Friday, July 29, 2016

When to Take a Stand

Image result for no discrimination poster

Religion, politics, and income are three unspeakable subjects in America. We do not discuss them unless we share the same views with the person with whom we are speaking, or we are ready for an argument.

But what happens when politics degenerates into racism and hatred? Do we keep silent then? It seems that every time I check the news I hear some new vile, racist and sexist statement uttered by Presidential candidate Donald Trump. And yet, he and his racist supporters are somehow immune to condemnation because they shelter themselves under the pretense of politics. This is rubbish.

For me, politics refers to people's position on the role of government, like how we should protect the environment or people's rights. It's a question of how not if. Racism, sexism, or and kind of prejudice disguised as political positions is still racist, sexist, and prejudice; we do not need to respect people's hatred simply because it's their political views. Some views are better than others, and racism or sexism are abhorrent ones to hold.

The U.S. is in the grips of a divisive election, fueled by an enormous amount of anger, resentment, and outright hatred. I respect people's positions on how to govern--more government involvement or less--but I do not and will not tolerate discrimination or hatred.

Buddhism takes a very clear stance on discrimination: don't do it. The Buddha accepted people from all walks of life into the sangha--from the highest to the lowest caste, men, women, and even criminals. As an American, I extend the Buddha's position to all classes of people. All people are worthy of dignity and respect.

Currently, we have a candidate for President who is openly racist and prejudice against Muslims, Latinos, and the poor. This type of person, position, and behavior must be recognized for what it is--hateful. Disguising one's hatred under the wings of a political party, be it Republican or Democrat, does not absolve one from criticism. Racism is still racism, even if a political party condones or justifies it with political rhetoric.

The Five Mountain Zen Order, of which I am a member and monk, and the Original Mind Zen Sangha that I lead, do not tolerate discrimination of any kind. This is not a political position; it's an ethical one.

Challenge prejudice, racism, and sexism wherever and whenever you see them.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Whole World is On Fire - Dharma talk

In this Dharma talk, I talk about suffering and violence, and how to awaken from their clutches.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Transmission of the Dharma

Last night I returned from the annual Five Mountain Zen Order retreat in Kansas City. Over the three days, I had a great time making and renewing friendships with the sangha. Special thanks to An Giao Roshi (bottom center) for joining us all of the way from the Desert Zen Center in California. And many bows for the gracious hospitality of the Chuan Tu Bi Buddhist temple for hosting the retreat.

On Saturday, July 23, Ven. Wonji Dharma transmitted the Dharma to Richard Jisho Sears (bottom left) and me (bottom right). I am humbled by my teacher's patience and faith in me. 

Many bows, Ven Wonji. I hope to make you proud. 

Congratulations also to Richard. Sorry for splitting the pants you let me borrow!

As a recognition of transmission, my teacher gave me the name Taesan, a Korean transliteration of the Chinese Tai Shan, which means Great Eastern Mountain (I live in New Jersey). 

None of this would have been possible without the unwavering love and support of my wife and children. Thank you for your endless patience and encouragement as I stumble along this path. I love you all dearly.  

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Save Your Apocalpyse

Apocalyptic mythology permeates nearly every aspect of American culture. Our obsession with guns, militias, and zombies all subscribe to the idea that the world is going to end, or nearly end, leaving a chosen few to inherit the earth. In Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity, the universe has a definitive beginning and end. This is inherent inside of a religious system with a Creator.

Buddhism isn't concerned with beginnings and ends; it's concerned with now. In Buddhism, history is beginningless and endless. There's no need for a God if Creation is not a concern or priority. The present moment becomes the focus of our attention, not the past or present.

This tacit assumption that the universe began and will end influences the way that people live and view themselves. For instance, if the world will someday end--either by divine decree, solar flash, or human destruction--then the present can easily devolve into a field for salvation or hedonism. After all, if God is going to end the world and judge all of us (as Christianity asserts), then I had better get working on saving my soul lest I wind up in hell.

(On the other hand, if we think that the world is wrecked, dying, and will someday be dead--a secular, apocalyptic view--then I might as well enjoy the time I have remaining. This is a form of solipsistic nihilism in which nothing really matters because it's all going to end, and by "all" I mean the world, civilization, the collective human party.)

These doomsday scenarios often lead to the belief that we need saving. Of course, salvation is a common theme because of Christianity's emphasis on it, but it also pervades secular mythology. It's in the water supply, so to speak. Take popular culture's obsession with superheroes. In most of these stories, humanity relies upon some exceptional individual to save the planet. This is a direct variation of Christ's Second Coming--the savior who redeems us all.

I reject this idea, both on a collective and individual level. Not only do we not need some god-like person to lead or save us, we don't need saving!
It's precisely the idea that something is wrong with us--that we are lacking something--that leads us away from this present moment. People speculate on a remote, hypothetical past and dread (or prepare) for an equally imagined distant future because they assume that there is more to life than what's in front of them.
Deferring the present moment marks the introduction of religion and metaphysics, both of which Zen can be seen to eschew. Zen doesn't posit some theoretical substratum like Plato's forms; what you see is what you get. Reality is immediate and intimate, so much so that even one moment of mindless thinking can lead you miles away from what's actually in front of you.

People posit metaphysics when they too busy thinking to pay attention to what's in front of them. What do we hear, see, smell, taste, feel? These are real. Notions of souls, gods, Creation, and the apocalypse are beyond the sphere of experience (at least mine), and therefore are speculative.

There's nothing wrong with speculation or imagination (it's one of the wonders of the human brain), provided we know that we are doing it. I enjoy a good film or book as much as anyone else; however, when I put the book down or turn off my TV, I know that what I have read or seen is fictional.

The problem occurs when people don't realize that they have subscribed to belief systems. Genesis, apocalypses, sin, and salvation are can be un-examined assumptions that many people take for granted as given facts. It's those givens that can be the most dangerous.

As a people, we don't need saviors or a single leader to lead us to an imagined promised land or Eden (think Trump's "Make America Great Again"); we need engaged citizens. We don't need saving; we need fair political change for all members of society. We mustn't prepare for some imagined doomsday with assault rifles and bulletproof vests, but build and repair economic, political, and social infrastructures that will insure a better and fairer world tomorrow.

For more on this subject, see Kurt Spellmeyer's Buddha at the Apocalypse 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Anger is a Good Teacher

Anger--both ours and other people's--can be a powerful teacher. I'd like to believe that I'm an open-minded person, critical thinking yet not overly judgmental; however, when I'm confronted with other people's views that differ from mine, my own intolerance becomes glaringly visible.

I go online and am confronted by the vile, hateful things that people say and do. I'm thinking of the terrible violence of ISIS, the Israelis and Palestinian conflict, of the inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump and Ann Coulter.

The Buddha said that the world and all of our senses are on fire; they are burning with greed, hatred, and ignorance. When we are confronted with--or experience--someone else's anger, naturally we get angry ourselves. This anger can reveal aspects of ourselves that we ordinarily don't like to admit exist.

For instance, when some sexist oaf utters an ignorant comment about women or a degrading slur about homosexuality, I feel a surge of indignation. Why, I want to shout, are people so close-minded?

But if I turn that criticism inward, I can see the boundaries of my own tolerance.
Other people's intolerance and ignorance reveal my own. The more I study my frustration with others, the more evident my own prejudices become. 
Anger can shed light on areas of our personalities that we'd rather not confront. Humans are all hypocrites to some degree; some people are just better at hiding it than others (even from themselves).

When I'm being honest with myself, examining the rough edges of my own prejudices, am I as open and compassionate as I think that I am? No.

Anger reveals our flaws, expectations, and limitations. Unlike in other forms of Buddhism where anger is viewed as a fetter to be uprooted, in the lineage of Zen that I practice, all phenomena can be our teachers.

The more intimate that we become with our emotional triggers, the more freedom we have to choose whether to act on them. We can learn from the anger in the world, both from others and ourselves.

Knowing oneself means knowing all aspects of oneself, not just the pleasant parts.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

What's the Point? - Dharma talk

This question haunts human existence, mainly because we are so accustomed to viewing the world in terms of means and end. We do certain things, like go to work and brush our teeth, with specific goals in mind--earn money and avoid cavities, for instance. But Zen teaches us that there is another way to live, in which every moment is complete in itself. Nothing is a means to an ends, but rather an expression of the ultimate moment--Now.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.