage and commitment in the face of violent oppression — submitting to arrest and imprisonment for months or years at a stretch, over and over again — I still think we could use a little more of the “any means necessary” mentality. After all, the “necessary” part means what is necessary to win. Not just what feels good to us. Not just what mimics established forms. What works!  Right?

3. I recognize the fist, but what’s with the other hand?

Excusing, if you will, my mediocre drawing skills, the right hand of the figure is supposed to be an abhaya mudra: a gesture of friendly greeting, peace, benevolence, and the dispelling of fear.

For us to liberate (ourselves and each other) requires fortitude and oppositional stances; but it also calls for the special kind of fearlessness that comes from compassion. With compassion, free from delusion, we recognize the good in the opponent. We also see and tend lovingly to the hatred, fear, and greed within ourselves. This compassion inspires and guides our action just as much as strategy; just as much as the urgent wish to “smash” harmful systems.


So there’s a little explanation of where I was coming from. Thoughts?  More questions?



Radical BBQ, Radical Sangha

Some friends threw an utterly beautiful “Radical BBQ” yesterday in Oakland. Young and old, different races, different genders and presentations, fun, kind, relaxed, co-operative, joyful, political. Food (good heavens — Dani made these amazing stuffed stromboli and vegan bread from scratch); music and dancing; a speech from a MUNI driver (SF public transit) on the struggles they’re facing among the rank-and-file; wonderful art (check the Advance the Struggle banner: gorgeous). And they even provided art supplies for people to do their own thing. I took advantage and sketched out a small banner to use for Radical Sangha. Took it home and spent the night painting and finishing it up.

The banner may come in handy tomorrow evening, as the scheduled Radical Sangha will be meeting and then carpooling to San Quentin prison to join the protest of the first death-penalty execution in California in four years. Albert Greenwood Brown is scheduled to be killed by the state on Wednesday. The decision to resume executions (backed by Jerry Brown) was sudden, and has shocked a lot of folks who’ve been doing anti-death-penalty work for years. I only heard about it last Thursday, through folks in Oscar Grant organizing.

I’ll be writing up some thoughts and questions soon on tactics and strategy for radical organizing (sparked in part by an event the Faithful Fools catered yesterday: a talk by lifelong activist and frequent prisoner Father Louis Vitale, a Franciscan priest who works around anti-nuclear intervention and the School of the Americas Watch). Part of me feels ambivalent about attending a protest of the death penalty, with no clear mechanism for affecting this structural, state violence. But I also feel that with the proper perspective, and in tandem with different types of tactics and organizing, it can be a fruitful part of a holistic, loving, politicized life.

What really bugs me is that I won’t be able to make it to another dope event featuring my friend’s mom: An Evening of Solidarity with Women of Haiti. If you’re in the Bay area and not coming to the execution protest, think about hitting this up instead.

And a good Monday to y’all.

More Dangerous Compassion

I’m running around today with errands and work, following a long night of community dialogue/police brutality meetings yesterday. But quickly wanted to share this Huffington Post article: a summary of a weekend dialogue “exploring both the personal and the transpersonal challenges and possibilities of this question: How Can We Bring About a Compassionate Society?”

It’s another example, I think, of the specific problems I talked about in Dangers of Compassion.

Mystified mechanism:

As the hard inner work of contemplative practice transforms an individual, the ethical and altruistic qualities developed in such practices spill out into life with each and every action and interaction.

Root vs. Radical:

The path to a compassionate society arises from the intentions and actions of individuals within that society.

Social Change Relativism:

One small act of kindness and generosity … one act of tenderness … one act of selflessness … each of these moments makes a difference. No act is too small. Strung together, each kind gesture becomes a pearl that makes a beautiful strand of loving kindness with which to encircle self and other, close family, friends, coworkers, community, strangers and world.

Again, I sympathize with the idea that a lot of this compassion stuff is subtle, and can’t be ‘legislated.’ In a way, it really does depend on individual commitment and work. No one can cultivate compassion for us; we need to do it for ourselves.

But as I’ve emphasized, individuals do not exist in material and political vacuums. Pumping up our compassion while neglecting to develop our analysis and political program leaves us lopsided and spinning in circles. Like pushing a cart with one giant wheel and one tiny one.

Also want to note that I think that the Upaya Zen Center, where this “compassionate society” program took place, does beautiful work and includes wonderful people who clearly ‘get it,’ like Maia Duerr of Jizo Chronicles. So it’s not to say that the work of building a compassionate society is useless. (The two times I’ve seen Roshi Joan Halifax speak in person it made me want to run off and meditate 12 hours a day for three years or something — she’s that inspiring.)

Y’all know where I stand. Awakening takes devotion, and I respect that enormously. Bridging awakening with the desire to build a better society is where it’s at. And in order to do that, we have to step up our game on articulating precisely what kind of material society we want, and how we plan to get there.

Anyway, something to chew on for the weekend. Take care, everybody — see you Monday.

Reality Drama


Sometimes I really have fun subverting the “reality drama” genre, you know? Because the drama of reality isn’t always about sex, vices, arguments, competition, smack-talking, appraising, or unraveling. (In other words: getting what we want, and disparaging what we hate.) The drama of reality can also refer to explorations of the utterly mundane. Making ordinariness an occasion for attention. In this case, that might mean cooing like an idiot over a cat, and giving a sloppy, unnecessary video tour of the house you grew up in.

Arguably, the boring stuff does not qualify as “drama.” (After all, what’s the purpose of the word if it just encompasses everything?) But my point is that drama is not an objective category. It depends less on the particular content and more on the mind we bring to it.

We think of drama as being juicy, compelling, and maybe a little dirty. That’s what we expect, and in a way, that’s what we want. At the heart of drama is conflict. Non-drama is non-conflictual.

But fortunately for us everyday drama queens, there is a fundamental, inescapable basis for conflict underlying every single experience of our lives.

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Ryan Starts 10 Days of Woah

[6:15pm Edit: Now with photos, continued below the jump]

It’s 5am in Sacramento, and I’m about to drive Ryan down to North Fork, California (about a 3 hour trip) to begin his first formal meditation instruction: a 10-day Goenkaji Vipassana course. Yup, that’s the same one I dove headlong into, totally unprepared, a year and a half ago in Barcelona. The wake-up-at-4-am, sit-10-hours-a-day, work-through-some-of-the-toughest-physical-and-psychological-pain-of-my-life-and-come-out-smiling retreat.

Shortly after that first course of mine, I got some sobering love-life advice from a wise (okay—somewhat creepy, and definitely trying to get in my pants, but nevertheless wise) 40something German meditator dude. Dude said: In a two-person relationship, if one person is progressing spiritually and the other is not, it will cause a painful imbalance that is exceptionally difficult to handle. Naturally, individuals have different strengths and interests in life, but when it comes down to it, a big gap in insight progression will probably spell incompatibility.

This makes sense to me. And also scares me. (And not because I presume that I’d be the one advancing.)

Fortunately, though, in the first partnership I enter after this combination-come-on-and-counsel, the partner not only has an intuitive grasp of a lot of dhammic principles (as I see it), but more importantly has a strong and genuine interest in deeply exploring reality, reducing needless suffering, and being guided by compassion.

I know. Super hot, right?

Wish him luck!

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Bay Area Race Map: I think the Tenderloin is the little blue dot there

Interesting cartography project by Eric Fischer: racial breakdowns of 40 U.S. cities, inspired by a similar Chicago map by Bill Rankin. Here’s the Bay Area (based on 2000 Census data). Pink means white people; blue is Black; orange is Latin@; and green is Asian. (Invisible is Native? And Middle-Eastern? Does “Asian” include South Asian? Racial breakdowns are so strange.)

Correct me if I’m off, but I think the TL (where I live, at the Faithful Fools) is the little blue dot north-west of the Mission.

For comparison, here’s NYC:

Via Feministe.

Hits-of-the-90’s Friday

Lately the 1990’s have been coming back to haunt me. In a good way. A friend is throwing a 90’s-themed party tonight, and while I was visiting my parents’ house this week, my mom pulled out my Young Author Book from 5th or 6th grade. I wish I had it now so that I could quote the author bio page precisely, but I do remember that it included a sentence like, “Her favorite colors are silver, turquoise, purple, black, fuchsia, blue, and white.”

And also: “Her favorite song is ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ by Savage Garden.”

Well, young self, here’s to your happiness.

Dog Shit Park

Hey friends, sorry this post is so late.  As I mentioned, my dad’s in the hospital, so I’ve been running between SF and Sacramento, juggling work and family and friends and politics — so what else is new? — but right now with more emphasis on the family.

Unsurprisingly, as tough as it’s been to see my dad sick, it’s also offered many opportunities for grounding, reflection, and appreciation.  That’s how this clear-sightedness stuff works, sometimes, in the midst of difficulty.

And it’s reminding me of a less-serious incident, a couple weeks back, when Ryan and I arrived, stomachs bellowing with hunger, at a highly recommended Thai restaurant tucked away in a corner of Oakland, only to discover that it didn’t open for another half hour. (I say this event was less serious, and it was, but I think we can all agree that when crap like this happens to us it can feel pretty damn grave.)

So there we were, ravenous and cranky. But as luck would have it, the same alley that housed the restaurant also contained a tiny, art-filled park.  “Dog Shit Park,” as a wooden sign proclaimed.  (Or warned.)

Busted pianos, colorful sculpture, plants and trees and chairs for sitting. And so, as we’ve seen before here on Kloncke, an inconvenience turned into a lovely opportunity.

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Symposium on Western Socially Engaged Buddhism: Views from a Nobody

Paula Green delivers a keynote talk

If you’re looking for an account of the Zen Peacemakers’ Symposium on Western Socially Engaged Buddhism — hosted last month in pastoral Montague, Massachusetts — from a reputable, authoritative, or well-known source, I can tell you right now: you’re barking up the wrong bodhi tree.  The Symposium was chock-full of dharma celebrities; I am not among them.  I’m not a Roshi, Bhikkhuni, Director, Founder, or Professor.  I am a Nobody.  At least in this context.

But, you know, a Nobody isn’t such a terrible thing to be.  You get a very interesting vantage point as a Nobody.  You see things that others don’t get to see.

For example, as a Nobody with No Money, I witnessed the gestation and birth of the volunteer program for the Symposium.  Back in January, when I first learned of the national event from an ad in Tricycle magazine, I called up the ZP folks and said, “Hello!  I’m interested in socially engaged Buddhism, but I don’t have $600 for registration fees.  What can I do?”

Months later, after a few rounds of phone tag (and the beginning of a friendship with fellow young’un and ZP Media Master Ari Pliskin), a Volunteer Application Page was added to the website.  Something like 40 people applied to fill 15 slots.  And sure enough, the 15 of us who would show up a day early and work the whole week had two things in common.

We were broke, and we were Nobodies.

Except, instead of being Nobodies, we were now Volunteers.  A select team.

Volunteers Seth Josephson, Ashley Berry, and Jane Gish take a sunrise trip to the Peace Pagoda

And we had fun!  We stayed in the beautiful ZP farmhouse — beneficiaries of amazing hospitality and generosity from the residents.  We joked and collaborated and griped and ate together, bonding over tasks and talks.  We even went on group field trips, a couple nights and dawntime mornings.  Truly, the Volunteers were a vibrant, splendid bunch, with stellar direction from a pair of unpaid volunteer coordinators, who as far as I’m concerned accomplished the work of five people between the two of them.

And like paying participants, we got to hear and join in the week’s rich conversations, beautifully facilitated and well-crafted (if a little heavy on the lecture-vibe for my tastes).  We asked questions, mingled, savored those jolts of mutual recognition with kindred spirits.  We also got to discuss with some of our dharma heroes.  For me that included Roshi Joan Halifax, Jan Willis, David Loy, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Alan Seunake (who I already knew from the Bay Area), Matthieu Ricard, and Frank Ostaseski.

Still, unlike participants, and unlike presenters, we were Volunteers.

Volunteer and founder of Boston Dharma Punks, Sean Bowers, listens to a talk from just outside the door

Part of being Volunteers meant a waived registration fee, with all our meals and lodging covered.  Everyone felt extremely grateful to the Zen Peacemakers for welcoming us so fully into the household.

But another part of being Volunteers meant taking on responsibilities that prevented us from participating on an equal basis in the week’s events.

Frequently we had to leave presentations early in order to go work a shift.

Occasionally we missed entire morning programs, assembling bag lunches in the caterer’s basement restaurant in nearby Amherst.

Because of a Volunteers meeting, a few of us got pulled out early from the breakout discussion group on Diversity: the sole mini-program, out of a whole 6 days, dedicated to race and all other types of demographic categories.  As a Nobody among Nobodies (I may very well have been the only person of color under 30 years old, out of a conference of hundreds), in that moment I felt particularly lonely.

And finally, being a Volunteer meant having a green-colored nametag for the week.  Participants had white nametags and presenters had blue ones.

But while everyone else had their first and last names (helpful for recognition and networking purposes), ours had only our first names.  Melissa.  Karen.  Sean.  Kyeongil.

(Weeks later, when I told my dad about the Volunteers’ nametags, he said to me, “And I’ll bet you took a marker and wrote in your last name yourself.”  Knows me well, that man!)

Now, I really don’t want to paint a negative picture of this tremendous event.  And I don’t want to give a false impression: in my human-to-human experiences, no one ever treated me as less-than.  On the contrary, it was one of the warmest, most jovial conferences I’ve ever attended.  I left feeling inspired to organize a radical sangha in my own community, to collaborate with existing groups in the Bay Area, and to keep up the work of socially engaged dharma with renewed vigor.

In the Zen Peacemakers farmhouse

But the nametag thing, inconsequential though it might seem, really underscored for me the subtle class hierarchy between workers (Volunteers) and participants.  My goodness!  If, consciously or unconsciously, we continue to reproduce class divisions and mental/manual labor splits in the name of advancing “Socially Engaged Buddhism,” then it’s almost certainly a doomed movement.

I understand the need to raise funds.  I do.  But fundraising, while vital to movement building, must never be conflated with it.  As much as possible, especially in a Buddhist or dhammic context, we should endeavor to collect what’s needed by promoting dana (generosity), a sense of interdependence, and erosion of the economic and social hierarchies stratifying our society.

Across many different social change movements, this common problem emerges.  People with less material wealth automatically wind up washing dishes to ‘earn their place’ in the big annual strategy session.  Unfortunately, this is sloppy generosity, and serves no one.

At the same time, washing dishes together can be a great way of strengthening community and camaraderie!  Collective manual labor is indispensable to healthy movement activity.

Volunteer event photographer Clemens Breitschaft worked tirelessly! And brought smiles to everyone, too.

The issue isn’t the volunteer work itself, but whether or not it hinges on obligation — explicit or implicit.  There’s a big difference between (1) registering as an event volunteer in order to get in the door, and (2) entering like everyone else, and then signing up, along with anyone else who wishes, to do the work that needs to get done.

Furthermore, the work-exchange problem isn’t only a matter of economics, but diversity, too.

Volunteer Jane Gish expresses her 'social engagement'
Volunteer Kyeongil Jung reflects

Low-income people, the ones most likely to rely on work-exchanges, are disproportionately young, of-color, queer, criminalized, and marginalized.  If we want a diverse movement, we need to make sure everyone enters on as equal a basis as possible.

Many organizations inside and outside of Socially Engaged Buddhism are finding cool, creative ways of solving the money problem for giant gatherings.

Some run almost exclusively on dana (donations), or institute a very manageable sliding-scale fee.  Others charge for tickets while encouraging all buyers to purchase an extra for someone who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it.  Donations (of food, lodging, advertising space) often play a key role.

As Larry Yang of the East Bay Meditation Center says of its dana-based system, the basis is not an economy of exchange.  It’s an economy of gift.  And what a treasured legacy, passed down through various lineages, spiritual and otherwise.

ZP founder Bernie Glassman honors U.S. Socially Engaged Buddhists

Would it really be feasible to host an event as large and snazzy as the Symposium using dana or suggested donations alone?  Honestly, I don’t know.  Maybe we’d need to give up some of the scope and the snazz for the sake of inclusivity and fairness.  My hope is that last month’s event will act as a jump-starter for higher sustained levels of regional collaboration among socially engaged and politically active dhamma practitioners.

Mayumi Oda with one of her gorgeous thangkas in the background. Image by Dennis A. Landi

And maybe the next time we get together on a national level, our enthusiasm, commitment, resourcefulness and generosity will generate a door large enough for everyone to enter as guests; not customers.

In the exquisite Zen Peacemaker spirit of bearing witness, not-knowing, and compassionate action, I believe we can learn from the worldly divides between haves and have-nots, investigate our own blind spots, and skillfully improve on eradicating these hierarchies — the echoes of capitalism — within our own organizations and initiatives.  Our means and our ends can better align.

Together, we can move from Nobodies and Somebodies toward Anybody and Everybody.

Confronting Capitalism through Feminist Fat Acceptance

Despite being a longtime denizen of the feminist blogosphere, it wasn’t til last year that I learned about the Fat Acceptance (FA) movement. (Also called Health At Every Size (HAES) or Fat Liberation. Fat Fu, The Fat Nutritionist, Fatshionista, and Shapely Prose are good places to start if you’re unfamiliar.)

The connection clicked immediately.  In our society, fat people get discriminated against (and dehumanized) in ways that intersect with gender and other dimensions of body politics.  Duh.  Bonus: the fatosphere bloggers I’ve come across are funny and really good writers.

And today, thanks to a post by wickedday, a guest blogger at Feministe, I made another big thinky-type connection: this time between fat-shaming and capitalism.

Basically, what the fat-shaming helps to do is obscure the bald hypocrisy of a capitalist society that claims to care about people’s dietary health (e.g. fighting “the obesity epidemic” on the level of ‘education’ and personal lifestyle choices), while generating enormous profits from food industries that are fundamentally health-hazardous, environmentally devastating, and/or horribly inhumane (processed and genetically modified foods; hormone-filled factory meats; subsidized corn for corn syrup, etc. etc. etc.).  And using super-exploited immigrant labor to do a lot of it.

Now, this isn’t a new argument among FA feminists, but my perspective extends wickedday’s outline of the parallels between slut-shaming and fat-shaming, placing a greater emphasis on the historical and material basis for both.  By most FA accounts I’ve read, fatphobia comes from some combination of hatred, thin privilege, and jealousy: as wickedday puts it, the idea that “it is agonising to look at someone ignoring the rules that you punish yourself with, and still being happy.”

At the moment I’m more curious about bigger-picture causes.  The macro-relationships.  Because, as I say in my comment (copied below), as much as we might argue that our bodies are none of their business, as long as we live under capitalism, their business is precisely what our bodies are.

kloncke 9.7.2010 at 5:31 pm

Loving this post, and wondering if anyone else is interested in bringing the analysis toward the realm of political economy? I’m trying to figure out plausible, material reasons *why* the hegemonic discourse is so concerned with fat-shaming and slut-shaming.

Because on one hand, from an ethical perspective, “my body” (in terms of its size and sexual activity) is none of “your business.”

But from a point of view of class struggle in a capitalist context, “my body” as a vehicle for the commodity of labor-power (and/or the reproduction of labor-power; i.e. childbearing and domestic work) is *precisely* “your business” (“you,” the capitalist class) — in the sense that it is the source of the surplus value that capitalists (who are almost entirely men) extract as profit. No wonder the state (largely synonymous with the capitalist class) monitors the bodies of its labor force a.k.a. profit machine.

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