Thursday, August 13, 2015

Everyday wines for cheapskates

One of the occupational hazards, if you will, of working full-time as a professional taster and buyer of coffee and tea for many years is that the impetus to taste, compare and evaluate carries right over into all other food and drink. I learned early on to harness that energy into finding wines and spirits offering the same outstanding value-for-money (what the French call "rapport: qualité-prix") I was looking for on the caffeinated side of things. I look for screaming value in both my stimulant and my back-brain depressants!

"Champagne tastes but a beer drinker's budget" is an old cliché that certainly describes me and many friends, but with good beer (thanks to rapidly escalating prices for hops and malt) now costing upwards of $1.50 a bottle it's actually possible to drink good wine for less per serving, provided you know where and how to shop. 

Reading Robert Parker and Steven Tanzer's wine journals was invaluable early on, and Parker's regular features on the world's greatest wine values in particular still make a subscription (or at least a one-time purchase of a used copy of his Wine Buyer's Guide) worthwhile for those unfamiliar with the regions and importers most likely to deliver the best values. Spain, by the way, is such an amazing source of high value wines - many made from grape varieties not found anywhere else - that it richly rewards special study, using the superb Peñin Guide

To cut to the chase, here are the basics as I see them:

1. "Food of the region with wine of the region" is eternally excellent advice. That automatically means European wines - in my case mostly rustic French and Italian reds to go with the foods I cook and cuisines I know best. California, Aussie and other New World wines are mostly excluded, for the following reasons:

a. The varieties planted, with few exceptions, are poorly correlated with soil and climate (Napa and Sonoma would be mostly planted with Rhone varietals rather than Chardonnay and Cabernet had terroir been considered, as Bonny Doon's Randall Graham points out in the excellent movie Mondo Vino). It takes centuries to figure this out and in California that process has just begun. 

As Kermit Lynch pointed out long ago, the most versatile red wine with food is bistro staple cru Beaujolais (made from Gamay), followed by a good Cotes du Rhone (grenache/syrah/mourvedre, mostly), while with whites you'd want either a dry Riesling or one of the crisp, perfumey wines from the Southern Rhone (typically a blend made of some combination of grenache blanc, viognier, rousanne, marsanne or clairette). 

b. Affordably excellent wine comes from countries where drinking wine with meals is an everyday occurrence, not a special occasion. The sweet spot for value for California wines, for example, is in the $100-300 a bottle range where they can and do compete with exponentially more expensive grand crus, but in the $10-12 range New World wines don't hold a candle to European offerings. 

c. Irrigation, which is forbidden in most of Europe but routine in the U.S., increases yield while decreasing concentration and terroir.  Excessive yields from the least food-friendly grape varieties combined with manipulation and additives mean that high-value, crisply acidic and concentrated wines from the New World are very hard to find in the sub-$15 a bottle price range. Cheaper domestic wines are usually dilute, almost invariably too sweet, often filtered to within an inch of their lives and frequently contain additives. 

Vin en vrac to vin en boite

When we first started visiting European vineyards we'd routinely see locals schlepping what looked like 5 gallon plastic gasoline carriers up to the counter, where the employee would fill them with wine with what looked like a gas hose. This is how everyday wine has been drunk for centuries, and of course even with a sizable family and daily consumption with lunch and dinner oxidation dramatically decreased the quality of such vin ordinaire over time. 

In recent decades the wine-in-a-box format has almost entirely replaced the old en vrac cans, improving quality enormously. There's a ton of good-to-great boxed wine in Europe, and in Australia it's over 50% of the total market, but in the U.S. the package is pretty much exclusively associated with rotgut swill. Of course the same is true of canned beer, but Oskar Blues and its many imitators have long since shown that the best way of packaging beer (cans beat bottles for freshness, ecological impact and durability) need not be associated with insipid lagers. 

The boxed wine format is ideal for wines that don't need aging (which is to say over 90% of worldwide production), provided that one understands its limitations. The opened shelf life of boxed wine is 4-6 weeks, but unopened great care must be taken, as the bladder the wine's packaged in in is much more permeable to air than a glass bottle. You only want boxed wine from the most recent vintage (I'd avoid anything older than a 2014 as I write this in mid-August, 2015) and the wine needs to be kept in a cool place. 

Bottles and corks are expensive in and of themselves and much more expensive to ship than 3 liters of liquid thinly covered by a plastic bladder and cardboard. Cost-wise what this all translates into is very good to excellent boxed wines at the high end of the market in the $24-36 per box range, which (since each box holds the equivalent of 4 750ml. bottles) translates to $6-9 per bottle for wine that in conventional bottled format sells for $10-17. 

I'll list some favorite boxed wines below, but bear in mind that there are any number of regional importers bringing in both boxed and bottled wines from small producers that the wine press doesn't rate. Ask around. 

The best importers

We were just out on the West coast and I was reminded again of how many excellent boutique importers there are bringing in awesome small producer wines at great prices. Grape Expectations in Berkeley, Kysela Pere et fils, Riservati in Seattle and so many others with specific specialties (only Alsatians, for example, or obscure high-value stuff from Portugal) are all worth learning about and each region (at least on the coasts) has many folks doing great work. 

On a national basis the standard by which all others ought to be measured is Eric Solomon's European Cellars, which brings in an amazing range of high-value wines from Spain and France. Some of the better-known offerings include Domaine Andezon, Cercius and La Garrigue from the Rhone valley, Evodia garnacha and Solanara monastrell and many others. More than any other importer I know of, Solomon's name on the back of the bottle is a guarantee of outstanding value. 

Robert Kacher is another longstanding superstar importer, as is Kermit Lynch (though the latter's distribution system means even his high-value stuff falls just outside true cheapskate territory). The same is true with the great Neal Rosenthal (memorably profiled in the aforementioned Mondo Vino film). Jorge Odonez is a Spain specialist who gives Solomon a run for his money in the high-value market with his superb Tres Picos Garnacha (Parker's value wine of the year) and the consistently excellent $6 a bottle (in boxed format - also in bottles for $9)Viño Borgia:

A newer entrant to the boxed wine category is large-scale Spanish producer Juan Gil, whose Shania wines (a deeply flavored monastrell/mourvedre and a crisp white made from indigenous varietals) can be found for around $20-22 per box. 

At the higher end of the artisanal boxed wine market From the Tank  wines from Jenny et Francois (around $36-39 per box) seem to be in a league of their own, with a red, white and rosé available that should all be in the 89-93 Parker point range. The red in particular is a show-stopper that's easily as good as a carefully chosen $15-20 bottle of Cotes du Rhone from Solomon or Lynch. 

On the mass-market side of things, Bota Box offers a more-than-decent Old Vines Zinfandel and a serviceable Chardonnay. Big House Wines, now independent but founded by the irrepressible innovator Randall Graham, offers a Big House Red that despite its California provenance offers Rhone-like zippy food-friendly flavors and a Big House White to match. All of the aforementioned wines can be had for $17-20 per box, and while they're not the equal of the boutique stuff they are easily found almost everywhere. 

Black Box Wines is the original American premium product in the category. It used to be 100% California fruit but explosive growth forced them to source in Chile for all but their Platinum reserve offerings. Quality is good but it's a Cabernet and Chardonnay universe, meaning that if your everyday fare is limited to burgers and steak or fish in cream sauce you're okay but otherwise better by far to cast your net towards Europe. 

Wines to avoid

Where to start? All of the truly cheap boxed wines, Yellow Tail and anything else with an animal name or icon on the bottle, anything with a numerical wine rating shelf talker on it from any source other than Parker or Tanzer (not that they're infallible but most other sources are either corrupt or clueless). The hard fact of the matter is that anything under $20 a bottle from California, Oregon, Washington or Australia is almost certainly going to be an industrial not an artisanal product. I suggest saving your dabbling in those areas for special occasion wines, where (as mentioned above) it's easily possible to buy a really great bottle for a fraction of the cost of its European qualitative equivalent. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Guatemala as a tourism & snow bird destination

Lake Atitlán at dawn
In my years of working in specialty coffee I visited Guatemala more often than any other country - which makes sense, given that it produces a wider range of high-quality regional coffees than all of the other countries in Central America combined. 15+ years later, my trip this year was a chance to experience the country as a tourist rather than for work, for the first time. 

When I first visited in 1990, the civil war was still in full swing. Someone had been machine gunned on the front steps of the swank Camino Real hotel days before my arrival, and every visit to farms entailed riding in a Land Rover with a shot gun under the seat and other weapons in the hands of armed guards. Over a hundred local villagers had just been massacred in the village of Santiago Atitlán, producers of one of the certified organic coffees I'd been buying. The political realities of Guatemala (one of the original Banana Republics), and the U.S. role in undermining democracy and supporting murderous dictatorships there, was impossible to ignore. While still at Starbucks I began a lengthy correspondence with a professor of political science who'd devoted his life to telling the "back story" of life in Guatemala, and he shared with me a quote (I don't know the source) that has stayed with me ever since: 

"Beauty cloaks Guatemala the way that music hides screams."

25 years later the civil war is still a fairly fresh memory. The huge disparity between rich and poor and the oppression of the indigenous majority by a tiny ruling class are the same as ever, and the abundant supply of guns has shifted into private hands, with many in use by gangs involved in drug dealing, kidnapping, extortion and human trafficking. Guatemala continues to be one of the most dangerous and violent countries in the world, as this State Department report makes abundantly clear. 

Having lived in México for 3+ years my wife and I had adapted to living in places where rule of law is essentially non-existent, but there is of course a gradation in actual and perceived risk, from the relative safety of such gringo retirement havens as Lake Chapala or San Miguel de Allende, to the chilling atmosphere of Ciudad Juarez or the wilds of Michoacán. Guatemala City, even in the nicer and safer areas, feels more like the latter Mexican locales. 

As for the beauty of Guatemala, the fact that the country is awash in tourists despite high crime, poor infrastructure, expensive airfares to get there from any country and a strong local currency ought to tell you all you need to know. The natural beauty and cultural riches are off the charts. My wife and I, on the other hand, naturally see Guatemala through a México expat's lenses, and from that perspective it's hard to think of anything, culturally or culinarily, offered by the country that isn't offered by Oaxaca or Chiapas at 30-50% lower cost and with infinitely better food. 

We'd bought the most current guidebooks available for Guatemala prior to departure as well as consulting online resources such as expat forums and found all of the information on costs available to be way out of date. Not only has it been 6-8 years since these books were revised but the real surge in Guatemala tourism has occurred only since 2011 with a significant increase in prices due at least in part to many more European tourists (enough of a factor that almost all tourist-oriented restaurants charge 10% service automatically). 

For anyone contemplating a visit or (like us) thinking of Guatemala as a possible longer-term winter respite location, here are a few observations from our just-concluded trip:

Lodging: while hostelers can do just fine on $7-10 a night, costs for hotels and guest houses in Guatemala are 30-50% higher, apples-to-apples in terms of amenities, than in México. A $25 hotel room in Antigua or at Lake Atitlán is generally going to be like a $15 room in México, which is to say rock-hard bed, not particularly clean, with well-worn polyester sheets, lumpy pillows, marginal security, etc. We (too) often found ourselves spending $40 a night for still very basic but more livable accommodation. 

Anyone contemplating a longer stay (say for language study or volunteering) would clearly be better off renting a furnished apartment or the like, and we saw plenty of these on offer at prices comparable to what you'd pay in touristy areas of México. 

Transport: Guatemala doesn't have anything resembling the deluxe buses that make long-distance travel in México such a pleasure. Chicken buses are an interesting one-time cultural experience but that's it: they're dangerous, hot and crowded and your chances of being permanently separated from your luggage are quite high. Minivans holding up to 12 people are the best option between popular sites and are quite affordable. Once at your destination their are tuk tuks like the one below that can take you anywhere you need to go for a couple of dollars. 

Food: the staples in Guatemala are refried black beans, hand (never machine) made corn tortillas, queso fresco and an abudance of fresh fruits, squash and other vegetables. Indigenous stews such as pepian are worth a try as well, but (again) through a Mexican lens Guatemalan cuisine (like that of Nicaragua, Costa Rica and anywhere else in Central America) is about as bland and boring as small-town dining in the American Midwest - which probably goes a long ways towards explaining the endless choices of foreign cuisine in all of the tourist hot spots. 

While you can find a complete meal for $2-3 in local comedors, it's not likely to be a satisfying long-term choice unless you're truly prepared to "go native" in terms of adapting to local bacteria and getting used to the food-as-fuel reality of eating a dozen or more tortillas in lieu of more diverse but costly cuisine. $5-7 per person per meal is more realistic, and in any place offering international cuisine you should expect U.S. plus prices but with lower quality cooking and abysmally slow service. Don't expect to find anything remotely resembling the paradise of street food one gets used to in México: instead of glorious 75 cent tacos you'll see fried chicken and french fries, at KFC prices but with third world sanitation. 

We did stay at a few places with shared kitchen facilities and bought fruit and veggies at local markets, but here again learned in short order that the only way to avoid paying 2-3 times the actual local price is to shop at a supermarket, where there are fixed prices but of course much lower produce quality. This kind of price gouging for foreigners is certainly something we've experienced from time to time in México but never with the consistency we found in Antigua and at Lake Atitlán. I'd guess a retiree living in such places might eventually be offered the real price - or they could resort (as friends of ours in San Miguel de Allende once did) to having their maid do all of their food shopping!

Recreation: in Antigua there's a nice moderately hilly short walk to an overlook of the city called Cerro de la Cruz, plus some gyms, plenty of dance studios and some yoga classes. At the Lake it's easy to rent kayaks. Of course given the natural beauty and abundance of trails and dirt roads what one really wants to do is hike, but it's dangerous to do so given the rampant petty crime, and both the local and long-term expats we talked to advised either only going with guides or making sure to only carry items one was prepared to lose. This reality alone, in my view, is pretty much the kiss of death for Guatemala as a potential long-term stay or retirement destination. 

Medical care: there are plenty of doctors and dentists catering to wealthy visitors in Antigua but there as at the Lake any serious medical emergency is going to involve getting to Guatemala City (an hour from Antigua, 3.5-4.5 hours from the Lake). In short, it's no country for old (or infirm or handicapped) men. 

On a day-to-day basis, cobblestone streets, sidewalks with metal protruding from them and/or holes that can swallow an ankle and (in Antigua) air pollution from diesel-spewing buses, heavy and entirely unregulated traffic and ash (cineza) from Volcan Fuego are the main hazards.

Lake Atitlán (outside of the tourist trap village of Panajachel) is much less polluted, but Antigua though it only has a population of 50,000 has air quality that doesn't seem like any improvement on Guatemala City, a filthy and dangerous city of 4 million that most visitors do their best to avoid entirely except for the airport. 

I concluded my visit to Guatemala with a day of coffee cupping and conversation with one of the bright young lights of the trade, a wonderful young man who is improving quality and creating export markets for hundreds of small farmers. Tasting great coffees from Antigua, Lake Atitlán, Huehuetenango, Fraijanes, Cobán and up-and-coming regions I'd never heard of was a wonderful experience, and it made me realize that if I ever do return to Guatemala it will be for volunteer work in coffee. Other than that, it's a nice place to visit, but.....

Monday, February 23, 2015

Antigua, Guatemala reflections

chicken bus with fiery volcan Fuego at sunset

Frequent flier miles accumulated over years of using our one and only credit card and forgetting about the points allowed us to afford a much shorter version of the lengthy stay in Guatemala we'd originally had in mind last fall.

I'd been to Guatemala about 10 times for work during my coffee tasting and buying days, but aside from a one day trip to Tikal had never done anything touristy. Hanging out in Antigua for a few days seemed like a good way to begin the process of "déjà vu all over again," 15+ years after my last visit. 

Antigua seemed pretty cosmopolitan for its size when I first stayed here in 1990, but it's exponentially busier and glitzier now. Naturally I can't help but compare this city (and country) to México, and Antigua these days, though it has less than half the population of San Miguel de Allende, is even more over-run with tourists and pollution, has far more depth, quality and variety of restaurants (surpassed in México only by gigantic México City), and has prices that ought to make any budget traveler think twice about anything beyond a very short visit. 

The land and the colonial architecture are as entrancing as ever, but the transformation of large swaths of centro into a Central American Rodeo Drive is both disturbing and sad, in a country where over half of the people (and three-quarters of the indigenous population) live in poverty. Imagine a México made up solely of the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca and you have a good idea of the level of economic and cultural dysfunction in this beautiful but heartbreaking country.

While there are a fair number of expat residents here what one mostly notices are the tourists, with at least as many Europeans as Americans and Canadians, and hordes of folks from Guatemala City descending on the place on weekends. The Disneyfication of the place is so thorough that it makes San Miguel de Allende seem like an undiscovered colonial backwater by comparison. 

We're looking forward to getting out of the traffic exhaust and up to Lake Atitlán on Wednesday, though I'm certainly prepared for a similar level of change there. What's obvious even this early on, for both of us, is the vastly superior value-for-money, safety, infrastructure and (last not least!) cuisine of México. We'll enjoy our visit here, but I can't imagine choosing this country - and this town in particular- as a place to live long term

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Affordable, excellent olive oil in a bad year

For those who haven't kept up with the news, 2014 was the worst year in memory for the olive crop in Italy's best growing areas and much of the rest of Europe. You can read the sad news here

This disaster of course has to be viewed against the backdrop of scams, fraudulent substitutions/mislabeling and dead-in-the-water staleness on the shelf that are the reality of olive oil commerce, particularly in the United States. For a primer on this I recommend the book Extra Virginity, and also the invaluable web site of its author, which among other things includes a very accurate overview of the few authentic, good-to-great olive oils likely to be available at your supermarket. 

Given the time of year (I'm writing at the end of January, 2015) and the disastrous 2014 crop this is going to be a year to secure your olive oil for the entire year (i.e. through spring of 2016) promptly. In other words, source early and well, and hoard. 

For those who can afford $30-45 for a half-liter of oil it'll be important to buy from the best importers, such as Giuliana in Boulder or Zingerman's in Ann Arbor. For the rest of us, by far the best choice is going to be the excellent (as in ~85% as good as the best single estate oils) Toscano (not the regular stuff in the plastic bottles) Kirkland Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil, 2014 crop from Costco, which has just arrived on the shelves of our local (Colorado Springs) store, and which I predict will disappear very quickly. At $12.89 for a liter it's about one-third the price of the few oils available in the U.S. that equal or surpass it in flavor. Carpe diem

Thursday, January 1, 2015

(mobile) Home Economics

"Chez Mobile" - our Cañon City abode
This past summer we moved into a late model (1999) two bedroom, 840 sq. ft. mobile home in Cañon City, Colorado. We've owned other mobiles, including one in pricey Boulder, Colorado that was the most comfortable, quiet and energy-efficient of all of the places we lived in our 2+ decades there. 

Our Boulder home was a real eye-opener for the two of us, as we like so many others were prejudiced against mobile homes to begin with, but felt forced into one due to financial constraints. The insulation and tight window and door seals in our mobile there translated into peak winter gas and electric bills under $100 combined, and our neighbors, much to our surprise and delight, turned out to be a mixture of Naropa and CU professors, savvy budget retirees, and Mexican immigrant families. 

We'd owned a conventional ranch house and a condo in Boulder and so were very familiar with typical operating and ownership costs, and were astonished at both how much more peaceful our mobile was and how much money owning it freed up for actual living. 

Boulder is also the epicenter of the cohousing movement in the U.S., and we've had friends who've lived in such places and visited several others. It's a concept and a lifestyle we find appealing, but as such places are nearly always new construction they are very expensive. Over time we've come to realize that manufactured home communities, especially some of the larger ones with more amenities, are, effectively, cohousing for the real (or at least other-than-upper class) world. Our friends and mentors Billy and Akaisha Kaderli offer a good overview of such communities here

View of the Arkansas River from Tunnel Drive in Cañon City

Cañon City is a town of 15,000 on the banks of the Arkansas river, about a 45 minute drive from Colorado Springs. It's a conservative place overall, but with a small, very visible and growing progressive community. Hiking and biking are fantastic, the climate
is the mildest in the state, and the cost of living is about as low as you'll find in any habitable place in the U.S. There are plenty of artists, good yoga teachers, a great deal of agriculture in and around town, a thriving farmer's market, and (important to us) lively Buddhist and Christian contemplative communities. 

Getting back to the economics, here are the basic numbers for our current mobile:

Purchase price: $16,000 (we got a bargain and it's easily worth 20K)
Annual taxes: $80
Monthly space rent: $245
Average combined monthly gas and electricity: $120
High-speed internet + phone: $50
Home and auto insurance (combined) : $60 per month 

We have a couple of excellent all-road bikes for workouts and getting around town on our errands, and our car is a 2006 Scion xA that gets 40 mpg on the highway - one of the (in)famous finance blogger Mr. Money Mustache's Top Ten Cars for Smart People

Prior to living in Cañon City we spent the better part of three years in México, and before that tried our luck in such low-cost domestic retirement havens as Silver City, New Mexico and Port Angeles, Washington, while also investigating numerous other options, including Tucson, Albuquerque, Bisbee, AZ and a few others. 

It would be difficult if not impossible to achieve the kind of rock-bottom low overhead I've detailed here in any of these places, due primarily to the much higher value of real estate as well as transportation costs. Mobile home space rent in, say, Tucson or Albuquerque, which are considered U.S. average cost cities, would run more like $450-550 per month. Our mobile home park is an easy 1 to 2 mile bike ride to the supermarket and the heart of downtown, with the Riverwalk off-road trail system and great road riding out our door; we could easily go for several days without getting in the car except during the worst weeks of winter. Contrast that with any of these other car-centric cities where we'd probably need - or at least often want - a car per person, and would be filling them both up with gas multiple times per month. 

We're certainly spending a bit more on food here than we did in México, but being a 45 minute drive from a Costco and Trader Joe's and having fabulous local organic produce from May-October at prices that are about a third of what they get up in Boulder go a long way towards keeping things in check. 

Our biggest concern, financially and in terms of quality of life, in returning to the U.S. from México was health care and insurance, and this remains the one area that lends a major asterisk to our hope to remain in Colorado for the long run. In México we had great catastrophic insurance for a few hundred dollars a year total for the both of us and happily paid out-of-pocket for routine doctor and dental visits at ~$20-25 a pop. Colorado is one of the better, more progressive states in terms of its embrace of ACA/Obamacare and Medicaid expansion, but all we are eligible for, due to our low income, is Medicaid, and that basically means hospital-only coverage with very poor access to doctors. Looking ahead, it's obvious with the Republicans in charge of both chambers of congress that attacks on ACA and Medicaid will continue, so we know that we'll have to continue to monitor things closely and continue to get dental work and other care done during periodic México trips, while also knowing that we need to be ready for a long-term return to life down there at any point, should the U.S. system continue to implode. 

That major "asterisk" aside, our overall cost-of-living in Cañon City is on par with, and probably a bit lower than, what we were spending living a car-less life on foot at Lake Chapala, where we paid an average of $600-700 a month in rent for modest-sized furnished dwellings. The other thing we really notice in the brief time since we've been back N.O.B. ("north of the border," in expat lingo) is that while inflation in food and energy costs as well as residency visa fees was a stark reality in México we seem to be seeing flat-to-declining costs in many areas here, with the current cost of gasoline (we just filled our 10 gallon tank for $20!) being perhaps the starkest recent example. 

Setting costs aside there's the most important issue of all, at least for us, and that's quality of life. In our experience it's really hard to equal the ease of making friends and depth and diversity of people one meets in such expat havens as Lake Chapala and San Miguel de Allende. A lot of this has to do with the fact that those who choose expatriate life are by definition much more curious about the world and adventurous than most. We've been exceptionally fortunate in having a community of friends based on deep common interests in sustainable living, organic agriculture, progressive politics, outdoor adventures and contemplative practices here in Cañon City, so that for us, the México and Colorado options are pretty much on par in terms of quality of life, but with the huge difference of easy access to wilderness, silence and solitude and proximity to aging parents and old friends here in the U.S. that make being here the right choice for us, for now. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Bare Attention vs. Mindfulness: The Difference between War and Peace

The well-known and highly-regarded Buddhist journal Inquiring Mind has just published an issue focused on war and piece that works hard to stir the pot by asking whether mindfulness training for the military is justifiable. You can read three of the articles in it here

As I read the issue, I realized immediately that there are related and much more fundamental questions that need to be asked, and that, had they been asked decades ago would've made the current issue and its questions unnecessary. Those questions have to do with asking whether the definition of "mindfulness" (sati in Pali) in widest uses in the Western vipassana community and its fast-growing, highly lucrative secular offshoots (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and the like), have anything to do with the sort of mindfulness the Buddha practiced and recommended. And the answer is a resounding "no."

As a starting point, have a look at these short questions and answers from a Tricycle interview with scholar-practitioner Alan Wallace: 

For the past several months you’ve been in dialogue with many Buddhist teachers on the topic of mindfulness. What prompted you to focus on this topic? For years I’ve been puzzled by the discrepancies between the descriptions of mindfulness given by many modern Vipassana teachers and psychologists who rely on them, on the one hand, and the definitions of mindfulness we find in traditional Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist literature on the other. When I first noticed this disparity about thirty years ago, I thought perhaps it was due to differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. But the more I looked into this, the more it appeared to me that traditional Theravada and Mahayana sources are largely in accord with each other, and it was the modern accounts of mindfulness that departed from both traditions.

In what ways do the modern accounts differ? While mindfulness (sati) is often equated with bare attention, my conversations with—and recent studies of works by—the learned monks Bhikkhu Bodhi and Bhikkhu Analayo, and Rupert Gethin, president of the Pali Text Society, led me to conclude that bare attention corresponds much more closely to the Pali term manasikara, which is commonly translated as “attention” or “mental engagement.” This word refers to the initial split seconds of the bare cognizing of an object, before one begins to recognize, identify, and conceptualize, and in Buddhist accounts it is not regarded as a wholesome mental factor. It is ethically neutral. The primary meaning of sati, on the other hand, is recollection, non-forgetfulness. This includes retrospective memory of things in the past, prospectively remembering to do something in the future, and present-centered recollection in the sense of maintaining unwavering attention to a present reality. The opposite of mindfulness is forgetfulness, so mindfulness applied to the breath, for instance, involves continuous, unwavering attention to the respiration. Mindfulness may be used to sustain bare attention (manasikara), but nowhere do traditional Buddhist sources equate mindfulness with such attention.

Does the Buddha ever mention the term manasikara in his mindfulness instructions? Not that I know of. The term figures most prominently in Abhidhamma-based treatises on Buddhist psychology. In the Buddha’s practical instructions on both samatha (tranquility meditation) and vipassana (insight meditation), the terms sati and sampajanna appear most often. Sampajanna is usually translated from the Pali as “clear comprehension,” but this type of awareness always has a reflexive quality: It invariably entails a monitoring of the state of one’s body or mind, sometimes in relation to one’s environment. For this reason, I prefer to translate sampajanna as “introspection,” which here entails discerning observation not only of one’s mind but of one’s physical and verbal activities as well.

What are some of the pitfalls of viewing meditation simply as a process of bare attention? When mindfulness is equated with bare attention, it can easily lead to the misconception that the cultivation of mindfulness has nothing to do with ethics or with the cultivation of wholesome states of mind and the attenuation of unwholesome states. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the Pali Abhidhamma, where mindfulness is listed as a wholesome mental factor, it is not depicted as bare attention, but as a mental factor that clearly distinguishes wholesome from unwholesome mental states and behavior. And it is used to support wholesome states and counteract unwholesome states. (underlining added for emphasis)

What, then, is the role of bare attention? The cultivation of bare attention is valuable in many ways, and there’s a rapidly growing body of research on its benefits for both psychological and physiological disorders. But it’s incorrect to equate that with mindfulness, and an even greater error to think that’s all there is to vipassana. If that were the case, all the Buddha’s teachings on ethics, samadhi (highly focused attention), and wisdom would be irrelevant. All too often, people who assume that bare attention is all there is to meditation reject the rest of Buddhism as clap-trap and mumbo-jumbo. The essential teachings are dismissed rather than one’s own preconceptions. 

More recently, Professors Robert Sharf and Donald Lopez provided this short description of how a form of meditation the Buddha never taught became Buddhism's most popular contribution to the world at large in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  As the article concludes:

"The story of how the popular understanding of mindfulness derived from modern Vipassana meditation and how Vipassana first came to be taught to laypeople in Burma in the early decades of the 20th century is told in Erik Braun’s article Meditation en Masse in the Spring 2014 issue of Tricycle. There is thus no need to retell that story here.

Armed with this knowledge, Buddhists of the world can unite in the fight against high blood pressure, but need not concede that the mindfulness taught by various medical professionals today was somehow taught by the Buddha."

How it happened and why it matters

As the Erik Braun article (and book) and the other references supplied at the end of this article make clear, the two most popular strands of vipassana or insight meditation taught and pracitced in the West - those originating with Mahasi Sayadaw and U Ba Khin and his famous student S.N. Goenka - were invented out of whole cloth, on the basis of commentarial literature and not the suttas, in the 20th century. 

However useful their techniques may be, and however strident their claims of authenticity,  they have nothing to do with the forms of meditation the Buddha taught and practiced, and are equally far removed from the classic teachings on samatha/shamatha (calm abiding), leading to vipassana/vipashyana (liberating insight) as practiced in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. 

In just the past decade or so there's been a real resurgence in interest in the path of integrated practice of concentration and insight that the Buddha did teach, and it's now okay to say the word jhana (meditative absorption) at a Spirit Rock or IMS retreat without risking expulsion from the premises, but only a handful of brave souls - from Ajahns Brahm and Sujato to the aforementioned Alan Wallace - have dared to point out that the ideas of "dry" insight, momentary concentration and all the rest are about as related to what the historical Buddha taught and practiced as chanting nam myoho renge kyo or visualizing oneself as a deity.

Secularizing a Secularization

When you read Erik Braun's book (or David McMahan's equally worthwhile Making of Buddhist Modernism) you realize full-force that Jon Kabat-Zinn's hugely successful appropriation and redefinition of the term mindfulness to mean not sati  but manasikara - came from his study with teachers whose "authentic training in ancient Buddhist meditation" - i.e. the founders of IMS and Spirit Rock - was in fact (except for a glancing acquaintance with theThai forest tradition) training in a highly secularized form of Buddhism that can trace its roots back no further than the early years of the 20th century.

A lost cause?

As I pointed out in an earlier post, the most popular forms of Buddhism and yoga in the West are among the furthest removed from the early teachings, and this is especially true with ersatz mindfulness. I've yet to meet a single teacher from IMS or Spirit Rock who even knows the canoncial definition of sati, let alone teaches it, and when you then add to the mix the huge following that the Goenka cult (there really is no other word for it) has plus Thich Nhat Hanh and the rest,  the chances of a sincere seeker encountering any definition other than "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally" (JKZ) are very slim.

Modern Consensus Buddhism of the sort that appears in Huffington Post, Shambhala Sun, O Magazine and the like consistently features teachers who are thoroughly invested in bare attention and morality-free "mindfulness" as the essence of what Buddhism has to offer the modern world. And make no mistake, there is serious money behind scientific research into these forms of meditation, meaning that the battle for ownership of the term has most likely already been won by those who follow the capitalist version of the golden rule (i.e. those with the gold, rule). 

Removing mindfulness from a path that starts with renunciation and requires ethical conduct before even sitting down on the cushion has obvious mass appeal. Follow that by expunging any ritual or devotional elements, replace the Buddha's radical empasis on pure process and not-self with Advaita Vedanta theism (Tara Brach's "resting in Presence," or other code names for God such as original mind, pure awareness and the like) and insist that it's all either scientifically validated or about to be and you have Consensus Buddhism in a nutshell. 

Fortunately there are still a few folks out there, many of them monastics, who still see the Buddha's eightfold path, in which meditation is preceded by ethics, as being a complete package, and the selling of any one factor within it as a self-sufficient way to liberation as a serious mistake.

Since I started this piece with a quote from Alan Wallace, I'll end it with a recollection from a retreat I did with him a few years ago on the Brahmaviharas, during which he spoke pointedly about the dangers of reducing the threefold training in ethics, meditation and wisdom to secularized mindfulness. His question for the group: "what sort of a world would you rather live in: one in which everyone practiced bare attention for an hour a day, or one in which no one meditated but everyone followed the 5 Precepts to the letter?" I know what my answer would be - and am certain that in such a world Buddhist journals asking earnest questions about whether using meditation techniques to increase the calmness and efficacy of professional killers would be a very rare occurrence.


Mindfulness Defined by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Indispensable and very, very clear.

Alan Wallace interview

A History of Mindfulness by Bhikkhu Sujato. For those with the interest and patience (it's a lengthy and scholarly book) who want to know the full story of how we got to where we are and how it relates to the Buddha's teaching and practice. The synopsis is here

A Vision for Spirit Rock by Jack Kornfield. In this fascinating piece  Jack Kornfield makes it very clear that his answer to being given diametrically opposed meditation instructions from Mahasi Sayadaw, Ajahn Chah and S.N. Goenka was to create a potpourri of all of them - despite Goenka's firm prohibition against doing so and Kornfield's fear of ever coming to resemble his Mahasi teacher! Faced with similar confusion Ajahn Buddhadasa and others returned to the suttas and inquired about the lineage, intentions and results of the instructions they had been given, with very different results. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Popularity vs. Profundity in Yoga and Buddhism: some reflections

1. Now the teachings of yoga.
2. Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.
3. Then pure awareness can abide in its very nature.
4. Otherwise awareness takes itself to be the patterns of consciousness. 
                                 opening verses of the Yoga Sutra of Patañjali

These four verses are the definition of yoga from what is widely regarded as the tradition's most canonical text. Not a whole lot of linkage here to Lululemon tights, "yoga butt," or twisting yourself into knots in a hot room while listening to techno, is there?

Things aren't a whole lot healthier in the secularized, dumbed-down world of what the brilliant David Chapman calls Consensus Buddhism, the mash-up of white people's versions of Theravada, Zen and heavily expurgated Tibetan Tantra that is all over Huffington Post, Shambhala Sun and Oprah Magazine. Ixnay on renunciation, death contemplations, ethics and the rest, and pass the everyday mindfulness and radical acceptance of pro-consumption nowness, please. 

For yoga, one can (and should!) read an overview text on the tradition as a whole, and I can think of nothing to equal Georg Feuerstein's The Yoga Tradition. Even if you just skim this encyclopedic work you get a very clear sense of the hundreds of yogas that exist, and of how recent - and how trivial - a part bodily contortions and fitness play in the tradition as a whole. 

For Buddhism, get hold of a copy of David McMahan's essential The Making of Buddhist Modernism (see the review by David Loy here) to get a sense of how profoundly "filtered" our understanding of the Buddha's teachings really are. 


I'm nowhere near as well-versed in yoga philosophy and practice as I am in Buddhism, but at least I've read and practiced enough to be thoroughly humbled by the vastness of my own ignorance. Like author/translator Chip Hartranft (whose translation begins this post) I see Patañjali and the Buddha as perhaps the two greatest yogis of ancient India. The soteriological intention and most of the means to it are the same, and both teachers were clearly masters of pranayama, dhyana leading to samadhi, and liberating insight.

As Mark Singleton has demonstrated nearly all of what passes for yoga in the West is an amalgam of Western gymnastic exercises with a few introductory Hatha yoga techniques, heavily filtered through Christianity, Theosophy, and romanticism. Meanwhile the yoga tradition as a whole, of which Buddhism is one small part, comes out of the shramana rebellion against the Vedic tradition, and is distinguished by its profound spirit of renunciation and self-reliance.

On a mass-market level, yoga in the West consists of various stretching workouts, many under brand names (Bikram, Core Power, Anusara, etc.) and the content of group classes (themselves a very recent and weird anomaly in the tradition's long history) is close to 100% asana

At a somewhat more refined level we have the traditions flowing from Sri Krishnamacharya, with Iyengar and Ashtanga being by far the best-known, while his more mature teaching as represented by teachers such as T.K.V. Desikachar, A.G. Mohan, Srivatsa Ramaswami and Gary Kraftsow enjoy much smaller followings. The Krishnmacharya traditions are also very asana-oriented, but at least there is instruction available in pranayama and therapeutic applications, even if classes in these traditions are just as unlikely to include the silent meditation that all the asana and pranayama are supposed to be a mere prelude to.

I don't have any personal experience of Tibetan yantra yoga or the tsa lung practices (training in which is restricted in any case and certainly not appropriate for someone anywhere near my age), but my sense is that yoga practices of these sorts, that move the physical body in order to activate and cleanse the subtle body, have probably mostly disappeared from the Indian subcontinent and in any case, being part of the Tantric tradition, are certainly far removed from the Brahmanical, mostly Vaishnaivite teachers of modern "orthodox" hatha yoga.

The Buddha, Sarnath

I sat my first Zen sesshin (with Joshu Sasaki Roshi) at age 15 and by 17 had moved to Boulder, Colorado to study with the well-known (and notorious) Chögyam Trungpa. I was a passionate student of philosophy and psychology, East and West, and chose the Nyingma and Kagyü lineages of Tibetan Buddhism after a careful exploration of every other option for both study and practice I could find. Much earlier on - starting around age 10 - I had been sending away to far-off Ceylon for little pamphlets from the Buddhist Publication Society, but like so many others in the West I glossed over - or rather sped through - the fundamental teachings on the 4 Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, shila, samadhi and prajña and the like in favor of pursuing the "highest" teachings.

At some point after repeatedly receiving advanced teachings in Mahamudra and Dzogchen from wonderful teachers I realized that I, along with many other students, simply did not have the steadiness of mind or trained depth of heart to really put these teachings into practice in a consistent way, and I decided to set them aside temporarily and build a stronger foundation. To that end I began a thorough investigation into the earliest teachings and practices of Buddhism, as found in the Pali suttas.

What I found as I encountered Westernized, secularized Theravada Buddhism (the "vipassana" movement, or as Bhikkhu Sujato puts it, vipassanavada) was a rather amazing juxtaposition of teachings of the utmost clarity and usefulness (4 Noble Truths/Eightfold Path, the 5 Hindrances, 7 Factors of Awakening, precept practice and much more) with meditation practices featuring conflicting instructions, unclear origins and vehement insistence by famous teachers that their technique, and only theirs, was the true path to liberation, what the Buddha taught, etc.

I was exceedingly fortunate that the timing of my personal "back to basics" quest coincided with great advances in the scholarly study of Early Buddhism, by scholars such as Richard Gombrich and Rupert Gethin and a new generation of scholar-practitioner monks capable of reading the suttas in every language in which they are preserved - most notably Bhikkhus Anālayo and the aforementioned Sujato. As a result of their work, we have, in just the past 10-15 years, gotten a much clearer idea of what the Buddha actually thought (the most concise summary of which can be found in a document with that name referenced at the end of this post).

If Iyengar and Ashtanga are the two best-known brands of mainstream yoga, the equivalents in modern Theravada (or rather, vipassana, a highly secularized offshoot) are the methods expounded by Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma and S.N. Goenka of India, a student of another Burmese teacher by the name of U Ba Khin. Today's best-known Western vipassana teachers (Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, etc.) studied with these teachers and their leading students, along with having some exposure to the less well-known Thai forest traditions.

Jack Kornfield details the challenge of integrating diametrically-opposed meditation instructions from revered teachers in this fascinating history of Spirit Rock meditation center. More important though is what's left unsaid: namely, the fact that all of the meditation techniques being taught were invented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on the basis of very late commentarial literature rather than the Buddha's own words in the suttas. I'll list a couple of books by Bhikkhu Sujato at the end of this post for those who want to explore the why and how of this in more depth, but the concise summary of the invention of vipassana is here, in Theravada Reinvents Meditation.

So what we find, in both the yoga and Buddhist worlds, is that the loudest and most strident claims of authenticity are made by those furthest removed from the radical simplicity and transformative power of the traditions in question. Anyone who reads the early suttas gets a very clear picture of the kind of meditation the Buddha himself taught and practiced: samatha (shamatha in Sanskrit) or "calm abiding," using the breath as the object (anapanasati), cultivated gradually and patiently through long and intensive practice until one-pointed concentration (the meditative absorptions or jhanas) is reached, at which point the now-focused mind is capable of penetrating reality through vipassana (Skt. vipashyana), liberating insight.

What isn't found in the suttas is this: anything called vipassana meditation; any words or techniques corresponding to Jon Kabat-Zinn's out-of-thin-air recasting of mindfulness ("paying attention on purpose, nonjudgmentally, in the present moment"); mental "noting" a la Mahasi; "body scanning" a la Goenka; "dry" insight, "momentary" concentration, etc. etc.

This isn't to say that MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) or the noting and scanning techniques of Mahasi and Goenka aren't beneficial to many people. Clearly they are, but the exclusive claims to validity of their proponents (I know several people who were refused entry to Goenka retreats because they'd practiced at Spirit Rock, and on the Mahasi side the abuses are even more rampant) are harmful, while more than a few who've practiced in these traditions end up unable to function in the world, or having to take up therapy and other practices to reconnect with their hearts, as Bhikkhu Sujato discusses in this short video.

So what form of meditation did the Buddha practice and teach? Bhikku Sujato gives this useful summary (the full blog post is here):

"The word sati, which we translate ‘mindfulness’, means ‘memory’, and was originally used by Brahmans in the sense of memorized Vedic scriptures. To effectively recall large bodies of text, you get into a zone of clarity and presence, free of distractions. This was one of the influences in developing what we today call ‘meditation’.

The Buddha adopted this Brahmanical usage, and used sati to for both ‘memory’ (of texts) and ‘presence of mind’ in meditation.
Modern teachings on mindfulness are almost exclusively derived from a peculiar 20th century interpretation of one text, the Pali Satipatthana Sutta. This doctrine, the vipassanavada, says that satipatthana is a practice of ‘dry insight’, where the meditator, without previous practice of tranquility meditation, is ‘mindful’ of the changing phenomena of experience. This alone is sufficient to realize enlightenment.

When we carefully consider the range of teachings found in early Buddhist texts on mindfulness, it becomes clear that this doctrine does not hold up.

There are seven versions of the Satipatthana Sutta material, as well as hundreds of other texts on mindfulness. Relying on all these, not just one, we come to the following picture of mindfulness in early Buddhism.

While sati is used in many contexts, the most important is the four satipatthanas, or ‘establishments of mindfulness’. These are ‘right mindfulness’, the seventh factor of the eightfold path. The purpose of satipatthana is to gain the eighth factor, right samadhi or the four jhanas.

The word satipatthana is a compound of sati and upatthana, meaning to ‘set up’ or ‘establish’. It is the focussing and presence of awareness on an object; in other words, it basically means ‘meditation’.

Satipatthana is the ‘contemplation’ (anupassana) of body, feelings, mind, and principles (dhammas). ‘Anupassana’ means ‘sustained watching’. It is an awareness that stays on one thing and doesn’t jump from object to object. For this reason satipatthana is said to be the ‘way to convergence’, ekayana magga.

The main practice of satipatthana is breath meditation, anapanasati. One focusses on the breath, keeping awareness there, continually ‘remembering’ the breath. As the physical breath becomes tranquil, one moves from body contemplation to the awareness of the subtle feelings of bliss and rapture that arise in the breath. The mind becomes purified. Finally one reflects on how the whole process is impermanent and conditioned; this is contemplation of dhammas (‘principles’).

There are many other types of meditation that can be classified as satipatthana, but all of them follow a similar course.

The Pali Satipatthana Sutta includes a number of sections that are not shared with other texts on satipatthana, and which are later additions.

One of the additions is the inclusion of the awareness of postures and daily activities among its meditation exercizes. The awareness of postures is, in every other text, part of the preparation for meditation, not a kind of meditation itself.

Another late addition to the Pali Satipatthana Sutta is a ‘refrain’ following each meditation, which says one practices contemplating ‘rise and fall’. This is a vipassana practice, which originally belonged to only the final of the four satipatthanas, contemplation of dhammas.

The contemplation of dhammas has also undergone large scale expansion. The original text included just the five hindrances and the seven awakening factors. The five aggregates, six sense media, and four noble truths were added later.

Each version of the Satipatthana Sutta is based on a shared ancestor, which has been expanded in different ways by the schools. This process continued for several centuries following the Buddha’s death. Of the texts we have today, the closest to the ancestral version is that contained in the Pali Abhidhamma Vibhanga, if we leave aside the Abhidhammic elaborations.

Tracing the development of texts on satipatthana in later Buddhism, there is a gradual tendency to emphasize the vipassana aspect at the expense of the samatha side. This happened across various schools, although there is some variation from text to text, and perhaps some differences in sectarian emphasis. This led to various contradictions and problems in interpretation.

Nevertheless, in all schools and periods we also find presentations of satipatthana that hark back to the original meaning. For example, the great Yogacara teacher Asanga defined mindfulness as ‘the sustained awareness of the previously experienced object’.

By considering mindfulness in its historical context, by including all relevant texts, and by understanding the historical evolution of the schools, we arrive at a richer, more nuanced, and more realistic understanding of mindfulness. This not only helps us appreciate our tradition better, it gives a more useful, balanced, and authentic framework for practice."

Instruction in samatha leading to jhana in the service of insight is not all that easy to find these days, due to the prevalence of vipassana and the secular mindfulness craze, but it is available with some diligent searching (see "Resources" below). Ironically the Tibetan tradition, known for its pantheon of deities, over-the-top ritualism and secret techniques, preserves detailed instructions on shamatha and vipashyana, but aside from Alan Wallace, who's long been a proponent, it's hard to find Tibetan traditon students - Western or Asian - who give these practices more than a cursory try before moving on to ngöndro, deity practice, Dzogchen, etc. 

Summing Up

One of the explanations (excuses, really) given by Mahasi Sayadaw for omitting the samatha meditation of the Buddha and replacing it with vipassana of his own invention is that modern people don't have the time to practice what the Buddha taught. Noting and dry insight on intensive retreat were thought to guarantee "stream entry" (the first stage of liberation in Theravada), or at least a smoother ride in samsara.

Alan Wallace, meanwhile, estimates that the average practitioner will need to spend about 5000 hours in meditation under secluded conditions to achieve shamathaThe Buddha himself taught samatha  and jhana to laypeople, confident that learning to find pleasure in states of profound calm generated from within was a vital first step towards renouncing the clinging to sense pleasures that is the root cause of suffering. 
There's no question that yoga-as-workout, like mindfulness for stress reduction, are here to stay and are of great benefit to many, and the same is true of the watered-down Dharma Lite that's all over the internet. Any amount of healing from pain, amelioration of illness, increased ease in body and mind, is wonderful. At the end of the day though, such uses of the "vehicles" of yoga and Dharma are like using a Lamborghini for a stop-and-go commute, and what I fear may be lost is any knowledge of what they are capable of on the open road of full commitment. 


Information on the phenomenal new meditation manual The Mind Illuminated and a bevvy of worthwhile articles and dharma talks are found on the home page of Upasaka Culadasa, a teacher who shows the full potential of samatha practice in service of insight. 

Leigh Brasington's web site: A great resource for practice and study from a brilliant teacher who has almost single-handedly been keeping a sutta (rather than Abhidharma) based approach to meditation practice alive, teaching the jhanas in the vipassana world of modern Western secularized Theravada. 
Sattipatthana, by Bhikkhu Analayo. A masterful work and great introduction to this amazing scholar-practitioner. All of his books are immensely rewarding and ground-breaking.

The Experience of Samadhi and The Art and Skill of Buddhist Meditation by Richard Shankman, a wonderful practitioner who consistently presents samatha and vipassana as an integrated path of practice. 
Mindfulness, Bliss & Beyond by Ajahn Brahm. Excellent meditation manual by a leading teacher in the Thai forest tradition.

Scholarly Background on the Integrated path of samatha and vipassana vs. "vipassanavada"
A Swift Pair of Messengers by Bhikkhu Sujato: invaluable resource on the Buddha's path of tranquility with insight. 
A History of Mindfulness by Bhikkhu Sujato: the subtitle is "how insight worsted tranquility in the Sattipatthana Sutta." 
Meditation en masse by Erik Braun. Excellent article that details the invention of vipassana meditation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and its worldwide dissemination.

Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience, by Robert Sharf: Professor Sharf, along with Donald Lopez and David McMahan (The Making of Buddhist Modernism) is one of the sharpest iconoclasts in current Buddhist scholarship. This particular article shows clearly how much of both Vipassana and Zen as we've come to know them in the West are very recent inventions made largely in response to colonialism and Western influence.