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 huge anomaly) 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 nor openness 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 Analayo 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 sutras. 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 sutras 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 sutras 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. Cleary 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 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. 

The Buddha's Meditation Practices
Manual for mindfulness of breathing meditation and a treasure trove of similar resources at Dharmatreasure

Mindfulness With Breathing by Buddhadasa Bhikku (also available in paperback). Concise, classic guide from the incomparable Thai forest tradition innovator.
Listen to the audio if you have time, but don't miss the concise handout for What the Buddha Thought, the best concise summary of the Buddha's key teachings I've seen in 40 years of reading Buddhist teachings. 
Sattipatthana, by Bhikkhu Analayo. A masterful work and great introduction to this amazing scholar-practitioner. 
Mindfulness, Bliss & Beyond by Ajahn Brahm. Excellent meditation manual by a leading teacher in the Thai forest tradition.

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 
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.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Embracing connections and limitations

Our planned two-week trip to Washington State to see family turned into a month-long odyssey. Erin's father had a major stroke (on top of others and more than a decade of serious health problems) the day before we were due to fly back to México, and we ended up staying through his dying process and a memorial service. 

While there have been plenty of deaths in our families, for both Erin and me this was our first time to actually sit for hours and days on end in a room (the living room, in this case) with someone actively dying. I won't try to capture the full range of emotions, which in any case will be better and more profoundly known by many readers, but I will share a quote from one of my very favorite books of all time, Rodney Smith's Lessons From the Dying, that kept popping into mind both during and after her father's death:

In one of the Buddhist discourses a Brahman asked the Buddha if all mortals fear dying. The Buddha responded that not all people are afraid to die. He said, “Only those who thirst after sense pleasure, or thirst after the body, or perform a lifetime of unwholesome deeds, or are confused about the way things are, fear death.” That probably covers most of us. How we handle the daily deaths associated with loss and change tells us a great deal about the problems we will face when we physically die. 

When we left San Miguel for the U.S. we already knew that the serious air pollution problems there coupled with its inescapable urban intensity meant it wouldn't work as a long-term home. That knowledge combined with having moved four times in four months since being there, on top of so may other moves in recent years, was then leavened with having to move constantly while up in Anacortes, Washington where Erin's folks live, in order to make room for ever more family members coming to visit during her dad's final days of life. The net effect of it all was a sense of groundlessness and homelessness that probably made us about as empathetic as anyone could be with a dying person going through the process of becoming a disembodied consciousness without a body - truly ultimate homelessness!

We've spent so much time since prematurely exiting the world of full-time employment trying to find outer circumstances where we could survive financially and hopefully thrive in other ways, knowing all the while that what was needed on our part was far more digging in, acceptance of limitations and focus on spiritual work. Without a doubt the time has long since come for our primary focus to be on what we do every day, not where we do it. Wake up each morning and say: here is today - I'm not guaranteed another - how will I spend it? And at the end of the day, review, reflection, aspiration, really knowing in the body that there's no guarantee of waking to see another sunrise.

Since we had to cancel our return plane tickets we decided to return to México via Guadalajara rather than Mexico City - far easier routing from Seattle plus a chance to revisit Lake Chapala with fresh eyes. Since being here we've had a chance to enjoy the lush beauty of the rainy season, visit old friends and check out the housing market.

Given the horrific violence here in April and May and the ongoing reality of drug cartel activity there's no danger of any new "move to paradise" real estate sloganeering in the near future but newfound maturity and lack of naiveté about such issues was probably long overdue anyway. The north shore of Lake Chapala remains a place of great beauty, near-perfect weather and affordable living that's graced with a pretty extraordinary expat community. We feel at ease here, and there's something about being near water that soothes the soul like nothing else we know. Far more important, we have friends here and know the ropes, the trails, the shops, the seasons. Those things are increasingly important for a couple who have moved far too many times, who are homebodies at heart who want to be periodic adventurers but who have no appetite (or talent) for the "perpetual traveler" (or more accurately "perpetual mover") lifestyle.

As for concerns about crime and violence in the area, the killings here involved entirely random targets - innocents picked up off of the street in a Guadalajara-based narco cartel turf war. We're no more afraid to walk the streets here than we would be to, say, go to a late-night showing of a Batman movie in a Colorado theater. There's no doubt that bad guys and crime are around - but the same would certainly be the case in any city we'd be living in in the U.S.

There are small but vibrant Buddhist and contemplative Christian communities here, and lots of hunger for spiritual practice and teachings (along with the usual flakiness, commitment-phobia and perpetual comings-and-goings that seem to characterize every community of expat retirees we've been around). These groups and others provide all of the opportunities for service work and building community one could ask for.

entrance to the house-turned-sanctuary of a member of the local sangha

Our choices as we saw them as we got on the plane to return to México were to either return to Lake Chapala or throw in the towel on expat life and return to the U.S. Having gone through the huge upheaval of selling car, house and possessions in order to make the move it seems beyond foolish not to give life down here our best long-term effort. At a bare minimum it's clearly prudent to be here through the Presidential election cycle and 2013. If we wake up to a Romney/Ryan administration come January that pretty well slams the door on any desire to live in a country boneheaded enough to let that happen, while on a more personal level it would also probably mean the end of the Affordable Care Act and with it any chance for us to access affordable health care back home. 

More positively, there's an ease and simplicity of life here (as in San Miguel, but even more so) that provides lots of support for the ways we want to spend our time. We've found a tranquil and spacious house to rent with plenty of room for yoga and massage. The best supermarket in the area is a two block walk away, as is the bus, and we can walk to our meditation groups in 10 minutes or central Ajijic in 20, on wide, lightly-trafficked tree lined streets awash in bougainvillea, orchids and jasmine. When the need arises, as it's sure to more and more frequently, to get on a plane to visit family, the airport is 30 minutes away and flights are affordable. 

We'll miss a lot of aspects of San Miguel, starting with a handful of incredible friends, but for our needs and priorities Lake Chapala clearly makes the best home base. We're going to do our best to make it home and make a difference. Given our track record we realize we'll have to stay put for years for anyone (including ourselves) to believe we'e changed our peripatetic ways. Here's hoping.