Whose False Comfort?

I just read an article that was originally posted on lionsroar.com titled “The False Comfort of the Familiar,” written by Jules Shuzen Harris. The article asks why people of color are not present in Buddhist sanghas. He states:

“There is a basic human tendency to seek comfort in the known, in a familiar world that mirrors our prior experiences. Because of this, people naturally tend to self-segregate and align themselves with others with whom they find similarity, familiarity, and comfort. As a result, we find a notable lack of significant racial, ethnic, and economic diversity in many communities—including Buddhist communities.”

I unfortunately agree completely with the above statement. We are still, to some degree, a tribal species, no matter how much we try not to be. My disagreement with Mr. Harris is that he seems to throw the blame, for lack of a better word, on the current Buddhist community. He asks:

“As Buddhists, we would do well to ask ourselves, where is no-self when we surround ourselves with people we feel most comfortable and aligned with, consciously or not? How genuine is our bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings when we seek out the company of certain beings and avoid others?”

As the person who is the unofficial – and maybe self-appointed – head of bringing new members to our sangha*, I look at this a different way. (And yes, I’m a middle aged white male.) On the rare occasion that we get person of color in our sangha they rarely come back. We would LOVE to have them back. Our sangha has addressed this several times. But until we have consistent POC visitors, there are no “others with whom they find similarity, familiarity, and comfort.” Therefore, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are very few POC in American sanghas. POC won’t feel comfortable coming to an “all-white” sangha, so POC will not come to American sanghas. Until some brave souls get over their discomfort and say “fuck it, I’m staying,” POC will continue to be sparse in our communities. 

I’ve been to an all-black Baptist church. The people were extremely nice and I was never made to feel unwelcome. But I wouldn’t go to an all-black church on a regular basis. I look at it as “theirs.” I feel like I would be infringing on their space and their community. This may all be in my head, of course. I don’t really know how they would feel. But until I take the time to find out from them, it’s my issue, not theirs. By the way, I realize there is historically more to this situation than what we face in Buddhist communities.

Part of the problem is that Buddhism, and Zen in particular, has a problem with proselytizing. We don’t “recruit.” Mr. Harris mentions reaching out to people of color and different socioeconomic classes, but does not suggest a path to doing that. Our sangha has a website, Facebook page, and a Meetup.com page. That’s about all the reaching out we do. Part of the reason is, again, we don’t proselytize. But I also don’t even know how we would effectively increase our awareness in specifically non-white  communities. And even if I did, I would feel somewhat guilty trying to take away from other faith communities.

We are open to everyone at our sangha. We are present for all sentient beings. We are all too aware of the lack of diversity, but don’t people of color have some obligation in this too? I don’t think we are consciously or unconsciously excluding minorities from our sanghas. I think minorities are somewhat excluding themselves. Let me know what you think and give me some ideas your community has used to try to solve this problem.

*As always, the views of my blog in no way should be seen as representative of my sangha or my teacher. 

Don’t Know. Don’t Know. Dooooooon’t Knooooooowwww

As with most great ideas I have had in my life, I find that someone else has already had them. Very often I’m a day late and a dollar short.
 
There are several purposes to this site. Mainly it was pushing back to the overly vocal liberal thought police that are pervading American Zen. But the secondary reason for this site is to show that in most cases, taking one side over the other, especially in politics is wrong.
 
So as I’m reading Zen Confidential by Shozan Jack Haubner ‘s Zen Confidential I come across this:
 
“But ultimately my Zen practice is not political: my politics are beholden to and part of the bigger picture that is my practice. I try to embrace both sides of the issue, then, and search for a personal resolution not in a logical argument for either but in an unspoken and embodied synthesis of the two-“
 
Now, nevermind that he was talking about the one issue that I don’t think there should be a compromise on–abortion. But that is how I wish most people, and especially Buddhists would approach most issues. Before trying to defend yourself, ask how and why the other side came up with their opinion. Is there anything of theirs I can incorporate into mine? Do I HAVE to be right on this? Is there room for compromise? Keeping that “don’t know” attitude.
 
Reading today’s American Zen blogs, I sadly find little of this.

Left Wing Buddha, Right Wing Buddha

I’d guess that if you asked most American Zen teachers if the Buddha was a Democrat or a Republican, the majority would answer that the dharma transcends politics. And they would be correct. But I believe they’d secretly be thinking that the Buddha was a card carrying liberal. I personally don’t know how you can read about the Buddha and not think he was a Libertarian. “Be a lamp unto yourself” could be the most libertarian statement of any major religion.  

My Buddhist friend (everyone should have one) and I were discussing this subject. He thinks most people see the dharma through their particular political lens. Me, I’m a little more cynical. I think that statement is too passive. I think people actively bring their politics into the dharma. I wasn’t alive when the hippies in the Northeast and California started converting en masse, but it set up the American Zen we see today. Well, that and all the New York psychoanalysts that also came to it. But that’s a post for another time.  

This is not a uniquely American Zen problem. Last weekend, I attended a local interfaith event for Pride Month where the themes were “unlearn fear and hate” and “building bridges.” Our mayor, who is openly gay, was there. This event was organized by a local Catholic parishioner and many clergy from the Big Three (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) attended. My Zen teacher joined the group last year. The main speaker was a local Rabbi whom I’ve heard speak many times. I’ve also had personal conversations with him and he’s a very charismatic guy with a wonderful sense of humor. His speech started off great, talking about how important it is to include everyone, regardless of race, creed, religion, or sexual orientation. He mixed in some Jewish sayings with some Jewish humor. And then, bam! Out of nowhere he started deriding the current President, his cabinet members and the people who voted for him. I was dumbstruck. An event dedicated to building bridges and this is how he honors that theme?  

There are better ways to talk about inclusion. I don’t know why this is so hard for our American religious leaders to understand. And to our Zen leaders, once again, I ask you where the political ramblings of Dogen, Rinzai, Bodhidharma, and the Buddha are in the historical record? If the ancestors stayed out of politics, why do we as a sangha feel we need to be involved?  

 

Communal Zen

There have been a couple of blog posts discussing private or communal Zen at No Zen In The West  and a response by Dosho Port, who I briefly studied with and highly recommend his Vine Of Obstacles training website.

I personally don’t think it is either/or.  I think it should be left to the individual practitioner.  So I guess considering that statement, maybe i lean more toward it being personal.  But this weekend I was able to attend a kido retreat where we chanted Friday afternoon and Saturday.  Sure, you can chant at home by yourself.  But to me this retreat represented the best of communal Zen.  To be able to forget your own voice and only be aware of the Sangha’s voice.  It was pretty powerful stuff.

My Personal Zen requires a Sangha.  I don’t find any irony in that statement.

American Bodhisattvas and Engaged Buddhism

Disclaimer — this is an unedited version of a post.  I am going ahead and putting it up because I will be gone for the next 3 days.  I wrote it last weekend but haven’t had a chance to get back to it and refine it.  So it may come off more harsh than I intend for it to, and of course it will be filled with spelling, formatting, and grammatical errors.  Please forgive all of those.

This post loosely ties into a recent post at No Zen In The West that I encourage everyone to read.

American Bodhisattvas and Engaged Buddhism

Before you save the world you must first save yourself.

Before you try to save the world, learn to make an omelet. 

I couldn’t find the author to attribute the above quotes to.  I’ll get back to them in a minute.

What is a bodhisattva?  Wikipedia tells me a “bodhisattva is the Sanskrit term for anyone who, motivated by great compassion, has generated bodhicitta to attain buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.” And without getting stuck in a Wikipedia hyperlink vortex, bodhicitta ‘may be translated as “awakening mind” or “mind of enlightenment”’  In every traditional explanation that I could find of what a bodhisattva is, it is always some variant of someone who helps save others and get them to enlightenment. 

So why in Zen circles do I constantly see and hear people refer to a bodhisattva as anyone that does any generous act?  See a person give a dollar to a homeless man? “Ah, what a great bodhisattva!”.  See a person rescue a kitten from a tree? “Ah, how wonderful!  What a bodhisattva!”  Are these actions true actions of a bodhisattva?  Or are they just people being nice to their fellow sentient beings?  Is there a difference?

I think American Zen is getting sidetracked.  I commented on a popular Zen blog the other day that I don’t know how much good we are doing by feeding the homeless.  I stopped there but should have completed my thought.  I promise I am not that inhumane.  I just come from the school that you should teach a man to fish.  You can feed him while you’re teaching him, but by just feeding him you are not helping him in the long run.  He will always be dependent upon someone else.

So that brings me to “Engaged Buddhism”.  Engaged Buddhism has taken a life of its own since being brought over from the West.  What started there as Humanistic Buddhism, which was a way for our Asian brothers to bring Buddhism literally back to life from the death rituals it had devolved into, has been turned into social charity work.  That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing.  But it seems the focus of American Zen is switching from the permanent cessation of suffering of all sentient beings (the original job of the bodhisattva) to the temporary alleviating of suffering of perceived downtrodden and political activism on behalf of those perceived downtrodden.  I think American Zen is the further watering down of the Dharma.

I believe a bodhisattva’s job is to help people learn how to fish on their own, not just to give them their next fish.  Both are important.  But there are plenty of people and organizations that can help you get that next fish.  How many can help you learn how to fish and cook for yourself?  And Heaven forbid I bring a Theravada point up, but shouldn’t we save ourselves first THEN save the world?  We have to make several omelets ourselves before we can become a chef and make them for others.  Pardon all of my mixed metaphors and parables. 

Zen is about attaining enlightenment.  Over and over again.  Then helping others do the same.  Don’t lose sight of this.

So am I wrong?  Just misguided?  Is a bodhisattva just a really nice person?  Or is a bodhisattva a person whose focus should be primarily on helping others realize enlightenment? 

Not Just Another Zen Blog

Welcome! This won’t be your run-of-the mill Zen blog. Ok, maybe it will. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be as good as some that are already out there. My personal favorites are Hardcore Zen, Monkey Mind and No Zen In The West. The problem with those blogs is that I don’t agree with a lot of what they say.

See, I think there’s a big problem with “American Zen”: Its loudest and most pervasive voices are always liberals. In my opinion, the San Francisco Zen types have taken over the whole movement. If your thoughts and politics don’t lean to the left, you get looked at kinda funny. Personally, I don’t think politics and Zen should mix, although I do realize I’m in the minority here.

So I created Don’t Know Zen. This will be a place where we can have civil discussions about Zen, and even politics if we have to. Also, civil discussions about whatever else pops up in my not-so-calm mind. But you, dear reader, will have to bear with me because I’m not a lot of things. And two of those things are Zen teacher and professional writer. I try to meditate every day and go on day-long retreats every now and then. I also try to avoid grammar and spelling mistakes and form cohesive sentences. But sometimes I fail at all that. So have compassion. Please. But most of all, comment, discuss, and be civil.