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…”

In Its Final Season, The Good Place Faces an Age-old Karmic Question

NBC’s hit series The Good Place is the Divina Commedia of the 21st century, where Western European ethical theory plays out on a cosmic scale. But as the show enters its fourth and final season on September 26, its central philosophical dilemma is strikingly Buddhist. 

For anyone who missed the past three seasons, a Summa Buddhologica of the plot follows:  Michael (Ted Danson) is a Mara-like demon architect who constructs an illusory utopian afterlife that is designed to make humans mentally torture each other for all eternity, much like Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist scenario where “Hell is other people” (“L’enfer, c’est les autres”). After deceased party girl Eleanor (Kristen Bell) meets the moral philosophy professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and tries to become a better person, she figures out Michael’s fake-heaven trick. So Michael hits the reset button. But with each new incarnation, Eleanor attempts to better herself and eventually sees through the deception. Thousands of reincarnations later, Michael begins to respect Eleanor, Chidi, and the other humans, and ultimately decides to help them get into the real Good Place, arguing that the method of placing people into the Bad Place is flawed.

Those Good/Bad Place decisions are based on the “point system,” a parody of our popular conceptions about how karma works. Cosmic accountants accurately “examine the action—the use of resources, the intentions behind it, its effects on others” and award or subtract points for good or bad deeds. But there’s a problem. No one has gotten into the Good Place in more than five hundred years. When Michael learns that not even the ridiculously altruistic poster-child Doug Forcett (Mike McKeon) will be able to accumulate enough points to get in, he investigates further and realizes that the culprit is the law of unintended consequences, which in an increasingly complex and interconnected world has essentially doomed anyone from earning a spot in the real Good Place ever again.

As Michael tells The Judge (brilliantly played by SNL alum Maya Rudolf): “These days, just buying a tomato at the grocery store means that you are unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labor, and contributing to global warming. Humans think that they’re making one choice, but they’re actually making dozens of choices they don’t even know they’re making (Season 3, Episode 11).” Life has become “so complicated that it has essentially rendered the point system meaningless,” and we simply don’t have the time to “do the research and buy another tomato” even if we wanted to.

The karma-esque system raises important Buddhological questions. In a radically interdependent world, how can anyone gain liberation if we all don’t? It’s all or nothing, which seems like a rather unfair, unrealistic, and unsatisfactory soteriological system, all things considered.

Continue reading
  20 Hits
  0 Comments
20 Hits
0 Comments

The Buddhists of Extinction Rebellion 

The environmental activism group Extinction Rebellion (XR) has been making headlines since November 2018, when around 6,000 protesters blocked traffic on five bridges in London at their first demonstration. They made more waves on April 1, when 12 protestors stripped down to their underwear in the House of Commons and glued their hands down to various surfaces. On April 15, thousands of people took to the streets, shutting down transit stations, streets, and bridges for several days with theatrical displays such as a large pink boat, a halfpipe for skateboarders, and a stage for a choir. By April 19, London police had arrested 682 protesters

But behind XR’s raucous spectacles is a calm contemplation, according to the many Buddhist teachers and practitioners who have joined the movement. XR organizers have not kept track of their members’ faiths, but religious and spiritual leaders seem to be exceptionally visible at their demonstrations, where it is common to see human blockades engaging in meditation, yoga, or prayer. The group even addresses this perception in an FAQ on their website, writing, “Your movement seems a bit woowoo to me. What’s with the shamans and all that?” Their answer: “Some, though not all of us, have a ‘spiritual’ orientation, and we welcome anyone regardless of their beliefs . . .”

One Buddhist teacher, Mark Ovland, was among the dozen XR activists who were arrested for their “cheeky intervention,” as one British lawmaker described it. Ovland told Tricycle that he has put his teaching on hold and stepped back from his commitments to Buddhist groups to focus on activism. Still, he said, “Extinction Rebellion is just the perfect vehicle for taking practice off the cushion, it has a remarkably dharmic backbone and a lot of how we relate to each other and go about our business would be very familiar to anyone coming from Buddhist circles.”

Extinction Rebellion protesters at the House of Commons on April 1. | Photo by Evelina Utterdahl

Ovland is not alone. Robin Boardman, one of the group’s founding members, is a Buddhist practitioner and yoga instructor. XR’s podcast recently featured an interview with Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy, where she talked about the importance of self-care for activists. The closed Facebook group Extinction Rebellion Buddhists has more than 1,250 members. (A similar group for XR Jews had around 250 members, a Quaker group had 700 members, but no other religious group showed up in a search for “Extinction Rebellion” groups.) The New York Insight Meditation Center (NYIMC) has begun hosting climate-related events, and board president Tom Carling has said he hopes that NYIMC can be one of the movement’s “spiritual homes.” Scholar, activist, and Zen teacher David Loy, who founded the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Center in Colorado, was arrested on April 20 at an XR event in Denver, Colorado. And the list goes on. 

Buddhism in the West is no stranger to activism. Many of today’s most prominent Western dharma teachers came out of the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. Activists coined the terms engaged Buddhism and ecodharma to explicitly link their practice and social awareness. But Extinction Rebellion has been more successful at activating engaged Buddhists than other groups with similar goals. What is behind this apparent affinity? 

Continue reading
  21 Hits
  0 Comments
21 Hits
0 Comments

Sutta Study: The Hawk 

This article is part of Trike Daily’s Sutta Study series, led by Insight meditation teacher Peter Doobinin. The suttas are found in the Pali Canon, which contains some of the earliest Buddhist teachings. Rather than philosophical tracts, the suttas are a map for dharma practice. In this series, we’ll focus on the practical application of the teachings in our day-to-day lives.

In The Hawk (Sakunagghi Sutta), the Buddha offers a compelling parable to illustrate the importance of practicing right mindfulness. The Buddha didn’t simply teach mindfulness. He taught right mindfulness. In practicing right mindfulness, the dharma student makes an effort to keep her mind on specific objects: the four foundations of mindfulness (or the four establishings of mindfulness, according to Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation). If we’re able to do so, we’ll move toward a true happiness in our lives. But if we don’t keep the mind in these places, the Buddha teaches, we’ll be bound to suffer.

The Buddha makes this point by telling the story of a quail who lives in a field with “clumps of dirt all turned up.” As long as she remains in this field, her “proper range,” she’s safe from predators, including the hawk. One day, however, the quail wanders outside the field, and, sure enough, the hawk swoops down and captures her. The quail laments her “bad luck,” remarking that if she’d stayed in the field of turned up dirt, the hawk “would have been no match for me in battle.” The hawk disagrees, and, to make his point, he deposits the quail back in the field. The hawk circles and swoops down. The quail, in turn, conceals herself behind a large clump of earth. And, sure enough, the hawk smashes into the dirt and dies.

The moral of the story is that we shouldn’t wander into what isn’t our “proper range.” The Buddha tells us: “In one who wanders into what is not his proper range and is the territory of others, Mara gains an opening, Mara gains a foothold.” Mara, in Buddhist lore, is the personification of unskillful qualities: desire, aversion, and delusion.

The Buddha goes on to say that the five strings of sensuality are “not your proper range.” Sensuality in this context refers to the grasping after sense pleasure. The sense experiences that the mind registers as “agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, enticing,” the Buddha indicates, are “linked to sensual desire.” In other words, it’s our tendency to crave these experiences, to chase after them, to want to hold on to them. 

Continue reading
  25 Hits
  0 Comments
25 Hits
0 Comments

Buddha Buzz Weekly: “Ultraman” Buddha vs. Thailand’s Hardliners

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

Thai Artist Forced to Take Down “Ultraman” Buddha 

An artist in Thailand was forced to take down four paintings reimagining the Buddha as the Japanese superhero Ultraman over complaints from hardline Buddhists, Reuters reports, and now the dogmatic detractors are calling for her arrest. After the outcry from members of Buddhist Power of the Land, the artist last week removed the paintings from an exhibition at a mall in Nakhon Ratchasima province and publicly apologized to the chief monk of the region, according to Reuters. But that did not appease the aggrieved, who filed a police complaint against the artist and four people who helped with the exhibition, arguing that they violated a law against insulting religion. If prosecuted and found guilty, they could serve up to seven years in prison. However, that result seems unlikely as Thailand’s Buddhist authority, the Office of National Buddhism, has said that the apology was enough, and the law was meant to prosecute crimes like physically desecrating depictions of the Buddha, religion scholar Sinchai Chaojaroenrat told Australia’s ABC News. “This lady was just sharing her personal interpretation of Buddha; she interprets Buddha as a superhero who protects the virtue or goodness of the world and for her that’s Ultraman,” Chaojaroenrat said. 

While the complaints have vexed the artist, the extra attention has been great for the paintings’ buyers. Pakorn Porncheewangkun bought one of the Ultraman Buddhas for 4,500 baht ($147) and on Thursday resold it for 600,000 baht ($28,750). On Friday, Pakorn sold a second painting 2 million baht ($65,660), he told the Bangkok Post. Pakorn said 10 percent of the proceeds from the second sale will go back to the artist and the rest will be donated to charity. 

Dalai Lama Calls for Peaceful Talks in Hong Kong

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama this week urged people protesting the Chinese government in Hong Kong to demonstrate peacefully and to pursue a resolution through dialogue. Since June, protests and violent clashes with the police have continued steadily in Hong Kong, which has its own economic and administrative system while remaining part of China. “I think it’s best for every place to maintain peace. Peace is very important. We can resolve any problem through dialogue, rather than negative actions in response to anger, which are useless. These disturbances caused by the disputes are very serious. What I can do is limited. I can only pray for them,” His Holiness told Taiwan’s Hakka TV, according to the Taipei Times. “When Deng Xiaoping [the leader of the People’s Republic of China from 1978 to 1992] created ‘one country, two systems,’ it was very practical, very good, but in recent weeks, a lot of disputes happened. I feel a little worried,” he said.

Last week, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam withdrew the proposed extradition bill that sparked the demonstrations, but the announcement has failed to placate some members of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement who are calling for free elections. Taiwan, which rejects claims that it is part of China and subject to a similar “one country, two systems” policy, also exists in a state of political uncertainty. In his interview with Hakka TV, the Dalai Lama apparently praised the democracy and “religious knowledge” in Taiwan, suggesting that these qualities can overcome totalitarianism. “Taiwanese should not become demoralized, but should keep up their enthusiasm, and most importantly, maintain their non-violent, peaceful ways,” he said. In the past, His Holiness has compared his proposals for a semi-autonomous Tibet to “one country, two systems.” 

Continue reading
  28 Hits
  0 Comments
28 Hits
0 Comments

The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World

Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . . 
— From “The New Colossus” by poet Emma Lazarus, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty 

At the same time the news was showing festive celebrations on July 4 this year, it was broadcasting reports about the worsening humanitarian crisis at some of the migrant detention centers along the United States border with Mexico. Some commentators and interviewees were expressing the view that if the detained migrants were unhappy with the reportedly unacceptable conditions at the centers, then they should go back to where they came from, or not come at all. Those reports saddened me and seemed to contradict the welcoming message inscribed on the bronze plaque on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. It made me wonder, on a very personal level, what it means to be an American today. As a nation, do we still hold close to our hearts some of the basic tenets expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the famous poem by Emma Lazarus? Do we continue to believe that everyone is created equal, with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Do we take our democracy and the five basic freedoms protected by the First Amendment— freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom to petition the government—for granted? Have we forgotten what we represent to the rest of the world, and more importantly, to ourselves?

To me, there are many similarities between being an American and being a Buddhist. Both call upon us to take responsibility for our thoughts, our speech, and our actions. Being an American or a Buddhist means treating everyone equally, with respect and understanding. It means being inclusive and welcoming. Ideally, it means being able to see one’s own self in the conditions of all other human beings, and having compassion for their suffering. All of these principles and values help me to transcend the simple and foolish mind that I have, the one that discriminates, the one that suggests why should I care. As a Pure Land Buddhist, I practice by entrusting myself to Amida Buddha’s vow of unconditional salvation. One of the basic aspects of this vow is that all of us who are seeking clarity in life have the ability to change and to work toward achieving our highest potential. We do this by seeking refuge in the Buddha, the dharma (the teachings), and the sangha (our community). As I awaken to the vow, I begin to realize my shortcomings, my lack of wisdom and compassion, and the universal suffering of all beings. 

Related: Buddhists protest the detention of migrant children at a former Japanese internment camp

Continue reading
  49 Hits
  0 Comments
49 Hits
0 Comments