Tag Archives: compassion

Heartwarming

Take 4 minutes out of your day to watch this short video about a principal in Las Vegas reaching out to her young students – over 80%  of which are homeless.

When I saw the children eating ketchup for lunch…it just crushed me…

 

 

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There were 19 victims in Arizona

 

I really don’t have much time to post lately, and I have thoughts of closing the blog down for good as I really don’t see myself being able to make time to commit to posting. More on that some other time perhaps.

I wanted to post today just a thought or two on the Arizona shooting that took place on Saturday. I’m sure by now you’ve heard the whole story, so I’ll spare going into any details here.

My only thoughts are this: 19 people’s lives were directly and permanently altered on Saturday. The shooter brought lots of ammo with him. While his main target certainly seemed to be Congresswoman Giffords, there were 19 others that were shot, 6 of which died.

Federal judge John Roll, 63, left behind 3 sons, a wife, and 5 grandchildren.

30-year-old Gabe Zimmerman, a Gifford’s staffer who was engaged and had a wedding date set for 2012.

Phyllis Schneck, 79 leaves behind 3 children, 7 grandchildren, and 1 great-grandchild.

Dorwan Stoddard 76 – this is from Huff Post: “When the shooting started Saturday, he dove to the ground, covering his wife Mavy, who was shot in the leg three times. The couple had been grade school sweethearts growing up in Tucson. After their respective spouses died, they independently moved back to retire, became reacquainted and fell in love all over again. Mavy Stoddard talked to her husband, who was shot in the head, for 10 minutes while he breathed heavily. Then he stopped breathing. He had two sons from his first marriage, and Mavy has three daughters.

Dorothy Morris, 76 whose husband was shot in the rampage, but is in the hospital also left behind a few daughters (I’ve seen 2 and 3, so don’t know for sure).

And then, what to me is the most tragic result of this mad man’s terror, Christina Taylor Green, only 9 years old. Apparently she had just been elected to Student Council and had an interest in politics, which is why she was at that Safeway to meet Congresswoman Giffords. She apparently wanted to have a career where she would be of service to others (I think I wanted to be a pilot at that age….). She enjoyed athletics. She leaves behind an 11-year-old brother. She leaves behind parents, and grandparents.

It isn’t too hard to read about the people the elderly victims leave behind. It’s generally expected that parents and grandparents outlive their offspring. It is tragic and sad, yes. And I certainly don’t want to value one life above another here.

But she was only 9 years old.

She was only 9 years old.

I understand the outrage pouring out over this incident. I just don’t understand how the conversation was so quickly turned into a left vs. right ideological battle. Within hours of the massacre people were trying to figure out who was to blame. We heard from pundits about other pundits and about that half-term quitter governor from Alaska, but we didn’t hear about Christina, and her story (other than the little I’ve shared here). We didn’t hear about her aunts and uncles and friends from school and 9 year old team mates that now have to deal with the fact that their loved one isn’t coming back.

It isn’t that I don’t agree with some of the political statements being made out there. Some of them, I do. And I do so adamantly. But their bodies weren’t even cold and all we could hear about was some redneck’s map and what Rush Limbaugh had to say and what books were on the shooter’s MySpace book list.

I remember when Kayla Rolland was shot. It was in my community. My mother worked with a close friend of the family (or Aunt of Kayla’s or something….) and I remember it vividly. Shock. Terror. Unimaginable sadness. A 6-year-old shot another 6-year-old. And I remember that very day, people carrying signs in favor of the 2nd amendment on some busy cross streets in my hometown of Saginaw, MI. Yes, we have freedom of speech in this country. I respect that. But just because you have the right to do/say something, doesn’t always mean it’s the right thing to do.

I also remember my teachers waiting a week or so before we started talking about the greater themes that revolved around the shooting like gun rights, poverty, drugs, homelessness and other broader social issues that contributed to the tragedy.

Already the 6 victims that were killed and the others that were wounded are being forgot. They’re being pushed down in the headlines in favor of partisan rhetoric, blame games, conversations on society’s role in all this and yadda yadda yadda. It’s not that I don’t think some of those points are important or valid. I do. My fear is that this intense personal tragedy will just get churned into fodder for the left vs. right meme machine. In 5 years most of us will probably remember that Congresswoman Giffords was shot, and that there were others shot that day too (I bet we’ll forget how many). Some of us will remember Christina, but I bet it will be the minority. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself if you knew who Kayla Rolland was reading that first sentence, without having to click on the link. It was one of the most tragic killings this country has ever seen, and I don’t know that anyone outside of Flint (and Mid-Michigan) still thinks about it.

Can we try holding off on the politicizing for just a few days? Maybe direct our efforts toward compassion for the victims and their families, even for just a few days? Is the “noble discussion” about whose fault it is and what role everyone plays in it that urgent that it can’t wait a few days? Maybe if we shine the spotlight on the victims for a bit longer, we won’t forget quite so soon this time.

I’ll leave it to others to cry outrage!

Right now, all I can come up with is tragedy!

  

Cheers.

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Affirm life; do not kill

— On the grounds of a Buddhist temple, dozens of white plastic bags lay in carefully arranged rows. Each sack was knotted at the top and contained the remains of a fetus.

Thai authorities found about 2,000 remains in the temple’s mortuary, where they had been hidden for a year — apparently to conceal illegal abortions.

…Abortion is illegal in Thailand except under three conditions — if a woman is raped, if the pregnancy affects her health or if the fetus is abnormal.

…Suchart Poomee, 38, one of the undertakers being questioned, confessed Tuesday he had been hired by illegal abortion clinics to destroy the fetuses, police said. He said he had been collecting the fetuses since November 2009. It was not clear why they had not yet been cremated.

The above is from the following article, please take a short minute to read it.

I’ve been thinking about posting on the issue of abortion for a while now, and this article presented a good context for it. At first I was shocked and saddened by what happened, mostly it was just at the magnitude of that many dead fetuses. For me this article brings to light issues that fall outside of the black/white pro-choice/pro-life debate we usually hear about. I don’t know if there is a unifying theme to my thoughts here, so I think I’ll just go for it, and ask for your forgiveness regarding the scattered nature of this post..

First thing I think about is the entire premise of pro-life/choice. Seeing death of this magnitude definitely makes me question my long-held stance of being pro-choice. It’s hard for me to argue for someone else’s right to do something like that.

I find I sometimes have to remove the human element away from the situation in order to argue in favor of being pro-choice. I wonder if it is possible to feel empathetic toward all those involved in the process, and what that looks like.

I don’t want to force a woman to have a baby if she doesn’t want to, regardless the reason. And I sure as shit don’t want to see a return to back-alley abortions.

I wonder if it is more disheartening because of the magnitude of seeing thousands of fetuses all there, all at once. It’s in my face and not in the back of a clinic with no windows. I wonder what else I take for granted simply because it happens behind a door in a place I’ve never been.

I wonder what those at the temple have to go through when dealing with the aftermath of these illegal abortions.

I don’t like the term pro-life. It isn’t accurate. Many of the same people who call themselves “pro-life” are also “pro-war” and “pro-death penalty”. Clearly all life is not precious to them. Why the distinction?

The doctrine of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) comes to mind when I try to think of this topic. Sometimes I think that I’d be okay with abortion if it was done in the 1st trimester if by choice (later for medical reasons). But then I start to wonder where it is that life begins. Is it when the brain has activity? The heart beats? When the sperm fertilizes the egg? When I try to think of this in terms of dependant origination I can’t pinpoint the moment where life begins. I keep going back to the sperm, and egg. The egg that was present when my daughter was fertilized in my wife’s womb actually grew in her mother’s womb, where an egg that was fertilized had been since she had been in her mother’s womb and back and back to all the ancestors of our collective past. All of this is precious.

I think that abstinence only sex-ed doesn’t work. Not at all. Clearly this is evidence of that. Humans want sex. Teenagers want it even more. (and yes, I did just draw a distinction between humans and horny teenagers)

Birth control is there to help prevent people from having an unwanted/unplanned pregnancy, but it’s only 98-99% effective. I have 2 children that can attest to the other 1-2%. Our planet can’t continue to grow at the rate we’re breeding and people shouldn’t have to be brought in this world to parents that want nothing to do with them when there are other options available. Sometimes biology happens. Sometimes you make the best of it, and alter your life and raise two beautiful children. Sometimes it isn’t possible to bring a child into the world and offer her what she needs.

  

Is killing sperm the same as killing an embryo the same as having an abortion at 4 months? If yes: Really? If no: how come?

When does a fetus become a baby?

Legislating morality in the way it seems to happen in Thailand (as well as in many other places) leads to situations like this. Illegal abortions. People put in awkward and potentially dangerous positions.

We legislate morality all the time. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Who’s morality is better? There will never be a system that gets it right 100% of the time.

I believe that non-theraputic male circumcision is wrong. How do I justify that stance with being pro-choice?

I think there are too many filters to view this through, which is why we’ll never resolve this issue. Ever. It is legal, political, moral, and personal. All or none at once. The fetus has a right to attempt to become a person. The woman has a right to not be a mother. The doctor has a right not to perform the procedure. The courts have a right to say who is right and who is wrong.

How do we affirm life and support everyone involved? How do we apply the Bodhisattva vow when it comes to abortion?

The article says that the fetuses were placed in the bags by workers when they were found. Were they just out in the open before this? The image of thousands of fetuses just lying around a morgue is horrifying to me. I haven’t been able to shake it.

For the first time in my life I am able to understand those that picket outside of an abortion clinic. Most definitely there are those that are there for religious and political reasons, but I know that some of them just care. Deeply. And I identify with that.

I understand the desperation a soon-to-be parent can feel. I will never be able to feel that through the filter of motherhood, but as a parent I can say that those shoes are familiar ones. I feel for those that feel the need to end a pregnancy early. But I will never have a woman’s perspective on this.

I feel for those that miscarry. I feel for those that lose a child, no matter what age.

I think I am glad that women have the option, but I wish that it was an option rarely exercised.

I have no easy answers. The gray is too strong on this one.

Edit: I originally had a picture of my 2 children included, but after reading this over a few times felt that wasn’t a good choice for a photo. Not sure why. So I replaced it.

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My thoughts on “Socially Engaged” Buddhism

There certainly has been quite a lot of talk lately about Socially Engaged Buddhism, and whether or not it is crap, real, necessary, or unavoidable. I’ve completely avoided commenting anywhere on any of the posts about this. I’m guessing that if you read this blog, you’ve seen some of the discussions come up elsewhere as well. If not, check out Nathan’s blog for his take (he also linked to most of the other discussions/posts there) as I think it’s worth reading.

I’ve thought quite a bit about this the last couple of days, and given it quite a bit of thought. Let’s start with defining it. From Wiki:

Engaged Buddhism refers to Buddhists who are seeking ways to apply the insights from meditation practice and dharma teachings to situations of social, political, environmental, and economic suffering and injustice. Finding its roots in Vietnam through the Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Engaged Buddhism has grown in popularity in the West.

John over at Point of Contact had this to say:

(via Jizo Chronicles) How is this different than mundane/non-engaged/boring Buddhism? Because still the only difference I see in the inclusion of social activism. And with that inclusion you can count me out. My activism is not dictated by my religion but is an organic creation from my personal, day-to-day practice.

Why put a meaningless label on it?

(via Point of Contact)Don’t practice social engagement as a Buddhist.  Don’t practice charity as a Buddhist. Don’t show compassion as a Buddhist. These are the things that every personal practice should contain without contraining them with religious identity.  When you chose to show charity, compassion or social engagement as a part of your personal practice you can do so without waving a religious banner.  Do it for the benefit for others.  Period.  End of sentence.  No strings attached.  No politics or banners.  Slogans or comments.  No conversions or evangelizing.

Part of me certainly agrees with John. When one is engaged fully in their practice, the changes one incurs will naturally be brought out into other aspects into their lives. But part of me agrees with what we find in the definition here. “Buddhists who are seeking ways to apply the insights” to me says that people are seeking a vehicle in which to apply what they have learned and experienced to greater social causes. This is the same thing we find with organized/structured religion. One might not want to use labels or constructs, but I think having a Zen or Pure Land or Therevadan framework is helpful and can be conductive. They are rafts to use when crossing the river, which are to be discarded when one reaches the other shore. I’m wondering if this is what those that consider themselves Socially Engaged Buddhists are doing as well.

Kyle over at The Reformed Buddhist had this to say the other day:

I don’t want this to come across as yet another rant against politics or social justice, as these are all fine undertakings, just as much as opening a soup kitchen, teaching a child to ride a bike or making dinner for the family. But when we attempt to justify these endeavors as the purpose or goal of Buddhist teachings, then the practice becomes something other than Buddhism. They are at best, distractions from our practice and are just more squirrel mind running ramped. And at worst, they are delusional additions to Buddhist teachings in order to create an artificial goal of happiness, or social change or whatever the extra desires may be.

What he and a few others referred to was that the goal (yes, I know….) of Buddhist practice isn’t to help others, do charitable works or any of the other things that fall under the “Socially Engaged” tent, but rather that the end goal of Buddhism is the cessation of suffering. Certainly I agree with that. Plenty of the Pali texts end with the Buddha bringing whatever it was that he was teaching in that particular sutta back to the Four Noble Truths. It always comes back to suffering, the source of suffering, the knowledge that there is a way to end suffering and then the path out of suffering.  And with this again, I have to agree.

And yet, Nathan had this to say regarding the “looking (only) within” aspect of the path:

This is an old, old debate between those who argue Buddhism is about working to disengage from worldly concerns, and those who see Buddhism as a path that includes coming back to “the marketplace” (Ox Herding Pics) if you will. I think everyone is on a continuum between these two extremes, from solitary monks living in the mountains to lifelong social activists whose work is deliberately guided by Buddhist teachings.

With Nathan I have to agree as well. But I think that even within each individual we find people fall into different places on their own continuum. Some of us bring our practice into politics, others check it at the door. But those who bring it into politics might not bring it with the same fervor when it comes to familial manners. And it is here where I think some of John and Kyle’s (and others!) frustrations over who gets to define what “Engaged Buddhism” means. I am no less engaged than someone else simply because I decide to not be as vocal about issues of race or gender equality as others out there who may not be as vocal about environmental or poverty issues as I am (examples). I also wonder if it’s a slippery slope into “if you are an Engaged Buddhist, you will vote/believe/speak out against/for topics a, b, and c.”

Along these same lines, I have seen plenty of suttra thumping over various topics around the blogosphere/forums/interwebs. Rather than analyzing their own intentions, opinions, and leanings; there are those that would simply say “I’m a Buddhist so I believe such and such”. If I ever say that, please kick me in the nuts. I didn’t adopt a specific set of beliefs when I decided to walk this path. I never said “Hey, I’m a Buddhist now, so I believe in “z” because it says so in X suttra.” Those are all appeals to authority and the Buddha-dharma has no room for those. Now I do believe that belief has a large role to play in Buddhism, but it is more of a trust-based belief. The way that you follow the advice of a doctor even though you don’t fully understand the science behind what it is he has to say. You apply the advice, and if it works, well, it works.

Much of this path lies in the process of discovery and inquiry. Something I’ve been digging at lately is the topic of abortion. Certainly it is a social and political issue. Does Engaged Buddhism allow for both Pro-Choice and Pro-life social activists? (I think I’ll save my personal thoughts on this for a later post.) If “economic justice” is included in Engaged Buddhism, does a Buddhist Tea-Partier that believes we shouldn’t tax the wealthy at a higher rate than the poor have the same voice as the liberal who believes we should tax people because they are wealthy? One could argue issues of economic “justice” for either side depending on one’s politics. Maybe that’s where things are getting messy for some. Maybe it’s that people are bringing their politics into Buddhism, rather than bringing their practice to their politics.

Is this all just coming down to “who gets to define ‘engaged'”? Is it just about the labels?

One final thought. John had raised some points about doing things in the name of Buddhism. Certainly many of us here in the US are familiar with Christian organizations that give out a side-order of proselytizing with their charity. During my homeless months in Seattle, I slept in a church basement at night. We were never preached to nor were we asked to even attend service. Some did and some didn’t. It was truly charity for charity sake. Of course, there was also one of the food lines I stood in where they handed out Vitamin C tablets with a Jesus pamphlet (had to take it if you wanted the vitamin). These two different approaches definitely left two distinct tastes in my mouth (and not just because of the vitamins).

So it got me thinking. Imagine the week after the earthquake in Haiti, two groups of people went down to dig two wells. The first group is a Christian/Jewish/Buddhist/Muslim/pick your religion group who goes down and announces that they are the “X religious group” here to dig a well. They dig, and leave without ever directly trying to convert anyone, but they are sure to mention that “hey, we’re such and such, of course we’ll help!” Awesome. Well is dug and people have clean drinking water.

The second group has no affiliation. They are just a bunch of random strangers that met on craigslist and wanted to help out in Haiti. So they go down and dig the well. The villagers ask “are you with such-and-such church?”. “No” they reply. “We’re just fellow humans, of course we’ll help.” Awesome. Well is dug and people have clean drinking water.

In then end isn’t the well still dug either way? Or is there a difference? Does it matter if the religous group leaves their conversion attempts at their door, even if they announce they are doing God’s/Allah’s/Cthulu’s work? (I have yet to see a charitable Cthulu cult but if you know of one, please let me know).

At first when I came up with this scenario I thought the second group’s impact would be much more profound in that the beneficiaries of their charitable actions would see that it doesn’t take any type of organization or religion to foster compassion for fellow human beings and such. But then I realized that compassion is a key component in many of the world’s religions, and something most of us could all work on in our daily lives. And that it’s nice to have an organization to support that effort. It’s nice to have a website and an organization to find like-minded people with which one can be of service to others. Because while the second group sure is a nice ideal, we all know what people really use craigslist for 😉

So really I’m fairly undecided about all this. And that was the real intent behind this post. I realized that I had no preconceived opinion about Socially Engaged Buddhism. And that listening to all the dialogue going back and forth was interesting, but it wasn’t an organic way to form an opinion that was mine. I’m usually quite opinionated, but for some reason this issue threw up a huge road block for me. It was awesome. I’ve no doubt that social conditioning has some part to play in whatever opinion I do ultimately form around this, but it’s liberating and refreshing knowing that I can walk into a discussion and have zero knee-jerk responses. I’m not sure the last time that has happened.

I came across the following from the Pabbata Sutta that I think fits nicely with this theme:

“ Like a mountain of rock
in the wilderness, in a mighty grove,
dependent on which there prosper
lords of the forest, great trees —
in the same way,
those who here live dependent on
a clansman of conviction
— consummate in virtue —
prosper:
wife & children,
friends, dependents, & kin.

Seeing the virtue of that virtuous one,
his liberality & good conduct,
those who are perceptive follow suit.
Having, here in this world, followed the Dhamma,
the path to a good destination,
they delight in the world of the devas,
enjoying the pleasures they desire.”

Cheers.

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Everyone is homeless…

I contacted Anoki over at Buddha Badges a few weeks ago about creating a special badge that centered around homelessness (something near to my heart as I’ve blogged about previously…), and using Homeless Kodo (Kodo Sawaki) as a theme for that badge. He produced a very cool badge with the quote “Everyone is homeless” on it. All proceeds from the purchase of this particular badge will go to an organization called Farestart. Farestart is an organization in Seattle that provides job training in the restaraunt industry to the homeless, as well as provide meals to those in need. It is an excellent organization, and one that I was familiar with from my days in Seattle. The badges only cost $1, and .90¢ from every purchase goes directly to the charity (the rest goes towards supplies). Please give the Homeless Kodo badge a look and support this charity if you have a buck to spare.

Cheers.

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Intentions and raccoons

Friday evening there was a knock on our door. An old man, out of breath from climbing our stairs was at our door, flashlight in hand. He was looking for his cat that had escaped. He informed us that she had never been outside in the 5 years that she lived with him, and was probably frightened. He gave us a description of the cat, her name, and went continued on to a neighbor’s house. Knowing cats, there was a good chance that she bolted and probably got lost and scared and hid somewhere.

It was a good thing he knocked on our door. We kept checking out of our living room window for the cat, and at about 10pm we saw her. Not wanting to scare her off, I went to the old man’s house, and got him to come to where she was. His front door was cracked and he was waiting in his armchair, hoping that she would remember the way back home. As soon as she heard his familiar gasping, she perked up. “Molly!” is all he had to say. He picked her up and held her close as he caught his breath. He got her home safely that night.

We’ve been taking care of 2 of the stray cats in our neighborhood by putting some food and water outside for them. One of them (we call her Fluffy Kitty) we brought inside a few nights last winter when the weather went down below zero at night. She was dumped in our neighborhood, and was loosing weight. The other (we call him just Stray Kitty) is still thin, but improving greatly. We’ll be catching him to have him spayed and get some shots at a local animal shelter that does that type of thing for feral cats. Without the food we put out, I don’t think Stray Kitty would still be alive.

It’s about 10:30pm on Saturday as I’m writing this, and we’ve just had another visitor(s) from the animal kingdom. We’ve had a female raccoon stopping out front of our apartment about twice a week for a few months now. Once I left the garbage sit outside, and woke up to a huge mess (okay, it happened twice!). She comes to find whatever scraps she can, and then moves on. But tonight she brought 3 baby raccoons with her to munch on the remains of the cat food we had left out. Usually, the cat food is all gone by nightfall, but occasionally there are still a few scraps for her. I’ve never intentionally left food out for the raccoon, as I know that feeding wild animals will only end in their harm.

Tonight we came face to face with that harm. We noticed a bit of blood on the steps a few days ago, but thought maybe one of the resident cats got into a fight. Turns out it was the mother raccoon. I’m thinking she was hit by a car. She was dragging her left rear leg as she walked. It looked shattered or dislocated. My best guess is that she was hit by a car and somehow survived. It didn’t look like she had been attacked by another animal. She was barely hobbling along, leading her children to where she knew there might be a free meal. Maybe she knew this might be one of the last opportunities she has to prepare them for the harsh world they’re about to face.

It tore my wife and I up to see her like that. I can’t stand to see animals suffer, and it was even more painful with the knowledge that she was taking care of those 3 young raccoons . In the morning I’ll call a local animal rescue to see what they recommend. Maybe there is still some hope left for her, and her family.

I’m sure there is some greater lesson about animals and humans and habitats and what not here. But right now, I’m feeling a little guilty.

I can’t help but blame myself a bit for leaving that food out there. Maybe it was my actions that led to this. Maybe she was on her way here when she got attacked. It was my garbage and cat food that helped to keep her coming back into the city.

And yet, if we hadn’t feed those stray cats and paid attention to which cats came and went and became invested in their health and well-being, there’s a good chance that old man’s cat wouldn’t have decided to hunker down where it did. It ended up sitting out on the sidewalk next to one of the stray cats. They seemed to be momentary friends, which is odd for cats to do. Maybe the stray knew that Molly was lost and scared and decided to sit with her so that she didn’t feel alone. If she hadn’t of sat there next to Fluffy Kitty, I probably wouldn’t have seen her.

Our intentions start out simply. They lead to actions, and those actions then have consequences in real life. That’s the only lesson here. Intentions.

Cheers.

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Building the Mosque “at” ground zero, and crafted responses

Let me start by saying that I’m not a huge fan of the Muslim faith. There, I said it! I don’t hate Muslims, Arabs, or people from any geographic or religious background. But I’m not a huge fan of Islam. I don’t feel like it’s a very tolerant religion, nor does it treat women as equals, (or sometimes even as human beings) and I don’t feel that pride is man’s great fault or that submission is the answer to our salvation. I think Islam is due for a serious reformation, the details of which I have no interest in discussing here.

That aside, I say build the damn mosque. The organization that is proposing to build it is a peaceful one. They are moderates. They are just people who want to practice their faith together, and belong to an increasing Muslim community in lower Manhattan that has growing needs.

I’ve heard the argument that we shouldn’t have ANY religious institution built at ground zero. Well, first of all, they aren’t building the damn thing on the remains of the twin towers. They are building it 2 blocks away. That might not seem like much, but as a former major city dweller, I can tell you that 2 blocks can make a world of difference. Second, if you look at the map, you’ll see that there are already THREE churches there; The Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, and Saint Paul’s chapel, all of which actually border Ground Zero. So that point is kind of moot, isn’t it? It’s already surrounded by religious institutions. I’ve also heard that there is a strip joint and a porn store near there as well. Sounds like a great way to “remember the fallen” to me…

I’ve also heard that it is insensitive to build it there. Again, why? They aren’t building the Mosque on top of the remains of the towers. It’s being built in an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory building. It’s going to have a pool and rec area open to the public. It’s going to be an inclusive community center. It is a place of worship, not a terrorist training camp. Islam did not attack our country. It may have been used as one of many tools that day in 2001, but the religion didn’t attack us.

We have to remember that it was terrorists that took down those buildings. And their purpose wasn’t just to destroy the buildings, it was to terrorize. It was to instill fear into the hearts of Americans. If we oppose this Mosque out of a fear of Islam, then haven’t they succeeded? We are a country that is supposed to champion religious freedom, not hinder it. Muslim Americans are every bit a part of this country as every one else, regardless of how they choose to worship.

Bodhisattva of compassion

I wondered a bit about what the “Buddhist” response to this would be. Then I slapped myself. I don’t want to give the “Buddhist” response. That seems silly. I didn’t automatically adopt a new set of ideals and beliefs the moment I decided to walk this path. The Buddha was not a divine law giver. I didn’t all of a sudden become a compassionate bodhisattva the moment I declared myself a Buddhist. The dharma and sutras are not written in stone. I don’t ever want to say, “well, since I’m a Buddhist, x.” Rather, I want the dharma to help and guide me. What I want is for my practice to move me in the direction of compassion and insight and wisdom.

So I would say that since my practice is moving me toward compassion, I would seek a compassionate resolution to the matter, one that involves the least amount of suffering (dukkah). Clearly for the Muslim community the wisest choice would be to build the Mosque. But what about the families of the victims that do are suffering because of this proposal? Shouldn’t we take their suffering into consideration as well? Certainly we should, and that’s again why I say build the Mosque. These people seem are projecting their hate onto an entire belief system, rather than those that perpetrated the crime. I wonder if it’s because they’ll never really receive the justice they’re looking for, since the terrorists died in the crash. They’ll never be held accountable for their actions, so the ones left here to grieve seek vengeance with the next best thing they can find: Islam, Muslims, Arabs. The axis of evil. Ghosts living in caves halfway around the globe.

And this is why I say build the Mosque. Once faced with the reality of peaceful, community-building Muslims, those left with their anger might be forced to really examine it, because they won’t be able to project it on to those at 51 park place. They might actually be able to let go of some of that hate they’ve built up, and begin to heal when faced with the reality that not all Muslims are evil, and that these people are their neighbors, not their enemies. That to me is the most compassionate response because it is one that deals directly with their suffering, even if it might be a difficult process.

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.

~ The Dhammapada

Cheers.

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We're all one, man!

An interesting discussion (here and here) has been happening around the interwebs around Stephen Prothero’s book: God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter. I haven’t read the book, but I understand that his basic argument is refuting the idea that ‘religions are all basically the same’ statement. And personally, I have to agree with that. I’m not going to attempt to defend his position here (because I haven’t read the book!), but rather talk about the “all religions are the same/we’re all on the same path to God” lines that get thrown around quite often.

I don’t understand how people can claim that all religions are really just the same thing. Each one seems to address a different problem and propose its own unique solution to said problem. In Buddhism, we find that life is unsatisfactory, and to alleviate the suffering that accompanies this, we need to follow the 8-fold path to awakening (that was the 25 word idiot version of the 4 noble truths). In Christianity, Sin is man’s greatest enemy, and the only way to be rid of that sin is salvation through Jesus Christ. In Islam, it is pride that gets in our way, so submission to God is the way to rid ourselves of that pride. In Scientology, there are space demons that take over our bodies, and the only way to get rid of them is to give Tom Cruise all of your money. The list goes on and on; these are all very different ways of seeing the world and making sense of our place in it.

Now some would argue that focusing on these ideas, and each religion’s respective dogmas and scriptures is a superficial way of approaching the experience of religion. Some argue that when looked at from a mystic’s perspective, you can throw out all of the definitions traditionally used and reach a higher definition that would transcend all the dogma, ritual, and beliefs people traditionally associate with their respective religion. But I have to wonder, at that point, why even say that you are practicing said religion (and aren’t you really just practicing New Age…ism at that point)? When you start to talk about Jesus not being the son of God that performed miracles, rose from the dead who said that anyone that wants into heaven has to come through him; what is it about your practice that you would consider Christian? Why even use that word? It is similar to when a New Ager or Pantheist would call everything “God”. Sure, monotheists don’t have a copyright on the word, but I have to wonder if what you are describing is so radically different from any interpretation or definition held by 99.99% of people who use it; why use it at all? Why put your belief under that same tent? A part of me wonders if this happens when people are afraid to completely let go of the religion they grew up with? And so holding on to a part of that past self/culture makes the new set of beliefs…safer?

Personally, I find it a little insulting when people say that we’re all practicing the same religion, or that all paths lead to God. Sorry, I gave up on God well over a decade ago. I took up the Buddhist path because it ends in liberation, not because I believe I’ll end up in a literal heaven with God for eternity. I also think it’s a little disrespectful to not recognize that there is a difference in what we are practicing and trying to achieve, and to then attempt to re-define my beliefs to more closely align with yours.

Okay, so there are differences, so what about our similarities? Isn’t there one central theme that runs at the heart of every religion? Nah. I don’t think so. While all religions have the capacity for such things as charity and compassion and respect, those aren’t the tenets or beliefs that they are centered around. Ask %99 of Christians what their religion is about, and I’m guessing you’re going to hear something like “believing in Jesus Christ”, “faith in God” or something along those lines. And while the man preached about compassion and charity at length, the religion itself isn’t centered around it. It accompanies it. I’d even say that compassion isn’t at the heart of Buddhism, but is rather an effect (vipaka) that one cultivates when practicing the dharma. Would many Muslims say that compassion is the heart of their religion? Taoists? I doubt that’s what you’ll hear. And remember, we’re talking about religions here. Not your individual experience which may or may not parallel someone else’s.

But, knowing that each religion has the capacity for these things does give us the hope that we can all connect with each other on such manners. Religion is largely a response to living life as a human, all of us trying to figure out our place in the cosmos and answer the questions that we have about our shared human condition. The religious are all connected in the sense that we are all searching for something (be it God or enlightenment or Elohim) and whether we are searching for that something inside or outside of ourselves, we should be able to respect whatever means we employ to find that divine something (as long as it doesn’t involve blowing your self up or burning “witches” etc…).

So why prattle on about the differences in the world’s religions when so much strife has been created because people can’t seem to get over them? I think it’s important to understand the differences because largely, we don’t respect them. A part of the fighting that occurs between the world’s religions stems from a basic lack of respect (and this lack stems from a whole slew of things) of each other’s beliefs and practices. If we can begin to accept the differences we all have, we can then place them where they belong and figure out how to best deal with each other in the most compassionate way. But I truly believe that as long as we keep talking about how we’re really all the same, or glossing over the sacred practices many of us hold dear, we aren’t going to be able to reconcile with each other in a meaningful way. Yes, most religions share some basic concepts (which are mostly secular anyway) and we should work together to strengthen those when need-be. But it’s hard to reach out to someone who isn’t even going to respect that you are on your own path, and that it’s okay that we don’t have everything in common. I believe it is extremely important that we develop compassion toward one another, and part of that compassion is respecting one another’s beliefs as being of the utmost importance to that person.

What do you think?

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Hero for the day……

A friend forwarded me this article from the Seattle Times about a little boy who’s wish came true.

Watching her son run across the plaza in front of the Space Needle, mom Judy Martin said Erik goes to school when he’s able, but is often too tired. “He hasn’t had this much energy in a long time,” she said. “They called it the power of the wish, and they’re right.”

Like any good superhero, Electron Boy kept his innermost thoughts to himself. But he did have one important thing to say:

“This is the best day of my life.”

If this many people can come together for one day, for one boy, for one wish, then surely there is hope in this world.

Cheers.

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Earth Day Post: Blue Dharma

Today is Earth Day. Now, I know that the Buddha never lectured on water conservation, solar energy, or global climate change. But he did talk at length about compassion. He did speak of karma.

What we need  is more awareness of the far-reaching effects of our actions. Armed with this information, we are then able to make choices in our lives that lead to more skillful outcomes. We can live more compassionately, and create a more compassionate world. Earth Day is a great day to take a moment to contemplate the inter-connectedness of life on this planet.

One thing that connects all of us is water. The Earth is covered in it. Every species depends on some form of it. Nations have built themselves upon proximity to this natural resource. It is used in holy rituals throughout many (if not all) of the world’s religions. And just as it brings us together, it can cause a great divide. It comes in bottles and hurricanes, hail and hot springs. But of the potable variety, we are running out.

Pilchuck River near Darrington, WA

I could go on and on about how precious it is. How we need to manage our water usage better. How many people will die this year because they couldn’t get clean drinking water. How your life style and mine are ruining this planet. How a vegetarian lifestyle requires 60% less water consumption than one that is meat-based. How in the next 50 years, we’ll see nations go to war over not oil, but water. How you should do x, y, and z to help change things.

Instead, I’m going to leave you with some facts*. If you really take the time to let these facts soak in, you’ll know what to do. If you actually care about cultivating compassion, you’ll know what to do, and what types of companies/projects to consider supporting in the future. Though, I will jump on my soapbox for a minute, and ask you to please, please, please, NEVER BUY BOTTLED WATER. It is one of the most wasteful and irresponsible choices you could make as a consumer.

By 2025, 1.8 Billion people will live where water is scarce.

On average, 2 Billion gallons of water are used every day to irrigate golf courses in the U.S. In Florida, 3,000 gallons of water are used to water the grass for each golf game played.

U.S. swimming pools loose 150 billion gallons to evaporation every year.

Only 2.5% of the world’s water is fresh. About 2/3 of that is frozen. Most of the rest is in aquifers that we’re draining much more quickly than the natural recharge rate.

The Great Lakes contain roughly 22% of the world’s fresh surface water.

2/3 of our water is used to grow food.

Americans use about 100 gallons of water at home each day. Millions of the world’s poorest make due with less than 5.

46% of people on earth do not have water piped into their homes. Women in these developing countries walk an average of 3.7 miles to get water.

The Tibetan Plateau is sometimes called the Third Pole because of all the frozen water it holds. It supplies fresh water to nearly a 1/3 of the world’s population. The glaciers there are melting.

One out of eight people in the world lack access to clean water.

3.3 million people die from water-related illness each year.

The weight of China’s Three Gorges Reservoir will tilt the earth’s axis by nearly an inch.

The longest water tunnel, which supplies New York City, leaks up to 35 million gallons a day.

Dam projects have displaced up to 80 million people worldwide.

Fish caught downstream from sewage treatment plants in five U.S. cities contained traces of pharmaceuticals like Dilitiazem, Norfluoxetine, and Carbamazepine as well as other toiletries.

The following is a list of items, with how many gallons of water it takes to produce each item (from scratch to your shopping cart/mouth)

2,900 – One pair of blue jeans

1,857 – One pound of beef

766 – One cotton T-shirt

84 – One pound of apples

20 – One glass of beer

37 – One cup of coffee

816,600 = gallons used during the lifetime of a typical cow destined for human consumption

Cheers.

             *most of these were pulled from the February 2010 special edition of National Geographic

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Something brewing in the atmosphere

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. It was a terrible, gruesome act perpetrated by a home-grown terrorist. It’s been recently pointed out in the media and the blogosphere that the current political atmosphere is comparable to what it was then, and I’d have to agree. This morning on NPR there was someone from Pew Research talking about how much more angry and untrusting the right become when a Democrat wins the Presidency than the left do when a Republican does. You can see some of this sentiment now in the Tea Party movement, and much like talk radio in the early-mid ’90s, you see it splattered all over the internet.

Personally, I’m sick of all the bullshit coming from the right and the left which is getting us largely no where except to further the chasm between Left™ and Right©.  Recently I asked Justin what place Buddhist ethics has in political discourse. I did this because I believe there needs to be a fresh voice in politics today. One that isn’t driven by a desire to wipe out the other side’s ideas or beliefs. One that isn’t so dualistic in nature that it can only prop itself up with the rhetoric of the destruction of the “other” side. One that has its roots in compassion, and strives for understanding. We will never, ever all agree on the same political and moral principles, but we can at least stop yelling at each other long enough to understand where the other side is coming from. We need a voice that recognizes that any ONE idea or philosophy is inherently exclusionary and can’t survive in an emergent democracy. We are a nation of many peoples, many cultures, and ideas. This is where we draw our strength and have propelled our country to the world’s utmost superpower. It is only an inclusive, emergent philosophy based in compassion and wisdom that is continually updated to include present-day knowledge that will end the great divide we now see splashed across (and perpetuated by) our headlines.

The old idea of a system based totally on a “free market” certainly is lovely on paper, but eventually leads to plutocratic tendencies and an inherent wealth divide that is virtually insurmountable by those at the lowest rungs of the ladder. And the idea of a communal society simply cannot work on a scale as grand as these United States. It might work just fine on a hippie commune (for which I have great admiration) but there is no way to run that type of system in a world economy. These ideal states are fine for your Philosophy 103 term paper, but have little value in the real world.

A recent example of this would be supply side economics. The idea is a great one. Give tax breaks to the rich, and the rich in turn will buy lots of yachts and start-up companies and do all of these great things that will put America to work and eventually create a healthy middle class by means of employment.  But every friggin time that has been attempted in real-life in the past century, the exact opposite happens. The wealthy don’t invest or go buy a lot of things that put people to work. They just put that fucking money in the bank and get a little richer. Great idea on paper, but zero real-world benefit to the lower or middle classes.

I do believe there is a way to the middle ground here. Repeat after me: there is a middle. There is a happy place where markets can be regulated without hampering innovation, and where government can be a place where society pools its interests to take care of its citizens most basic needs without crippling the economy. There is a way to enjoy your personal liberty and take care of your fellow citizens at the same time.

But how do we get to that middle ground? What are the specifics, and what are the practical ways in which we get there? Is there a way to apply those Buddhist ethics in a secular way to achieve this goal? Is there a way to bring it from the philosophical and into the practical?

I’m considering starting a group political blog to help answer some of these questions (and others) as well as raise some other ones. It will look at modern politics from a Buddhist perspective, one based in compassion, empathy, wisdom, and of course Fudo Myo. It would be an enviroment where, as Justin put it “…. we can we educate moderates and the near-right to expose the problems of the extreme right, instead of fueling their fire…”

If you’re at all interested, leave a comment here.

Cheers.

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Article Swap #3 – Buddhist Ethics in Political Dialogue (guest post by Justin Whitaker)

The following is a guest post from Justin of the wonderful blog, American Buddhist Perspective. This is part of the great “Buddhoblogosphere Blog Swap” that was set up by Nate over at Precious Metal. Check out this post for a list of all the other articles being swapped and hosted today. The article I wrote hasn’t been posted yet, but as soon as it is, I’ll post the link up here. I was in charge of assigning Justin a topic, and knowing that he is a Buddhist Ethicist, I asked the following questions:

“How do we apply Buddhist ethics in a secular way to the political dialogue/discourse we currently have in this country? Right now it is dominated by the fringe extremists with the loudest microphones and it is getting us nowhere. How do we combat (without combating) this extremism using Buddhist ethics? How do we make it part of the dialogue?”

Adam has posed some great questions here. I hope they elicit as much thought in you as they did me and that you will join the conversation. First off, we need to identify what “Buddhist ethics” is or are. From there we should be able to launch into engagement with our current political situation. 
 
Let’s orient ourselves. Where are we? If we call ourselves “Buddhist” (and often even if not) we no doubt see ourselves as on a path to awakening. We can think of this as our vertical or “Developmental” Dimension:  our own ignorance and suffering at the bottom, and perfected wisdom and compassion at the top. And we are also living in the year 2010, mostly (for readers here) in America. This is the horizontal or “Relational” Dimension, the world around us right now and on each stage of the path (see Firgure 1*).   

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        In this picture, Buddhist ethics can be seen as our conduct as Buddhists and the reasons we have for that conduct. How do we move “up”? How do we cultivate the twin virtues of wisdom and compassion in a world so dominated by extreme voices and ideas?
 

The Buddha’s own advice to people again and again was to relax their attention on the Relational Dimension and focus on their own development. One of the curious facts about this way of seeing things is that as we advance (upward) toward awakening, we open up more fully (relationally) to the world. Meanwhile, the more caught up in personal delusions, greed, and hatred we are, the more isolated we are from the world. This is what Alan Sponberg has coined as the Hierarchy of Compassion.
 
So this is our starting point. Right here. Not with the politicians or the pundits, but with our own mind and mental states. As laypeople we can begin with the five precepts:
1.   I undertake the training to abstain from harming living beings
2.   I undertake the training to abstain from taking the not-given.
3.   I undertake the training to abstain from harmful conduct in sensuality.
4.   I undertake the training to abstain from false speech.
5.   I undertake the training to abstain from drinking liquor or taking intoxicants.
Each day we can take a moment to evaluate our relationship with these training principles. Our first step in remedying the often contentious political sphere is to ensure that we ourselves are contributing as little as possible to it. Recall Mahatma Gandhi’s teaching, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
 
For some, “ethics” ends there. But I think we can see that the whole of the path is interconnected and that meditation and wisdom are not distinct categories of practice. It is in our meditation that our deepest mental convictions and afflictions become transparent to us, rising to the surface of consciousness where we can make the changes necessary to move closer to harmony with the Dharma. In terms of the political world, in meditation we can let go of divisive labels and self-other duality. In particular, in the cultivation of loving-kindness meditation, we invite to our mind an ‘enemy’ to imaginatively sit with us, seeing this individual as no different from a neutral person, themselves no different from a close friend. We see that all beings “fear the stick and tremble at punishment.”
 
The cultivation of wisdom, too, serves our ethical purposes. While notions such as non-self, impermanence, and interconnectedness can serve as mere intellectual concepts, they can also be applied on the cognitive level to challenge and overcome prejudices. The noble 8-fold path begins with right understanding, and I believe this is not accidental. If we believe in permanent separate souls or that moral actions hold no consequences, it is unlikely that we will follow the next seven steps on the path. While the complete understanding of reality as it is marks the culmination of the path, we cannot even begin if we are clinging to radically false notions.
 
But we are still at a very individual level. How do we ‘reach out’ to others? We begin with those nearest us, friends and family. If you’re anything like me, this group alone contains a very wide spectrum of political views. Generally it’s easiest to talk politics with those who agree with you and at times downright painful to talk with those who appear to be in the extremes. I’ve had conversations with relatives who say they’re “just waiting for him [President Obama] to start taking our guns away” and friends on the other end of the spectrum who lamented how horrible a nation America has become (under President G.W. Bush).
 
Sometimes the best we can do is listen, try to understand where they are coming from. At our best though we can ‘mirror’ the extreme position of a comment to the other person in a way that gets him or her to its extremism clearly. We might remark that Obama is having a hard enough time accomplishing his stated goals, so it might be a bit tough for him to do something that would be so widely unpopular.  Or we might note that America wasn’t exactly Eden before G.W. Bush – or mention a few of the dozens of countries that would be much more ‘horrible’ for our friend. What we see is that extreme positions are often very narrow, both historically and in terms of contemporary realities around the world. 
 
As our own thought and understanding deepens, we are less affected by extreme and misplaced views and opinions; much like H.H. the Dalai Lama as he responded to Chinese claims that he was a devil:

If he were to bitterly argue against such claims, they would only gain strength. But by laughing at them, and making us laugh in turn, we see the absurdity of the Chinese government’s position. The more often this happens, the weaker this extreme voice becomes. Similarly, teaching the history of Tibet, and showing the reality of people there today are other ways to cut through extremist claims.
 
But what the Dalai Lama’s story also shows us is that in the end, enlightened conduct might not win in the political sphere. This is a fact of the deluded state that most of us dwell in. Even the Buddha had enemies, including an angry cousin who tried on several occasions to kill him. The extremists have always been there and likely always will be. Through our own practice, though, we can develop the wisdom of seeing the context of our political lives and compassion through realizing the similarities we have even with our worst enemies. Bringing this ‘home’ in our own daily conduct and meditation frees us from merely reacting to the latest extremism in the world, allowing us to be creative agents of that wisdom and compassion. The greatest contribution, and indeed the most authentic one, that Buddhist ethics can give to contemporary political dialogue is in its tools of spiritual development.
 
* This schematization and the figures are taken from Sponberg, Alan. (1994). “Green Buddhism and the Hierarchy of Compassion,” in Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds. Tucker and Williams eds. (1997). Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, pp. 351-376.

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No Direction Home…….

The other day, Nathan had a post over on Dangerous Harvests about “what “right action” is when it comes to interacting with people begging on the streets”. I started a reply there, and realized that my story would serve better as a post than as a comment.

I spent quite a few months homeless in Seattle when I first arrived on the West Coast about 7 years ago. The reasons for this were many, but I’ll just say that it was my choice, and that I wasn’t running from the law. It was a truly eye-opening experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in Seattle, and what to do when I got there. I tried finding jobs, and even tried joining the military (they wouldn’t take me – ADHD) but when my money ran out, I was left to figure shit out for myself. It was a tough experience. Luckily, I was in Seattle, where there is a good system in place for helping out those less fortunate.

I had no idea what to expect from the other homeless on the streets and in the homeless “system”. Would they be welcoming? Stab me in the back the first chance they got?

Their reasons for being there were about as varied as you could imagine. Of those that I met and was around, I’d guess that around 60% or so suffered from some form of mental illness, some more pronounced than others. For some, they arrived on the streets this way. For others, the streets simply magnified what was already there. There were those that simply fell on hard times, and a few people I met were part of the dotcom boom/crash that were trying their best to make it back into the workforce and afford a place to live. Some were criminals on the run, a few had warrants for petty crimes and had gone into hiding, and a few were here illegally. Many that I met were on some form of assistance, whether it was food stamps or Social Security.

In Seattle, it was possible to eat 3-5 times a day for free, find a place to take a real shower, do your laundry, and find a place to sleep during the night (usually in a church). The only people who went hungry were the ones that were banned from certain hand-out areas because they had been violent there, or those whose mental illness was so bad that they couldn’t function well enough to find assistance. And there were plenty of both. The violent ones were generally suffering from some mental illness, and of course not being allowed to get food at a soup-kitchen or church only made things worse for them.

At the shelter that I stayed at, everyone was pretty healthy mentally, and generally got along really well. Some of us hung out during daylight hours, and helped each other out. But the one thing that no one prepares you for is the boredom. It is excruciating. Imaging having nothing to do all day, every day, and not being able to look forward to anything, ever. Wake up, clean shelter. Take bus downtown. Do laundry, take shower, find food. Wander aimlessly for 4 hours. Find food. Wander aimlessly for another 2-4 hours. Get on bus, head to shelter, sleep. Try not to pay attention to those around you going about their lives, buying clothes, seeing movies, spending holidays with family. Repeat for the rest of your life. Repeat in your mind for the rest of your life.

Is it any wonder people turn to drugs and alcohol? For those that go down that path, it breaks up the monotonous nothingness of your existence. It is something to do. It is something to feel other than depression. Even though I really shouldn’t have been spending money on smokes, I did. They were terrible, 2$ a pack smokes from a res somewhere, and they got me through the day.

I never went down the drug path. My goal was to start a new life in a new place, without destroying myself in the process (though I dare say quite a bit of my “self” was destroyed…..). So regaining a meaningful life became my only thought. I had to find a job. I needed to find transitional housing so that I had a stable place to sleep and bathe and do my laundry so that I could show up to my job and not be a…… bum. When I asked my shelter-buddies about starting on this path, they all knew exactly how to help. But my question was then, “why aren’t you doing this?”

For some reason, many of them simply didn’t want that life. Maybe it had to do with the relative comfort in which many of them lived. As I said before, most had some type of income (SS), everyone had access to a shower, laundry, and at least 3 meals a day. Living that life, one could easily get by without much effort. It wasn’t the best life, but there was no boss to listen to. No responsibility. No struggle.

Some simply didn’t want to be a part of the society that had turned it’s back on them. Which was understandable given many of their stories. And for some, I just couldn’t understand. They had all the makings of someone with a successful station in life and for whatever reason they just didn’t try. Maybe life had beaten them down so low that they became satisfied with the homeless lifestyle. I still have no answers for many of the questions that confronted me during that time.

So back to Nathan’s question. What is “right action” when dealing with these people? First, see them as people. Some of them have chosen their position and others have had it thrust upon them. Regardless of circumstance, they are human beings just as you are. No better, no worse. They reflect the same potential we all have. They are experiencing the human condition in a radically different way than we are. Not completely a part of our society, though not completely apart from it either. Should you offer them food? Money if they ask? A cigarette if you have one? It’s really up to you. No dollar-in-the-guitar-box is going to put them over the edge for that down-payment on a condo. No one meal will stave off the hunger forever. One cigarette will burn away and the craving will return ever so shortly. These things are all band-aids for a more serious condition, though none of them do much harm. If your wish is to practice generosity, then practice generosity. You can’t save them all, and you should never feel like your efforts are going unnoticed or aren’t making a difference. Be generous when you can, but don’t feel obligated to hand out your change to everyone that asks it of you.

Besides the epic emptiness of life that comes with being homeless, there is one more crippling ailment. It is the isolation. You can’t help but feel like the stereotypical Dicken’s street urchin outside of a bakery window salivating over the freshly made cherry pie on the counter. Only the whole world is that bakery. Society as we know it is that pie, and it would bring such joyous comfort if it was even just a taste. When you walk down the street, you know you are not a part of their society. That bakery window is always there in front of you. When you get on the bus, it is there. When you come out of the bathroom at the library, it is there. It’s the look in their eye. Or rather, it’s the non-look in their eye. I can’t forget that. Ever. The fact that someone would cast me away simply because of the contents of my wallet was the most dehumanizing thing I have ever experienced. With the simplest of looks, I was negated. I didn’t exist to them.

So what is “right action” when dealing with those who call the street their home? Look them in the eye. Acknowledge their presence. Acknowledge that they too, are humans. Acknowledge that they deserve a “good afternoon” just as much as anyone else. Not only do they deserve it, they are probably in need of it more than anyone. A simple human connection goes a long way.

Cheers.

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And more snow related suffering…….

“In some areas homes have been without power since last November, facing record snowfalls and the collapsing infrastructure of America’s Midwestern water and power lines and disaster response systems.

“Power outages began with a storm in December knocking down around 5,000 power poles, and has been accelerated by an ice storm Jan. 22 knocking down another 3,000 power lines on the reservation.

“Frustration at the insufficient response of the Red Cross and governor’s office is mounting,” she added. “All of this while people sit without power, water and face food shortage.”

There is more snow-related devastation to report on, this time right here in the mid-west. Yet almost no one has heard about it. I can see why there was so little press about the dzud in Mongolia, but this is happening right here in our own backyard. I don’t want to pull the race card, but being a card-carrying member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, I fell like I have to call a spade a spade.

The news here in America is tiered according to race. When white children disappear, it makes the cover of Newsweek. When black children die in inner-cities, it barely makes the 6 o’clock news. And when thousands of Native Americans are left without power (heat), food and water, no one speaks at all. Scott Peterson got how much news coverage? How many unsolved murders were there that year?

Yes, I’m white. But that doesn’t mean that I want my news and information white-washed for me. Native Americans have suffered more than any other racial/ethnic group in the history of this continent, and they continue to be marginalized. I’m not one of those people who gets pissed off because there’s an NHL team in Chicago called “The Blackhawks”. But was does irk me is how my ancestor’s entire history, culture, and contribution to the world we live in today has been white-washed and almost completely written out of the history books. I’m also not one of those people who is going to get pissed off because you supported people in Haiti when they were in need. Compassion is compassion, and turning charity into a polarizing, fodder-for-more-partisianship mechanism is reckless and misguided. I’m all for helping out our fellow humans when we are in need, regarless of geography. But I will ask that you at least acknowledge the need right here in our own backyard.

Our culture is dying, our languages are fading away, our history has been all but lost to the great textbook publishers in Texas. Please don’t let our people suffer the same fate. You can donate to the local Red Cross here.

Cheers.

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SnOMG!!!!

Having grown up in Michigan, I can remember regularly having feet of snow lasting all winter. And it was fun. We had snowmobiles to ride, snowmen to make, and snow forts to build. And when the day was over we could go back inside the house to warm up with some hot cocoa. Pretty fun for a kid.

Of course, some snow storms aren’t all snow angels and snow ball fights. Right now, there are millions of people and livestock that have it much, much worse. I’m not talking about the people on the East Coast though. I’m talking about the people of Mongolia in the midst of a dzud. For those that are unfamiliar with that term, it’s the word that the Mongolians use for “the worst f*ng weather conditions you could ever imagine”. If you know anything about Mongolians, you know that “the worst f*ng weather conditions you could ever imagine” is something not to be taken lightly. Livestock is freezing to death at incredible rates. People are surviving on tiny amounts of food. It’s like the quake in Haiti, but -20 degrees and covered in 10 feet of ice. Not to mention that due to the unusually dry summer, there wasn’t much food then either.

Bitteroot Badger has blogged about this a bit lately, and I felt compelled to let everyone know that there are (very, very, few) people out there helping that need your support. Head to his site here and take a look at some of the ways you can help. Or check out CAMDA who is working on relief efforts as we speak. There is so much suffering happening there now, and will continue to happen even after the dzud has passed. Please help if you are at all able. Thank you.

Cheers.

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Please Help Haiti

International Response Fund

If you are able to give anything at all, please do.

Elephant Journal also has a great list of links, as does John at Zen Dirt as well as Nick at ItsJustLight that all point in the direction of aid and relief for those that are suffering so much now.

Do what you can, even if all you can do is spread the word to help.

Cheers.

Update: The Tzu Chi Foundation is there in Haiti now. I didn’t know this type of Buddhist organization existed. They could use our help!

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The Brit Hume fallout: Victory for The Extremists

I was going to respond to some really stupid comments and posts I saw being made by Christians/Conservatives on some of the links that Kyle provided, along with some others I found.  I had an agenda, and I was going to set them straight and put them in their places. I started to type in some comments, and then just closed down my browser. I realized what the problem was. It wasn’t them. It was the system that we’ve all been caught up in (myself included).

At first I admit I had to agree with some of my fellow bloggers and Buddhists about how this whole Brit Hume thing actually was a great opportunity for us Buddhists to speak about our faith/tradition/religion. If nothing else, there would be tons of people who would at the very least wiki Buddhism and find out just a little bit about it. So overall, this was a good thing, right? No. You see, in Buddhism, we assess situations and take action based on how skillful (less suffering) or unskillful (more suffering) we deem those actions to be (in a nut shell). Overall, I’d have to say that this entire situation has been quite unskillful.

Allow me to digress for a moment. I like people of all faiths (except Scientology. “Fuck L. Ron Hubbard and fuck all his clones”) because I try not to see people as what faith they belong to. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Pagans, I’ve known many people of many faiths in my life, and gotten along with them all splendidly. However, there is one group of people who I really can’t stand: Extremists. Extreme atheists, Christians, Buddhists, liberals, whatever. They always speak the loudest, they get in people’s faces, they cause violence and instill fear. Rather than use reason, compassion and logic, they just shout long enough and loud enough to drown out their opposition. And the internet is the best thing that has happened to extremism since Vietnam. It gives it fuel, life, recruitment, new means of manipulation, and limitless open forums with which to spew it’s filth.

Now, I do stand by what I said before. I think one of the biggest problems with what Brit Hume said is that millions of people are now going to have a skewed perception of what Buddhism is. Unfortunately, a larger problem has arisen. While in an ideal world, we would have had an open discussion between Buddhists and Christians (and maybe even Brit Hume), what we instead found was that The Extremists™ took up the cause instead. It was the crazy Christians, Atheists, Anti-Theists and everyone in between that took up this issue. It was blown out of proportion and skewed into a political, racial, 1st amendment, and religious argument rather than any kind of discovery or debate. Now all that is left are angry words, inflated egos, and the now (possibly) more negative vision of Buddhists and Buddhism.

So now we have to deal with the fallout. This really turned into a much bigger mess than it ever needed to. I still agree that something needed to be said in rebuttal, and I think Mr. Hume’s comment was reckless. But I think how the rebuttal and discourse that followed were handled was even more reckless. What we’ve done now is only further polarize the country over yet another insignificant (in the grand scheme of things) event. Much like Janet Jackson’s boob, Bill Clinton’s…. cigar,  or Mark Sanford’s indiscretion, we’ve blown things way out of proportion. I don’t want to get into the “why” of that now, I just want to acknowledge it. We simply love to sensationalize the mistakes of anyone of any type of celebrity status. A little off topic, but something someone said in my sangha the other day kind of relates here. It was regarding the way we treat our Presidents and elected officials. He said “Every four years we elect a messiah, and at the end of those four years, when we find out he’s human, we crucify him.”

This could have been a moment for pause and reflection. It could have been a moment of great understanding and compassion. But we let it turn into the monster that it became because we allow the extremists to control public “discussion” and represent their respective “sides”. We always hear and see the Christians protesting over this and that, going crazy when evolution is taught in our schools, but that isn’t representative of Christianity. Those crazies just happen to have the microphone. Not everyone that is against animal cruelty throws fake blood on people who buy fur coats. They just happen to make the 5 o’clock news. And so we allow those extremists (who are in the minority) to control not only the debate, but also our view of the entirety of whatever side/religion/organization/movement they belong to.

And not only do we allow this to happen, we actually feed it sometimes! We respond to the crazies on those message boards! This is the fuel that they need to burn their fires of hate.  We try to argue with them, to make them see our point. But they won’t. They’re completely stuck in a state of “I’m fucking right and you’re fucking wrong” and no amount of replies in an internet forum or shouting through a megaphone at a Tea Party is going to change their minds. If their minds are to change, it will have to be of their own doing. So now we’re left with all of those extremists shouting, yelling, posting which only further deepens the divisions that we’ve created for ourselves.

Before I get to a solution, I just want to reiterate that I do believe something needed to be said about this. If I had a moment of face time with Brit Hume, I’d simply say “Brit, what you said offended quite a few people. Not because of you being a Christian or saying Jesus on the air, but because you put one religion down while trumpeting your own. We hear enough of this, and this us vs. them stuff has to stop. Wouldn’t it have been a wiser choice to say something like: ‘I don’t know much about Buddhism, but I think right now you need to use what tools your faith has to offer to help yourself and your family heal. I know that when I turned to Christianity, I found great comfort and forgiveness and it helped me through a very difficult time’. See the difference there?”

I think one of the best solutions for us Buddhists to cultivate is something the Dalai Llama has offered:

“The purpose of Buddhism is to serve and benefit all sentient beings, including human beings. And therefore it is more important to think of what contribution we Buddhists can make to human society according to our own ideas rather than trying to convert other people to Buddhism. The Buddha gave us an example of contentment and tolerance, through serving others unselfishly.”

It is in the example that we set for others when we live according to the dharma in which we can overcome the extremists. This is the best and most skillful course of action.

That’s all on this. Cheers.

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On Compassion

Warning:

1) The content in this post is meant for adult audiences. It contains material that is graphic (unfortunately) and violent in description.

2) This might be a little bit on the long side, and my apologies for that. But this is not something that can quickly be covered in a blog post. But I will do my best.

3) This post will probably raise more questions than answers.

I’ve been sitting on this post for some time. I started to write it, and then just saved a little bit as a draft. It felt like it was going to be an important one, and as this is a very serious topic, I’d thought I would make sure and give it proper consideration.

Awhile back I ran across this article. Please read it before reading any further here. I’m not sure how much media coverage this has gotten. I don’t have TV (I do Netflix or watch on the internet or listen to NPR) and I tend to be out of the loop on things, but I don’t recall hearing much about this story in the major media outlets after it first broke.

At first, I was saddened by this. I was emotionally overrun. I’m not sure if it’s my practice that led me to feel this way, or maybe it’s just the brutality that I hadn’t imagined possible in our backyards. I haven’t felt emotions like this from a news story since little Kayla Rolland was killed. I didn’t break down and cry, but it was the first time in a long time since I felt so much empathy from a news story. I couldn’t and didn’t want to read any more or hear about it. It was too brutal. Too savage. This is not a reality we as Americans are accustomed to dealing with. This is something that happens in Darfur or Burma. But savage brutality is not limited by geographic or political boundaries. It is not something that is intrinsic in any singular race, age group or religion. The reality is that sometimes, Darfur is in our backyard, and right outside of our schools.

After the initial sadness of this story vanished, it was replaced by anger. Pure hatred. Remember that scene in Fight Club where Ed Norton just goes to town on Jared Leto? That’s exactly what I wanted someone to do to these boys. This trash. Wastes of human existence. I wanted them to know how it felt to be in that girl’s position. To have the totality of yourself be completely dominated and then obliterated in one moment. This girl will never be the same. Any semblance of who that little girl was before that night has been nullified.

But now I’m trying to feel compassion for these individuals. Not just because that is the “Buddhist” thing to do, but because I’m starting to see that true compassion cannot exist conditionally. In order to do that, I suppose I have to first understand how/why this took place. I don’t think there is an easy explanation, but I’m going to try and at think it through here.

First, let’s take a look at the attackers. The attackers themselves were just children, all teenagers. We know how out of control a teenage boy’s hormones can get, but we also know that rape is almost never about sex. Rape is about anger, about power. I can watch a scary movie and not get too freaked out about people getting killed in it. But I cannot watch a rape scene. This is still something that is fairly taboo in movies today, but is steadily creeping in. I’m wondering now why it is that I have such a hard time watching sexual assault, even when I know it’s fake. I think maybe because it represents a loss of innocence. It represents the de-humanizing of another individual. Watching someone be assaulted in this manner is watching someone have all their power, their freedom, their will, their “self”, stolen by another person. It is the most brutal of torture, because it tears apart the victim’s mind. Their reality becomes forever shattered. A body is much easier to heal than a mind/psyche. I wonder what will happen to this girl?

So why the power grab? Did this just boil down to a case of pecking order, alpha male, leader of the pack macho-ism? I think it’s something more than that. I think part of it is the desire to fit in. It seems like this need and desire to belong and be accepted is growing inside our youth, multiplying itself exponentially with each passing generation. It used to be that you needed to just fit in with your peer group. Now, you have to fit in with the entire world. The information age has given birth to a new global community. We’re able to invite the whole world into our lives with a blog, a MySpace profile, Facebook, Twitter. And with that invitation, we’ve unknowingly opened ourselves up to criticism on a global sense. So instead of trying to impress just their schoolmates, kids now have to compete with children from all over the country, and all over the world. And of course there is the media. Kids are trying to fit in with Hollywood, with MTV and their teen celebrities of the week. This enormous pressure has led kids to try and leap over moving cars in the attempt to be the next YouTube star. They’re willing to risk it all for popularity.

Maybe that’s why the 20+ witnesses did nothing to help out their fellow human. They were too worried that if they would speak up, that they’d be thrown out to the fringe of their social stratosphere. Or maybe it’s the YouTube culture that has made them numb to reality. They’ve become accustomed to playing the audience in the grand play of life, rather than step up and be the actors. It’s easy to sit in the cheap seats and hurl insults or applause. But it’s so much harder to get up on stage and put yourself out there for the whole world. And when they do step out of their shells, what does our youth do? They put it on the internet. They text. They don’t take the big leaps in real life, because the risk is too great.

Back to the attackers. What made them think that this wasn’t that big of a deal?

Theory 1) the disconnect

First let me say that I love the internet. I love what it has done for communication, the flow of information, and all the pictures of stupid drunk college kids doing something embarrassing. I’ve talked about this a little before but this time is a little different.

Maybe it’s something bigger than just internet and TV. I wonder if this mentality started becoming more prevalent when our society started becoming more automated. We have less of a hands-on approach to life than we ever have before. All of our food comes pre-packaged for easy consumption. Our grapes come from Chile, our Chili comes from a can, and who the hell knows where hot dogs come from? Our clothes come from China, our news comes from a box, and our relationships come to us via MySpace. We rarely touch the things that affect us most in life; and are mostly clueless and unaware of their true nature and origins. If we’ve become this disconnected from our food, our shelter, our every day necessities, isn’t only natural that the next great disconnect would be with each other?

And once we become disconnected, why then should we assign any meaningful value to each other? Is that what happened here? Did these boys become so disconnected from humanity that they no longer viewed this girl as having any intrinsic value whatsoever? It’s obvious that these kids didn’t give two shits about their actions or think there would be any consequences, but why? This was so brutal! This goes beyond your everyday bullying or school fight or over aggressive male dominance bullshit. This even goes beyond your normal case of rape.

Theory 2) The boys are evil.

That’s not meant as a joke either. These boys might just be evil. Stripped of any kindness, compassion, empathy, or anything else of value. These boys might just be empty inside and downright evil. Maybe they’ve never known compassion in their own lives, never been touched by kindness. But is that possible? That they’ve grown up in a micro-society void of any goodness, right here in America? Some sort of empathy vacuum? Maybe it isn’t void of any charity and kindness, but rather in their world, that which we consider “good” is just the opposite. Narcissism, indifference, and cruelty are their noble virtues put up on a pedestal to be videotaped and broadcast via YouTube. Those that don’t fall in line will be ostracised, victimized, and scattered to the margins of their society. Is all of our “good” seen as weak and useless in their world? And if the media has become their primary parental figures, influencing them more than their biological parents, their religion or their neighbors; and knowing what the media does to distort the truth and sell ads, maybe it’s not that crazy?

I suppose it’s just speculation, I’ll never know for sure. Maybe this is what’s so troubling. We’ll never get to the root cause of this. It will happen again, and once more we will be left shaking our heads, wondering what went wrong. Wondering how our own youth could do this to each other. We’ll cry out for their heads on a platter, and they will be sent to jail for most of their young adult lives, and then some. And it will happen again. And again. Because as a society, we aren’t willing to look at the “bad guys” as having any value. The problem is with them, not with us, so we’ll just lock them up when they step out of line (and we know they will). All the time not realizing that there might just be a way to prevent this from happening.

How do we do that? I don’t know. Maybe we could start with compassion?

That’s all for now. Cheers.

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