Saturday, December 12, 2020

Popularity vs. Profundity in Yoga and Buddhism: some reflections

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Buddha, Sarnath


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

At some point after repeatedly receiving advanced teachings in Mahāmudra and Dzogchen from wonderful teachers I realized that I, along with many fellow students, simply did not have the freedom from defilements or steadiness of mind 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, vipassanavāda) 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 Bhikkhu Anālayo and a handful of his colleagues.  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 Theravāda (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 late commentarial literature rather than the Buddha's own words in the suttas. I'll list a couple of books by Bhikkhu Sujato at the end of this post for those who want to explore the why and how of this in more depth, but the concise summary of the invention of vipassana is here, in Theravada Reinvents Meditation.

So what we find, in both the yoga and Buddhist worlds, is that the loudest and most strident claims of authenticity are made by those furthest removed from the radical simplicity and transformative power of the traditions in question. Anyone who reads the early suttas gets a pretty clear picture of the kinds of meditation the Buddha himself taught and practiced: Satipaṭṭhāna (the four establishments of mindfulness),  ānāpānasati (mindfulness with breathing, and the brahmavihārās  or "divine abodes" through which our normally egocentric heart-minds can be reoriented towards limitless friendliness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity. Samatha and vipassanā, rather than being presented as separate forms of meditation in the suttas, are alternating and equally important aspects of all of these practices. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summing Up

One of the explanations (excuses, really) given by Mahasi Sayadaw for omitting the samatha meditation of the Buddha and replacing it with vipassanā 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.

The great scholar-practitioner Alan Wallace, meanwhile, estimates that the average practitioner will need to spend about 5000 hours in meditation under secluded conditions to achieve shamatha (the first jhāna). The 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. 


Historical and Doctrinal Context

As I mentioned above, the magnum opus for understanding how "vipassana" essentially replaced the integrated practice of samatha-vipassana taught by the Buddha is this tome by Ven. Sujato. Most lay practitioners will probably be sufficiently informed by reading just his synopsis of it which I provided the link to above, plus Chapman's excellent summary of the history in "Theravada Reinvents Meditation."

Meditation en masse by Erik Braun is an article that details the invention of vipassana meditation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and its worldwide dissemination. It's a "Cliff's Notes" version of his highly-regarded book on the same topic. 

What the Buddha Thought by the great Pali scholar Richard Gombrich provides unique insights into the Buddha's use of metaphor, satire and simile and how his key teachings were often thoroughly misconstrued by later commentators. It's the only book I know of that considers (and sheds much light on) the audience the Buddha was speaking to and his historical context. 

Is Mindfulness Buddhist? (And Why it Matters), by Robert Sharf: Professor Sharf, in this particular article, shows clearly how much of both Vipassana and Zen as we've come to know them in the West are very recent inventions made largely in response to colonialism and Western influence.

Broken Buddha by the Ven. S. Dhammika, a long-term monk in the Thai Forest tradition provides a detailed overview of Theravāda Buddhism as it's currently practiced, from an experienced insider's point of view. And hen also points out one rather telling fact: there wasn't a single meditation manual published in The Theravada tradition in between the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) in the 5th century A.D. and modern Burmese manuals in the early 20th century. 


Satipatthana Meditation : A Practice Guide by Bhikkhu Anālayo. A masterful work and great introduction to this amazing scholar-practitioner. Over the course of the past couple of decades this one-of-a-kind monk, due to his combination of unique language skills (he reads texts in Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese) and intensive meditation practice has created a body of work which gives us the most comprehensive answers we have to the question "what was the Buddha's own practice?" (or more accurately, "what do we know of Buddhist practice during the tradition's first 200 years?"). His Mindfulness of Breathing : A Practice Guide "bookends" satipaṭṭhāna practice with the more advanced ānāpānasati ones. Add his unique sutta-based instructions for practicing the Brahmiviharas (found in his book Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhism and also taught wonderfully in these guided meditations and you have a complete path of practice for a lifetime. 

Three Steps to Awakening by pioneering Western insight meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg is a much shorter, simpler and more accessible guide to meditation than Bhikkhu Anālayo's more scholarly texts but is no less profound. 

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. 

What's 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 Vajradhatu/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

An essential first step for those who missed it (most practitioners, in my experience) is to understand where Tibetan Buddhism fits in in the broader Buddhist context.

Foundations of Buddhism, by Rupert Gethin: a concise college text that is the best overview of Buddhism I've found. It's a standard college textbook - skimming some sections is just fine. If time is tight, substitute Buddhism:A Very Short Introduction by Damien Keown. Tricycle magazine also offers a good Buddhism for Beginners site that's a more-than-worthy alternative to (or supplement for) such books. 

Next, please read Freedom from Buddha Nature by the eminent Thai forest tradition scholar monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu to get a sense of just how different "basic goodness" (aka Buddha Nature) is from the teachings of the historical Buddha. A related article by the same author on the oft-quoted (but rarely read and even more rarely undestood!) Kalama sutta is also strongly recommended for the way it contrasts the Buddha's careful and pragmatic ideas for what constitutes authority and trustworthiness with the reverence for "lineage" that's so pervasive in Tibetan Buddhism. 

The Issue at Hand by Gil Fronsdal is a short 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.  

Equally valuable is the very concise Steps to Liberation: The Buddha's Eightfold Path. These two books together are a kind of "pith essence" Cliff's Notes summary of foundational Buddhist teachings that are meant to be put into practice with immediate benefit. 

A Meditator's Life of the Buddha by the great scholar-practitioner Bhikkhu Anālayo uses the key events of the Buddha's life to inspire us to truly walk in his footsteps. His Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation Practice Guide with its accompanying guided meditations is the clearest and most profound meditation manual I've found. 

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. 

Diving into the Suttas

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. 

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. 

American Dharma:Buddhism Beyond Modernity, by Ann Gleig, builds on McMahan's work but is much more up-to-the-minute in illuminating generational differences and current hot topics in a diverse range of Western Buddhist communities. Truly essential reading for anyone practicing Buddhism in the West. 

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.