Saturday, October 30, 2010

IS BLAMING THE VICTIM A "ZEN" THING TO DO?

An anonymous commenter on this blog said:

"You shouldn't see people as victims because the victims are the ones at fault. I guess you could say that they really wanted or needed to be abused. Anyway, this controversy doesn't seem to warrant the of time effort and energy Brad would need to devote to it in order to even form an opinion. Dude has got shirts to move."


This was in response to my response to comments regarding allegations against a certain Zen teacher. He's named in the comments section. But I'm not going to name him here. I basically said that I felt the matter wasn't really worth the time effort and energy I'd need to devote to getting to the bottom of it so that I could form an opinion. It would take a lot of detective work to even get a sense of who did what and why among the morass of he-said she-said that is all I have to go by at this point. I expressed the opinion that it's a "buyer beware" situation when you start working with any spiritual teacher. Even if I were to ferret out what I think really happened in this case and make my opinions known, it wouldn't do a whole lot of good. Not everyone listens to me, and even if they do I'd only be exposing one guy. I don't have the time, energy or even the inclinaton to police the entire world of spiritual masters.

I've written a lot in my books, on this blog and in contributions I've made to various magazines and spoken a lot in interviews and public talks about how one might go about detecting the minority of abusive charlatans out there masquerading as Zen teachers and other types of spiritual masters. My friend Scott Edelstein just came out with a book called Sex and the Spiritual Teacher: Why It Happens, When It's a Problem, and What We All Can Do that also spends a great deal of energy trying to address this sort of problem and help prospective students understand how not to fall into the same traps others have before.

There's a movement afoot to try and come up with some sort of data base of approved Soto Zen teachers. The Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) is a group that tries to police its membership and weed out the fakes. I don't belong to SZBA for a number of reasons, one of which is that ultimately I think this strategy of creating a data base of reliable teachers will have to fail. One would assume that one of the original purposes of the Holy Roman Catholic Church was to try to create an organization that would police itself so that whenever you placed your kids in the care of members of that organization you could be assured someone was going to be responsible should anything go wrong. We all know how well that worked out. The SZBA seems to be pretty good for now, but this is ultimately a losing strategy.*

All you can really do is talk in general terms. I used the phrase "buyer beware" to express that. It's best to keep your bullshit detector in good working order when approaching any kind of spiritual teacher. Buddha himself even said this in the Kalama Sutra, which I've quoted so often it hurts.

There's another deeper issue this comment raises, though. The commenter says, "the victims are the ones at fault. I guess you could say that they really wanted or needed to be abused." I have to assume he is trying to throw back in my face attitudes he believes he has heard me express. But he doesn't get it. So I'm going to try again.

I have often said that I believe whatever we get in this life is, at some level, something we wanted or needed. When I say this I am only applying it inwardly to myself. I never look at someone else in a shitty situation and say, "That person must have wanted it." But I often look at myself when I'm in a shitty situation and ask, "In what way did I want or need this shitty thing to happen?"

The strategy of pointing to others and saying they wanted whatever awful thing they got doesn't help anyone. I highly recommend avoiding it. Everyone will hate you if you say it out loud. If you say it only to yourself you'll end up coming off smug and heartless, and everybody will also hate you then too. So don't even say it just to yourself no matter how tempting it might be. This is a very important point. Don't pass it over, please.

But when I apply this view to myself, my own suffering becomes much easier to bear. I remember one of the first major incidents when I tried applying this thinking to myself. It was in the early 1990s. I was brutally physically attacked on the streets of Akron by people I did not know at all for reasons I have never been able to comprehend. As far as I could tell then and as far as I can tell now in retrospect the attack was absolutely random. And, by the way, these guys were most definitely trying to kill me.

I won't go into the full story here. Maybe I've told it elsewhere, I don't know. In any case, after the attack I thought to myself, "Buddhism teaches that what we get in life is somehow something we wanted, how does that apply here?"

One might assume that this sort of thinking would lead to self-blame and make me feel even worse. But that's not what happened at all. When I began framing it this way to myself I felt like less of a helpless victim and more like a person who could do something active to improve his own life. And I did. I moved to Japan and incredible, wonderful things started happening. For the first time in my life I stopped feeling like a victim of circumstance and really took control of my fate. Had I not started thinking this way I might still be living in Akron feeling sorry for myself.

I don't even care if this idea is objectively true or not. I believe it is or I wouldn't use it. But even if it turns out I'm wrong, this way of thinking has been so incredibly useful I still wouldn't give it up.

While I never, ever apply this sort of thinking to others and say, "Ha! They wanted that awful thing to happen!" I do try and communicate this view to others because it's been so useful to me. Of course the danger is that what I say will be misinterpreted by people like the guy who left the comment. But I've also seen clearly that absolutely anything you say can and will be misinterpreted. Even if you take a vow of silence, that too can and will be misinterpreted. Such is life.

I'd also like to thank the commenter for pointing out the availability of an ever growing variety of attractive T-shirts designed by me over at http://www.redbubble.com/people/bradwarner. Get yours today!

And if you're in Montreal and want to talk to me about this, go to the Chapters bookstore downtown around 7 o'clock where I'll be signing books.


*Which is not to say I'll never join the SZBA. I might someday. But not because I'll change my mind about this particular point.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

HARDCORE ZEN TOUR

Before I forget, I've put a couple new T-shirt designs up on Red Bubble. You can take a look at them by clicking here. The Ultraman one won't be there for long. So if you're thinking of getting it, you oughta do so now.

In 2009 when I made my first trip to Finland, a guy named Sike (pronounced c.k.) Sillanpää (pronounced like it's spelled, if you know how to pronounce things in Finnish) followed me around and made a movie. Sike was an interesting character. He hardly ever said anything and he didn't seem to need to eat. We kept joking that he lived on sunshine and good vibes.

I like his movie a lot. It's an honest documentary of what happened on that tour. He recently put the entire thing up on YouTube and asked me to let all you nice folks in Blog Land take a look. So here it is:

PART 1


PART 2


PART 3


PART 4


If you liked watching this movie, please consider making a donation! (see button on top left of this blog)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

T-Shirts and More Questions

First up, for those of you who have been asking about t-shirts, I've decided to try out a company called Red Bubble and see how that works. SO, you can NOW ORDER T-SHIRTS AND HOODIES BY CLICKING THIS LINK! Yay!

I've uploaded two designs. You can get them as T-shirts, stickers or hoodies. If you order one, send me a quick email at askbradwarner@hotmail.com and let me know how it is.

TODAY'S FIRST QUESTION:
I'd like to ask you about motivation to continue zazen practice.

I've done zazen for about 5 years or so almost every day and I feel that it had become kind of easy nowadays. Funny thing is that the easier it had become the more difficult it had become to find reasons to continue my practice. I mean, at first it was kind of cool if I managed to sit like 20 minutes staring at the wall, but now I feel that it's hard to find a meaning to go on. I just wondered if you'd have something smart to say on this subject.


MY ANSWER:
This is one of the questions I get more than any other. How do you get started in Zen practice? How do you keep going?

The questioners usually end up asking for motivation. But I wonder if motivation is what we really need.

The stated purpose of a dharma talk is usually "encouragement." The talk is supposed to provide listeners with a motivation to carry on doing this often difficult and seemingly fruitless practice. When those dharma talks often include -- as mine often do -- phrases like Kodo Sawaki's infamous "Zazen is good for nothing" it often feels like they fail if their purpose. Why should we carry on doing something that's good for nothing?

The only way I can answer this question is to try and figure out why I keep on doing it. I suppose in that I am a good test case, because I have kept up this useless practice for well over twenty years now and have no intention of stopping. Yet I often wonder why I do it, even as I'm sitting there on a rolled up towel facing the wall of some hotel room in the middle of a foreign country, with sirens blaring outside or prayer calls from the local mosque tearing up my eardrums, having woken up early and delaying breakfast so I can get this thing done.

Yet even as I wonder why I'm doing it, I still keep going. Even knowing that it is good for nothing, I keep on sitting. Am I an idiot? Maybe. And maybe that's what it takes.

I used to do zazen because I wanted to have an enlightenment experience. Pure and simple. I didn't start off with this motivation. But pretty soon after I'd started doing zazen I read Philip Kapleau's Three Pillars of Zen with its amazing descriptions of real life enlightenment experiences and I wanted one of those. This proved to be lousy motivation because it kept not happening. And so I'd give up.

It was when I gave up on zazen that I discovered the only form of motivation that's ever really worked. Quite simply, I felt like shit when I stopped doing zazen. The first few times I gave up the practice I didn't really understand why I felt so shitty. Then when I'd get back to it, things would get a little better. It wasn't a vast improvement. But it was better than when I didn't do it. So I got back to the practice.

I've said this more times than I can count. I'm sure it's in most of my books in one form or another. And I know it's been on this blog a few times too. Yet people still keep asking for motivation...

I can say a few things that might help. One is that it gets better. There really are moments of insight and transcendence to be had. You can get through a lot of the garbage that's been holding you down. You might even have one of those so-called "enlightenment experiences."

I don't hold that these things don't happen. They do. And they have some value. Sure. Yet, as I've said, enlightenment is for sissies. It's not the point of practice. It's not the goal.

Ultimately we all have to provide our own motivation. What motivates me might not work for you. Hopefully this will help you find yours.

QUESTION #2:
You mention that you don't focus your mind on anything in particular, you just let your awareness go where it goes, but you do keep making sure that your posture is correct.

It's been my experience that every teacher teaches the posture of zazen slightly differently. Back of the hands resting on the thighs, hands so that the little fingers rest on the stomach just below the belly-button would be one example.

But here's the real question: when zazen "gets up and walks around", as Kobun Chino Otogawa averred it sometimes does, how will you make sure your posture is correct?


ANSWER #2:
This is another one I get asked a lot. One popular variation is: How do you keep your zazen mind when you're not sitting on the cushion? And, again, I can only answer from my own experience.

I used to work at this sort of thing. When I first started sitting I had a job as a part-time mail carrier. So when I walked my routes I'd be paying attention to the sensations of my feel, to keeping my back straight and chest open as I walked, to the color of the sky and the sounds around me. That sort of thing. I read about this in a book, I think. Probably not a Zen book.

Nowadays I don't really do that. At least I don't do it consciously. Maybe I've internalized it and made it habit. I don't know.

At some point, maybe a decade or so into my practice I noticed something kind of weird. Colors had become brighter, sounds sharper, my vision somehow clearer, my senses somehow enhanced. It was like a big shroud made of black gauze wrapping my entire body had been taken off and I could now see and experience things directly. The only other time I'd ever felt anything like that was when I was on LSD.

What made that happen? I don't know. Over ten years of zazen every morning and evening plus loads of multi-day zen retreats certainly had something to do with it. But it wasn't something I drove myself to experience.

Nowadays I don't feel right when I'm slumped over in a chair or on a couch. A few years ago I got rid of the couch in my living room (when I had a living room, ah luxury!) because I couldn't stand sitting on it anymore. I couldn't focus on anything. I replaced the couch with some cushions on the floor.

Right now I'm sitting in a coffee shop (Shaika, on Sherbrooke in Montreal's NDG district) and I'm not resting my back against the chair because when I do it feels too lax and unfocused. When I drive I put the driver's seat almost straight up or else I feel like I'm only half awake.

So how do you keep that zazen mind while you're doing something else? Just like you do when you're doing zazen itself; when you find yourself drifting, get back to the right posture. When you find yourself drifting again, do it again. After a while this becomes a new habit and you don't even really have to think about it much.

In his commentary on the Heart Sutra, Dogen says, "There are four instances of prajna that are going on daily; walking, standing, sitting and lying down." Prajna is intuitive wisdom. So for Dogen all of life was wisdom, it was all zazen. Whether we notice this or not, doesn't matter all that much.

Good? Good.

Now I'm gonna go do something else!

Send your questions to: askbradwarner@hotmail.com


ADDENDUM (re: Motivation):
The following is from Vince Anilla at Still Point Zen Center in Detroit:

Still Point Dharma Teacher Anatta Brad Wilson is also a black belt in aikido. Years ago, a couple young guys came in to the dojo. They were gung-ho and clearly willing to do just about anything to get black belts of their own as soon as possible.

Anatta said, "If you guys can stay a minute after class, I'll tell you the secret once everyone else has cleared out." They were pretty giddy, and had no problem waiting around afterward.

This is the secret wisdom that he shared after class: "What you do is come in here five days a week whether you feel like it or not. You arrive with a smile on your face and you leave with a smile on your face. Train hard and be cool to the people you train with. If you do that, and if in ten years you still don't have your black belt, I'll give you mine."

(He never saw them again.)

Zen practice is also like this. And so is anything else in life worth doing in the first place.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A COUPLE OF QUESTIONS

I'm coming to you tonight live from a rustic cabin in Spencertown, New York, about two and a half hours drive north of New York City in the middle of the vast wilderness that lies between New York and Montreal.

It's amazing how as soon as you get out of New York City suddenly all signs of human civilization disappear entirely. Well, OK. Maybe not entirely. But it's such a huge contrast. About an hour and a half out of town I had to pee like crazy. I was driving on the Taconic State Parkway and I swear to God there weren't even any gas stations to be found. Where did they all go? Where do people driving on the Taconic Parkway get gasoline? What is a Taconic anyway? Is that a condition of the parkway? "I'm sorry ma'am, but I'm afraid your parkway has become taconic."

Anyway, you will see that Sock Monkey is with me here. He ran off while I was in New York. Apparently -- and the people who found him told me this, I didn't make it up -- he was riding a mechanical bull. What a wild monkey! I lost him for about three days and I was actually pretty sad about it. I'm well aware he is an inanimate object. Even Sock Monkey himself admits this. But it's weird how attached you can get to a stuffed animal, especially when you've traveled so much with him.

I am returning to Montreal from five days in New York City where I did a book signing and a two-day retreat. People always ask stuff like, "How was the retreat?" And it's hard to answer. It was good. It was noisy, being as it was in the East Village with jackhammers jackhammering and sirens wailing. But I'm pretty much used to urban zazen these days and that's just what comes with the territory.

Some cool people showed up, which was cool. Nobody died. No one was seriously injured. I suppose if I were Genpo Roshi, I could have given them all enlightenment experiences. But I'm not. So I didn't. (Someone posted a link to a nice podcast that mentions Genpo disparagingly, but I can't find it anymore. Maybe you can post the link again?)

It's weird doing whatever it is I do. I do basically what my dad has done for the last twenty or so years, I'm a traveling salesman. My dad sells rubber chemicals. I sell books. But we do pretty much the same thing. We get in a car and we drive a long, long, long way to go talk to people. Funny how that works.

OK. I said I'd answer questions people sent in. So let's go.

After all your spot on observations about the dangers of "teachers" accepting money from students in return for teaching, I find it kind of amazing that you are now offering :

"As a way of making it feel a bit like readers are getting something for their money, I'm going to start answering more questions sent in from you folks out there. "

It's your call obviously, but it just seems like a bad idea.

I didn't press the donate button to get your attention, I just want you to keep doing your work.


This brings up a few issues. First off, I really didn't mean to directly associate the donation button with the answering of questions as if you could now pay me to answer stuff. I can see how it came off that way. I was being facetious though. I'm too scatterbrained to work out who sent questions and who sent donations and correlate the two anyway. So even if that was my goal I'd fail.

The idea of accepting money for teaching Zen is a bit more problematic. I've already said before that I tend to deal with my own conundrum in that area by regarding myself mainly as a writer. Writers get paid for writing. Well, they do if they're lucky, anyhow. I don't feel bad taking money for the things that I write. I don't feel bad getting paid for a lecture by someone who hires me to give a talk about my books. Since I write mainly about Buddhism, this makes my own position somewhat ambiguous. But I'm OK with that.

I don't believe it's a very good idea to be a Zen teacher for a living. But I really don't think it's wrong for Zen teachers to make a living being Zen teachers. The temptation to dumb down the teachings in order to get more butts in seats is very strong when it means the difference between paying the rent or getting evicted. You might even try a scheme where rich people pay you $50,000 to tell them they're enlightened.

That would be the very dark side of it. The somewhat less dark side of it is that by accepting money for teaching Zen, you send the message to students that they have a right to demand how Zen ought to be taught to them.

That being said, Zen teachers still need to eat and pay the rent and they should have a means to do that. If a person devotes their entire lives to Zen teaching, how are they going to make a living other than by accepting support from students? In and of itself there is nothing evil about that.

This is why I try as much as possible to keep the writer side separate from the teacher side. Though they do co-mingle. しょうがないな?

Next question:

I`ve been sitting for 3 years daily, and for one year I intensively focused on doing the first koan of my practice; "What am I?" It became really interesting but I had to quit it because I felt that energies in my body/mind were bit out of control. There was this vibrating spot that sometimes vibrated in my head. And it feels like it's not going to the right direction or something.

So nowadays I've been just sitting and focusing on the body and it feels good and grounding. But especially in stressful situations the focus point goes to head and starts vibrating with sounds.

What do you think about hara for example? I have always been told to focus on the hara, but I never learned how. I'm not sure what to do with focusing the mind.
Just sitting and feeling the body feels good and also slightly focusing on the lower back. Maybe just continue like that?


Shikantaza type zazen in it's purest form doesn't have any specific point of focus. I'm aware that lots of teachers tell you to concentrate on the hara or tanden, which basically means a spot just below your chest somewhere. But my teachers never taught that and I never did it.

When I sit, I really just sit. Wherever my awareness goes it just goes. The only thing deliberate I do is to keep making sure my posture is correct. I try not to consider things too much.

Dogen uses the words 無思料 (mushiryou) and 非思料 (hishiryou) to describe what should be done with the mind during zazen. 思料 (shiryou) is often translated in Zen books as "thinking." The modifiers 無 (mu) and 非 (hi) are different levels of denial. In Mike Cross and Nishijima Roshi's translation of Shobogenzo, 無思料 (mushiryou) is "not thinking" and 非思料 (hishiryou) is "different from thinking," as in absolutely different from thinking.

But any Japanese/English dictionary will tell you that 思料 (shiryou) is "consideration." Thinking is usually 考える (kangaeru). So I believe what Dogen was getting at wasn't that we should stop all thought and make our brains completely silent. He was saying something more like that we should avoid actively messing around with the various thoughts that pop into our heads.

Concentrating on the hara seems to me to be the opposite of that. It is a kind of deliberate consideration. You're considering your belly. Same with counting the breath. And it's especially same with using a koan. That, to me, seems to be absolutely without a doubt a form of consideration and definitely not at all what Dogen was talking about.

Phew! That was a lot more work than I thought it would be.

But keep sending your questions in to askbradwarner@hotmail.com and I'll do my best to answer them whether you make a donation or not.

Friday, October 15, 2010

New York City! (again)

Here's another new interview.

I just got to New York City and I'm sure as heck not gonna spend my time all up on this computer. Besides I have an interview to get to across town.

So here's one last plug for the two events I'm doing in New York next week. The first is a book signing at 7 pm on October 15th at the Iinterdependence Project in the East Village. Be there!

The following two days, October 16th and 17th, we're having a two-day non-residential retreat at the Interdependence Project in the East Village. This is a terrific opportunity for anyone who wants to get a real taste of what zazen is all about. The retreat is open to beginners, no experience necessary. It will be focused on shikantaza style zazen as taught by Dogen Zenji. It's non-residential, which means you get to go out and have a night on the town in Manhattan afterward instead of being cooped up with a bunch of Zen nerds all night.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

EMPTYING THE MIND?

I've been doing tons of interviews lately about my new book. Some of them have been really good. But most of the people who interview me don't let me know where I can find the interviews on line. Here are two that did:

Interview on Shambhala Sun Space

Body Mind Spirit by Bob Gregoire

Also, my new column for Suicide Girls' new SFW (safe for work) blog is up here now. You guys have seen this article already. From next time (2 weeks from now) I'm gonna start submitting new stuff.

Here's something interesting a friend of mine sent me:



She told me she thought it was a parody at first. Unfortunately it's real. Is Yoga demonic?

The piece is really amazing in the way it offers a nice capsule view of all that is weird and wonderful in the way certain people on the religious right think of yoga and Buddhism.

You'll see that "Zen Booty-ism" (for that is what it sounds like the woman is saying) is condemned for encouraging people to empty their minds. Instead, we are told, Christianity asks us to "fill our mind with Christ."

I'm kind of curious as to where this notion that the object of Buddhism is to empty the mind actually comes from. Maybe there are Buddhist teachers out there somewhere who really do tell people to empty their minds. But I've never met one. The confusion may come from the use of the word "emptiness" to translate the concept of shunyata. So people know that these weirdos who are so into emptiness also sit silently for long periods of time, therefore they must be emptying their minds. Captain Kirk can tell you how horrifying it is to have your mind emptied.

This notion of filling one's mind with Christ is intriguing. It's hard to imagine what the person who mentions this on the video -- a psychologist no less! -- actually means. I have to guess that it means thinking and thinking and thinking about Christ. Perhaps one is to set up and fix an image of Christ in the mind, to imagine how he would perceive things, what he would do in various situations, his words and deeds as recorded in the Bible. One would then need to constantly compare oneself with this imaginary Christ. And, of course, no one could ever measure up.

Unfortunately, I think this is how some of us Buddhists deal with certain aspects of Buddhism. We agonize over whether we are measuring up to the standards set by the precepts or by the examples of the mythical great teachers of the past. Or we imagine that we ought to have an empty mind like folks in the video think we're trying to achieve and we beat ourselves up for not attaining true emptiness. We think we ought to be more mindful, more compassionate, more present. And damn it! We never quite get there! I know I have done a lot of this myself. It's because I grew up in a culture that held out this way of thinking as ideal.

But Buddhism isn't really demanding that we empty our minds or that we fill our minds with Buddha. It's asking us to honestly acknowledge who and what we actually are. In doing so, we can see clearly what we ought to do and ought not to do. Whether we can acknowledge this is another matter. Practice, practice, practice.


****

OK. Some of you have noticed the donation button on the upper left corner of this page. Thanks! As a way of making it feel a bit like readers are getting something for their money, I'm going to start answering more questions sent in from you folks out there. Send your questions to:

askbradwarner@hotmail.com

...and I'll see what I can do.


****

Again, a plug for the two events I'm doing in New York next week. The first is a book signing at 7 pm on October 15th at the Iinterdependence Project in the East Village. Be there!

The following two days, October 16th and 17th, we're having a two-day non-residential retreat at the Interdependence Project in the East Village. This is a terrific opportunity for anyone who wants to get a real taste of what zazen is all about. The retreat is open to beginners, no experience necessary. It will be focused on shikantaza style zazen as taught by Dogen Zenji. It's non-residential, which means you get to go out and have a night on the town in Manhattan afterward instead of being cooped up with a bunch of Zen nerds all night.


***

By the way, I gotta say some of the comments on the post just below this one are really terrific. For the first time ever I have to actually recommend that folks who don;t normally look at the comments section go take a look at those.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

SEXUAL PREFERENCES? SEXUAL SCHMEFERENCES!

Here's an excerpt from my new book which Shambhala Sun Space has kindly put up. The book is, of course, Sex, Sin and Zen and it's out now at fine book stores everywhere.

You'll note that the excerpt is followed by a discussion of my use of the term "sexual preferences." One of the readers takes issue with this stating:

"The term "sexual preference" belittles the agony that gays and lesbians often must go through in order to become honest with themselves and others about who they are. Many don't make it that far, and they lose their lives. Others lose their lives through murder, at the hands of psychopaths who cannot tolerate their honesty. If sexual orientation were a simple matter of preference, and if people could just choose to "be without preference," as Brad suggests, then we wouldn't see a suicide rate among gay teens that's up to four times higher than that among heterosexual teens. Most of those kids, I assure you, aren't at peace with their "preferences" -- and they would probably choose differently, at that stage, if they had the power. They have "preferences" about the kinds of clothes they wear and the music they listen to and the movies they see and the places they hang out, but sexual identity is on another order of magnitude in terms of complexity. Its causes and conditions, as far as we understand (which, frankly, isn't very far), encompass both biology and psychology, nature and nurture."

There's lots more to the discussion than that, including some comments by Rod Meade-Sperry who put the excerpt up clarifying that I do not take the view in the book that sexual orientation is simply a matter of preference. But you can jump over there and read the rest if you want. Here's my answer:

An interesting discussion! The word "preference" here is indeed unfortunate. In the portion of the book excepted above I was trying to look at the Buddhist idea of "avoiding preferences." And so I was riffing on this word. I don't believe that one chooses to be gay rather than straight the same way one chooses to order strawberry ice cream instead of vanilla. And Dennis is correct, far too many people in our culture today seem to think it's something like that.

One of the many interesting aspects of Zen practice for me personally has been the discovery that there is a tremendous amount of variety in the thoughts and desires that arise in my mind once I stop working so hard at defining myself to myself. Among the many things I discovered was the fact that my own personal sexual orientation was not a fixed and rigid thing. Since I'm the kind of person I am, the idea that I could occasionally find men sexually appealing was not really a big shock. Some of the other stuff I recognized about myself was truly disturbing. That I could be attracted to men was no big deal, especially by comparison.

The point I'm clumsily trying to get at here is that sexual orientation -- hetero, homo, bi, trans, queer, etc. -- seems to me to be just one of a big stew of things we use to constantly define and reinforce our provisional sense of self. Ultimately it's all delusion, even when it's a provisionally useful delusion. Some of it may even be true as far as it goes. But it still falls short of who we really are.

I was trained in the Zen school where we are taught not to draw a hard line between ultimate and relative truth. The party line in Zen is that ultimate and relative truth are one and the same. Dennis is right about the orders of magnitude between preferring the Ramones to Air Supply as compared to one's sexual orientation. Still, as a Zen convert I'm stuck with having to make the point that it's all relative no matter how real it seems. But then again even the undeniable fact that I am a human being living on planet Earth is, too, just relative truth (and, as such, is also absolute truth). So this is a very big topic, far more than you could possibly do justice to in the comments section of a Shambhala Sun Space blog.

In the end, though, I'm still as hetero as I ever was. As Dennis points out, it's part of my personal karma. In spite of what I found through my practice, I can't just flip to the other side through an act of will. In my own case I'm lucky that there is no societal pressure to do so. It must be really horrible when there is.

But I find I'm more personally at ease with myself because I've been able to drop some of the very hard clinging I did to my sexual identity -- among many other aspects of identity. I imagine a lot of people could do with discovering these things about themselves. This is especially true for hetero folks like me, I think. And here's why.

We need to treat everyone we meet with respect and dignity regardless of their orientation. That's for sure! I believe that the Buddhist practice can help establish that by allowing more people to see how fluid their own identity -- sexual or otherwise -- actually is. Then we cease to view others as eternally different from ourselves.

*****

Again, a plug for the two events I'm doing in New York next week. The first is a book signing at 7 pm on October 15th at the Iinterdependence Project in the East Village. Be there!

The following two days, October 16th and 17th, we're having a two-day non-residential retreat at the Interdependence Project in the East Village. This is a terrific opportunity for anyone who wants to get a real taste of what zazen is all about. The retreat is open to beginners, no experience necessary. It will be focused on shikantaza style zazen as taught by Dogen Zenji. It's non-residential, which means you get to go out and have a night on the town in Manhattan afterward instead of being cooped up with a bunch of Zen nerds all night.

*****

And I would like to thank everyone who has been making use of the donation button up on the top left corner of this page. Every little bit helps a lot. Thanks!

Thursday, October 07, 2010

New York City!

Greetings and bon jour from Montreal!

Before I go any further I have to plug two events I'm doing in New York next week. The first is a book signing at 7 pm on October 15th at the Iinterdependence Project in the East Village. Swing by, get a book, get it signed, have a grand old time.

The other is a bigger event. The following two days, October 16th and 17th, we're having a two-day non-residential retreat at the Interdependence Project in the East Village. This is a terrific opportunity for anyone who wants to get a real taste of what zazen is all about. The retreat is open to beginners, no experience necessary. It will be focused on shikantaza style zazen as taught by Dogen Zenji. It's non-residential, which means you get to go out and have a night on the town in Manhattan afterward instead of being cooped up with a bunch of Zen nerds all night.

I get sick of people who hype these kinds of things as big enlightenment orgies, so I tend to downplay them and say it's boring. But, honestly, I wouldn't run so many multi-day Zen retreats unless I thought they were truly worthwhile.

You might imagine that sitting on your own at home and staring at a wall is the same thing as joining a group of people to do it. But it's really not at all. There's a power to the practice when it's done with a group that you can't find any other way. And long sittings are a way to dive deeper into the practice. It's almost impossible to find the self-discipline to do a long-form sitting alone. When you're with a group you draw upon the shared commitment of others and what was impossible becomes easy.

I really urge anyone within the area who is on the fence about this whole zen deal to come try it out for yourself in this relatively painless way. In some strange way these sittings are actually fun. You learn a lot about yourself that you never knew. I do every single time and I've been sitting gosh knows how many per year for more than half my life. DO IT!

I'll also make myself available for private talks during the weekend.

OK. So I've been doing tons of press for my new book Sex, Sin and Zen, and each time I do an interview or a talk I learn more about the book.

The reviews have been very interesting because this time even the bad reviews are exactly the kind of thing I had hoped the book would stimulate. When I first encountered the third precept, the whole "do not misuse sexuality" thing, I was confused. I'd heard right-wing Christian nut-cases talk about what they viewed as the misuses of sexuality and assumed that Buddhists must be talking about the same thing. In spite of my first teacher's attempts to make me see things differently it wasn't until I went and lived in Japan that I found out it's not the same thing at all.

The guy who interviewed me today wanted to talk some about my "voice" in my writings. He wanted to know if I deliberately stir up trouble or if that's just how I naturally am. He talked about my radical views on sexuality and whether I was airing those just to get a rise out of people.

And I thought about how I live in this kind of funny dual world. To a lot of the people I know from Suicide Girls, the punk scene, and just life in general, my views on sexuality seem positively prehistoric. They're not radical at all. I seem like a bit of a fuddy-duddy. Then I step into Buddha Nerd Land and I seem like a foul mouthed pussy-crazed heathen waving his dick around at everybody. So I figure what's really going on is that I'm treading the middle ground.

A lot of people seem fascinated by what they see as the dichotomy between how I am when I write and how I am when I speak in public or when I speak to them in person. But I don't see it that way at all. They accuse me of inventing some kind of fake hipster persona that is not the real me. I don't think I do anything of the sort.

But all of this is really terrific because what I wanted most from the book is to get people talking about stuff they haven't really been talking about. Because this stuff needs to be aired in public. There are too many wrong assumptions going on, like my assumptions about the third Buddhist precept being a call to be just like the kids at Rex Humbard Evangelical College for the Chaste and Pure.

See you in New York City!

Sunday, October 03, 2010

TOUR UPDATE & MILITARY BUDDHISM

I just updated my Never Ending Tour Page. Check out a few highlights such as:

NEW YORK, NY
•October 15, 2010 (Fri) 7 pm - Talk and Book Signing at the Interdependence Project 302 3rd Floor (Middle Buzzer) New York, NY, 10012

•Oct. 16-17, 2010 (Sat - Sun) - Non-residential Zazen Retreat at the Interdependence Project 302 3rd Floor (Middle Buzzer) New York, NY, 10012

MONTREAL, QC
•October 26, 2010 (Tue) - 12 Noon Luncheon at Allen Memorial Hospital (McGill University)

•October 26, 2010 (Tues) - 7pm Casa Del Popolo 4873 boul. St. Laurent Montreal, QC

SAN FRANCISCO
• November 7-9, 2010 Dogen Translation Project at San Francisco Zen Center

LOS ANGELES, CA
•November 10, 2010 (Wed) 7pm - Against The Stream 4300 Melrose Ave. Los Angeles, CA

VENTURA, CALIFORNIA
•November 12 (Fri) - 7pm An Lac Buddhist Temple 901, S.Saticoy Avenue Ventura, CA 93004.

LOS ANGELES, CA
•November 14, 2010 (Sun) 7pm - Bodhi Tree Bookstore 8585 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA

You have been told! Now you have no excuse to miss any of these!

I am in upstate New York for a couple nights, Spencertown to be precise. I'm not really certain exactly where I am. The GPS guided me here, just like the star guided those three kings long ago. Next stop in Montreal where I'll be basing myself ro the next 4-6 weeks (with side trips indicated above).

I gotta go make myself some food or I'm gonna starve.

Here's an email I just responded to:

I'm an officer in the military and I'm at a sort of crossroads in my career path. I used to be a fighting troop when I was younger - I was all gung ho about that 'fight for your country' stuff. Now, I'm being offered to go back to the fighting units and lead fighting soldiers.

Somewhere in all that, I discovered Zen, and the whole right livelihood thing is a concern for me. I understand that there aren't hard and fast rules, and that everyone has to figure things out for their personal situations. At the same time, I have come to understand the value of the 'do not take life' thing in and of itself, and not as some commandment. I want to ease suffering, and not to cause it. I don't want to hurt people. But at the same time, I know that things aren't ever that simple in the real world, and that is a lot of good that can be done by soldiers for physically protecting people who can't protect themselves. It's a difficult dilemma. In terms of violent human conflict, I don't see a lot of realistic solutions. If you choose to defend people, you will have to kill people. If you choose to stay out of it, those people you were going to defend may die anyways. If everyone lays down their weapons - well, that'd be great, but realistically, it ain't gonna happen. So where's the solution?


MY ANSWER (for what it's worth):

You're right. It's a dilemma.

The military is necessary. No doubt about that. Anyone who argues otherwise is just deluded and overly idealistic.Since if this is so, actual people have to serve in the military and they have to be trained to kill when needed.

If you do something that is necessary to society, that is right livelihood. Serving in the military is right livelihood. Absolutely.

Most of us agree that it would be nice if there was no need for the military, if the whole world were stable and at peace and that peace didn't need to be defended by deadly force. But we are not there now. Peace has to be defended by people who are trained to kill those who would destroy it. I'm sorry. But that's the way things are.

I wish this was not true. And I can wish all I want but that won't make it so.

The way to change things is to take the real situation and make it better. If Buddhist teachers are telling people military service is not right livelihood, they are standing in the way of the day when real peace finally prevails. The more people in the military who have a Zen practice, or some kind of meditation, the better.

I'm glad there are people like you in the military. I wish there were more.

As to what to do at the moment when you're required to take someone's life to defend someone else, it's too abstract to me to be able to say anything useful. I think at that moment you know whether to pull the trigger or not. Your practice will help you clarify this.