social action

Toward a socially responsible mindfulness

The big news in the Buddhist world recently was a gathering of Buddhist teachers and leaders at the White House – yes, that White House. My heart leaped with joy when I saw photos of members of the group holding up three banners with these words:

The Karma of Slavery is Heavy
I vow to work for racial justice

The Whole Earth is My True Body
I vow to work for climate justice

U.S. Militarism Breeds Violence Not Safety
I vow to work for peace and freedom

The banners were lovingly hand-painted by members of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in the San Francisco Bay Area. BPF is an organization near and dear to my heart – I worked there for many years, and served as its executive director from 2004 – 2007.

This dharmic-based activism is a good lead-in to something I’ve been intending to write about for a very long time.

Even though I often use the word “mindfulness” to describe the principle at the very foundation of my work, I have to confess that I have a lot of resistance to using the ‘m’ word.

Over the past few years as mindfulness has taken root in the public discourse, I’ve felt grateful that this practice which has long been part of my life is being widely shared and made accessible to many more people. Yet at the same time I am concerned, with others, that its original intention is becoming distorted. We’ve all observed how our capitalist/consumerist culture can take anything and turn it into a commodity.

Many months ago, I had a vision of creating a “Socially Responsible Mindfulness Manifesto,” a document that I imagined could serve as a rallying point for those of us who hold mindfulness in a larger context and see its potential as a vehicle for personal and collective liberation. Part of the manifesto would be a pledge signed by people who teach mindfulness in secular settings — a vow that we would hold awareness of social and environmental issues as we do this work and not be complicit with unjust conditions.

I thought of a number of people who I deeply respect to be part of a working group on this document and sent them a first draft. I want to especially acknowledge two people who took time to give the document a thorough read and responded with important feedback. Mushim Patricia Ikeda, whom I’ve known since our days working together at BPF, contributed a perspective of inclusivity, reminding me of the importance of writing a document that was relevant to Buddhists from all backgrounds, not just Zen practitioners. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi – a respected Buddhist scholar, Theravadin monk, and founder of Buddhist Global Relief – contributed the gift of integrity. He pointed out places where the document was at odds with the teachings of the Buddha, and helping to contextualize mindfulness both historically and doctrinally.

When the first round of feedback came, I was unsure how to move forward or if it even made sense to continue with this effort. However, the more I considered the insightful comments that were offered, the more I realized that this process might be worth sharing with you. Even if there isn’t a “Socially Responsible Mindfulness Manifesto” to show yet, there is a lot of good thinking about what this might look like and what purpose it can serve. Stay tuned.

And I still passionately believe in the reason for the document in the first place: If mindfulness is indeed a ‘movement,’ I want to be part of a movement that supports people to wake up to the connections between us, that helps us to see that personal stress reduction is not separate from fair wages and safe working conditions, that does not hide from questions about power and privilege.

Both Mushim and I thought it might be beneficial to share the email conversation that Bhikkhu Bodhi and I had about this subject. My thanks to Mushim for putting this in a dialogical format that helps to illustrate the important points. I certainly learned a lot from this engagement!

Maia: For socially-engaged spiritual activists, secular mindfulness practices seem to offer a liberatory potential, in terms of helping to create more embodied and mindful social justice movements. What’s your take on this idea?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: From a Buddhist perspective, “the most emancipatory context” for the practice of mindfulness is one dedicated to the ultimate aim of Buddhist practice—which from the early Buddhist perspective is the attainment of emancipation from sams?ra—and for me it is questionable that the use of mindfulness practice in secular settings has this aim. I don’t begrudge the efforts to find new applications of mindfulness, and I agree that these applications should be bolstered by an ethical framework and used for salutory purposes. But I think one has to be cautious about assuming that these modernist applications are identical with—or even congruent with—the practice of mindfulness in its original context.

Maia: Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally [emphasis mine] to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” Some might say that the practice of mindfulness allows us to increase our awareness of aspects of wellness and disease as they manifest within our individual bodies and emotions, and also within our social systems as well. From that place of increased awareness, we are in a better position to take skillful action to address the causes of disease. Do you think that the practice of mindfulness meditation automatically or inevitably leads to social responsibility?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: There is the rub: the idea that mindfulness is inherently nonjudgmental. In the Pali texts, mindfulness is always conjoined with the faculty of judgment (dhammavicaya), through which one engages in assessment, evaluation, and discrimination, and thereby endeavors to eliminate what is harmful and to arouse and strengthen what is wholesome and beneficial.

Maia: Because of a cultural tendency to focus on private wellbeing rather than collective wellbeing (a tendency more often present in people with economic and other kinds of privilege), we may overlook one of the teachings of the Buddha: the teaching of interdependence. In the words of Thai Buddhist activist and author Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa,

“Buddhism is not concerned just with private destiny, but with the lives and consciousness of all beings… Any attempt to understand Buddhism apart from its social dimension is fundamentally a mistake. Until Western Buddhists understand this, their embrace of Buddhism will not help very much in the efforts to bring about meaningful and positive social change, or even in their struggle to transform their ego.”

From our perspective, Buddhadharma was never intended as an escape from reality, rather it is a way of being present to reality. This includes the reality of unhealthy working conditions, low wages, and environmental destruction. Therefore, our understanding of mindfulness in the Buddhist sense is not limited to personal wellbeing; it is inclusive of social, economic, and environmental concerns. What’s your take on this?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: Technically, I don’t think this wider sphere of concern is the domain of mindfulness but of its companion, sampajañña, “clear comprehension.”

Maia: Our primary concern is that the concept and practice of mindfulness is all too often co-opted to serve as a diversion from dealing with issues of social, economic, environmental, gender, and racial injustice.

Dr. Funie Hsu (postdoctoral fellow at UC Davis School of Education) eloquently articulates this concern: “The particular brand of mindfulness that is gaining widespread acceptance serves to bolster long-standing systems of power: making them more efficient, potent, and acceptable under the pretext of inner peace.”

We are deeply concerned about this tendency to use secular mindfulness to move away from difficult questions about power and privilege.

It appears to us that mindfulness can be used as a spiritual bypass – or it can be a vehicle to raise awareness of injustice and structural oppression in all its forms, including classism, racism, and sexism. Do you think that mindfulness has the potential to create spaces for authentic (and often difficult) conversations about these realities as well as for meaningful and effective responses to them?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: I’m not so sure that the above is the function of mindfulness itself. It seems to me that recognition of these forms of injustice and oppression is incumbent on us as citizens in today’s world, but I’m uncertain whether and to what extent this is actually fostered by mindfulness in the meditative sense. It seems to me that this awareness develops by paying close attention (through active cognitive engagement, not meditatively) to events happening around us. Perhaps mindfulness practice establishes the ground for greater sensitivity and responsiveness in relation to the suffering of others, but I’m not sure that the practice itself “raises awareness” of these things.

The great leaders of social transformation, both in theory and action, for the most part do not practice the meditative mode of mindfulness, and the foremost exponents of meditative mindfulness in a Buddhist setting hardly promote large-scale social transformation. Contrast for example the African American Christian clergy involved in human rights campaigns, or the Christian and Jewish clergy who have led the campaigns against US military involvement around the world, with the Buddhist meditation masters. The former, with perhaps a few exceptions, don’t practice meditative mindfulness, while the latter show only a marginal concern with social justice issues.

Perhaps a type of awareness different from Buddhist meditative mindfulness is what is needed to foster recognition of these issues. Of course, adding meditative mindfulness to the arsenal of techniques may be helpful in some respects, but let’s not assume that it is intrinsically the sufficient antidote. It seems meditative mindfulness can swing either way, even among earnest practitioners: toward or away from greater awareness of justice issues. The catalyst must therefore be something other than mindfulness itself, perhaps an awakening of the sense of conscience and responsibility for the fate of others.

As part of this conversation, Bhikkhu Bodhi showed us a document he created on “Modes of Applied Mindfulness.” He gave his permission for it to be shared, recognizing that it is a work in progress. I am including it here because I find it a very helpful way to see the nuances inherent in bringing mindfulness into diverse domains, and that each mode has its openings and limitations.


Function: to facilitate insight

Ultimate aim: enlightenment, liberation from birth and death

Problem: may lead to narcissistic self-absorption, indifference to inequities of social- economic institutions and policies and ecological destruction

Secular Therapeutic

Function: to help people deal with physical ailments, psychological traumas and stress, addictions and conflicts, alienation and hopelessness

Ultimate aim: to enable people to become more peaceful, hopeful, equanimous, patient; less reactive, more considerate and compassionate

Problem: people may be conditioned to deal solely with their individual challenges without being moved to confront larger structures of social and economic injustice

Secular instrumental

Function: to help people become more effective in their roles and assignments: more effective as corporate leaders, workers, athletes, students, soldiers, etc.

Ultimate aim: to enhance productivity within the boundaries of existing social and economic institutions

Problem: May acclimatize people to unwholesome roles, sustain corporatist, militaristic, consumerist programs

Socially transformative

Function: as a Buddhist practice, to provide a means of fostering structural transformation toward the social ideals of the Dharma: greater social and economic justice, environmental stability, peace, equality, etc.

Ultimate aim: to promote realization of a just, peaceful society and world

Problem: to ground these ideals on textual sources and develop a theoretical foundation for an ethic of Buddhist engagement in the world.

Possible tensions between this application of mindfulness and its classical role that need exploration and resolution.

Please share your thoughts on “socially responsible mindfulness” in the comments below — do you find this a helpful construct? Not so helpful? If you teach mindfulness practice in secular settings, what’s your take on addressing social justice issues that may arise in the course of your work?

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“The Buddha Is Still Teaching: Contemporary Buddhist Wisdom Selected and Edited by Jack Kornfield”

The Buddha Is Still Teaching

“In these pages you will find the Dharma … Dharma is kept alive by those who follow the path,” writes Jack Kornfield, the beloved American Buddhist teacher and co-founder of Spirit Rock meditation Center, near where I live in San Francisco.

For the past two months I have had this little book in my messenger bag, a compilation of selections that Kornfield tells us will “bring the Dharma eloquently to life for us in our own time, place and culture.” Indeed it is full of inspiration, and has been a treat to open it, never knowing what treasures will await on the page, as I ride the train during evening rush hour, as I relax at home after supper, when I read after my morning meditation.

Title: The Buddha Is Still Teaching: Contemporary Buddhist Wisdom
Author: Selected and edited by Jack Kornfield
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-692-5
Available from: Shambhala, and Kindle Store; and Kindle Store.

The selections are generally quite short, ranging from one sentence to a few paragraphs, and they are drawn from many teachers who have inspired my own Buddhist practice over the years. I have been making a practice of reading one selection from this book and then just savoring it as I look around the crowded train, has I take in the silence of the evening, or as I make breakfast.

This book is “dedicated to the generation of teachers who have so beautifully carried the lamp of the Dharma to the West” and is organized in four sections: Wise Understanding; Compassion and Courage; Freedom; and Enlightenment and The Bodhisattva Path, drawn from 75 different teachers. A reader could stay with one section for a while and look for connections between the teachings, or could skip around, allowing the teachings to mix spontaneously. She could read one selection a day or finish a whole section. There are many ways to enjoy this book.

I have enjoyed rediscovering quotes from books I read long ago, now re-reading them with fresh eyes. Words that seem timely and wise from familiar teachers like Dilgo Khyentse, my own teacher’s teacher, from Thich Nhat Hanh, Shunryu Suzuki, Pema Chödrön and Charlotte Joko Beck. And also from teachers less familiar to me, such as Taizan Maezumi, Tulku Thondup, and Noelle Oxenhandler. There is a balanced representation of teachers from different traditions. And I enjoyed hearing the voices of so many women Buddhist teachers. The book has a lovely format. It is small, but dense, the pages are beautifully laid-out and the font is pleasing to the eye.

Jack Kornfield introduces the volume as “a Buddhist treasure: the equivalent of new Buddhist sutras.” He reminds us that the teachings of the Buddha are “the Lion’s Roar, words of fearlessness and unshakable freedom”. I would agree that the wisdom of the Buddhist teachers in this book do point to this fearlessness and freedom. I was, however, surprised to find that not all entries were by Buddhist teachers. In fact, there were even three entries by Gandhi, whose words Kornfield explains “echo those of the Buddha.” He describes these entries as “the good medicine of the Dharma.”

I would argue that Gandhi’ sentiments are not appropriate in such a book, and are not taken by all as “good medicine.” Gandhi was not a Buddhist, he was a Hindu. In his political career Gandhi had a lot of conflict with the community which some refer to “The new Buddhists”, those traditionally considered in Hinduism as “untouchable”, who were followers of the social reformer Dr. Ambedkar. Gandhi opposed many meaningful reforms that would have fundamentally changed the injustice of the caste system in newly-democratic India, and he called the oppressive, non-Buddhist, caste system “the backbone of Indian society.” Gandhi is not a hero to this community, and it seems insensitive to include him in such a lovely volume, considering the ways he blocked Dr. Ambedkar’s political reforms. It is also particularly ironic, since one entry of Gandhi’s is entitled “Religion and Politics”. This selection ends by saying that “those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”

I believe it would have been more inspiring and more appropriate in such a book to include a quote from Dr. Ambedkar, who actually converted to Buddhism, as a way of escaping caste oppression. “Buddhism alone among the world’s religions,” Ambedkar wrote, “is compatible with the ethical and rational demands of contemporary life.” In terms of “Religion and Politics,” Ambedkar famously said, “My final word of advice to you is educate, agitate, and organize. Have faith in yourself. With justice on our side, I do not see how we can lose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual.” This is “the Lion’s Roar” for our times.

Jack Kornfield himself says that the task of selection was difficult, and I can only imagine that it must have been so. This is, in fact, a lovingly-compiled book and a source of inspiration in many ways. Kornfield writes in his introduction that the book demonstrates that “two and-a-half millennia have nothing to diminish the freshness of the Buddha’s teaching, or their universal applicability of our lives.” Yes! Kornfield also writes that, “The Buddha insisted that his awakened disciples, when traveling to new lands, teach the Dharma in the language and vernacular of their times.” If we believe that the Buddha’s teachings are universal, and appropriate to our times, then let us expand that view to our fellow Buddhists who live outside the United States, and have embraced Buddhism as a way of rejecting 3,000 years of an oppressive caste structure.

The instructions are to read the selections in this book slowly, to listen to them. “Let these luminous words bring The Buddha’s awaking to your own heart and mind. Reflect on them, practice them, let them transform your life.” It is a lovely invitation. Eh ma ho!

“These are the teachings that are good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end.” Gautama Buddha

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Transcending a different type of PTSD — helping children of the night

Dr. Norman Rosenthal: Lately there has been a storm of publicity – and deservedly so – about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The public has become better educated about this potentially disabling disorder and its symptoms, such as hypervigilance, an exaggerated tendency to startle, flashbacks, nightmares and emotional numbness, to name just a few.
Mental health professionals have emphasized the need to diagnose and treat PTSD wherever it arises. In this piece, I would like to draw attention to yet another group suffering from PTSD – child victims of prostitution who, against all odds, are trying…

Click to read more »

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Reflecting on death is oddly life-enhancing

dancing skeletons

Most people would tend to assume that reflecting on your own death is going to be a bit of a downer. Why think about that depressing stuff?

Well, there’s a good reason why. It can make you a happier and better person.

In an experiment in the UK, people were asked to reflect about death in an abstract way, were asked to imagine their own death, or (as a control) were asked to imagine toothache.

Next, the participants were given an article, supposedly from the BBC, about blood donations. Some people read an article saying that blood donations were “at record highs” and the need was low; others read another article reporting the opposite – that donations were “at record lows” and the need was high. They were then offered a pamphlet guaranteeing fast registration at a blood center that day and told they should only take a pamphlet if they intended to donate.

People who thought about death in the abstract were motivated by the story about the blood shortage. They were more likely to take a pamphlet if they read that article. But people who thought about their own death were likely to take a pamphlet regardless of which article they read; their willingness to donate blood didn’t seem to depend on how badly it was needed.

Thinking about death — your own death — can make you realize what’s important in life. That’s one reason why the Buddha suggested that we should reflect frequently:

  1. I’m going to get old
  2. I’m going to get sick
  3. I’m going to die
  4. I’m going to be separated from all that’s dear to me

There’s a fifth reflection that’s a part of this set as well:

  1. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.’

To sum that up, life is short, and you’re responsible for what you do with it. The clear implication is that with all that in mind we’re more likely to live well, paying attention to those things — like helping others — that are really important.

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Buddhist mobile clinic serves East San Jose

Fewer patients than expected turned out, but that just meant the waiting lines were short for the doctors, dentists, acupuncturists and chiropractors who filled teeth and adjusted backs Sunday at a free clinic in East San Jose.

The Tzu Chi Foundation, a Buddhist organization with roots in Taiwan, offered its health clinic in keeping with its goals to help the poor, educate the rich and inspire love and humanity in both.

The foundation, with 10 million followers globally, has a strong presence in the South Bay. The 58 patients who showed up at Slonaker Elementary School on Sunday were matched in number by Tzu Chi’s volunteers, including medical professionals and others. The group, which has a partnership with Slonaker and two other schools in the Alum Rock Union School District, chose the school because of its high poverty index.

The group, which also runs clinics in the Central Valley, targets the areas of greatest need.

But while the medical need in the neighborhood near Lake Cunningham is clearly high, a recent increase in immigration raids may have dampened the turnout, said Brenda Hernandez, a Slonaker teacher volunteering Sunday. After fliers about the clinic were distributed, several families said they were afraid that attending might draw attention from the authorities.

Those who did visit the clinic, which also included a fully equipped…

Read the rest of this article…

dental van, made good use of the services, Tzu Chi representative Eric Chen said.

Among them was Juan Martínez, who got a tooth capped, while his wife, Alejandra Leyva, also received care.

“It’s pretty difficult to get an appointment at the hospital,” said Martínez, of San Jose. Disabled last year in an auto crash, the uninsured man said the typical wait is three to five hours in emergency rooms and up to 12 hours for nonemergency care at Valley Medical Center.

At the Tzu Chi clinic, he said, paperwork was minimal, compared with the multiple applications required at most clinics and hospitals.

From a doctor’s viewpoint, clinics present at least one challenge — ongoing treatment of patients with chronic diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes. “When you write a prescription, you feel they should get follow-up care,” said Richard Chiang, a cardiologist with Kaiser Permanente Hayward Medical Center, who has volunteered with Tzu Chi for about six years.
On Sunday Chiang mostly did consultations, emphasizing lifestyle. “I’ve been reinforcing the importance of people taking care of themselves with diet, watching their weight and getting regular physical activity,” he said.

But while the doctors themselves couldn’t follow up on their walk-through patients, they handed out information on community clinics for low-income residents and low-cost prescriptions available at drugstores. And the Health Trust of Santa Clara County distributed information about medical insurance available to children.

The accomplishment is hard to measure, but on Sunday, Tzu Chi — which means “compassion and relief” — made a bit of progress in its mission, Chen said, to help the most needy and less fortunate in society.

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Taking your practice on to the streets

The image of meditators remaining aloof from the world, caught up in examining the metaphorical fluff in their mental bellybuttons, still lingers on despite the fact that many practitioners are deeply involved in social actions like feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, teaching prison inmates, and working to solve environmental issues.

Hopefully the first-ever Symposium for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism, organized by the Zen Peacemakers, will help put the myth of the disengaged meditator to rest, especially since the event’s speakers include some big names from the world of Buddhism (and beyond).

Starting Monday, Aug. 9 through Saturday, Aug. 14, influential pioneers of Western Socially Engaged Buddhism will speak and engage conversations about Social Entrepreneurship, Politics, Challenges for Socially Engaged Buddhism and more. Speakers include Academy Award-winning actor, Jeff Bridges, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Peter Matthiessen.

“It is a rare opportunity for so many caring and thoughtful individuals to come together to inspire and support each other in our pursuit to help neglected communities,” said Joe Sibilia, CSRwire CEO and Symposium presenter. “We will be discussing volunteerism, the arts, justice and activism, and how our actions can positively impact the world and those around us.”

Other event presentations will be given by Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard; Joan Halifax, Buddhist teacher and Zen priest; Bernie Glassman, Zen Master and Zen Peacemakers founder; and more.

For a complete list of presenters and to register, please visit Zen Peacemakers.

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Harlem renaissance

Russell Simmons has a knack for bringing underground urban culture into the mainstream. During the mid-1980s, as co-founder of the Def Jam record label, he helped launch the first hip hop megastars–LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Run-DMC, and The Beastie Boys. A few years later, he created the clothing label Phat Farm, turning street wear into runway fashion. His Def Poetry television series brought local slam poets into the national spotlight on HBO.

Along the way, Simmons has been helping everyday urban residents make their voices heard through the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, an organization that teaches inner city youth about financial credit and political involvement. Last August, Simmons turned his attention to homeless men in Harlem, a particularly invisible and powerless population. But instead of teaching these men how to speak out or take action, Simmons offered them inner peace through Transcendental Meditation.

“You’re alive for a simple reason, and that’s to be happy,” Simmons told a rapt audience at Ready, Willing, and Able, a program that helps homeless men find jobs and housing. The program recently added meditation to its toolbox, through funding from the David Lynch Foundation, and brought Simmons in to help inspire the men to learn. Simmons himself has been meditating for years, and he told The Atlantic about his efforts to bring stillness to New York City’s most restless population.

Meditation doesn’t seem to be a basic need like food or shelter. Why should homeless men learn to meditate?

Well, food and shelter are pretty good, too. But right up there with food and shelter is peace of mind. There are many roads to peace of mind. But some roads have so much proof that you know you’re definitely on your way. Transcendental Meditation has really got so much research, so many examples, so many people who have become calmer and more peaceful–even enlightened. It’s hard to get around how valuable meditation can be.

How is meditation different from religious faith? I’d imagine a lot of these men grew up with prayer in their lives.

Praying can be a good aid to promoting presence, but praying for something you don’t have doesn’t always create stillness. In the Yoga Sutras, it says Yogash chita vritti nirodha [“Meditation is the individual discipline that leads to the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”]. You can go to church and listen to a preacher who will remind you that Jesus Christ said to be still. Consciousness comes from lots of different sources.

But when you meditate, the noise is gone and there’s only bliss. Pure happiness. Look, it’s all good. But when people say meditation is a direct route, I believe they’ve got something. My own meditation is the best part of my day, like a mini-vacation. People fly away somewhere on vacation and they drink and create more stress. I sit in my room and release lots of stress. I like that better.

When you spoke to the men at Ready, Willing, and Able, you emphasized the importance of happiness. Why do homeless people need to hear this message?

Because these are people who have been made to feel that they’re less than, or their chances for happiness should be less than. They’re never going to change their situation until they find happiness within. I believe that happy, hard-working, spiritual people are really attractive and draw good things toward themselves.

What do you think causes homelessness in the first place?

I can’t give a simple answer to that. But it’s certainly the poverty mindset that is the greatest problem for so many homeless people. Meditation gives you a rich mindset, a mindset that makes you happy with what you have. There can be a happy person living in a shanty house. Even if he has nothing, inside he feels like he has everything.

And there can be an unhappy person living in a penthouse. The other day, I spoke to a billionaire’s son who’s running a big company. He told me he goes to India and sees all that poverty and feels guilty that he’s so rich and so unhappy. He really thinks that ’cause he got shit he should be happy! I told him he’s got nothing to feel guilty about.

Have the men told you specific stories about how meditation has helped them?

I’ve heard good ones. One guy who used to be homeless learned TM and immediately had an experience of “I am That, you are That, all this is nothing but That.” People in yoga studios try to achieve that experience and pass around books about it, but this guy got it after a month! So it’s pretty amazing that these people now have a way to transcend. Certainly meditation has got to be the number one thing that I can give someone.

[via The Atlantic]
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Buddhism goes home

Sangharakshita, 1967Sangharakshita, an English Buddhist, lived for 20 years in the East before returning to Britain in the 1960s. Sangharakshita made a return visit to India in 1984, reconnecting with former-untouchables who had been led to Buddhism by Dr. Ambedkar, himself a former untouchable who had become the country’s law minister. Nagabodhi describes one evening of that tour.

Each night Sangharakshita introduces a fresh range of teachings, and explains aspects of Buddhist practice, basing his commentaries on a host of traditional formulations: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Threefold Way, the Seven Limbs of Enlightenment, the Five Spiritual Faculties…. His discourses are peppered with stories, jokes, anecdotes, and examples from the life of the Buddha and Dr Ambedkar, or simply from Indian village life. His words are straightforward and clear, and leave no one behind.

Purna’s tape recorder hums and whirs, picking up his words. Before long they will be transcribed, edited, translated, and published in the Marathi, Gujerati, and English-medium magazines that circulate within the Buddhist community. During the course of this visit Sangharakshita is creating a legacy of teachings that will keep those publications stocked for years.

 Tonight we’ve got a man who wants to drive his bullock cart through the audience.  

Again and again, he returns to the theme of morality. Ambedkar once said, ‘Morality is Dhamma; Dhamma is Morality’. Sangharakshita distinguishes ‘conventional morality’ – the morality of the group or caste – from ‘natural morality’. In terms of natural morality, some actions – of body, speech, or mind – express lower, less human, even animal mental states. Others express truly human states, express our distinctively human capacity for wisdom, love, and unselfishness. Our first task, therefore, is to become truly human and to get beyond the animal realm of blind craving, blind instinct, and self-centeredness.

To be truly human is to recognize that actions have consequences, for ourselves, for others, and for our environment – and to take full responsibility for our actions. The five Precepts help because they offer a kind of blueprint for more truly human actions and states of mind. These precepts don’t take their sanction from a god, or from the group, but from our innate potential to develop, and from our deep yearning to do so. For this reason ‘natural’ morality is the foundation of human life itself, whether individual or collective. Naturally, if we live a truly ethical life we will be free from conflicts and confusion; we’ll get on well with others, and we’ll know how to help them. Our lives will be clear, free from worry, free from anxiety….

For some reason, almost every night, at around the half-way point, there is a major disturbance. Tonight we’ve got a man who wants to drive his bullock cart through the audience. He can’t be bothered to go the long way round, and thinks he can just trundle across our field. A argument has erupted at the gate.

 We think we are sheep when really we are lions. We think we are weak when really we are strong.  

Sometimes, a circle of ladies will arrive late, and come floating into the proceedings with their trays of lighted candles and incense, like spirits from a dream. But every night, no matter where we are, a moment comes when the young mothers realize it’s time to put their little ones to bed. As soon as they get up, they seem to disconnect from the event completely, and enter a new dimension. They talk at the tops of their voices, call across to each other, and berate their children, while other members of the audience shout at them, hiss, wave their arms, and try to calm them down. If things get really bad Sangharakshita will take a few discrete steps back and study his notes while Vimalakirti joins in from the microphone. It can take ten minutes for the ripples to subside.

Sangharakshita goes on to explain how mental and emotional freedom, the fruits of ethical conduct, provide the basis for meditation practice. Meditation, he says, opens the way to the higher development of the mind which Ambedkar upheld as the indispensable requirement for a decent life. Ambedkar repeatedly spoke of his faith in the ‘energy’, ‘enthusiasm’, and ‘inspiration’ that lie within us. These qualities can be contacted directly, through meditation. In a mind that is concentrated and focussed, distractions have no place, the various ‘aspects’ and ‘selves’ that make up a person are brought into harmony. The result is that we begin to feel quite different: we have more energy because none of it is being drained by confusion or vagueness; we can reach down into our depths and discover tremendous power, limitless enthusiasm, and a fundamental level of confidence.

He teaches the practice of anapana sati, or ‘mindfulness of breathing’, a meditation which brings about this kind of concentration. Anyone who practices it will begin to see their life more clearly and find out what they need to do to make it better. It is a practice that can carry us into realms of thought, feeling, and imagination far richer than those we experience most of the time. This is where the fresh vision will arise, helping us to take our lives and ambitions onto an ever higher level.

 Whenever Ambedkar is mentioned there is an explosion of applause.  

He also teaches the maitri bhavana – the ‘development of universal loving-kindness’. Emotions like love, fraternity, and compassion can be developed, he says. We tend to think that they arise solely as a matter of chance or passing mood, but our emotional states need not depend on outside circumstances at all. Someone who has worked to develop even a little maitri can stand firm in the face of difficulties. He won’t be discouraged by the knocks he receives, he will be able to think clearly and positively – remain in a good state to find a way of beating the obstacles that confront him. If all the members of a Buddhist locality were to practice maitri bhavana, they would not just get on well with each other, they would be able to work effectively together: they would be strong, and they would have an incalculable effect on the localities around them.

It surprises me to see Sangharakshita teaching meditation this way. In England I’ve never once heard him explain how to practice meditation at a public talk. But here, in this town, there is no public center for anyone to visit for a follow-up class, and Poona is a long way away. Even while he speaks, I can sense the urgency he feels. Even if just one person here manages to get somewhere with meditation as a result of this talk, he or she will make an impact on the others, another seed will have been sown.

There is a vihara in this locality: a small, rectangular, one-roomed building. It has a Buddha-shrine, and is used as a lodging by visiting monks. Most of the time, though, it serves as a sort of social club. Sangharakshita asks his listeners to keep their vihara beautiful and clean, and use it only for Buddhist activities:

‘A Vihara should be a peaceful place, a place where you can make a special effort to practice the Precepts, a place where you can meditate. If you treat your vihara well, and use it properly, you will have no need to make the costly pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya. You will have the Buddha right here in your own neighborhood, reminding you of the real purpose of life, inspiring you to make further efforts.’

 The Dhamma is whatever helps people to grow. They may choose to work on themselves first, or they may choose to work in society. Either way they will be growing…  

Meditation, practiced successfully and deeply, he continues, provides the foundation for wisdom. In this context wisdom is not something we get from books. Of course it is important to study the Dhamma; that is how we find out what the Buddha actually did and said, and what he advised us to do. But even that kind of book learning is not wisdom; Wisdom is the way we see things when we are living on a higher level. And this kind of wisdom can express itself in a number of ways: as fearlessness, as generosity, as patience, and, of course, as ‘insight’ – seeing things as they really are. He offers an illustration:

‘Once upon a time there was a lion cub who had lost his parents. In fact, he became completely separated from the other lions, and strayed into a flock of sheep. He lived with the sheep for years, and grew up among them – thinking, after a while, that he was himself just another sheep.

‘One day while out grazing, the sheep/lion came across a big, wild lion. At first he was terrified, and tried to run away, but because he only knew how to run like a sheep, the lion soon caught up with him, and asked him why he was so frightened.

‘ “Baa!” said the sheep/lion, “I am afraid because I have been told that lions are dangerous to us sheep. You will want to eat me up.”

‘ “Us sheep?” stammered the lion, “But you are not a sheep at all! You are a lion like me.”

‘ “Baa! Oh no. I am not a lion. I am a sheep. Why are you trying to confuse me?”

‘The lion had never encountered anything like this before. There was no doubting it, though: here was a lion who thought he was a sheep! Then he had an idea, and led the sheep/lion by the scruff of the neck to a pool of clear water and forced him to look at his reflection. There, the sheep/lion didn’t see a sheep at all — but a lion! He immediately “woke up”, and realized that for all those years he’d been living under an illusion.

 In the West, people are more individualistic and psychologically oriented. I therefore have to talk in “psychological” terms.  

‘We are like that lion cub. We think we are sheep when really we are lions. We think we are weak when really we are strong. We need to see for ourselves what we really are.

‘Of course, like that lion cub, we may need a friend to come along and remind us about our true selves. But in this respect we are very lucky. We have had two friends, two lions, in the not too distant past. First there was Gautama the Buddha. And then — even more recently — there was Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar!’

Repeatedly, Sangharakshita embroiders his stories with references to Ambedkar, and recapitulates the man’s qualities and significance. Whenever Ambedkar is mentioned in this way there is an explosion of applause. The official cheerleader — one of the village elders — sets up a few chants; the atmosphere is jubilant.

One night, after a talk, I asked Sangharakshita about these continual references. It was all so different to the Buddhism I was used to. Were all these references, and the general preoccupation with the social dimension of things, anything more than a ‘skillful means’?

‘What do you mean?’ Sangharakshita was perplexed.

‘Well, in the West, you explain Buddhism far more in terms of individual, even psychological, development. Isn’t that where all this must lead in the end, to individual Buddhists working on themselves to develop Enlightened qualities?’

He laughed. ‘Well, in the West, people are far more individualistic and psychologically oriented. I therefore have to talk in those more “psychological” terms. Here, people are more community oriented; they experience themselves more as members of a community or family. So here I talk in more, as it were, social terms. But, actually, I’m using a skillful means in both situations. You must not assume that either approach is any closer to the fundamental Dhamma than the other. The Dhamma is whatever helps people to grow. They may choose to work on themselves first, or they may choose to work in society. Either way they will be growing, and setting up the conditions for their own further development – and that of their society.

‘If anything, you could say that the language of social uplift is more effective – though both approaches have their advantages and limitations, of course. If Enlightenment consists in overcoming the “self-other dichotomy”, we can progress towards it by working on the “other” end of things just as effectively as we can by working simply on ourselves.’

Night after night, he instructs, uplifts, and befriends. If there is any one element that I will recollect above all others, it will be the bond of warmth and intimacy that grows between him and his audience as each talk progresses. No wonder there are people here who remember his last visit, twenty years ago. And no wonder he has never forgotten them.

NagabodhiNagabodhi is a senior member of the Western Buddhist Order. Since 1974, when he was ordained, he has devoted his life to the development of the Triratna Buddhist Community as a Dharma teacher, publisher, center director, and fundraiser. He now lives in London with his wife, Vimalacitta. This passage is excerpted, with permission, from his book, Jai Bhim: Dispatches From a Peaceful Revolution (Free PDF download).

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Monks succeed in cyclone relief as junta falters

Monks Succeed in Cyclone Relief as Junta Falters –

KUN WAN, Myanmar — They paddle for hours on the stormy river, or carry their sick parents on their backs through the mud and rain, traveling for miles to reach the one source of help they can rely on: Buddhist monks.

At a makeshift clinic in this village near Bogale, an Irrawaddy Delta town 75 miles southwest of Yangon, hundreds of villagers left destitute by Cyclone Nargis arrive each day seeking the assistance they have not received from the government or international aid workers.

Since the cyclone, the Burmese have been growing even closer to the monks while their alienation from the junta grows. This development bodes ill for the government, which brutally cracked down on thousands of monks who took to the streets last September appealing to the ruling generals to improve conditions for the people.

The May 3 cyclone left more than 134,000 dead or missing and 2.4 million survivors grappling with hunger and homelessness. This week, some of them who had taken shelter at monasteries or gathered on roadsides were being displaced again, this time by the junta, which wants them to stop being an embarrassment to the government and return to their villages “for reconstruction.” On Friday, United Nations officials said that refugees were also being evicted from government-run camps.

The survivors have little left of their homes and find themselves almost as exposed to the elements as their mud-coated water buffaloes. Meanwhile, outside aid is slow to arrive, with foreign aid agencies gaining only incremental access to the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta and the government impounding cars of some private Burmese donors.

In a scene the ruling generals are unlikely to see played out for themselves, a convoy of trucks carrying relief supplies, led by Buddhist monks, passed through storm-devastated villages in the delta this week. Hungry children and homeless mothers bowed in supplication and respect.

“When I see those people, I want to cry,” said Sitagu Sayadaw, 71, one of Myanmar’s most respected senior monks.

Village after storm-hit village, it is clear who has won people’s hearts. Monks were among those who died in the storm. Now, others console the survivors while sharing their muddy squalor.

With tears welling in her eyes, Thi Dar, 45, pressed her hands together in respect before the first monk she saw at the clinic here and told her story. The eight other members of her family were killed in the cyclone. She no longer had anyone to talk with and felt suicidal. The other day, word reached her village that a monk had opened a clinic six miles upriver. So on Thursday, she got up early and caught the first boat.

“In my entire life, I have never seen a hospital,” she said. “So I came to the monk. I don’t know where the government office is. I can’t buy anything in the market because I lost everything to the cyclone.”

Nay Lin, 36, a volunteer doctor at the clinic, one of the six emergency clinic shelters Sitagu Sayadaw has opened in the delta, said: “Our patients suffer from infected wounds, abdominal pains and vomiting. They also need counseling for mental trauma, anxiety and depression.”

While the government has been criticized for obstructing the relief effort, the Buddhist monastery, the traditional center of moral authority in most villages here, proved to be the one institution people could rely on for help.

The monasteries in the delta that are still standing have been clogged with refugees. People who could help went there with donations or as volunteers. Monasteries that served as religious centers, orphanages and homes for the elderly have also become shelters for the homeless.

The interdependence between monks and laypeople is age-old. Monks receive alms from the laity and offer spiritual comfort in return. In villages without government schools, a monastic education is often the only option.

“The monks’ role is more important than ever,” said Ar Sein Na, 46, a monk in the delta village of That Kyar. “In a time of immense suffering like this, people have nowhere to go except to monks.”

Kyi Than, 38, said she traveled 15 miles by boat to Sitagu Sayadaw’s camp.

“Our village monk died during the storm,” she said. “Monks are like parents to us. The government wants us to shut up, but monks listen to us.”

Faced with the deadliest cyclone to hit Asia in 38 years, senior monks have organized their own relief campaigns.

Every day, their convoys head down delta roads. A leading figure in these efforts is Sitagu Sayadaw, whose name invariably draws a thumbs-up sign here.

“Meditation cannot remove this disaster,” he said. “Material support is very important now. Now in our country, spiritual and material support are unbalanced.”

Trucks of rice, beans, onions, clothes, tarpaulins and cooking utensils, donated from all over Myanmar, pulled into his International Buddhist Missionary Center in Yangon from early morning on. Each day, shortly after dawn, a convoy of trucks or a barge on the Yangon River departs for the delta, loaded with relief supplies and volunteers.

Sitagu Sayadaw sat on a wooden bench in his field headquarters as people lined up to pay their respects. Villagers came to present lists of their most urgent needs. Monks from outlying villages came asking for help to repair their temples. Wealthy families from towns knelt before him and donated bundles of cash.

However, like other senior monks here, he must strike a careful balance. He has the moral duty to speak out on behalf of his suffering people, but in order to protect his social programs and hospitals, which provide free medical care to the destitute, he must try not to anger the government, which views such private undertakings as a reproof.

Nonetheless, speaking at his shelter as an afternoon monsoon rain drummed against the roof, Sitagu Sayadaw sounded frustrated with the government.

“In my country, I cannot see a real political leader,” he said.

“Gen. Than Shwe’s ‘Burmese way to democracy?’ ” he said, referring to the junta’s top leader. “What is it?”

He defended the monks’ uprising last September, saying the government’s failure to provide “material stability” for the people undermined the monks’ ability to provide “spiritual stability.”

Among monks interviewed in the delta and Yangon, there was no sign of imminent protests.

Still, a 40-year-old monk at Sitagu Sayadaw’s camp who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of official retribution said that “monks are very angry” about the government’s recent move to evict refugees from monasteries, roadside huts and other temporary shelters, even while the state-run media are filled with stories of government relief efforts. “The government doesn’t want to show the truth.”

A young monk in the Chaukhtatgyi Paya monastery district in Yangon predicted trouble ahead. “You will see it again because everyone is angry and everyone is jobless,” said the monk, who said he joined the September “saffron revolution” and had a large gash over his right eye from a soldier’s beating to show for it.

A monk from Mon State in southern Myanmar, who was visiting the delta to assess the damage and arrange an aid shipment, said, “For the government, these people are no more than dead animals in the fields.”

The simmering confrontation between the pillars of Myanmar life was evident at the village level after the cyclone.

Shortly after the storm, a monk in Myo Thit, a village 20 miles from Yangon, walked around with a loudspeaker inviting victims to his monastery and asking people to donate. The monk had to stop, villagers said, after a township leader affiliated with the government threatened to confiscate the loudspeaker.

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Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”


Mahatma Gandhi never actually said this quote, which is commonly attributed to them. Instead he said something similar: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”

So that’s a little teaching in itself. Do we want to see more truth in the world, or more falsehood? I know which I prefer.

When we look at the world around us, with its many serious problems, including poverty, injustice, war, overpopulation, and environmental degradation, we can become angry and frustrated, or passive and despondent. Not only are these responses ineffective at bringing about change, they are also part of the problem to begin with.

In order to bring about positive change in the world we need not only engagement with the outer world, but also engagement with our inner world. If we want to see greater awareness in the world, we have to cultivate awareness. If we want to see more love, we need to cultivate love. If we want to be genuinely helpful we have to learn to be less hateful and frustrated, and more compassionate.

Meditation can of course help here — a notion that Mahatma Gandhi would have agreed with. Meditation helps us to recognize unhelpful emotional patterns and to develop the mental freedom to choose more helpful responses.

The cultivation of mindfulness helps us see what’s going on within us. It lets us see our own reactivity, and also our potential for change.

The cultivation of lovingkindness helps us to find alternative and more compassionate responses to life. If we want to see greater harmony and less strife in the world, we need to learn to respond to frustrations with more patience and kindness than we do at present.

Trying to change the world without changing ourselves is largely pointless. We simply inflict our impatience and ignorance on others, and there are enough of those qualities in the world already. So we need to work on developing the qualities that the world most needs — awareness and compassion.

Of course changing ourselves without attempting to make the world a better place is just a form of selfishness — trying to curate personal experiences of happiness with no regard to others — and there’s enough of that in the world as well.

The world needs our help, so we need to do what we can to help ourselves to be better, so that we can make the world better as well.

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