Zen Blog

This blog collects various internet feeds aimed towards information, experience and technique exchange in support of our shared spiritual journey.....

”Namaste - may the light in me, honor the light in you…”

How a Buddhist Couple Helped a Somali Writer Find Refuge in America

All people should have the right to pursue happiness. This is a truth that seems to be self-evident for both Americans and Buddhists alike. America promises to protect the personal freedom in which happiness can be pursued, and Buddhism offers a spiritual framework. Both approaches are highlighted in Call Me American, a memoir by Somali immigrant Abdi Nor Iftin, who describes his harrowing, heartbreaking, and uplifting journey from Mogadishu to Maine in search of this basic right.  

Iftin grew up in a country torn apart by civil war. As competing factions destroyed his homeland, the then-schoolteacher found solace in American movies and learned English. The shifting powers in Mogadishu often made his language skills a capital crime, but Abdi felt compelled to share his story, secretly reporting on the horrors of the war between the al-Qaida-linked terrorist group al-Shabaab and government forces for a National Public Radio segment. This ultimately connected him with Sharon McDonnell and Gib Parrish, a couple that heard about his plight and provided logistical, financial, and emotional support along the way, ultimately serving as his host family in America years later. Upon arriving at their home, Iftin writes in his memoir, “A sculpture of Buddha sat quietly on the floor. I didn’t know who Buddha was, but I soon learned Sharon and her family believed in Buddhism.”

This line piqued my interest. Compassion is central to Buddhism, but it is something that can seem abstract, a concept more than a practice. Yet here was an example of a Buddhist family practicing compassion in the truest sense of the word: by extending themselves fully in the aid of another. It made me want to know more about Sharon and Gib, both as Buddhists and as Americans. When I reached out to Abdi to ask about interviewing them, he said, “Buddhism was something I heard of, but I never knew Americans could be Buddhists. I watched and learned from this family, and I was so impressed with the kindness, love, and compassion Sharon, Gib and their kids exercised.” Their interview is a prescient reminder that our country has thrived thanks to its openness, and that we can’t restrict our borders without closing off the best part of ourselves.

How did you hear about Abdi, and what about his plight inspired you to reach out?

Sharon: In 2009, we lived in northern Vermont, and I was teaching at Dartmouth College. Abdi was featured anonymously on a Public Radio International program called “The Story” with Dick Gordon. He is a born storyteller—I could smell the gunpowder in his tale. He was anonymous because if he had been caught speaking English and reporting on Western radio, he would have been killed. That is how much it meant to him to tell his story of surviving in a country that lacked a functioning government.

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Why I Walk Two Paths

Once a month, Tricycle features an article from the Inquiring Mind archive. Inquiring Mind, a Buddhist journal that was in print from 1984–2015, has a growing number of articles from its back issues available at www.inquiringmind.com. This month’s selection is from the Fall 2011 “Bodhisattva” issue.

When I began my Buddhist training at the age of 21, I had no interest in liberation or compassion. The great Buddhist ideals of the arhat [one who has attained enlightenment], bodhisattva and buddha held no attraction for me. Rather, having discovered how satisfying meditation felt when I became settled in the present moment, I took up Buddhist practice as a way to have a more calm presence in my life. As a new practitioner of Buddhism, I began to find a peacefulness that was more meaningful than any of the other ways I experienced myself.

Eventually I learned that Buddhist practice involves more than simple presence and peacefulness. I came to find great meaning in the Buddhist goals of liberation and compassion. I also came to appreciate the different idealized portrayals of people connected to these goals—arhats, bodhisattvas and buddhas. An arhat is someone who is liberated by following the teachings of a buddha; a bodhisattva is someone training to become a buddha; a buddha is someone who discovers the path to liberation. Now, after years of practice, my approach to these ideals has become somewhat idiosyncratic. Rather than focusing on their literal meaning, I view the arhat as representing our capacity for liberation, the bodhisattva our ability for compassion, and the buddha how liberation and compassion work together in partnership. To the degree that I distinguish the arhat and the bodhisattva, I prefer to see them as walking hand-in-hand.

My approach is in stark contrast to that of people who emphasize one practice ideal at the expense of the other. It is also in contrast to the historical tendency to use the bodhisattva/arhat distinction to separate from and condemn other Buddhists. I experienced this when I practiced in Asia. After practicing Zen in Japan on the bodhisattva path, I practiced vipassana in Thailand, where the focus is on the arhat path. In Thailand, I was told that the Japanese bodhisattva path was heretical. When I returned to Japan, my Zen teacher told me that in Thailand I had been practicing with Mara, the Buddhist devil.

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International Pressure on Myanmar Offers Flicker of Hope for Rohingya

International observers have watched with horror over the last year as Myanmar’s “slow-burn genocide” against its Muslim Rohingya minority flared into large-scale violence that human rights groups have alleged were planned months in advance. Despite widespread condemnation from political leaders and human rights organizations as well as sanctions from the US, Canada, and the EU, Myanmar has continued to deny wrongdoing, persist in its persecution of the Rohingya who remain in the country, and do nothing to create conditions for a safe return of the nearly one million Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh.

Recent weeks have seen conflicting signs about what the future holds. A flicker of hope has arisen for the Rohingya as the UN issued a report accusing Myanmar of genocide, which was followed days later by an International Criminal Court (ICC) ruling that Myanmar’s actions against the Rohingya can be prosecuted despite Myanmar’s not recognizing the court’s authority. ICC prosecutors successfully argued that the crime against the Rohingya was not completed until the refugees entered Bangladesh, where the court’s authority is recognized. Myanmar was quick to reject the legitimacy of the ICC court ruling.

This is the first instance of the ICC’s investigating a state that has not signed the Rome Statute, the treaty that created the ICC. While the court may proceed in determining whether the treatment of the Rohingya is classified as a crime against humanity, which would normally result in political leaders standing trial on those charges, it is unclear what will happen if Myanmar officials refuse to appear before the court.

At the same time, Myanmar has garnered international condemnation after jailing two Reuters journalists in December 2017. The journalists had exposed a mass grave of ten Rohingya murdered by the army. Despite rumors that State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi would grant the journalists amnesty at the end of the trial, she has not done so. Aung San Suu Kyi described the reporters as “traitors” at a private meeting in January, according to US diplomat Bill Richardson, who had been in attendance. At the time, Richardson was serving on an international advisory body that was investigating the Rohingya crisis. He left that post later in January to protest what he alleged were attempts to whitewash Myanmar’s crimes.

Activists have long sought the recognition of the violence in Myanmar as “genocide,” as  the term carries unique legal and political weight. Tricycle used the term as far back as 2013 in an article written by Maung Zarni, a Burmese Buddhist and a longtime Rohingya rights activist who founded the Free Burma Coalition.

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Dalai Lama Admits to Knowing about Decades-long Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism

Coming off of a meeting with four people who claimed to have survived sexual assaults in European Buddhist communities, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama admitted to knowing about abuse in Buddhist circles since the 1990s.

“I already did know these things . . . it’s nothing new,” the Dalai Lama said in an interview with Dutch public television broadcaster NOS on Saturday, adding that “someone mentioned about a problem of sexual allegations” to him at a Dharamsala, India, conference for Western Buddhist teachers about 25 years ago. He added that those who commit abuse “don’t care about the Buddha’s teachings.”

The Dalai Lama was referring to a 1993 meeting that gathered different Buddhist traditions to discuss the dharma’s development and transmission to the West.

In a follow-up statement, Dalai Lama representative Tseten Samdup Chhoekyapa said that the Dalai Lama “has consistently denounced such irresponsible and unethical behaviour.”

On Monday, September 10—four days before the Tibetan leader’s scheduled four-day trip to the Netherlands—a group of physical and psychological assault survivors started an online campaign to meet with him and present a collection of survivors’ stories. A petition quickly gathered more than 1,300 signatures and a hashtag: #MeTooGuru.

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What Mindfulness Is Not

While the practice of mindfulness has its roots in early Buddhist teachings, the term has become a buzzword in recent years. It sometimes serves as a catch-all for any type of meditative activity while at other times it is narrowly defined as a stress-relieving technique. The faculty at Bodhi College have made it their mission to cut through the hype and help people understand mindfulness in its rich historical, religious, and philosophical context.

The following conversation, an excerpt from our latest online course, Mindfulness: Its Origins, Purpose, and Transformational Power, examines the ways that mindfulness is sometimes misrepresented and how a better understanding can lay the groundwork for a more fruitful practice. But more fundamentally, the talk seeks to answer a deceptively simple question: what is mindfulness?

Christina Feldman (CF): One of the effects of mindfulness is that it illuminates the world inwardly and outwardly. It brings things to light. We can see this in a very practical manner: if you go for a walk in the garden while your mind is filled with distractions, you may realize nothing has touched you. If you do exactly the same exercise with mindful awareness, the world comes to life.

Inwardly, mindfulness reveals our personal story—the way our minds work, our patterns, our habits, our views, our aspirations, our hopes. But it also brings to light the universal story, through the four noble truths [the Bodhi college faculty previously has discussed the merits of the alternative translations “four ennobling truths” or “four noble tasks”]. We could spend decades reviewing our personal story without necessarily feeling wiser, but the four noble truths frame our story within the universal one: sometimes life hurts, but sometimes that hurting is optional. 

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