buddhism can’t make you happy so why bother: what being failed teaches us

The very sad news of the tragic death of Buddhist teacher Michael Stone has stirred a flurry of comments on various Buddhist internet sites that range from the expected grief and – sadly – the expected lack of awareness of the suffering that mental illness can bring on us. The latter set of comments includes and exposes a deep misapprehension of what a Buddhist practice can do for its practitioners.

The quick answer, if asked, is that a Buddhist practice has little to do with effortlessly conferring happiness, calm, serenity, and peace. Sadly, the practice also does not confer invulnerability to slings and arrows of outrageous inner and outer judgments, exorcise self-generated demons, or make one beloved by all. Buddhist practice is also not going to cure or remove whatever neurological process involved in profound depression, extreme anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, or many other ways of being that require a more focused approach. In a word (or six), Buddhist practice does nothing for you – except one thing.

To practice the Dharma is to examine the topography of places where we fail ourselves over and over. It is to turn towards that suffering, relentlessly; that incongruity between who we thought we were and who showed up at the family dinner, the date night, the wedding, the job interview. And in that turning towards, we find a way, through practice, to be steady in the face of the whole blessed mess – even when we aren’t. Buddhist practice is a how-to lesson in cultivating humility, skillfulness in failing, and loving with a heart broken open wide.

I understand the defensive posture of superiority in the comments when any Buddhist teacher has not lived up to our expectations. Been there, sacrificed my dignity. It’s frightening to think that someone in an elevated status can be so fragile, even if we were the ones to lionize them. It’s more frightening to think that this practice does not protect even those who have such an obvious commitment and fierce devotion to it. What does that say about us mere mortals who struggle with taking seconds on dessert, feel impotent rage at the state of our world, or whose lives had to be rebuilt because we followed in a very human teachers’ footsteps? What hope is there for us?

The reality is that there is no one who can satisfy our craving for security. There is no one who can single-handedly lift us out of our messy morass and make it all better. Sorry. There is actually one who can – but that requires teaching the eye to see itself, the hand to hold itself, the heart to feel its own beat. But we’re not ready for that and won’t be as long as we think salvation is in someone else.

These incidents of teachers who show their utter humanness are themselves our teacher. It opens us to be brutally honest about who we become in the face of our desire that the teacher should be our source of safety and support. It should open us to discern between an authentic teaching that is grounded in Buddhism and aspects of our own Western culture (read: knowledge of mental illness). I have listened too long and too often to the damage caused to practitioners by Buddhist teachers who say, “Just sit with it. It will pass.” Or, “meditate more.” Or, imply that somehow it’s some past life transgression that totally explains and justifies one’s current pain and suffering. It’s a long road back from this level of hurt. And more often than not, it ends up in a conversation that necessarily deconstructs the person’s belief that they are not a “good Buddhist” but also that they may have to surrender their clinging to the belief that they are “Buddhist”. Understanding this collision of our desires and what is promised as “freedom” is crucial to understanding the core of Buddhist practice: taking responsibility for our own development.

However, in the process of taking responsibility for our own delusions about teachers and about being “Buddhists”, we also need to see how the teacher’s own frailties serve us in some way. I have sat in front of teachers who are blissfully blind to their own mental illness and – here’s the rub – whose illness is useful to their community. This collusion likely contributes to stigmatizing mental illness and seals it in silence. It is time we ask ourselves how we impart subtle judgments and demands for perfection onto to each other. It is time we examine how we uphold each other’s frailties so that ours can be further served.

I do love the story Woody Allen tells voice-over at the end of Annie Hall (at least that’s my memory of the story): A psychiatrist’s patient says he has a brother who believes he’s a chicken and wants the psychiatrist to tell him what to do. The psychiatrist suggests the brother may benefit from treatment to rid him of the delusion that he’s a chicken. The patient is horrified: But, doc, then what would I do for eggs?

Once we cure ourselves of the delusion that Buddhism will make us happy and free from pain, what would we do for eggs?

The post by Justin Whitaker, On the Death of a Teacher: A Buddhist Teaching, is a recommended companion piece to this post.

 

turning into the new year

Ice CurlAlready.

Another year.

And we continue with the Great Matter.

I’ve been reading of the passing beyond of teachers dear to dearest friends of mine. Maia Duerr reported on the passing of Bhante Suhita Dharma. There is a lovely post at Jizo Chronicles by Maia and it is poignant in revealing the true nature of practice. I was deeply touched by these words:

He was not a Buddhist celebrity, so you won’t find much about him on the internet. He worked largely in the realm of the invisible.

Today, there was news that Abbot Steve Myogen Stucky had passed beyond. Co-Abbot of SFZC until he stepped down December 15, he leaves an indelible mark of humility and loving care on the members of his life community. You can read more here. Words used to describe him are touching: He was humble. He was a safe place. His love of the Dharma was…unstoppable (quoted from posts by Renshin Bunce on various Facebook feeds).

The invisible and unnamed bodhisattvas that work just below our grasping vision are the ones who truly teach us. It’s not that we don’t need the ones with higher profiles and klout indices; we do, but not as a steady diet. Nor should we confuse their work as the only work or what our work should resemble. As I sense into Maia’s words and teachings, I understand that the deepest connection we have is with realizing our own lifework, our generosity, our commitment – all nourished by these unseen, unnamed, invisible bodhisattvas. We can build temples and monasteries but it is how we place our foot on that single blade of grass that brings forth the BuddhaDharma.

May all those passing beyond do so with ease and let go with a deep confidence that all that could be done was done.

May all those continuing along the path tread with care, compassion, and confidence in our Buddha nature.

And by the way, if you ever doubt the importance of invisible bodhisattvas (or their very existence):

Yuki-Kaz-snowshoe

HAPPY NEW YEAR, DEAR FRIENDS!

MAY ALL YOUR ASPIRATIONS FOR 2014 BE FULFILLED!

straw man koan – deconstructing the PVL Conflict Resolution Guide – part 2

In my last post, I closed with the suggestion that the Conflict Resolution Guide (Conflict-Guide) from the Plum Village Lineage North American Dharma Teachers Sangha was a Straw Man whose intention (wittingly or unwittingly) may serve to scare away those who need the resources of the sangha rather than provide very necessary resources. This is the koan that all of us in our communities must confront, absorb, and feel its heaviness in our bellies if we are to create environments of practice that are truly in the service of ending the suffering of all beings. Pragmatically, how do we set up a safe zone in which complaints of all forms can be addressed with discernment and compassion while ensuring that the process itself is not a re-traumatization or a discouraging bureaucratic mangle that distorts truth and prevents transparency?

The first post of this series was generously shared among several zen teachers and practitioners’ social media. Among the many comments was one that offered a kind consideration that this guide may be simply for low level conflicts and not the more serious ones such as sexual, emotional, and/or physical abuse. There is no argument against that however one would wonder why the North American Dharma Teachers Sangha of the Plum Village Lineage would not have been precise about the purpose of the document. So let’s start with the document’s introduction which I approached (in real life and as a thought experiment) as someone seeking resources and recourse in the event of an incident of abuse.

opening

The Meta-perspective

Nothing in the background explanation or subsequent paragraphs define the purpose of the document other than its aspiration in the vague occurrences of “conflict.” While conflicts can be very useful occasions for deepening one’s practice, it is not always the best time to do so, particularly if the conflict involves potential harm or increased probability of harm. The fact that this document was provided to me as evidence of available resources and recourse for people who have experienced sexual misconduct on the part of their dharma teacher implies one of two (or many) things. First, the dharma teacher who sent it me has no clue what I was trying to point out (that the PVL sanghas have no clear path for dealing with sexual misconduct). Or, second, the PVL’s NADTS don’t know the difference between conflict and abuse. Now, I find that really hard to believe because the NADTS is comprised of people who are lawyers, teachers, former law enforcement members, chaplains, and some trained in the medical field. Nevertheless, I’ll grant a third possibility which is that this document is intend solely for interpersonal disagreements and not the more serious issues of abuse. But if that’s the case, the game of “telephone” between the NADTS and the very senior level dharma teacher who spoke to me needs a bit of noise reduction.

section1

Here we have a definition of conflict from the perspective of the DTS as a “disturbance” in the atmosphere of the sangha and its intention is to “always” restore that balance (in the service of harmony) [as a sidebar – there’s a bit of conflation of balance and harmony]. At this point, as someone concerned for the person who has reported an issue of sexual misconduct, I am wondering what the term “always” will mean when placed in the service of restoring balance so as to be harmonious. In other words, what will be sacrificed to reach this absolute and non-negotiable goal. “Always” is a big word with hard edges that can blind us to our insight and separate us from our ability to be with someone’s suffering (com+passion).

I’m also concerned about the naïveté  in the idea of transcending “adversarial punitive approaches.” If we’re dealing with personality conflicts or arguments related to the bells, yells, and smells of practice, then it would be admirable to find an alternative measures to dispute resolution. However, in the case of abuse, there is a larger context in which this needs to be placed. Whatever we may wish the local laws to be, they are what define recourse. I, as a health care professional, am bound by law to report harm and risk of harm, not because I don’t have skills to facilitate conflict but because some levels of “conflict” are against the law and their adjudication is outside my scope of practice.

no blame

Although I have misgivings about the use of victimology perspectives, I can’t disagree with the initial statement. However, it then goes astray by assuming that everyone coming into the resolution process is endowed with the ability to self-reflect when they are feeling threaten or unsure of the level of support they have. To explore what we bring of ourselves into any situation is a lifetime process and best done well before sitting face-to-face with the person whom we believe has perpetrated the harm. In the case of serious harm, asking the person who feels the harm done to them to reflect on their role, their habits, and stances to difficulties is not only premature but unrealistic. In fact, it may just plain be cruel. Furthermore, despite the high, albeit uninformed, ideals, I wonder (as did other Zen teachers who wrote to me) whether the restoration of harmony should be a priority over determining truth and creating a safe environment in which to express the harm done.

Taking Apart the Straw Man

read previous materials

And now for the bait and switch. Having read and accepted (presumably one would have to so as to move forward from that “stuck” place) the aspirations of the DTS, we enter into that phase where the Straw Man tries to look threatening enough to scare away the complainants.

“Review Thay’s teachings…” Yes, all hundred plus books on every Buddhist topic imaginable. They are wonderful books, no doubt. I’ve read almost all of them and find them a terrific entry point to Buddhist practice.  The DTS even admits the readings are vast and offer a few to narrow the field. Which few? Well…

The Second (non-attachment to views), Fifth (taking care of anger) and Eighth (true community and communication – includes the directive to stay in the sangha) Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing AND the second of the Fifty Verses on the nature of consciousness. Pause here for a moment and consider not only the pragmatics of this directive but a bit of reality testing.

First, the Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing are a complex set of vows requiring study and ordination is equivalent to taking jukai. The typical complainant is not likely to be an OI aspirant or, feeling under threat, to have the psychological energy to wade through the somewhat convoluted and idiosyncratic wording of precepts in the middle of feeling at risk.

Second, the Fifty Verses is based on the Abhidharma’s theory of mind.   Not something to be taken lightly, Reb Anderson states in his Introduction to Understanding our Mind. “These teachings on mind are difficult, daunting, and complex,” he writes, explaining that he has gone over and over them in his lifetime as a Zen practitioner. Moreover, the second verse, when misperceived, can run very close to the edge of blaming the complainant for their response to the events or interactions.

Practices That Can Harm Rather Than Heal

Another recommendation is to do a Lovingkindness meditation keeping the assumed perpetrator as the focus of metta. Again, there is nothing wrong with a metta meditation however in my experience of working with individuals who have been in difficult or traumatizing situations, this is too much to expect in the immediacy of the events. The set of the document assumes the conflict is ongoing which means metta meditation is premature  and makes a huge assumption of the capacity of the individual’s practice when in distress.

The recommendation of doing a Beginning Anew process is also seriously misguided. This is a risky protocol of “flower watering” or telling one’s putative perpetrator about things that are good in them, then airing one’s negative feelings about what they did, and expressing regrets for what one has done (typically conducted in sangha). In a recent article, following the retreat at Brock University in August 2013, physician Patricia Rockman of the Centre of Mindfulness Studies writes about a Beginning Anew that goes horribly wrong in public. (This event was also described to me by someone who was at the event and the details are identical.) Rockman’s suggestion that psychologically sensitive issues should be placed in the hands of people trained to deal with them is one that has been raised in every Plum Village Lineage retreat I’ve attended. Health care professionals have also tried to raise awareness that certain issues are required to be reported by law (e.g., potential harm to children in chaotic families), only to be dismissed. What troubles me most is the impenetrability of the wall of misunderstanding and dangerous assumptions about psychological issues. Given the vast resources that educate us about the vulnerability of our mind, it can only be called a willful ignorance.

And One To Handle with Care

But onward. Having completed all this reading and contemplation, the aggrieved person is asked to complete the Conflict Analysis Form. This form is likely the most damming aspect of the process.  I advise a detailed reading of the questions which are too numerous to address here. What I do want to point out is that most people I interview following a conflictual event (this ranges from dealing with a bully at work to being blown up by an IED in a war zone) – already hyper-vigilant and physiologically activated – would feel shamed and blamed by the questions. More than that, their experiences of being emotionally and/or physically assaulted result in significant cognitive and physiological changes. Information is not processed in ways that make sense nor is recall always coherent. For a terrific explanation of what trauma does and how to deal with it, you can read Nellalou’s post on Smiling Buddha Cabaret which I frequently recommend to clients.

My advice at this stage of reviewing the Conflict Guide: If you are in a conflictual situation or have experienced abuse, do not complete this Conflict Analysis Form without first showing it to someone you trust. If there is no one you trust in your circle of family or peers, take it to a professional who understands trauma, bullying, and interpersonal conflicts. This is something to work through in the presence of someone who can walk you through it carefully and ensure against your taking too much responsibility or blame.

And Now For Something No Different

The closer:

The complainant can call in other members of the sangha and, if required, other Dharma Teachers to assist. That the resolution is still held in a closed inner circle of strongly like-minded people seems not to be a concern.

But when does the “Harmony Committee” actually get involved?

harmony committee circle

In other words, they will step in when they’ve ascertained that the complainant has done everything in her/his power to resolve the conflict by following all the directives in the guide with the very person who is or people who are part of the conflict. The shorter answer is “Never” because anyone who has experienced any level of conflict or abuse will have given up by the first request to read all of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, let alone at the idea of sitting vulnerably in sangha or alone with the person involved. Of course, that may help with the book sales which would help with creating more sanghas which would help with creating more feelings that this document actually serves a realistic purpose.

But I shouldn’t be so jaded. I deal with insurance companies every day. This is the first thing I tell my patients when we embark on doing battle for treatment benefits: They job is to tire you out, to frustrate you, to make you believe that going away pays more than hanging in. That is their JOB, not their philosophy or their values or their hatred of you. In fact, YOU don’t exist. What exists for them is the drive to maintain their internal structure of self-preservation.

I just never thought I’d be saying that about a community that had so much potential to change the “adversarial punitive approaches to conflict that prevail in our greater society.”

I also had hoped I could go back to the woman who came to me with the experience of being sexually harassed and say, “We can do this. Together, we can take this to people who will be sensitive and compassionate as well as discerning and fair.”

To her, wherever she is today, all I can say is this: “I’m sorry. Nothing has changed because nothing has changed.”

a “conflict guide” from The Plum Village Lineage North American Dharma Teachers Sangha

A few weeks ago I received an email from a dharma teacher in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition. The email was titled “Re:(name of dharma teacher) ” and it asked for my help in handling a “sensitive” issue. Over the years as an ordained member of Thay’s Order of Interbeing, I have repeatedly attempted to have these “sensitive” issues addressed by the larger community. About a year ago, I finally hung up my brown jacket feeling totally and utterly defeated by approximately 7 years of knocking on bolted doors, having emails and phones ignored, and effectively being ostracized from the community. The subject header should have come as a moment of hope that something was finally going to be done but I have come to recognize the various seductive strategies used to “fact-find” (read: witch hunt) and “share” (read: gossip) that have been employed about the person named in the subject header.

I have only one fact. Several years ago, one woman came to me and disclosed being sexually harassed in her sangha by the dharma teacher. As professionals who deal with these issues too-regularly in our work life, Frank and I advised her to follow various routes including reporting it to the police. She was not ready, a response that is very typical of people who feel a deep rupture of trust and are fearful of being cast out of their community. We understood and offered all the support we could. At the same, I took this to the larger community asking for a process by which sangha members could seek safety and due recourse. About three years ago, I was told there was a committee that was struck by the Order of Interbeing and the dharma teachers to address issues of sexual abuse. Good.

Except there is no obvious path to connect with this committee. The scuttlebutt also said they were inundated with complaints from sangha members about sexual abuse by Order members and dharma teachers. You can Google “sexual abuse in Thich Nhat Hanh communities” and you will find nothing except links to the the Third Mindfulness Training and Fourteenth Training of the Order of Interbeing which address sexual behaviour. Ironic, isn’t it.

The conversation that followed from the email I received was telling as well. I pointed out that the community lacked transparency. He replied, “Transparency takes years and years.” No. Transparency just takes one person standing up and saying, “There is no transparency.” I timed it: 5 secs to type it. The conversation ended and today I received a link to a pdf titled “Conflict-Guide.” It was offered as evidence that the community is being transparent about the path to reporting sexual misconduct.

I must admit I was eager to read it because a large part of my heart still lies with the beauty of Thay’s teachings and has faith that it will manifest as wisdom and compassion in the community.

Before I offer my thoughts on this guide, I invite you as a member of a much larger community to circulate it, read it, post your feedback.

Over the next weeks, I will publish my response to portions of this guide to resolve conflict – which I had hoped included how to report and address sexual misconduct sexual harassment. But guess what it actually does…