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…”

The Story Behind the Dalai Lama’s Controversial Remarks 

The Internet is buzzing with an excerpt from a BBC interview with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. In it, he repeats a joke he made in 2015 that a future female Dalai Lama “must be very attractive, otherwise not much use.”  As a Tibetan born to refugees in India who weren’t formally educated past high school and as a transgender person familiar with the violence of misogyny and gender stereotypes , I want to share  what went through my mind as I watched him make this joke.

Ever since I started learning to read and write in English at the age of four, I have been watchful of the Dalai Lama’s remarks. He’s the same age as my grandmother, and when I look at him I don’t see a Nobel Peace Prize laureate or a celebrity. I see someone who, as an adolescent, was given the responsibility to lead his people through foreign invasion and decades of ongoing colonialism. Someone who is denied entry into countries such as South Africa, Thailand, and South Korea, because they want to avoid offending one of the most powerful nations in the world (China). I see someone with a deep spiritual understanding who does not accept compensation for any of his talks or appearances. Someone with limited fluency in English and its nuances, who is a permanent guest in a foreign land (India). I see a refugee and an elder, with everyday imperfections.

As a Tibetan familiar with the format of jokes in my community and how different they sound in English, I immediately knew what the Dalai Lama was saying in his 2015 interview. I could see him struggle through an improper delivery, in which he is trying to make himself the butt of a joke about being ugly. Self-deprecatingly pointing to his face, he unsuccessfully tries to convey how any female Dalai Lama would be, “must be” attractive in comparison. 

First, it is not appropriate for anyone to be discussing the appearance of a woman or any person as a barometer of performance. The mention of make-up shows how ignorant and unaware the Dalai Lama is of the social pressures on women. The Dalai Lama should clarify his remarks and apologize for their problematic nature. [Update: The Dalai Lama’s office issued this statement of clarification on July 2. I highly recommend viewing it.] 

Next, I could see him misunderstand why the journalist brought it up. He thinks he’s being asked to repeat the joke, to engage in something lighthearted. But no, she is asking him to reconsider his words. That doesn’t get across. He looks slightly mystified and like he doesn’t quite follow the beats of the conversation. This is where it’s helpful to keep in mind that not only is the Dalai Lama a non-native English speaker, he is a refugee. Since his youth, he has learned the welfare of his people rely on the good graces of others. He does everything with genuine sincerity and compassion, and he also (in my opinion) embodies that trait common to all refugees — he tries to please his host, to set others at ease. A refugee’s welcome can be revoked at any time. Every refugee knows this, and the Dalai Lama is no different.

Continue reading
  27 Hits
  0 Comments
27 Hits
0 Comments

How a Forest Monastery Took Root in British Columbia

On a sparsely populated mountain five hours northeast of Vancouver by car, lies a cutting-edge, off-the-grid monastery that is a paragon of green dharma. Sitavana Monastery gets 90 percent of its power from solar panels and relies on only 10 percent of the energy per person used by the average Canadian. Yet, its 12 kilowatt solar array supports an often-busy monastery complex that includes nine kutis (small huts), storage buildings, and main building equipped with lodgings, a library and meeting spaces, a kitchen, and a spacious and bright meditation hall. Establishing Sitavana (Pali for “cool forest grove”) as both a thriving wilderness refuge for practitioners in the Thai Forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism and as a role model of ecological mindfulness is an expression of the lifelong preoccupations of its abbot, Ajahn Sona.

“I’m a nature mystic,” Sona told me with a twinkle in his eye, “I can’t get enough of it. The Buddha said, ‘Monks, practice in the forest,’ that was very deliberate advice.” But in the beginning, the monastery’s creation and subsequent success were far from guaranteed.

In 1994, Sona returned to his native Canada from studying at Wat Pah Nanachat in Thailand—a monastery set up by the Thai master Ajahn Chah—at the invitation of the Sri Lankan Buddhist community. He was joined by his fellow orange-robed Wat Pah Nanachat disciple Ajahn Piyadhammo of Germany, and together they struggled to maintain their monastic lifestyle near the isolated mountain village of Pemberton, British Columbia. Monks in the Thai Forest tradition do not handle money, engage in agriculture, store or cook food, or eat after midday. The vinaya, or monastic code, forces monks to depend on laypeople for supplies and to eat only the food that is offered to them each morning. This way of life is part of what Ajahn Thanissaro Bhikkhu calls “an economy of gifts,” where laypeople give monastics what they need to practice and monastics give laypeople the guidance, inspiration, and wisdom that is enabled by their life of meditation. The problem that Sona and Piyadhammo faced, however, was how to establish this economy in a society that doesn’t understand it and in a location far from any marketplace.

“We lived on a shoestring in Pemberton,” Sona told me. “We had a steward who stayed with us to help out. If he needed to buy groceries he had to hitch-hike into town 25 km [15 miles] away since we had no vehicle. People brought us bags of rice and so forth, but we had no refrigerator and had to keep things cool by submerging it in a river that went by near the door. Sometimes a bear would take off the food or it would be washed away and we’d have nothing for a few days. Let’s put it this way,” says Sona with a laugh, “the shack was overpriced at $50 a month.”

While living in Pemberton was tough, in some ways it was a good fit. The area resembles the isolated and often treacherous terrain where they practiced in Southeast Asia, and they didn’t have the money to live anywhere else. And it was while living on the outskirts of Pemberton years prior that Sona was first encouraged to ordain as a bhikkhu [monk]. On the highway dead-ends in Indigenous territory, Sona had rented a shack with no water or electricity after walking away from his career as a classical guitarist in Ontario. By then, Sona had already spent some years studying Korean Son and Tibetan Buddhism and had moved to Pemberton to live as a meditating hermit and reconnect with nature. Sona has been concerned with defending the ecology since his college years, when he wrote articles on pollution and the preservation of threatened places as an amateur journalist and would escape to go camping even during Ontario’s freezing winters.

Continue reading
  48 Hits
  0 Comments
48 Hits
0 Comments

Buddha Buzz Weekly: Dalai Lama on Trump

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

Dalai Lama: Trump Lacks ‘Moral Principle’ & Female Dalai Lama ‘Should Be Attractive’

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama shared his opinions on President Donald Trump, Brexit, and other political issues in a recent interview with the BBC. The current administration is defined by a “lack of moral principle,” the Tibetan spiritual leader said. “When he became president he expressed America first. That is wrong. America should take a global responsibility.” He also stood by comments he made last year in which he expressed that refugees in the European Union should ultimately return to their home countries to rebuild. “A limited number is OK, but the whole of Europe [will] eventually become Muslim country, African country—impossible,” he said. And he reaffirmed another controversial remark him made in 2015, saying if “a female Dalai Lama comes, she should be more attractive.” 

China Continues to Harvest the Organs of Religious Minorities 

Detainees in Chinese prisons, including religious minorities, continue to be killed and their organs removed for use as transplants, according to new evidence collected by the China Tribunal, an independent body of lawyers and specialists who investigate forced organ harvesting. Many of the victims include imprisoned followers of the Falun Gong, a religious movement with Buddhist roots. Tibetans, Uighur Muslims, and certain Christian sects, have also allegedly been targeted, but there is less evidence available about their treatment. In 2014 China decreed that it would cease removing organs from executed prisoners and has dismissed past allegations of illegal organ harvesting as false. But China Tribunal chair Sir Geoffrey Nice said that “there is no evidence of the practice having been stopped,” according to the Guardian. “The conclusion,” Nice states, “shows that very many people have died indescribably hideous deaths for no reason, that more may suffer in similar ways.” 

Strident persecution of Falun Gong began in 1999, after supporters of the religious movement gathered in Beijing to ask for legal recognition. The name Falun Gong means “a method of Qigong that turns the dharma wheel.” The Chinese government bans all Falun Gong-related materials and activities, condemning the group as a heretical cult.

Thai Cave Boys Mark One Year Since Ordeal with Buddhist Ceremony

The 12 boys of the Wild Boars soccer team recently participated in a Buddhist ceremony near Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai province, Thailand, marking one year since they were trapped in the flooded cave with little food and water for over two weeks. On June 24, the boys, ages 12 to 17, and their coach offered food to monks in a Buddhist rite of merit-making, the Washington Post reported. Coach Ekapol Chantawong indicated that most members of the team aspire to become professional soccer players, while some want to become Thai navy SEALs like those who helped to guide them out of the treacherous cave. Shortly after their ordeal, 11 of the boys temporarily ordained as novice Buddhist monks and Chatawong underwent full ordination, in a show of gratitude for Saman Gunan, the diver who died during the search and rescue. 

Continue reading
  43 Hits
  0 Comments
43 Hits
0 Comments

What We Can Discover in the Dark Unknown

Beginning July 1, Andrew Holecek will teach “Living and Dying: Navigating the Bardos,” a six-week online course on the bardo teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. Bardo, meaning “gap” or “transition” can refer to any ending or change in life but often describes the journey that we make after death and before taking a new birth. In this course, we’ll cultivate a powerful view of life and death that will inspire and motivate you. Through contemplations of impermanence, we’ll let go of the fixations that feed our fear of death and recognize the true nature of formless, empty awareness—giving us the opportunity to awaken. Learn more and sign up at learn.tricycle.org.

In the following excerpt from the course, Holecek explains looking into our fear of the dark can prepare us to face the unknown factors in our life and in death.

I’m a spelunker of the mind. I love to explore the recesses of the darkness of mind and reality, because to me this is where all the goodies are. Many of us suffer from nyctophobia, a fear of the dark, which I believe is synonymous with thanatophobia, a fear of death. (Nyx was the Greek goddess of the night, and Thanatos was the god of death.) But I’m a nyctophiliac—I love the darkness. 

If we lift up the rock, if we start to look at unconscious dimensions of mind and reality—we may discover things that are surprising to us. This is of considerable importance, because the darkness is associated with the unconscious mind, and as I’ll try to point out, unconscious processes dictate a large part of our so-called conscious lives.

Continue reading
  49 Hits
  0 Comments
49 Hits
0 Comments

Depression and the Tender Heart

Following the publication of Training in Tenderness: Buddhist Teachings on Tsewa, the Radical Openness of Heart That Can Change the World (Shambhala 2018) by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher sat down for a conversation with the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, who wrote the forward to his book.

In the video interview, Ani Pema and Dzigar Kongtrul discuss the innate tenderness of our hearts called tsewa in Tibetan. Tibetan Buddhist teachings say that we can uncover and cultivate this aspect of our nature, making us more compassionate and feel more connected to others.

In the following excerpt from their talk, Dzigar Kongtrul explains how tsewa training helped him overcome feelings of alienation during periods of his life when he struggled with depression. He also tells us how we can cultivate affection toward ourselves and others when it is most elusive.

Watch the full video here, courtesy of Dzigar Kongtrul’s Mangala Shri Bhuti sangha, which recorded the conversation in Crestone, Colorado.

Pema Chödrön (PC): I remember reading once that receiving tsewa is like a transmission—in the sense that if you receive it, then you know how to give it. But when you don’t receive any, it’s difficult to know how to give it. In Buddhism, and as you say in your book, the “mother’s love” is the reason why you flourished and why you’re still alive. If no one had ever cared for you, then you wouldn’t be here. But I’ve encountered a tragic number of people who never received this kind of love. Something allowed them to survive and someone gave them nourishment, but they often experienced abandonment and cruelty as well.

Continue reading
  45 Hits
  0 Comments
45 Hits
0 Comments