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…”

Living with Bears

Bears swish when they walk. Their legs are chubby, with thick fur rubbing smoothly as they amble along. I didn’t know bears made this particular sound until one happened upon me at a meditation retreat as I sat on a bench atop a mountain knoll in North Carolina. My memory of this encounter is based almost entirely on sound alone. I saw the bear for only a moment when I turned my head at the noise, expecting to see a fellow retreat attendee emerging from the woods to join me. Instead I saw her (I am not sure, but I think of the bear as her), head heavy, sunlight flowing down the soft slope of her forehead to the bridge of her nose as she bowed towards the earth. 

*** 

Earlier that morning I lay with my back against the wood of the meditation hall, eyes closed as our instructor Cindy led us through a visualization meditation. She’s a spritely, slight woman, with a cheerful Southern accent and a ready smile. Cindy began in a familiar manner. We were discussing compassion that day, and I expected Cindy to follow the natural course of a metta, or lovingkindness, meditation. 

“Bring to mind someone you care deeply for,” she said.

I imagined my mother.

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The Future We Choose

When it comes to the climate crisis, expressing optimism can come across as being out of touch with reality. And yet, this is exactly the mindset we need if we are to avoid irreparable damage from climate change, says Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac.

Figueres served as executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change during the Paris Climate negotiations, and has said that Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings helped her find the fortitude she needed to finalize the 197-nation agreement. During the negotiations she worked closely with Tom Rivett-Carnac, a senior strategy advisor to the UN who lived as a Buddhist monk for two years. 

In their new book, The Future We Choose (Knopf, February 2020), Figueres and Rivett-Carnac stress two scientifically established goals for staving off the worst effects of climate change: halving global emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero emissions by 2050. To accomplish these goals, they say, we need to start with the counterintuitive task of looking inside ourselves. Tricycle spoke to Figueres and Rivett-Carnac about their Buddhist practice, climate solutions, and how to co-create the world we want.

I’m devastated about climate change and feel helpless to make any meaningful contribution to address the problem. What can I do?

Christiana Figueres (CF): Solving the climate crisis involves many issues and solutions. However, all of them point toward radically cutting emissions in half over the next decade. In order to achieve this, institutions, companies, governments, and individuals must all play a role. Individuals often feel their actions are less important, but that is simply not true. The most effective way to move beyond fear is to take action.

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Buddha Buzz Weekly: Monkeys Take Over Thai City

Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week.

Aggressive Monkeys Overrun Thai City

The New York Times described Lopburi, Thailand, as “a city under siege,” because it is overrun with aggressive macaque monkeys. Although the monkeys draw tourists, the territorial species has forced dozens of businesses, including a barber shop, movie theater, and music school, to close in recent years. Buddhist tourists and residents in the area believe feeding the monkeys is a meritorious act, but with fewer people on the streets because of the coronavirus pandemic, the monkeys have become angry that their food source is gone. 

People living in the Buddhist-majority culture view killing the monkeys as unethical, and with such consistent access to food, the monkeys have been able to reproduce at astonishing rates. Local wildlife officials have begun sterilizing monkeys in order to control the population, but even this has been difficult, the Times reports. On the first day of capturing monkeys, wildlife officials wore camouflage-printed uniforms. On the second day, the monkeys recognized their clothing and avoided them. Officials had to switch to wearing shorts and floral shorts, posing as tourists.

Chinese Tourists Flock to Religious Sites in Tibet Where Locals Are Barred

As coronavirus precautions have eased, large numbers of Chinese tourists have poured into Tibet’s regional capital, Lhasa, visiting places that Tibetans are highly restricted from entering, reported Radio Free Asia (RFA). The Chinese tourists have acted in ways that are disrespectful to holy sites, including littering, smoking, and posing for photos where it is forbidden. Tibetans feel that “their culture is becoming a show piece of Chinese tourists, while the Tibetans themselves are denied the opportunity to preserve and cherish their traditions,” a source told RFA, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Rubin Museum Offers Free Meditations—and Free Entry—for Health Care Workers 

The Rubin Museum of Art, a museum of Himalayan art in New York City, is offering free online mindfulness meditations every Monday at 1:00 pm EDT during the month of August. Although it remains closed to the public, the museum offers a series of online events and exhibitions, including an online stream of its Tibetan Shrine Room and a participatory installation called The Lotus Effect. On Thursday, the Rubin announced that it will, upon reopening, provide free museum admission to healthcare providers through the end of the year. “While we can’t confirm the exact date quite yet, when we reopen we want to express our immense gratitude towards those who have put their lives at risk to provide care for our communities during this pandemic, while coping with the emotional and physical impact of their work,” Executive Director Jorrit Britschgi said in an email press release. “We understand the benefits of Himalayan art on the hearts and minds of our visitors, and therefore we want to offer those who have been working hard in hospitals, nursing homes, or emergency rooms a space to find stillness, inspiration, and connection.” While New York has moved into Phase 4 of its reopening plan, museums around the city remain closed.

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Online Rituals in Newar Buddhism

Many of us are experiencing heightened anxiety during the global coronavirus crisis. In response, Tricycle is offering free access to select articles during this uncertain time. If you are able to, please help support this offering with a donation. Thank you!

Nepal entered a nationwide lockdown on March 24, closing its borders and suspending international flights. Set to expire after a week, the lockdown remained in place, ending last week on July 21. Although the number of COVID-19 cases in Nepal remains low, even a minor outbreak would swiftly overwhelm the small country’s already strained healthcare infrastructure.

In Kathmandu, usually awash in noise and heavy with smog, the streets were mostly empty and the air was clean. Temple courtyards, typically packed in the early mornings, were abandoned for months. In a city where religious practice is a major component of life, most worshipers have found themselves unable to participate in group rituals. But one group—the Newar Buddhists—have found new ways to continue their centuries-old practice.

Newars are the indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley. Although Newar Buddhism has received comparatively little attention in the global Buddhist community, the importance of Newar Buddhists cannot be overstated. It was in their libraries that the Sanskrit originals of texts such as the Perfection of Wisdom sutras were preserved. This is because Newar Buddhists practice the only extant form of the Vajrayana tradition in which all liturgical material is in Sanskrit. Theirs is also the only form of the religion with specifically Buddhist hereditary roles, typically called “castes” and loosely divided along priestly (the Vajracharyas and Shakyas) and mercantile lines, such as the Uray. (There are also broader Newar castes, such as Shreshthas and Maharjans, that elude categorization as either “Buddhist” or “Hindu,” with members making offerings to deities from both religions.)

Vajracharyas, most notably, perform rituals in urban public spaces, often involving a few participants, or even, on occasion, hundreds of people. These rituals, scheduled around the lunar calendar, are a crucial component of the religious life of practicing Newar Buddhists. Along with Shakyas and Urays, Vajracharyas also perform the role of teaching the dharma to the local community.

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Strange Situation

When Bethany Saltman’s daughter, Azalea, was born fourteen years ago, she felt love—and impatience and anger and other strong emotions she knew were inside her that we don’t often associate with motherhood. 

Saltman, a writer and longtime Zen practitioner who spent several years living at Zen Mountain Monastery in New York State’s Catskill Mountains, decided to investigate these difficult feelings. Her curiosity about the connection between her and Azalea led her to attachment theory and the American-Canadian developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth (1913–1999). Attachment theory, first developed by the British psychologist John Bowlby and expanded by Ainsworth, posits that our future relationships and many other aspects of our lives are determined by the way that our parents tended to us in our early months, teaching us to regulate our emotions (or not) and to develop qualities such as empathy and insight.

 Ainsworth is credited with developing the Strange Situation, a 20-minute laboratory procedure that ascertains the type of attachment shown by a one-year-old baby toward a caregiver (usually, but not always the mother). In the Strange Situation, the child toddles into a room that doesn’t look like a laboratory, making a beeline for the blocks, dolls, or poster on the wall. The parent and child play for a few moments. Then there’s a knock at the door and the parent leaves the child in the room, either alone or with a stranger who has entered and tries to keep the child entertained. Researchers believe that what happens next—tears, ambivalence, anger—determines so much about how we relate to others, not only at a year old, but throughout the rest of our lives.

Ainsworth’s procedure, based on her field research of attachment styles in mothers and their babies in Uganda, was a major development in attachment theory and remains the “gold standard in psych labs everywhere for assessing security between children and their caregivers,” according to Saltman. 

Saltman’s own “discovery” of attachment theory led to more than a decade of research into Ainsworth’s life and work, as well as to an examination of her own relationships and the intersections between attachment and karma. Her book about her findings, Strange Situation: A Mother’s Journey into the Science of Attachment, was published by Ballantine Books in April. Saltman joined Wendy Biddlecombe Agsar, Tricycle’s editor-at-large and resident new mother, to talk about the intersection of dharma and attachment.

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