Help for Nepal & surrounding countries

Picture from The Wall Street Journal-India.

Dear Friends,

We awoke this morning to the news of the earthquake in Nepal and the devastation it has caused. Nepal, India, Bangladesh and border regions of China are affected. Please take a moment to offer your support to the Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund here set up by the America Nepal Medical Foundation – ANMF. Other agencies are listed in the ways to help page on this site.

CANADIAN Sources for help – includes MSF, Red Cross, UNICEF.

CITTA – They will be on the ground in Kathmandu and going to the Gorkha district an area that has been completely devastated. The money will go directly to the people of Nepal.

Karuna-Sechen – Founded by Matthieu Ricard

Olmo Ling – Center supporting the Bon tradition

Kyabgön Phakchok Rinpoche for disaster relief here. Please indicate “Disaster Relief” in the “Purpose” field.

OXFAM is marshalling a response.

American Buddhist Perspectives has additional donations and help resources.

More sites here on how to help Nepal. – Building medical camps and accommodations.

Rolling updates are available here.

May all being be safe and find care in this difficult time.

oprah’s new course: fostering the mind of poverty

I’ve decided that I’ve been going about my business all wrong.  An article about Oprah’s recent show Oprah’s Next Chapter: India has opened my eyes to my poor business ethic.  You see, I have tried to build my fortunes on the vision that cultivating deep respect for all beings and doing no harm was the purpose of my life.  Apparently, that may be the cause of my failure to get into Fortune 500.  Thankfully, Oprah has shown me that there is another door to accumulating riches beyond my puny dreams of fame and fortune.

For those of you who have not caught the article in First Post Bollywood, it describes Oprah’s visit to a Bombay slum as part of her “let’s get out there and see the real world.”  The subtitle should be: And use my over-valued opinions and drama-drenched interview techniques to make people feel like poop.  Here’s the gist of the article:

So Oprah trooped into one of our vintage slums to meet a family – parents and three children – who live in a 10 square foot room. Now I’m not surprised that Oprah was surprised to see an entire family living in such tiny quarters. Although I’m sure she could find cramped ghettos in the States. What surprised me was the amazing lack of sensitivity to the children’s feelings or the feelings of the parents who’d opened up their home to her. All the children go to school, and were extremely well-mannered and seemed happy and quite carefree like children their age are meant to be. They didn’t seem to realise that their home was smaller than the homes of others. Or that their father didn’t earn as much as he could.

But not for long. Once Oprah got through with them, they must have committed seppuku.

The mixed-cultural-metaphor aside, I could not have found a greater inspiration for this week’s posts.  Apparently, if I understand Oprah’s strategy (and I’m missing the re-broadcast of the show because I’m writing this), the way into the hearts of those you wish to learn from is to tramp into their homes and stomp on their dignity.  Then package it for the millions in her naive and perhaps willfully blind audience so they can feel good about feeling bad about those “poor folk.” But let’s try to give Oprah credit.  Perhaps she intended to show that people can be satisfie, whatever their life circumstances or our assumptions about absolute and relative poverty.  Perhaps she didn’t intend to trot out that worn theme of “Look at all these materially poor Indians (Burmese, Asians, Afghanis, etc).  They’re so materially poor but they’re so spiritually happy.”  Perhaps she truly thought the children would say, “Oh yes, Mem’saab, I am truly happy.  I know my 10 foot square home shared with my two siblings and parents is as large as the universe because my practice of mindfulness is boundless.”   If that’s the case, the script writer messed up or the casting agency forgot to hand out a good translation.

Whatever the case, this art of chasing after lack in another to elevate oneself is something that calls for disciplined attention.  One of the vows we take as Zen students is to not foster a mind of poverty in ourselves or others.  It’s tricky and I tried to write a parallel post about on the clinic blog.  It is likely one of the most challenging vows because it brings to the fore all of our manipulative tendencies.  If I can lead you into the dark woods of poor self-worth or perception of lack, I can feel better than you, gain a lead in a competitive environment, or benefit from the opportunity provided by your loss of self-efficacy or self-respect.  I simply have to tell you that you don’t fit, belong, or measure up.  Worse, I only have to say I’m just trying to help by pointing out what you already suspect: that you may not be good enough.

Oprah’s business plan would be easy in my profession.  There is no end of suffering that brings people to my office asking for relief.  Some of them sort out their difficulties in one or two sessions.  That’s great for my ego (if I thought I had anything to do with their insights) but definitely not good for cash flow.  Now I see all that is needed is a well-placed word here or a piercing nonverbal signal of low worth there.  The mind of poverty could flare and require an additional few years to resolve.  And then I could fly to India and see all those poor but happy people enjoying spiritual bliss.

career: shaken not stirred

Now that Chaplaincy study is coming to a close, people often ask how this will change what I do. Usually they mean will I be earning my money a different way.  Let’s be honest, very few people ask if or expect an answer that your training is going to lead to a career in which you likely will not get paid much or have no prospects of advancement.  I loved the section in David Whyte’s book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a pilgrimage of identity, in which he contemplates telling the world of his decision to live in alignment with his true self.

If you want to meet terrifying silence, tell the world you are going full time as a poet.  Who would give me a word of encouragement if I did?  It has never been easy to go full-time as a poet in any recorded portion of human history.  When we announce to the world that we are about to go full-time as a poet, people do not come up to us, slapping us on the back, saying, “Great career move, David,” or “I hear they are taking them on at Lockheed right now,” or “Marvelous.  I hear there’s a decent dental plan comes with the verse.” (p. 123)

I remember telling my parents I had left my job as a Chemist in the Federal Government to become a free-lance writer.  After the ear-piercing silence, they shook their heads, mystified that I would walk away from a good pension plan (health care!) for a life of… of … of what? my father demanded.  Even worse was my defensive attempt to explain that Frank had a good job as a self-employed consultant.  They could not grasp the link between how he “did” his job and how the money came in; there wasn’t a bi-weekly pay cheque.  This was crucial.  That flow from production to recompense was what made their world feel safe and secure.  Of course, their perplex mystified me equally because they had both endured losses of their treasured careers through the capriciousness of political upheavals.

I amuse myself these days having conversations with the (likely aggravated) spirit of my dear Dad.

“Well, Dad, I’ve decided to close my private practice to become a Chaplain,” I announce to his portrait on the ancestor’s altar.

“A Chaplain?  Does that have a better salary than a psychologist?”  His right eyebrow would begin a syncopating twitch. It makes the little mole on his eyelid a bouncing ball I follow to sing along with the “career catastrophe” song.

“Um.  Well.  No.  I don’t know.  I mean, I don’t know if Chaplains get paid.  Not in private practice anyway.  In hospitals, they get about $32 an hour.”

“And what do you get paid now?”  I can feel the rabbit hole opening up because he’s never understood how self-employed professionals pay themselves.  “Draw?” he would ask.  “That’s what you do with crayons!  How much is your cheque made out for each week!”

“Well, it doesn’t matter what I get now, Dad.  I’d be following my heart – you know, doing what’s important to me… for the world… to… save all beings… creations… numberless… vow…”  I’m floundering and the other ancestors on the altar are now looking very interested in how this is going to end.

He seems to be silent long enough for a few ashes to topple from the incense stick.  “Saving all beings, eh?”  He glances over at his mother who in her portrait is about to walk over to him and plead my case.  “Like a Bodhisattva.  Well, make sure you read the contract carefully before you sign it.”

I’ve never really considered that Bodhisattva-hood is a career choice.  It seems to just arise for most people I know whom I think of as compassionate beings committed to easing suffering in the world.  Perhaps they just make it all look simple.  Or perhaps it is really just that simple; choose the path.

The Heart Sutra is emphatic that seeing through the illusion of separateness and an abiding self is the step to being unhindered to be of service to the world.  Grounded in this understanding that separation and interconnection are the figure and ground of our life, we break free of the things that hinder us, that hold us back from being who we are, which cloud our vision, our dreams, our intimate truth.   “Without hindrance, the mind has no fear.”  Anger, desire, sloth (my favourite), restlessness/rumination, and doubt cannot shake or stir us from our career choice – poet, writer, Chaplain, Bodhisattvas all.   Without these blockades in our path, we enter fully into that pilgrimage of discovering who we already are.

Over the next few months, I took the time (to speak) with person after person (in the organization)….  I began to see that in an extraordinary way the conversations themselves were doing all the work.  It forced me to ask the next question: “If this kind of conversation will bring you the work you want for yourself within an organization, what kind of work do you really want to do in the wider world?  What are your elemental waters?  What courageous conversations will bring you to your poetry?”  Each of us has an equivalent core in our work, whether it is the path of the artist or the explorations of the engineer.  Even if we already possess the work of our dreams, there is a way of doing that work that will deepen and enliven it, a way that begs for a daily disciplined conversation. (p.135)

Thank you for the daily disciplined (if somewhat raucous) conversation.

a little bit karma, a whole lot dharma

Karma starts with a little face in window.  It sits there day after day, looking in.  Not longingly. That’s a projection of what I’d likely feel if I sat on the other side of bug mesh and glass.  But it’s a cat, so I feel free to project a modicum of manipulative abilities into its intention.  At the time, we had three cats in the house and had made a pact that soon we would be a feline-free zone.  Given the average lifespan of a cat, it was a pointless pact as at least two of them are likely to out live us.  We also made a pact to honour the universal truth that not only should one never feed a stray, one never names a stray.  To name a creature is not to own it but to form a relationship with it that commands responsibility.  Unfortunately, naming a cat is pretty much a non-reciprocal command of responsibility.

Pumpkin, then, became a fixture on the porch by the kitchen door.  We learned from the neighbour that she is 11 years old and has a tendency to get pregnant a lot.  But as an older cat none of her litter survived.  I think visiting us has been a bit like collecting Air Miles or some Feline Point process because she’s not only earned ear-scratching rights but also her own food bowl – which she shares with the occasional blue jay and raccoon.  And she’s socialized a little too. But kitty karma is a tricky thing.  Well-fed and topped up with love, Pumpkin thrived – which means other things can happen that were not part of the original deal.  Meet Sprout. I’m beginning to understand a fine point of the first Bodhisattva vow: Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.  True, at one level it is very much about fostering relationship in this moment, a relationship that in itself fosters transformation.  But it is also generational.  Those ten directions – in front and behind, to the left and right, above and below – are also temporal.  That moment in which a cat became Pumpkin began a karmic accelerator to this moment when a pair of eyes stared up at me, fierce and willing to take me on (I have the scar to prove it).

Steve Hagen writes in Buddhism is not what you think:

Zen is not about arriving at some end point in the future.  In fact, there is no such thing.

The future is immediate, here.  There is no way to understand or grasp what is about to happen, now or at any time + now.  There is no way to truly know what we set in motion, except that we do.  And that kitten, about a hand span of feisty fur, is the best authority on that Truth I have.

sweet dharma

The pink arrow is pointing at our daughter, the intrepid adventurer, on her way to Cameroon with International Children’s Awareness Canada. I got home long enough last week to throw my still-damp toothbrush into my purse and take off with Frank and the Kid for the airport in Toronto.  Thankfully, Frank’s broken ankle was assessed as healed and he got to drive.  Had I known that would designate me as the the parent-in-charge-of-keeping-the-child-quiet, I likely would have broken it for him again and driven the entire way.  Not really.  There’s something sweet about being in a closed metal box hurtling down a highway at high speed, in the company of a young woman who is finally finding her true self and doing so while on her way to an adventure.

This isn’t the first time for Alex.  A few months after the 2004 tsunami in India, she left for the outskirts of Chennai where she worked in an orphanage for 10 weeks.  Then came a year-long trek through New Zealand and a realization that conquering all the mountain peaks in the world doesn’t change the nature of suffering although it can bring one close to the nature of deep personal dukkha.  When she got back from India, she was powerfully moved by the ways in which we can corrupt generosity and compassion.  When she got back from New Zealand, she was equally moved by the reality that progress doesn’t bring with it generosity and compassion.

These adventures result in long evenings with Frank, deep in discussions about the sociological-political-complexity-laden-entropic windings of the world.  Having no brain for such things, I tend to retreat into Facebook or my tumblr treating them as distractor video games so I don’t have to face my massive ignorance of how the world really works.  To give her credit, Alex does try to educate me but I have such a resistance to seeing the world writ large.  When she returned from New Zealand, she brought me Emma Larkin’s book, Everything is Broken: a tale of catastrophe in Burma.  It changed her life, she said, wanting me so much to be excited by it.

And I was.  Excited, that is, by the fact it had changed her life, giving her passion and direction to fit the steamroller attitude that often hides a deep compassion for others.  The book was bland in comparison;  it left me frustrated by circumambulating writing and a refusal to dig deep into the psychological-emotional power of the events of Cyclone Nargis.  Alex was unimpressed by my critique of Larkin.

I try.  Really.  But we speak vastly different languages and I try to explain that listening to her debate with her father is like listening to a symphony.  A delight to attend but hardly something I want to or am able to perform in.  She points out that she got her abilities from somewhere and, given her father’s haplessness, I have to bear the burden of that legacy.


So now it’s onto Cameroon and the possibility that it will give her more training in the upaya/skill-in-means of Bodhisattvas.  Charles Prebish in Destroying Mara Forever: Buddhist Ethics Essays in honor of Damien Keown notes that Keown called Mahayana’s emphasis on the bodhisattva ideal as a paradigm shift away from the ethical approach of the earlier Buddhists.  There’s more to this but what is important for me to hang on the wall until the Kid returns is what Keown calls normative ethics or upaya1, one of two aspects of skill-in-means:

Upaya1 does not enjoin laxity in moral practice but rather the greater recognition of the needs and interests of others.  One’s moral practice is now for the benefit of oneself and others by means of example.  Through its emphasis on karuna the Mahayana gave full recognition to the value of ethical perfection, making it explicit that ethics and insight were of equal importance for a bodhisattva.

If the righteous indignation of events in India and New Zealand have given rise to a determination to find a way to benefit others and if that benefits the Kid, I will call that sweet dharma, indeed.

Thank you for practising,


subtle lessons

Until last winter, we hadn’t been up in the woods since the Ice Storm of 1998 which had brought down many trees that blocked the trails.  Just behind these trees is a ravine that channels a stream south to the farm-house.  Beavers dammed the stream one year and Frank cleared the pond that winter so we could skate on it.  In the Summer, we popped the canoe into the pond and floated around wondering if there were any fish in its depths.  On the other side of the ravine is a clearing surrounded by birches.  We would sit there watching the shivering leaves and the splatters of sunlight that bounced to the ground.  We dreamed of a cabin in that clearing.  It would be filled with books and a cook stove fueled by wood.  When the dreams got silly, we built rope bridges across the ravine and trained horses to slide down one side and canter up the other like the ones in the movie Man from Snow River.  This refuge would become the beating heart of our lives, dedicated to helping all creatures – large to small, no-legged to multi-limbed.

Over the years, dogs and cats roamed the woods.  Horses thundered along the trails.  I bought Frank a horse actually named Snowy River.  It seemed a little psychotic when I had the vet check done in its home barn but I had faith in Frank’s ability to heal all creatures.  After all, look at what he’s accomplished with me.  When one ride ended up with him curled in a ball under Snowy River’s pounding hooves, we decided that perhaps some creatures were best left unchallenged in their constructed selves.

More and more, I’m learning that the Bodhisattva vow – with all due respect to Hakuin – requires more than a burning aspiration.  A dollop of good sense is helpful, as is a dash of respect for the creature’s desire to be just who it is.  After all, there is nothing in the Bodhisattva’s vow that says only I am to be the agent of change in someone’s unfolding story.

Thank you for practising,