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…”

George Saunders on What Buddhists Can Offer the World Right Now

One summer, while George Saunders was working long days in the searing oil fields of Texas, he had something like an epiphany. Parked in an RV in his parents’ driveway in Amarillo, Saunders spent evenings reading The Grapes of Wrath. In the Okies, he saw a reflection of his work crew, which included a Vietnam vet and recently released convict. 

“We too were the malformed detritus of capitalism,” he writes, “the necessary costs of doing business. In short Steinbeck was writing about life as I saw it.” In his own fiction, Saunders rarely writes about life as we see it. His worlds are more like funhouse mirrors of our own. But, like Steinbeck, the celebrated author has placed life’s important questions at the heart of his work. 

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, Saunders’s new book, is a version of his short story class at Syracuse University, which closely studies works by four Russian authors, Chekov, Tolstoy, Gogol and Turgenev. But what makes A Swim more than a “tricks of the trade” book for aspiring writers is Saunders’s passionate case for literature’s power to make us better people, more empathetic and kind. 

“They changed you when you read them, made the world seem to be telling a different, more interesting story,” he writes, “a story in which you might play a meaningful part, and in which you had responsibilities.” 

Saunders, who practices in the Nyingma school of Buddhism, has written 12 books, including Lincoln in the Bardo, a bestselling novel that won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for best work of fiction in English. In a recent email exchange with Tricycle, the author opened up about his work, what he thinks Buddhism can offer at a time of profound global anxiety, and how he quiets his own monkey mind. 

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Buddha Buzz Weekly: Buddhist Temple in Queens Offers Lifeline for Nepalese Community

The United Sherpa Association helps struggling members of the Nepalese community during COVID-19, monks back Indian farmers, and plant-based meat has been around for much longer than the Impossible burger. Tricycle looks back at the events of this week in the Buddhist world.

By Emily DeMaioNewton and Karen JensenFeb 20, 2021

The United Sherpa Association, a Buddhist temple in Queens, New York, helps struggling community members during the pandemic.| Photo from United Sherpa Association (USA), Inc.

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

Queens Temple Provides Fresh Food and PPE to Community

The United Sherpa Association, a Buddhist temple and community center in the New York City borough of Queens, has been a lifeline for the Nepalese community during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Associated Press, the non-profit organization has been providing fresh food and personal protective equipment to anyone who needs it, but Nepalese students have been particularly benefiting. When the pandemic hit, some Nepalese students were forced to leave their dorms, where many got their meals. They don’t qualify for stimulus checks, and student visas generally don’t allow students to work full-time or off-campus. Nepal’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism, but the country has been closed to foreigners for much of the past year, so many families have been unable to offer financial support. President of the United Sherpa Association, Urgen Sherpa, called the students “unknown victims” of the pandemic. 

With the help of volunteers, including some students who benefit themselves from the programs, the association has been making home deliveries of personal protective equipment and boxes of food. They also gave $500 stipends to more than 30 students. Mina Shaestha, a 23-year-old Nepalese student, and her partner said the help from the pantry has been crucial for feeding themselves and their 2-year-old son, allowing them to keep up with rent payments.

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Buddha Buzz Weekly: Kyoto Temple Plans Outer Space Location

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

Kyoto Temple Plans Outer Space Location

Daigoji, a temple in Kyoto, Japan, was founded in 874, and has survived the many twists and turns of history—including Japan’s destructive Onin War (1467-1477). It remains one of the oldest structures in the former capital. But the Shingon Buddhist temple doesn’t appear to be tethered to earth by its extensive history—in fact, it plans on making an extraterrestrial move. According to Time Out, Daigoji is planning on making a second home in outer space. With the help of a Kyoto-based satellite research company called Terra Space, the Shingon Buddhist temple plans to launch a “temple” on a low-orbit satellite, which will contain an enshrined Buddha sculpture, scriptures, and Buddhist artwork. The purported goal of the so-called Jotenin Gounji satellite is to create a temple that’s accessible to anyone, no matter where on earth they are. The extraterrestrial temple is scheduled to be launched sometime in 2023. One can only hope that the Buddhist aliens first spotted in Thailand will weigh in. 

Bhutan Reports First COVID-19 Death

Bhutan reported their first COVID-19 death—yes, its first ever—on January 7. The Atlantic analyzed why that may be, suggesting that it may have to do with the fact that “resilience” is a part of Bhutan’s core national identity. 

Bhutan only has 337 physicians for its population of about 760,000, and only one of these doctors has advanced training in critical care. While the United States has one of the best medical-rescue systems in the world, including advanced ICUs, US healthcare systems often neglect preventative care. In contrast, low-income countries like Bhutan must prioritize preventative care in order not to overwhelm their healthcare system, the Atlantic found. Bhutan began preparing for the spread of the virus just 11 days after China first reported a pneumonia outbreak of unknown cause in December 2019. When the first COVID-19 case was reported in Bhutan, in a 76-year-old American tourist, contact tracing efforts quarantined about 300 people in just over six hours. 

When the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, Bhutan continued implementing strict and swift measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. During lockdowns, the government delivered food, medicine, and other essentials to every household. A relief fund has also distributed $19 million in financial assistance to over 34,000 people whose income has been interrupted. Bhutan’s king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, said from the very beginning that even one COVID-19 death would be too many. Meanwhile, February 7 was the first day since November that the number of new US cases per day dipped below 100,000.

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Three Buddhist Romeos

The Vinaya, or collection of rules for Buddhist monks and nuns, requires celibacy—a commitment to following the Buddha’s path to enlightenment, free from the distractions of sexual relationships. But in honor of Valentine’s Day, a holiday that celebrates romance, we’re revisiting the legacies of three Buddhist Romeos who rejected a life of celibacy in favor of the pleasures of love.

These Buddhists fell short of monastic expectations by inviting sexual partners—and oftentimes multiple partners—into their practice. While some indulged in hedonism, others viewed sex not as a rebellious rejection of tradition, but an essential part of the human experience, even considering it compatible with the ultimate goal of liberation. Tricycle takes a look at a few Buddhists’ escapades in love. 

Gendun Chopel in India, 1936

Genden Chopel (1903–1951)

One of the most colorful and controversial figures of the modern Tibetan Buddhist world, Genden Chopel is known for his lustful poetry and erotic writings. Born in 1903 in Amdo, Tibet, Chopel spent his early years studying in monasteries, quickly establishing himself as a scholar, artist, poet, and historian. 

A recognized tulku, or reincarnated lama, Chopel was a celibate monk until his early thirties. His life took a turn in 1934, when he left Tibet for India. Around this time Chopel seems to have abandoned his monastic vows, and he became intimate with not just one, but many women. From these encounters, he wrote the treatises on passion, which are perhaps the most famous works of erotica in Tibetan Buddhist literature. Drawing from classical Sanskrit texts and his own experiences of intimacy, Chopel writes about the spiritual and physical benefits of love-making, enumerates types of pleasure, and describes effective sex positions. In the following verse, Chopel describes the sensation of orgasmic bliss: 

The emerging essence made from one’s own indestructible elements, 
This honey-like taste born from one’s own self-arisen body, 
Experienced through the hundred thousand pores,
This is something not tasted even by the tongue of the gods in heaven.

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Best of the Haiku Challenge (January 2021)

Millions of haiku have been written in English over the last hundred years, but few have found their way into anthologies of English language poetry. The reason is simple. Until recently, haiku hasn’t reached the point where it could stand on its own as an English language poem.

The winning and honorable mention haiku for this month’s challenges employed the styles and techniques of English language poetry (see below) rather than imitating those of Japanese haiku. They show that the future of haiku in English is bright.

Kate MacQueen borrows the wings of a barred owl to soar into the world of dreams (romantic self-expression).Shelli Jankowski-Smith experiences a mix of visual disorientation and visual wonder as a great bird assembles itself from parts—right before her eyes (surrealism).Kelly Shaw uses repeated consonants to bend two invisible elements: space and sound (alliteration).Pat Hull’s summer sky waits for the day to “turn over” like the page of a novel (figurative language).Barrie Levine’s grandmother brings the fresh blue scent of the sky in from the clothesline (synesthesia).Lorraine A. Padden finds in the clearest sky a symbol of open-hearted acceptance—and maybe hope (personal narrative).

These are but a few of the possibilities for haiku in English. The only limit on what can be expressed in seventeen syllables is your own poetic vision. And so, as we continue along this path together, strive to write haiku that pull their own weight as English language poems. Let’s see how many haiku we can add to the pages of mainstream magazines, journals, and anthologies over the next ten to twenty years.

You can submit a haiku for the February challenge here.

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