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…”

Buddha Buzz Weekly: “Journey Toward Equality”

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

Good News for Pride Month: Bhutan Moves to Decriminalize Homosexuality

In a move fit for Pride Month, Bhutan’s parliament has taken a major step toward decriminalizing homosexuality, Reuters reports. The legislative body’s lower house, the National Assembly, on June 7 passed a bill to repeal a section of the Himalayan kingdom’s penal code banning “unnatural sex,” which in practice has meant homosexuality. Now the legislation moves to the upper chamber, the National Council, where activists expect that lawmakers will vote in favor of the bill. If it passes, the act will be presented to the king of Bhutan for approval. Activist Tashi Tsheten, the director of LGBT+ advocacy group Rainbow Bhutan, told Reuters, “This is our first journey toward equality.” Human Rights Watch’s South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly called it a “a welcome and progressive step” by the Buddhist-majority kingdom in a religiously conservative region.

Teachers Will Make the Highest Salary in Bhutan

In other news from Bhutan, the government announced that they are flipping the unofficial civil service “hierarchy” by raising the salaries of teachers and health workers above that of administration officials, according to Buddhistdoor Global. The reforms increase salaries for educators, doctors, nurses, and other medical workers, but formally promote teachers to the highest-paid civil servant positions in the country. Health Minister Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo told the Bhutanese that the move to prioritize education and health is in line with the country’s Gross National Happiness, a philosophy of governing that prioritizes sustainable development and uses national surveys to measure the psychological well-being of its citizens.

Australian Government Honors Ajahn Brahm for Work on Gender Equality

The popular Buddhist teacher Ajahn Brahm received a high honor from the Australian government for his “significant service to Buddhism, and to gender equality.” Each year on the Queen’s Birthday, the British commonwealth appointments notable people to be new members of the Order of Australia in recognition of their contributions to society. This year’s list included Ajahn Brahm, who in 2009 ordained four Buddhist nuns—the first in Australia. As a result, the senior monks in his Thai Forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism expelled him from the lineage.

Related: Putting an End to Buddhist Patriarchy by Ajahn Brahm

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From Empathy to Compassion

Most of us likely know people who seem naturally kind and giving—who are always doing good deeds: bringing homeless people hot food, visiting the elderly, or reaching out to neighbors who are ill. We see these individuals perform these acts of kindness quietly, without fanfare, as if it were the most natural thing to do. We might think that such people are the exception—even saints, in some cases. But the fact is that we are all wired for instinctual empathy, compassion, and altruistic behaviors; it’s just that other factors sometimes get in our way.

Culturally, most of us grew up with the widely held belief that humans are naturally selfish, competitive, and greedy. It’s not hard to see how such a collective negative view of human nature becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we expect others to operate from a default mode of self-centeredness, we might then conclude that it would be naïve not to focus primarily on getting our own needs met, even at the expense of others, since that appears to be how the game is played.

Though we still hear about positive values of respect, kindness, and compassion in the public square, our modern winner-take-all culture is actually centered around the worship of wealth, celebrity, power, and—above all—winning at all costs. We propagate this negative outlook on human nature to our significant detriment and peril.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama explains:

From my own limited experience, I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion. . . Ultimately, the reason why love and compassion bring the greatest happiness is simply that our nature cherishes them above all else. The need for love lies at the very foundation of human existence. It results from the profound interdependence we all share with one another.

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Photos: Capturing the Ephemeral

For the past several years, photographer Emily Polar has been studying, working, and living in Nepal, where she has documented different Tibetan Buddhist rituals, such as pujas for the deceased and cremation ceremonies. She also photographs Nepal’s dense, fog-covered forests and shape-shifting clouds—all part of an ever-changing landscape that, she says, reflects the transient nature of all phenomena.

Polar first visited Nepal in 2012, and after three years of self-study, she enrolled in Rangjung Yeshe Institute in Boudha, where for two years she studied Buddhist culture, history, classical Tibetan, and Nepali. Polar has since turned her attention back to photography, and she has collaborated with National Geographic Travel as well as nonprofits in Nepal. Her work asks viewers to consider the tension between capturing a moment in time and realizing that the moment, and all that it comprises, is essentially ephemeral.

View from the roof of the Boudha stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal. | Photograph by Emily Polar

Polar talked with Tricycle about the challenges of documenting sacred sites and rituals without disturbing them, as well as the rewards of exploring presence and impermanence through photography.

Q: Can you talk about your experience of photographing the sacred sites of the 8th-century Buddhist master Guru Rinpoche [Padmasambhava]?

I was commissioned to take photos for a Guru Rinpoche pilgrimage guidebook and website. So I was able to go to all of these sites, including the Maratika Caves [a pilgrimage site next to the village of Mahadevasthan in the Khotang District of eastern Nepal].

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Pro-Life, Endless Births: Buddhist Views on Abortion

In recent months, several states have passed sweeping anti-abortion legislation—including some of the most restrictive laws since abortion became legal under the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade—in an effort to bring a legal challenge before a new generation of conservative justices who could overturn the 1973 ruling. By and large, the pro-life activism driving the effort is rooted in the religious right’s view that abortion violates the Christian prohibition on killing. While debate over the legal status of embryos and fetuses has raged in American politics for decades, a similar development in Japanese Buddhism offers an interesting contrast for how the issue of applying religious doctrine to modern medical technology has been approached against different cultural and historical backdrops.

In postwar Japan, conservative Japanese politicians and right-wing commentators bemoaned the degradation of a rapidly modernizing society, citing the soaring abortion rate as the clearest evidence of Japan’s moral decline. They argued that the immorality of women was, in part, responsible for the erosion of traditional social values. Partnering with monks of a similar mindset, they used the rhetoric of mizuko kuyo, a Japanese Buddhist ritual meant to pacify the distraught spirits of babies who have been lost either by abortion or miscarriage. The ritual itself invokes the bodhisattva Jizo, who acts as a guide in the afterlife.

Published a decade ago, Jeff Wilson’s Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America investigates mizuko kuyo and its transformations over time. He explains how the ceremony was seen in Japan as a means for women to atone for their alleged wrongdoings and to resubmit to their proper position in society. But in the late 20th-century transmission of Buddhism to the United States, mizuko kuyo took on a wholly different significance and became a way for both Buddhist and non-Buddhist women to grapple with pregnancy loss—shifting the purpose of the ritual from mandatory penance and the placation of angry ghosts to the healing of personal wounds.

After nine states passed bills to dramatically restrict access to abortion, Tricycle spoke to Wilson to get some more context and take a look at how Japanese and American Buddhists have dealt with abortion, both today and in the past.

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Dogen Said Not to Waste a Single Grain of Rice. Here’s How.

If learning to eat at the monastery was acclimating to the practice of consuming whatever was put in front of me, learning to cook at the monastery was a lesson in how to take care of ingredients. Dogen Zenji wrote, “Not to waste a single grain of rice is called the mind of the way.” This has a similar but slightly different meaning from “A monk’s mouth is like an oven.” The emphasis is on the cook rather than the eater. What Dogen is saying is that not wasting food—taking care of the material around you and preserving what you have—is the totality of Zen life. Zen is difficult, but it is not complicated. It is simply taking care of things.

At the monasteries where I trained, there was an explicit admonition to never throw away food. At Aichi Senmon Nisodo temple in Nagoya, Japan, meals were calculated down to the precise half-bowl of soup, and any leftovers were eaten at dinnertime, mixed into soup or savory rice porridge. We first figured out how many people were expected at the meal. With soup, for example, each person was allotted a bowl and a half; this assured that everyone had at least one serving and then that those who wanted seconds could have them. This is actually very basic common sense. It just involves foresight—for example, knowing how big the bowls are, how much food fits into one bowl, and how much vegetables shrink during cooking.

Related: Food for Enlightenment

The Japanese phrase mottainai is used to express displeasure about wasting. It can be translated as “Don’t waste!” and it’s used to describe instances of throwing away either tangible or intangible things. For example, when I told a young woman in Japan that I didn’t want to get married, she exclaimed, “You’re young! Mottainai!” Back in the United States, when I lament my declining Japanese skills, people often agree, “Mottainai!” And of course, in Japan, if the nuns and I ever considered throwing away some week- old tub of leftover soup, someone would inevitably utter “Mottainai!” And the soup would end up as part of our dinner or creatively incorporated into another dish.

Conserving and respecting food involves equal parts planning how much to cook and repurposing leftovers and old produce. I am not quite sure why I never questioned the reason for peeling carrots until I worked in a monastery kitchen. But really, what is the point of peeling carrots? Mottainai! They taste the same with or without the peel, and the peel contains extra nutrients.

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