Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Some resources for recovering Shambhalians


The Buddha at Sarnath
Some Resources for Recovering Shambhalians

I was an early (1974-1982) student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who left the community not long after Thomas Rich was appointed Vajra Regent, but who's continued to have friends in the community and to practice under other teachers in both the Tibetan and Theravadin traditions. 

My approach has always been to strive to balance practice and study - something Trungpa Rinpoche clearly recognized since he gave me Tharpa Sherab (Liberated Knowledge) as my refuge name and Lodrö Lhari (Divine Mountain of Intellect) as my bodhisattva one (not that I have remotely lived up to either name!). 

What has been most helpful to me in recovering from some of not just the challenging social experiences but also imbalanced ways of practicing I developed while involved with Vajrudhatu/Shambhala has been to look afresh at the very earliest teachings and practices of the historical Buddha, seeking to ground the exalted practices of Vajrayana in a much deeper “in the marrow” living of the 4 Ennobling Truths, Eightfold Path, the 4 Establishments of Mindfulness (Satipaṭṭhāna) and so on. 

I reference Vajradhatu/Shambhala since that's the Tibetan group I'm most familiar with, but these resources should be of equal benefit to those who've left Rigpa and indeed to anyone wanting to get a sense of just how different the Buddha's teachings and approach were from the many forms of Buddhism that came later. To be clear, this is not to say that the early teachings are better or purer, but rather that they're the foundation for all that came later. 

An additional benefit of some exposure to the earliest strata of teaching and practice is that one gets a strong sense of the ethical, experiential and eminently pragmatic flavor of the Buddha's approach. As with Jesus (but perhaps to an even greater degree) one realizes just how much time and effort has gone into blunting the radicalism of the founder's teachings (starting right after his death and continuing up to the present), and that much of what's popularly represented as being his teachings is in fact diametrically opposed to them. 

Foundational Reading

The Issue at Hand by Gil Fronsdal is a very short yet superb introduction to the core practices and teachings of the Buddha. Available in numerous formats and languages here. It's the single best concise, practice-oriented introduction to Buddhism I've found. And Fronsdal's web site is a treasure trove of wonderful Dharma. 

Dancing With Life by Phillip Moffitt is an accessible yet profound and practical guide to how to actually live the 4 Noble Truths experientially, with clear “markers” for each step of working with them. The book is exceptionally well supported with study guides and other resources and is well worth savoring slowly, preferably as part of an intimate study and practice group with like-minded others. More info and a study guide here

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening by Joseph Goldstein is a landmark practice guide to the 4 Establishments of Mindfulness (sattipatthana) which were taught by the Buddha as “the direct path to realization.” 

There's also a great set of six short guided meditations to support practicing what's in the book, available from Sounds True, Amazon, and as downloads from Apple and Google. 

Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhism by Bhikkhu Anālayo is a wonderful gateway into the Buddha’s own world of practice by perhaps the most eminent scholar-practitioner of Early Buddhism. All of Ven. Anālayo’s books are very highly recommended, and together they provide an unrivaled basis for experiencing the Dharma that is as close to listening to the Buddha as one can get. His books on satipaṭṭhāna are phenomenal, and his A Meditator's Life of the Buddha may be an even better first encounter with his writing, as it uses the key events of the Buddha's life to inspire us to truly walk in his footsteps. 

The Mind Illuminated by Upasaka Culadasa is a landmark meditation manual that is in a league of its own for detailed, effective guidance to shamatha and vipashyana. It also dovetails perfectly with less detailed teachings on these practices from Trungpa Rinpoche, Alan Wallace and many other teachers in the Kagyü and Nyingma traditions. 

More information on Culadasa and invaluable free handouts can be found here

Good Kamma, Bad Kamma - What Exactly is Kamma? by Bhante Dhammika is a concise yet complete guide to perhaps the most thoroughly misunderstood teachings of the Buddha: those on karma. Especially important for those coming from a Tibetan Buddhist background, as that tradition tends to misunderstand and misrepresent teachings on this topic more than any other. 

In the Buddha's Words, translated and introduced by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Very few Buddhists have read much of the Buddha's own teachings, which is understandable given the ancient language and intimidating size of the Pali canon. Bhikkhu Bodhi, the most eminent translator of these teachings, offers this concise and accessible collection, organized by topic. The Buddha's clear-headed pragmatism and wisdom shine through on every page. 

The Big Picture/Seeing the Traditions in Context

What the Buddha Thought, by Richard Gombrich, sheds light on the unique genius of the Buddha while also making it clear how later traditions accidentally and willfully misconstrued his teachings. Illuminating, fascinating and essential. 

Foundations of Buddhism, by Rupert Gethin: a concise college text that is the best overview of Buddhism as a whole I know of. Very highly recommended. 

The Tibetan Book of the Dead:A Biography and Prisoners of Shangri-La by the eminent scholar Donald Lopez are invaluable for understanding the “lenses” of preconception, Romanticism and sometimes fanciful thinking through which the tradition has made its way to the West. These are scholarly books that read like compelling mystery novels. 

The Making of Buddhist Modernism, by David McMahan provides an erudite yet accessible overview of the key ways ancient Asian traditions have interacted with and been changed by their encounters with modernity. As with Gombrich (but to an even greater degree) this book will be a revelation to anyone immersed in one or more forms of Buddhist practice about the broader context of their practice and the often hidden assumptions and biases inherent in all forms. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Trump Bump



"All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why."

 - James Thurber

I'll bookend this post with two recommendations for those who are either already living as expats in México or considering doing so. One is to download and read the survey of expats found at this link.
The other is to read the book above (available from Amazon on Kindle) by long-time San Miguel de Allende resident John Scherber.

Scherber's book profiles expats who've chosen to live in areas of México that don't have much of an expat population. To his credit he doesn't generalize from their experiences and goes to considerable lengths to find and interview people who are deeply invested in and knowledgeable about the places they've chosen.

The reason I recommend reading the expat survey and Scherber's book back-to-back is that together they do a great job of living up to James Thurber's advice. In the past 12-18 months there's been a phenomenal exodus of newbie expats moving to all of the well-known expat havens and my best guess is that this tsunami of newcomers is still in its early phase. Across the board I'm seeing a great deal of "running from" but without much sense of the "to" part of the equation. People are fleeing an America they no longer recognize run by a sociopathic moron, are entering retirement age with minimal savings and realizing they need to move where they can live on Social Security alone, or have done a few hours of research on the internet and have come to the conclusion they can live better for less while still in their working years by becoming a digital nomad south of the border.

Into the Heart of Mexico, meanwhile, is about the exact opposite sort of expat: one who is running towards engagement with Mexican culture with all of its challenges and contradictions. About half of the expats profiled are married to Mexicans but all of them are wedded to not just the country as a whole but the particular place they've chosen in a way that couldn't be more different from the asterisked presence ("I'm here for the winters; or for good until I have a medical emergency or my kids need me; I'm here but just as home base since I travel to the U.S. and elsewhere as often as I'm "home") that is the rule rather than the exception at Lake Chapala or San Miguel de Allende.

Another thing that comes through loud and clear in Scherber's book is that the "heart" of México is found in those states with the strongest indigenous presence, Oaxaca and Michoacán in particular, but also of course including Chiapas and Puebla. Living in these places means not just learning Spanish but dealing with a dominant indigenous culture that looks at both light-skinned descendants of the conquistadors and white tourists as "gringos," while also dealing with the systemic poverty, lack of infrastructure and frequent political instability that go hand-in-hand with choosing to live in the parts of the country that are richest in culture and cuisine but poorest by every other metric.

My prediction at the moment is that most of those who are fleeing to places like Lake Chapala and San Miguel de Allende will end up returning to the U.S., but probably not before they've ruined the local real estate and rental markets and caused local's resentment of their antics to do serious damage. At Lake Chapala in just the past year we've already seen the rental market so distorted by newbies who get all of their notions of what to pay from Facebook groups and avaricious realtors rather than on-the-ground exploration that one of the key motivators for making the move - lower cost of living - has already gone by the wayside except for those cashing out of real estate in one of the coastal "bubble" markets. Lake Chapala and San Miguel are already well on their way to becoming inland versions of San Jose del Cabo or Cancun, except that the latter two places were tourist traps from inception.

In our particular case we have always loved México (Oaxaca and Chiapas especially) but never wanted to be full-time residents. We did so anyway (along with many others) as health care and insurance refugees pre-Obamacare. We have a handful of friends who are as gaga about Mayan ruins and mezcal, 3 p.m. comida and all-night fiestas as we are about the villages of Haut Provence or the porticos of Bologna and they are the ones whose example we'd try to emulate if we had it to do over again.

Given what the U.S. is going through at the moment we feel that it's impossible to plan ahead more than a year or two. Politically and health-care wise things seem sure to get a whole lot better or a whole lot worse over that time frame and so for us the best option given our love of solitude in nature on foot and by bicycle (things that simply aren't possible in México) is to live in a low-cost U.S. locale within an easy drive of a border crossing, keep our footprint light and our options open. Should circumstances force us to return south for the duration we'd make sure to choose a place far removed from the newbie invasion.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Oaxaca reflections





Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, Oaxaca

“No one behind, no one ahead.
The path the ancients cleared has closed.
And the other path, everyone's path,
easy and wide, goes nowhere.
I am alone and find my way.” 
― Octavio Paz

We returned to Oaxaca for the first time in nine years, though truth be told most of my memories of both the city and state are far older and mostly concern coffee farmers and coffee buying. In retrospect how fortunate it is that the best Mexican coffees are grown in Chiapas and Oaxaca, which are for me by far the most interesting parts of México.

Our visit this time was far too short - just five days after a long stint in Mérida and Valladolid. More traffic and more people of course but the biggest thing I noticed was the proliferation of chef-run restaurants offering daring and often world-class fusions of native recipes and ingredients with European techniques, as well as an absolute explosion in other artisanal food and drink, with mezcal and coffee leading the charge and microbrewery beer not far behind.

The highlight of not just our time in Oaxaca but our entire 2+ week trip was connecting for the first time "in the flesh" with a Facebook friend who is a professional translator, language teacher and devout Mexico-phile. I'd had high expectations of Jody based on her acute and often hilarious online observations but they were thoroughly blown away by her depth of perception and utterly contagious love of México as experienced in the moment.

Jody has lived all over this country going back decades and visited much of the rest. She describes herself as an immigrant not an expat and one of the things she pointed out to us is that expats who do choose Oaxaca tend to not only live there year-round but also to really identify with their new home as home. This is certainly in quite sharp contrast not only to our own ambivalence about being full-timers in México but what we have seen time and again both at Lake Chapala and in San Miguel de Allende: Mexican residency with asterisks. Not only are more than half of those in these expat havens snowbirds who live elsewhere for six or more months, but even among the full-timers there are many who constantly fly back to the U.S. or Canada or who return home for good as soon as the first health crisis or plea from grandkids makes itself known.

For a prospective expat resident the allure and challenges of life in Oaxaca are pretty easy to discern. Culturally and culinarily there's endless depth but not the kind of breadth one takes for granted at, say, Lake Chapala. There are a zillion moles and other Oaxacan specialties but nary a cheeseburger or jar or box of a foreign "must have" food to be found. Functional Spanish is a necessity from the get-go (just check out all of the whining on TripAdvisor about how even the hotel and restaurant staffs usually don't speak English). Running out of water from time to time, dealing with the incessant protests called bloqueos that frequently shut off access to main streets and turn the central square into what looks like a  homeless camp and embracing the literal groundlessness of living in a highly earthquake-prone zone are other factors to be considered.

On the other hand, this is a place that attracts expats who really love México and who want to embrace to at least some extent the challenges of being in a state where indigenous people are the majority. That is where the artistic, culinary and cultural richness comes from, and of course it is also the source of the poverty and discrimination that fuel the state's deep-rooted political activism. Trying to live in a gringo "bubble" anywhere in México is ultimately going to be a lost cause but in  Oaxaca it's a non-starter - just ain't gonna happen. Learn enough Spanish to function, maybe even become semi-fluent and you'll start to notice the sound of clicking consonants flowing out of the mouths of the people selling produce or cooking your meal at the comedores in the mercado: they're speaking one of the 16 or more primary native languages - making you realize that you'll truly never do more than scratch the surface when it comes to understanding where you now live.

Trio of moles at Las Quinces Letras
I've often referred to living at Lake Chapala or San Miguel de Allende as "México with training wheels." This is particularly true at the lake, since not just the gringo scene but the local Jalisco culture are very "white bread" (or meat-and-potatoes, hold the mole and chapulines) by comparison to, say, Oaxaca, Puebla or Chiapas. I find myself haunted once again by a comment from our Oaxacan guide Jody (paraphrasing here from memory): "why go through all that it takes to live in this country without really living in it?"

Much to think about. I don't know that we have what it takes to live in such a large city but I do know we'll be back to hike the Sierra Norte and spend not just weeks but months soaking up the riches of this incredible part of México that challenges and inspires us like very few other places we've been.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Of Deities and Denial


Back in the early 1970's when I began practicing in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Herbert Guenther's turgid translations and commentary were a hugely challenging - and welcome - alternative to the Theosophy-muddled murk of Evans-Wentz and Lama Govinda's flights of fancy, which were just about the only other English language books available. Some of Guenther's work has actually aged quite well, and if nothing else, he and his friend Agehananda Bharati set the bar so high for linguistic mastery and  scholarly depth that it has probably not been equaled since. 

For those like myself who came to this tradition through the gateway of scholarship and of looking for the "ultimate" in philosophical and psychological sophistication this was truly heady stuff. In my case it not only got me to meditate much more seriously, it also inspired me to study Tibetan while scrambling to catch up with Heidegger and Wittgenstein and the basics of depth psychology so I could make sense of Guenther's translations.

As I look back though, an equally compelling inspiration was the resonance of innumerable figures like the ones on the cover of this book (which was published in 1976, by the way), along with equally striking images of Tara, Machig Labdrön and others.  In contrast to the renunciate austerity of Theravada and the military masculinity of Rinzai Zen (my first Buddhist experience having been sitting rohatsu sesshin with Joshu Sasaki Roshi at age 15) Tibetan iconography and the description of advanced practices involving the subtle body's energy system suggested a Buddhist path where sexuality would be honored and transmuted. I was 17 years old and not about to dive into a Buddhist path that said all that was raging within me needed to be suppressed or excluded.

In retrospect wanting this to be so quite thoroughly clouded my ability to see the tradition in historical and anthropological context, let alone looking into its underlying power structures, politics and economics. Having grown up deeply wounded by a father who announced to his wife and family that he was gay when I was 15, while also being utterly lost socially due to having skipped 8th through 11th grades (thus missing all of the normal socialization about dating) it was all-too-easy to substitute fantasies of spiritualized sexuality for any fumbling forays into reality. Throw in the chaotic cultural environment of the late 60's and early 70's with all of the established role models male and female in flux and I supposed I ought to forgive myself a bit for being more than a little lost.

From 1974-1980 I was a dedicated student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Boulder, where I worked menial jobs but managed to do two month-long retreats and a three week one, sit a couple of hours a day, study diligently and acquire a very basic knowledge of Tibetan (long since forgotten). I was much more drawn to visiting teachers Dilgo Khyentse and Dudjom Rinpoches than I was to Trungpa himself but never had the money to run off and practice in Asia. The wildness of the scene around Trungpa - was always deeply unsettling to me, but the final straw was his appointment of Ösel Tendzin (aka Thomas Rich) as his regent - a guy I knew all-too-well as the sleazy guy who was always trying to pick me up in the checkout line at the supermarket where I worked. 

I stopped practicing entirely for the better part of a decade, putting that energy instead into athleticism (high-intensity cycling) and a career in coffee, but I'd done enough practice - and met amazing enough teachers - that I was always looking for a way back to the Dharma. When I began again it was, auspiciously, with a retreat at Tara Mandala taught by Tsultrim Allione, one of the great pioneers and role models for women in the Tibetan tradition, and the topic was the 4 Immeasurables (Brahmaviharas) - just the healing balm I needed.  In the course of sitting several retreats with her and teachers she brought to her center I met many women who shared their stories of abuse by the likes of Swami Muktananda and assorted Tibetan and Zen teachers for whom Tsultrim represented a desperately needed lifeline. And because of Lama Tsultrim the entire environment for practice was infused a nurturing quality I had not experienced before. Little things that weren't so little: practicing in a circle rather than facing the shrine; as much time devoted to sharing of experience as to absorbing didactic teaching. 

I never consciously sought out female teachers, but over the years I read books by and received teachings from many: Judith Simmer-Brown, who blew me away during the early days of Naropa Institute (now University); Lamas Tsultrim Everest and Chagdud Khadro under the auspices of the wonderful lama Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche; the superb translator Lama Sarah Harding. A bit later on, having long since been dazzled by her writing,  I had the good fortune to meet the great scholar-practitioner Anne Klein in the context of her translating for the phenomenal lama Adzom Rinpoche, and later still I was lucky to receive a few teachings from Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche, as fiery and eloquent a teacher as I have ever met. In retrospect my particular experience, inspiring as it was, lulled me into thinking that misogyny and teacher-student power dynamics had been addressed much more thoroughly in the broader Tibetan tradition than was actually the case. 

Needless to say, as a male student I was the beneficiary of the accomplishment of all of these teachers without having the capability to understand more than a fraction of the obstacles they had transcended to get there. Reading Rita Gross and Anne Klein helped a little, but my conditioning and gender blindness meant I really saw very little of what was going on behind the scenes. 

Fast-forward to 2017 and there has been what feels like a painful and hopefully cathartic release of long-simmering issues regarding the treatment of women in this tradition. This blog is the most comprehensive resource I know of for getting caught up on not just the deeply disturbing revelations regarding Sogyal Rinpoche but the equally disturbing reactions to it from the likes of Dzongsar Khyentse and Orgyan Topgyal Rinpoches and deafening silence of most lamas in the tradition in the face of what is clearly deeply-ingrained structural abuse.

One would think that a broad cross-section of senior Western Tibetan Buddhist practitioners would have long since been holding emergency meetings to come up with a universal code of conduct and serious proposals for structural reform, but instead what has surfaced this week is yet another screed by Dzongsar Khyentse - this one a "humorous" teacher-student sex contract offered with a humble-brag intro. 

About the only bright light in all of this dismal dreck has been this clear statement by Mingyur Rinpoche, who seems to be alone in the wilderness in suggesting that ahimsa and foundational "Hinayana" precept practice might be good things for anyone who represents themselves as a Dharma teacher to take to heart.

One thing's for sure, this is not a tradition that is going to reform itself from within. The Dalai Lama's response to the crisis has been lukewarm at best, other lineage heads are largely silent, and perhaps the most prominent of the globe-trotting teachers, Dzongsar Khyentse, is so thoroughly part of the problem that he can't possibly be part of any solution. 

The problem is of course that sexual abuse is just one very visible aspect of a tradition that is so deeply invested in patronage, patriarchy and feudal models of transmission.

Scholar-practitioner Ian Baker neatly summarizes the depth of the challenges and the history that's caused them in this recent Facebook post:

"Since its inception in pre-medieval India, Vajrayāna Buddhism has always been an alluring, multivalent, and highly commodified phenomenon. Its innermost practices among close-knit, often elite, communities represented radical and highly contested recastings of Buddhist thought that often sought transcendence of caste-determined societal norms. While deeply liberating – for those who were ready – the emancipatory social transgressions that once served proud and uptight Brahmans – such as Naropa – may have less relevance in a pluralistic 21st century world. Contemporary social values, egalitarian ethics, and human rights – at least in theory – surpass their 8th to 12th century equivalents in India and Tibet. Tantra will continue to offer a powerful loom on which the tapestry of non-dual awareness can be woven, or artfully spun. But by all accounts, Tantra is subtle. Vajrayāna was therefore, in its innermost circles, a secretive, initiatic tradition that was never designed for pod-casts, social media, or mass empowerments. Confusion and misappropriation of the teachings are all too easy. If enlightenment is arriving at a stranger's door in a G-string and with a live fish protruding from your mouth, as Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche amusingly implies, maybe we are better off with the 18th century Western 'Enlightenment' that overthrew the tyranny of religious institutions and opened a new era of intellectual inquiry and scientific discovery. The dazzling ritual, pageantry, and vested power of Vajrayāna reflects in many respects an unacknowledged nostalgia for everything that preceded the Enlightenment in Europe – a subjugation of the self to a 'higher', and often abusive, authority and subscription to self-serving institutional power. Letting go of outmoded tyrannies and traditions ushered in the modern age, both for better and worse. Although Vajrayāna, at its best, promotes a democratic mode of awakening that embraces, rather than rejects, the world as it is, many of its forms are transplanted anachronisms that, in absence of historical perspective, can instil existential confusion more readily than enlightenment. Vajrayāna in the 21st century is an ongoing experiment that challenges reified beliefs, but also inherently aligns its adherents with socio-cultural ideologies of pre-medieval India and feudal politics of China, Mongolia, and Tibet. The irony, however, is that Vajrayāna’s rituals developed as a means for transcending ancient caste-bound identity and consequent self-limiting modes of thought and behaviour. In its origins, Vajrayāna was a bold and creative vision of human nature and possibility that challenged early Buddhism’s more renunciatory disposition. The discomfiting question that all those who have been ‘brought up’ within the Vajrayāna world must now ask themselves is how Vajrayāna’s ritualized, and often reified, narratives of transmission, power, and practice can best be adapted to the contemporary world. These were the same questions that Vajrayāna’s famed progenitors – such as the Mahasiddha fisherman Tilopa – asked in their own time, leading to vital distillations of the Tantric Buddhist teachings that transcend time, place, tradition, and teacher. Beyond all such socio-cultural and historical formulations, however, there is always the breathing of the wind, the flowing seas and rivers, and the inescapable illuminations of our most intimate human and transhuman communions. It's in these ever-present, adamantine realms that we dwell in our truest nature as interconnected beings of infinite light – whether we have received an Amitabha empowerment or not. As the oral teachings of Vajrayāna make clear, empowerment doesn’t come through being bonked on the head with a gilded vase by a spiritual preceptor who may not even know our name, but by waking up to our essential nature and manifesting it in all our actions. Rather than perpetuating guru-disciple relationships based on outmoded models of students as empty and receptive vessels, Vajrayāna in the modern world might be better served by the Socratic method, in which the teacher is merely an enabling catalyst for bringing forth the disciple's indwelling wisdom."


A handful of leading Western scholars (Donald Lopez, especially) have offered this kind of informed iconoclastic perspective on the tradition, but what's more common these days are practitioner-translators so thoroughly invested in the Tibetan tradition that they are nearly as blind to its excesses as the lamas they serve.

The most insightful voices about these issues, in my experience anyway, are coming from practitioners who know the tradition well without being wedded to it. Matthew Remski, who blew the lid off of the notorious Geshe Michael Roach scandal, gets to the root of cult abuse better than anyone else I've read, while his equally brilliant friend Sean Feit Oakes, who practices in the Theravada tradition but is deeply knowledgeable about Tantric forms, articulates the way forward in such a beautiful and inspiring way:

"Part of what's heartbreaking about #MeToo is that anyone who's been even a little awake to patriarchy and power in this culture already knows that sexual harassment, abuse, and assault of women are so pervasive as to be the assumed norm. Does anyone actually think that every single woman couldn't post a "Me, too" if she chose to??

And yeah, the fact that is so endemic means that every single man could post an "I'm complicit" story as well. Sexism and misogyny are core ideologies, and no amount of good intentions saves a man from being steeped in harmful ideas about women, sex, and power for his whole life here. As I learn more about allyship and how to enact the egalitarianism I believe in, I become ever more aware of these forces in myself and in every facet of this culture, including the places where well-intentioned folks try to do otherwise.


Sexism, racism, and all the cultural shadows I was raised to reproduce operate in my psyche every day. I'm grateful to the activists and wise humans who have helped me to start seeing through the white-cis-het-passing-class-privileged blindness these forces gifted me and be able to say even this much. But this isn't a post about me personally: no matter how mature any one of us manages to be, it's important to keep the spotlight on the system. Systems create individuals, not the other way around.


Ultimately, if we want to talk systemic oppression, we need to call out not just sexist creeps and abusers (though it helps), but the system that poisons all of our lives and relationships. So here's the hashtag I want to see men posting: #Patriarchy.


I hope these high-profile outings advance our national conversation about sexism in the way that media and activist attention on the norm of police brutality against black people led to #BlackLivesMatter and opened up a new chapter in the national dialogue on racism. Changing this will continue to be a long, slow process, but Goddess willing, folks are starting to wake up."


The current scandals and deathly silence from the Tibetan establishment are deeply discouraging, but then I read Sean's post and think that Machig Labdrön is dancing and burning brighter than ever if we can find the eyes to see her. 



Monday, November 21, 2016

Homeless, perhaps country-less, but not joyless






The 4 Great Bodhisattva Vows

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.
The Buddhadharma is boundless; I vow to master it. 
The Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.


While I'm not a Zen practitioner, one of the sanghas Erin and I have benefitted from sitting with during these past two weeks of election madness and post-mortem is affiliated with Roshi Joan Halifax and the Upaya sangha in Santa Fe. 

Yesterday we sat with the well-known teacher David Loy, a lovely man who has long been at the epicenter of Buddhist engagement with climate change and social justice, as well as local Tucson teacher Sensei Al Kazniak, who while not as well-known as Loy seems to me to be equally accomplished. 

Both of these teachers have a default mode of deep listening and curiosity that's clearly anchored in compassion and a steely determination to not only be of benefit but to bring life's most difficult challenges onto the path of practice and liberation.  

I quoted the four great vows from this tradition because they embody so much of what seems called for at this time. They're all about intention and aspiration - about (one could say) aspiring to do the impossible because it's what's necessary. At a more subtle level, such vast altruistic aspiration also undercuts clinging to outcome - something that was made so much more poignant when listening to Loy (who turns 70 next year) talk about his intention to focus ever more clearly on altruistic activism in his own limited remaining time on earth despite being fully aware of how irreversible catastrophic climate change already is. 

Moving from the big picture to our own very small but still real challenges, we've been confronted lately with just how much clinging to security, stability and control of outcomes we're still invested in. We've really appreciated being back in the U.S. for the better part of three years now, but our ability to do so has been entirely contingent on Obamacare. And while there are far more unknowns than knowns about life under Trump and the Republicans over the next four years, repeal of the Medicaid expansion and slashed subsidies in the individual insurance market are pretty much guaranteed to be among the first things that occur. 

So...having only just recently put so much energy and emotional investment into the early stages of becoming part of the community here in Tucson we're faced with the very real, perhaps inevitable, possibility of resuming expat life in Mexico with no plan to return. The question then becomes how do we embrace that situation joyfully and fully, and how can we structure our lives so as to be of benefit? 

It's really interesting, albeit unpleasant, to walk through our cozy but comfortable 70's mobile home and see the clinging arise as we try to summon the energy for one more move after way, way too many previous ones (and to see how draining and unhelpful it is to hold onto that story/tape loop too!).

In the past we've always hedged our bets at least a little: renting a small storage locker "just in case," stashing a few boxes with relatives for future sorting and schlepping. We're beyond done with that, and are instead seeing what it looks like to give up our deep clinging to real physical books in favor of Kindle-able everything, let everything from home-roasted coffee to microbrews go, and make plans to get on a plane with a couple of checked bags and a carry-on apiece as our sole worldly goods. That's still a hell of a lot more stuff than a Thai forest monk with two sets of robes and an alms bowl, but we do try to keep in mind the liberating potential of the Buddhist definition of homelessness. 

Years ago we did a retreat in Albuquerque with the wonderful vipassana teacher Eric Kolvig, at the height of the '08 financial market meltdown and while there were grave doubts about whether Obama could win. Eric wisely shelved the planned retreat topic and instead made the whole time together about turning towards fear, panic, uncertainty and desire for control while culitivating the mindstates of equanimity, compassion, lovingkindness and empathy that are our true nature and refuge. Early on in the process he offered this teaching from his own teacher Sayadaw U. Pandita:

"Why do we do this practice? To develop a heart-mind that is ready for anything." 

May it be so. 















Monday, July 11, 2016

Mexico at Thailand prices

We're just a few weeks in to what we hope will become a regular annual cycle of 3-4 months in México with the rest of our time spent in Arizona. Given the insanity of U.S. politics and health care that plan has a lot of asterisks associated with it.

We'd just arrived here at Lake Chapala when the Brexit fiasco caused the largest one-day loss in the history of the stock market, and along with it a spike in the already-amazing U.S. dollar:Mexican peso exchange rate to almost 20 pesos to the dollar. Things have settled down a bit since, but we're currently at 18.50 pesos to the dollar.

During our 3+ years of full-time living down here we averaged 11 pesos to the dollar, and felt rich during occasional spikes above 14. Today's exchange rates are an amazing, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for savvy expats and tourists, while they add unwelcome and untimely hardship to the already tough circumstances of everyday Mexicans.

Yesterday one of the trucks that regularly circulates through the villages here offering fresh produce direct from the coast was offering peak-season Paraiso mangoes. They're the ones that look like this:


The price? 3 kilos for 20 pesos. That's US$1.08 for six point two pounds of perfectly ripe, headily aromatic fruit.

Tacos are still 9-10 pesos - not cheap at all for locals earning 40-50 pesos an hour, but with three of them making a full meal for one it's a $1.50 main meal of the day for us.

Seasoned expat friends report being able to buy new and used cars now for thousands less than U.S. prices, instead of paying a substantial premium as is usually the case, and many folks who planned to be renters for the duration of their stay in México are taking a hard look at buying modest places since rents remain high while peso-denominated properties are up to 40% cheaper than normal in dollar terms.

I don't expect this situation to persist long-term (and for México's sake hope it doesn't!) but for anyone who's contemplated a visit or long-term stay here there's never been a better time. Let's just hope Faux News and the rest of the U.S. fear media machine continue to portray México as a scary place to visit (unlike the firearm and violence free country up North) - otherwise we might be faced with the prospect of this amazing country building a wall to keep the gringo hordes at bay.






Monday, March 28, 2016

AriMex: Our Next Chapter


View of Tucson from the front porch of our mobile home

This July will mark two years since our return to the U.S. from Mexico. We've appreciated the easy pace and access to wilderness in our current small town of Cañon City, Colorado, but have also found ourselves spending more and more time away.

A good friend advised me to seriously check out Albuquerque and Santa Fe before we moved here since they have so much more going on in areas like Buddhist study and practise, the arts, local food and other areas of interest but what kept coming up for us instead were things in and near Tucson, Arizona. Arizona, given its politics alone, was never on our radar screen as a place to live, but a couple of Dharma teachers we love live in and around the city, and we've also found ourselves captivated by the subtle beauty and silence of hikes in the desert.

Daytime view from the covered patio

Environment aside, what's really sold us on Tucson is the vibrant, feisty and very welcoming progressive community, from local food and microbrew fanatics to a very diverse and socially-engaged subset of the Buddhist and Christian contemplative communities. Both Erin and I see many opportunities to serve and to make a difference, and after spending years in small towns the chance to be part of thriving, age-diverse communities in the real world (rather than relying mostly on the internet!) is very exciting.

I've written at some length about the financial aspects of what we're doing, in part in hopes of helping others avoid mistakes we've made and in part to give a bit of hope to other folks faced with semi- or full retirement on very modest incomes - knowing that such situations are all-too-common. While Tucson certainly isn't as cheap as Cañon City it's still very affordable by U.S. standards and a good 20% cheaper than Albuquerque (and probably more like 50% cheaper than Santa Fe, given the crazy housing costs there).

The key for us was finding a comfortable, well-maintained 2 bedroom, 2 bath older mobile home in a spectacularly-situated 55-and-over community on the West side of the city. We have miles of great hiking right from our door, yet are an easy (and lightly-trafficked) 8 minute drive (or pleasant 20 minute bike ride) to the heart of downtown. With $15,000 tied up in the home and the monthly lot rent of $455 including access to a year-round salt water pool, gym and clubhouse we'll be able to continue to live a decent lifestyle during the 8 months each year (October-May) we plan on being in town. Given the summer temperatures in Tucson we wouldn't have considered moving there without a viable way to escape, and we're fortunate both in having family in the Pacific Northwest and, decisively, in loving our "second home" of Lake Chapala, Mexico, where we plan on spending at least 3 months enjoying the very best time of year there, the rainy season.

Lake Chapala sunset


Given the crazy political situation in the U.S. and the fact that our ability to be here at all is entirely dependent on the continued existence of always-under-attack Obamacare we know we need to keep our footprint light and our options open. For now and for the foreseeable future spending two-thirds of each year in Arizona and a third in Mexico sounds just right.



Linda Vista trail living up to its name