not yer granny’s buddhism



There have been a few posts lately about the true nature of Buddhism, whether that nature has been defiled, and (mostly with erroneous logic and lousy data) whether one of the greatest defilers is the Momentum of Mindfulness. A sub-clause to all this cogitating is a need to prove that the Mindfulness Movement is really a pernicious process of oppressing the masses to be sheep and fodder for the Capitalist Overlords. I actually have no argument for the latter because, in my experience, the mindfulness modality is becoming a bit of a dumping ground for hard-to-treat and hard-to-diagnose mental health issues; those Capitalist Overlords may be the over-burdened health care systems that want relief through a 21st century mode of chemical constraints and the ice-water dunking baths of yore. But I digress.

Justin Whitaker, my favourite male Buddhisty philosopher, wrote a great post on the differentiation of Buddhism as a philosophy and a religion. And it is accompanied by a mind-blowing work of art in which his photo-shopping places the Buddha smack down in the middle of a symposium or a wonder of philosophers. I really liked it. Not only does it place the Buddha in the scrum representing various branches of knowledge but specifically placed in the one related to understanding through the determination of primary causes.  The post riffs on an article by Michael McGhee asking “Is Buddhism a religion?” Other than a bit of a sniper shot at the Momentum of Mindfulness and the NHS (UK’s health care system) decree that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy is the cat’s meow these days, there is much of worth in the article.

I am compelled yet again to dig into the reality that today’s Buddhism in North America (being much more driven by the American zeitgeist than we care to admit) is not my granny’s Buddhism. But then again, today’s Burmese Buddhist vihara is not my granny’s sangha either. It seems a tough notion to resolve in our minds. And perhaps that’s the start of the problem: we’re trying to think our way through this evolution rather than actually experience it. But thinking is what we do.

McGhee points out that the while a-religionists claim Buddhism is not a religion, they go on to accessorize their own beliefs with the language and conceptual hooks of Buddhism. This seems to be a bad thing, a sort of theft or spiritual plagarizing – which I can see may be hurtful because if you’re going to say the meal offered is not suitable for your purposes, don’t then walk away with the silverware. But I do feel his pain. And equally, I love the reactivity when I say that Buddhism is about renunciation; the dilemma it poses if positively Freudian!

And although I’ll skip over McGhee’s silly sidebar swipe about therapeutically-used meditation allowing for better killers, it is interesting to follow his reasoning that Buddhism being a program of ethical preparation, ironically may move it into the realm of philosophy. (Hence the serendipity of Justin placing the Buddha at the gate of the philosophers!) McGhee writes:

In that case Buddhist practice becomes a form of ethical preparation, reducing the forms of self-preoccupation that impede a concern for justice. This aspect of Buddhism has led some commentators to say that it is more like a philosophy of life than a religion. This contrast with religion relies too heavily on the assimilation of religion to religious belief and it neglects the ceremonial and ritual and community-building aspects of the various religions, including Buddhism.

Now that leads us to the graphic above about bears. (You were wondering, I know.) In my first retreat, all the talks and exchanges were in French. My friends and the facilitators were very kind to translate everything for me, despite my assurances that I was perfectly bilingual. On the second day of the retreat, we were called to a meeting and warned that there was a black bear loose on the grounds and to be careful. Those camping by the centre were invited to sleep in the zendo. I realized after the meeting that no one had translated any of the exchanges for me. From this I concluded that it was vastly more dangerous to not have an accurate understanding of the Dharma than of a potentially lethal bear.

The evolution of Buddhism and of various modalities of psychotherapy is like that. Better to be accurate in one’s intention to practice which directs one’s attention to the details of practice and improves one’s stance to the inner experience which includes ethical prepardeness. How this plays out in your life of practice will depend on whether the bear gets to you before the Dharma.

the dog ate my zabuton: life koans we die by – part 3

DSC_0010It’s going to be a couple of months of dealing with koans¹. Maybe it’s not a stretch to say it’s going to be a few lifetimes of dealing with koans. Notice I wrote “dealing with” and not “working with.” As someone who not only flunked out of koan studies but also remedial koan practice, I’ll not be your bright North Star – other than to serve by nefarious comparison. I also think we tend to deal with something more than work with it (which implies some level of commitment) because we rarely know it’s a koan until smacked full in the face with one.


The Dog Ate My Zabuton Koan

I walked in and said, “Teacher, the dog ate my zabuton so I couldn’t practice.”

She tipped her head to the right and smiled. “How did the dog manage to eat your zabuton?”

‘She doesn’t get it,’ I thought. Aloud I replied, “The dog ate it. He just did. Maybe he’s not a good Buddhist.”

“Ah. Or maybe he’s just a dog. Where was your zabuton that your dog could get to it?’

I scuffed my toe.

“Dog is dog,” she said. “And you know better.”


On the surface, the previous three posts have dealt with issues of the Plum Village Lineage Dharma Teachers and their document intended to resolve conflicts. You can read about it (in order) herehere, and here. Underlying the issues of what one global sangha has done to make it possible for individuals to seek support and recourse in cases of conflict in their sangha are an innumerable number of accretions and assumptions of what it means to be a Buddhist practitioner. Or more accurately, a practitioner of the Buddha’s teachings. These are very different paths and the former may not always end in liberation.

When we are caught in our need to belong, to not be criticized, to be accepted, we are vulnerable – and all the more so when the philosophy of the captor organization is couched in concepts of peace and love and oneness. In our fear of being disconnected from the tribe, we buy into the constructions that seem like Buddhism but are not. If you want to delve into the ways we have bought into a constructed institutional Buddhism, I strongly recommend reading NellaLou’s post Precisely the problem? Typical of her deadly swordship, she points out the ways we risk becoming a mindless cog in the massive machinery that can be Buddhism:

Institutions and systems are made up of processes. These processes get codified—more in theunwritten (sic) rules, rituals, codes of behavior, habits and hidden agendas (include shadows in that) by the laziness of participants than in what is actually written down if anything is written down at all. Laziness in that once comfortably ensconced in an institution, it’s pretty easy to hand off control and thought and critique to that institution and simply become a piece of the machine.


Some of that persuasive environment in a sick institution can include undermining individuals, coercion, guilt, enforcing conformity at all costs, punishing outliers, etc. This leads an individual to self-doubt and unmoors moral anchors making them far more pliable parts of the machine. It’s cult like behavior that leads to insecurity and increases dependence on the institution by the individual. It’s co-dependence all the way down.

This is the point: without transparent and courageous leadership, we – who are hitched to these massive vehicles – are easily dragged away despite our own moral anchors. At the same time, without our own inner leadership that must be unrelenting in its willingness to blast away personal delusions, we are fodder for anyone who talks the ethics talk. And who wouldn’t be? It gets tiring being oh-so-watchful over my anger, greed, and delusions. It wears me down to constantly check in on the wholesomeness or unwholesomeness of my thoughts, speech, and actions. It’s hard not to flip the truths of impermanence, nonself, and suffering on their heads and claim anything goes because nothing lasts, there’s no one to hurt, and samsara just is. So much easier to believe that if our leader is ethical, we are in a position to benefit from a received knowledge of their values.

But we know better. Truly. We know better in that moment when we turn away from something that doesn’t feel right. We know better in that moment when we said nothing because belonging was more anxiety-reducing and speaking out. We know better when the sound of our voice denying malfeasance carries into our spirit and rings false.

Yes, we know better than to think someone else can do the thinking for us. And we know that the cost of that unwholesome choice is ultimately having choice taken away. I’m not talking about the choice of staying in a corrupt organization. The choice we lose is the choice to honour the life we have and the death we practice.

NellaLou’s uncompromising conclusion:

If somebody doesn’t even want to confront blatant wrong doing, or question what they are being fed, or even take a look in the mirror (actually and metaphorically), how are they going to confront the great matter of life and death?

Living Truth IS the very matter of life and death.

NellaLou’s second post, Buddhist Exceptionalism, drives the point home. Believing that our path as practitioners of the teachings of the historical Buddha make us Buddhists is the first step in not knowing better. It is the first loosening of the knot that ties us to our “moral anchor.” Our attraction to the putative safety and support it affords us as captialized-B Buddhists is the first magnetic event that destabilizes our moral compass. We can continue down that path, caught by the desires of our teachers and sanghas who are caught themselves in their delusionary states. And pretty soon that capitalized-B is the way in which we keep people quiet or ostracized so that our world is not rocked by facts or reality, ethics or responsibility.

I told a friend last week that I have given up on Buddhism. I have.

But I know better than to give up on buddhist practice.


¹Mid-October will be a review of Barry Magid’s Nothing is Hidden: The psychology of Zen koans (Wisdom Pubs) and November features Zenshin Florence Caplow & Reigetsu Susan Moons’ The Hidden Lamp: Stories from twenty-five centuries of awakened women (Wisdom Pubs).

when straw men rule: an analysis of the Plum Village Lineage conflict guide – part 1

Well, Happy Fourth Anniversary to 108 Zen Books. What a way to celebrate!

All That Has Come to Pass

First, I’d like to thank everyone who has responded to the previous post announcing the Conflict Resolution Guide from the Plum Village Lineage North American Dharma Teachers Sangha. Your comments, here and elsewhere on the social media, have been instructive, decisive, and very reassuring. Some of you have called me and offered wise words of advice and support. I thank you, one and all!

Second, this is a difficult issue, one which can devolve quickly into mud-slinging and histrionic allegations. And let’s not lose sight of what for me is a painful reality that we are addressing a community lead by Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the most beloved Buddhist teachers in the Western World. I freely admit my blindness in this regard. Thấy is my root teacher and I continue to hold a defensiveness about his responsibility and accountability in this. In my own rationalizing process, the teacher is at a far distance from the industry that is the global sangha he has fostered. While the Industry of the Plum Village Lineage has demonstrated a resistance to learning appropriate processes and protocols from the world around them, I continue to believe that Thich Nhat Hanh is willing to live what he teaches. In a telling example, I watched as Thấy tried once to bring an offending Dharma Teacher into line. However, without the support of the larger community, Thấy’s directives that this teacher suspend his teachings for a year and work under the supervision of other teachers were ignored and the Dharma Teacher continued to be supported by peers and communities. In my view, the machinery that is the Plum Village Four Fold Community appeared to have slipped the ethical moorings of its teacher and to be navigating without its North Star.

Third, to my own knowledge, I can speak to only one victim of sexual harassment. While this is a necessary piece of information through which to examine the existence and viability of due process in reporting issues of sexual, emotional, and physical misconduct, it is not sufficient.  Without someone stepping forward and being willing to speak to her/his experience, there is nothing to investigate, report, or engage in; and to do so as an ad hoc speculative process would be irresponsible. To be charitable, I can see the Dharma Teachers in the PVL trying to meet the escalating need for guidelines to deal with the many and varied sensitive issues with which they are faced – yet falling far short of what is immediately necessary. As I once wrote on the Order of Interbeing forum, there is no need to use terms like “if” sexual abuse occurs, it is a safe bet that it already has. The real issue is whether we as a community are prepared to meet these incidents with an unrelenting commitment to transparency and the truth-seeking mind.

Of course, there is so much embedded in the philosophy of the PVL that is idiosyncratic in its interpretation of the Dharma. The adherence to “harmony” and “balance” is one. Another is the persistent use of the phrase “Are you sure?”  While I acknowledge that harmony, balance, and incisive inquiry into my perceptions is crucial, it has been my experience that, in the PVL sangha, these concepts are perverted to serve the process of oppression rather than openness.

It is with all of these realizations, struggles, and blindnesses that I approached the Conflict-Guide. After reading it in detail and considering the input from various Zen teachers, lay practitioners, comments on this blog, and personal communications with Buddhist practitioners, I stand in agreement that the document is a fair attempt at outlining a process for dealing with interpersonal, low-level conflict. However, and most important to victims of serious conflict, the document fails in defining the ethical principles of the North American Dharma Teachers in the PVL. It fails definitively as a means of holding the teachers accountable because it does not define their scope of practice and what constitutes operating outside that scope. And, it fails catastrophically as compassionate and sensitive model of due process for a victim of sexual, emotional, and physical misconduct by a dharma teacher or member of the Order of Interbeing.

However, the document does serve as a straw man whose deconstruction can feed many a crow.

So let me begin with an overall commentary of the Conflict Resolution Guide. Then I will take most of the paragraphs in sequence and set them up against the mirror of what they implicitly demand of someone who has been traumatized. For this, I will be drawing from my professional work as advocate of victims of assault who suffer from complex PTSD, as a police and military psychologist, and my own experience of boundary violation by my therapist, physical assault by a peer member of the PVL Order of Interbeing, and a strong resister of emotional seduction by a PVL Dharma Teacher. I acknowledge at the outset that I am coming from a biased perspective, coloured by my beliefs of what I expect of Dharma Teachers and my own unskillfulness in challenging their inappropriate actions.

When Straw Men Rule

The purpose of a real Straw Man is to scare away birds and animals that would otherwise deplete a field of its seeds. Its intent is to protect future resources and to ensure the continuation of beings outside its circle of awareness but inside its circle of care. The Conflict Resolution Guide of the Plum Village Lineage (CRG-PVL) does just that. In its unwieldy format, language, and controlled access to the real people behind the scene, it creates a set of obstacles that only the very angry, determined, and/or strong of heart could navigate.

In structure, it outlines what the North American Dharma Teachers expect of their sangha members who are in the grasp of a conflict. It offers a background of concepts and intentions to transcend the “adversarial punitive approaches” of “our greater society.” It promises a “moving ahead from the stuck place.” It educates on the historic origins of conflict and suggests that a model of victimology is not useful. It offers readings and practices that could possibly help to develop insight, understanding, and steadiness in the face of distress. And, up to this point, the Straw Man seems quite friendly and truly interested in the well-being of the person suffering in the conflictual situation.

In its description of the process to seek resolution, the Straw man begins its dance and realizes its true intent: to scare away those who would need its resources.

….. more to come

zen & the art of winning and losing in sexual misconduct

If you’ve been reading blogs of greater import than 108ZenBooks, you’ve likely become intrigued by, enthralled with, or perhaps stupefied by the ever-increasing flow of revelations and denouncement of (typically male) Zen teachers who have allegedly violated boundaries with their (typically female) students.  That’s not to say there are no female perpetrators by the way; the statistics for females is clouded by the myth that women can’t commit rape or engage in sexual interference.

I tend to stay away from eruptions such are the accusations and robe rattling that follow.  As a psychologist (and thankfully never to be a Zen teacher), I spend enough time working with women (and occasionally men) who have been caught in the trap of sexual advances and/or assault to know that public revelations of potentially criminal actions undermine any investigation into them and threaten the possibility of due process.  Trial by public opinion and debate doesn’t win cases and perpetrators just love to see these things self-destruct through misguided passion for justice.

But this isn’t the purpose of this post – if it has a purpose at all.  I want to bring your attention to two women I have admired ever since I began writing (though I will admit to having had a fear of their fierceness when I first came online).  NellaLou of Smiling Buddha Cabaret has put together a cogent and detailed examination of the discussions on Sweeping Zen.  I’d encourage you to read it here.  The issue is very simple: Harm is always a possibility and has many guises.  Have a system in place that can mitigate it.  NellaLou uses the Boundless Way code of ethics to navigate the inevitability of boundary blurring and outright violations.  I have tremendous respect for the teachers at Boundless Way so I say read it too.

Many Zen teachers and practitioners become defensive when faced with the reality that shit like this happens.  That shit happens* is, by the way, the first Dharma Seal.  In other words, sexual harassment/interference/assault happens.  However, it’s wrong and in most upright organizations there are rules for dealing with it.  So as a member of an organization in which it may be happening, don’t take it personally; that’s the second Dharma Seal.  Unless you are the perpetrator or have colluded with one, it has nothing to do with your personal ethics; however it is a call for you to figure out how your ethics get traction in this skid.  Shit that happens doesn’t last is the third Dharma Seal.  Other shit will happen and keep happening.  And the consequences for not preventing the collateral harm are karmic.

Now onto Tanya McG’s post on Full Contact Enlightenment.  Please read it here.  Tanya addresses something we rarely consider.  In any assault, be it emotional or physical/sexual, the person most likely to lose (in many senses of the word) is the woman.  The humiliation and hurt are overpowering and few survive the workplace or small town mentalities; few can follow the adage to walk around with their head held high or that survival is best form of revenge.  Adding insult to assault, women are more likely to experience financial and career loss in sexual harassment cases (for stats go here and here).

Tanya’s experience is not unique.  I don’t say that to diminish her experience but to make two points.  First, it happens to more women than you may believe or been told.  Consider the possibility that messages of the uniqueness of your experience is a method of controlling you through shame and blame.  That message is false.  In other words, sexual misconduct didn’t happen because of something specific about you; it’s a systemic poison that’s maintained by fear, anger, and delusion.  Second, if you are reading this and you have read Tanya’s post and you see yourself in it, know that you could not have sustained yourself in a poisoned environment and that has nothing to do with strength or survival.

Ethical conduct is not about the extreme in actions.  It’s the areas in the middle ground of human frailty that cause us to fall over from uprightness.  Professional and personal ethics are means of addressing the outcome of being  terribly human.  And importantly, without the latter, the former is toothless.  That is, being a Zen teacher (or Psychologist) no more makes us upright than sacrificing birds on an altar.  Standing up is the only practice that does and each time we do so we create a community of uprightness and from that emerges a model of ethical living.  Simply put, actions among people in a community are operationalized as acceptable or not; it doesn’t arise out of a naïve belief that our inherent goodness is sufficient for moral action to occur.

The message from NellaLou and Tanya is clear.  Ultimately, who really wins and loses in sexual misconduct?  Everybody.  Who survives?  The community that is fearlessly transparent and the people who build it.


* from a talk by Jon Kabat-Zinn

angulimala and the price of belonging

Every so often, I come back to the story of Angulimala.  There’s a well-written version here and it is one of the most beloved Buddhist stories of salvation.  Angulimala was a brilliant student of a well-known teacher who turned against him when other students became jealous.  The teacher set a task to test Angulimala’s dedication to his teachings: he was to collect a thousand human little fingers.  In some versions, Angulimala was set the task to prove his unquestioning loyalty to the teacher.  In others, the teacher believed Angulimala had slept with his wife and set him up to commit these crimes so that he would be punished by the law, a rather passive-aggressive move on the teacher’s part.

There’s the obvious cautionary message about what teachers can do when caught in their own tangles of desire.  I would say it’s regardless of enlightenment because I don’t believe true enlightenment is a permanent condition anyway.  There’s also the obvious moral call to be one’s own lamp in matters of principled action.   But that’s not really where the power of the story lies.

At its heart, this is a story about the restrictions we place on our vision of others.  We need them be a certain way, to act a certain way, to meet our needs a certain way.  We believe certainty is a scripted safety net which makes life safe within margins.  When that script is challenged it doesn’t matter if the challenge is real or not; the ripples of fear are immediate and cannot be calmed easily.  

It’s also a story about our need to belong and what we are willing to forfeit to have that place where we are accepted as trusted and valued members of a community.  It’s easy to fall into the mind-trap that gives precedence to a felt sense of belonging over principled action because the former “feels” more real, has more “real” correlates with safety than the latter.  We all need something we can hold onto; a dharma name, a robe, a shawl, a jacket.  Nothing wrong with that unless we look away from the coin we’ve used to purchase it.

I don’t claim to know what the teacher and his student should have done or might have done.  I need to spend a bit of time counting the little fingers I’ve collected while thinking I was truly practicing.

what price my soul

A little while ago I was asked to offer one of my projects as bait for a rather large fish.  Ah, you know the ending already.  I wasn’t distressed by the outcome really.  Well, I was briefly, but having had reservations about the whole thing, I was relieved that the fish spit out the bait (no idea if it took the hook).  What I am putting myself through the ringer over is the (eventual) willingness to be bait.  

In the process of deconstructing my decisions, I heard various explanations.  That’s what you get for wanting to be famous.  That’s what you get for wanting their approval.  That’s what you get for trying to prove you’re better than they are.  That’s what you get for (fill in the blank with some attribute that points to greed, anger, and ignorance).  Perhaps.  I don’t deny that these baser desires course through my nightmares and day dreams.  And yet, there is something else that wasn’t being offered.

We want things.  We work hard for recognition, acknowledgment, visibility.  But it can’t stop there if it is to be truly the work from the heart.  And my decision – ambivalent as I was about it – had at its heart the desire to create accessibility, to open doors.  And perhaps I wanted that too much, so much that I was willing to sell my soul for it.

On the funny side, one might say that as a Buddhist and hence not having a soul, I thought it was a pretty cheap trade.  My empty soul for a big fish.  On the sad side, it was another wake up call to not make assumptions about practice and communities of practitioners.  One friend emailed me saying he was sorry my project was “hindered by mundane superficialities.”  I liked that.  Hindered, not scuttled.  It puts it into perspective.  It reminded me of a dear friend who used to say, “That’s a non-problem.”

When we have aspirations, we are willing to do what we believe is necessary to achieve them.  In fact, wise diligence says we must be willing to do what is necessary to bring something to fruition, to make it real, to realize it.  Effort – it’s not just for the cushion.  Yet somehow, it’s easier with coming back to the breath than with finding solid ground in the light and shadow of human (and corporate) interactions.  

But practice is not about “easy.”  Practice is about discovering that edge where we’re entangled in desire and principle.

what can you do?

Step Four: Take Action.  The final step in The Misleading Mind by Karuna Cayton is to use the clarity developed through the practices of stilling and connecting with our emotions.  As we see that our reality is constructed, we detach from its power to define us, to set our identity in stone.  The remainder of Cayton’s book covers a lot of ground, beginning with the way we create (and re-create) our reality and diving into the need for ethics and self-compassion.  By his definition, the litmus test of ethics – or rather the way one knows if an action is ethical – is if it leads to creating health and well being.  

I’m chewing on this.  Harkening back to the first post of this series about past actions that ripen into present karmic consequences, I have to wonder about Cayton’s definition.  I wish things were so clear-cut when choosing actions that avoid harm and foster good.  One thing I’ve learned about making decisions to divert harm: someone is always invested in the trajectory of the present moment and you’re bound to piss them off when you mess with their equation.  And the reason is simple: in your mind, their actions may bear harmful fruit; in their mind, your actions may bear harmful fruit.  I’ve often found it useful to sit with some people and, as a starting point, agree that we are likely both delusional in our perceptions.  We strike up a partnership to pool our investments and determine the best course possible.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.

There’s no “most times” because inevitably someone decides that their delusion is more important to defend than adapt.

In matters of determining ethical actions, I keep returning to René Girard’s monkeys and the banana (see Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World).  Initially, the conflict is about eating the banana.  Inevitably however, it becomes about who owns the banana.  Getting caught in right and wrong is also like that.  Initially, it’s about the right thing to do.  Eventually, it’s about who is seen as doing the right thing.  This is where the self-awareness and clarity of mind is crucial.  Once I can see that I’ve become invested in being the one who is doing the right thing, I’ve lost the ground I stand on.

Nevertheless, I’m pleased that Cayton raises the issue of ethics as an important aspect of practice.  There can never be enough said, written, or taught about it.