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…”

A New Initiative Grapples with Collective Traumas

Meeting on monthly video calls, several people sit together, close their eyes, and after several minutes of silence, turn their attention to Brexit. On another day, the topic may be the Syrian civil war, climate change, North Korean nuclear capabilities, or migrants at the US border. The meditators are engaging in a practice called “global social witnessing” (GSW), and their aim is to become more present to the pain of these events.

The idea is that we have unprecedented access to information about tragedies occurring around the world, but rather than become more informed, we allow the data to overwhelm us. We experience compassion fatigue, end up feeling numb or depressed, and retreat into indifference. The danger is not only inaction. By turning away from the world’s traumas, GSW proponents argue, we also perpetuate, albeit unconsciously, painful cultural shadows that underlie global trauma. Collective and historical trauma, they believe, lies at the heart of many of the atrocities and conflicts in the world today. Global social witnessing practice groups create and experiment with a kind of “relational space,” in which participants can cultivate a greater depth of understanding about their own responses to traumatic experiences of other communities. 

The idea for GSW came out of the Pocket Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to support the healing of collective trauma through education, training, and other programs. In a recent weeklong training session, participants divided into triads each afternoon to unpack and digest together some of the emotionally taxing issues reverberating in our global culture today: oppression, sexual abuse, colonialism, slavery, racism, and genocide. 

“Collective trauma is not an idea; it’s a tremendous amount of energy that hasn’t been processed yet but influences our daily thinking and feeling, and our relationships,” said author, spiritual teacher, and Pocket Project founder Thomas Hübl during one of the training sessions, which was part of a part of a yearlong program. “It has created shadow structures in society that we assume are normal. The only way to address this is to create conscious structures that will support resourcing and awareness processes.”

Trauma, Hübl believes, has effects similar to karma. When two people argue, then move on without a resolution, this unconscious material becomes “carry-on baggage” they transfer from one moment to the next. But while the consequences of a single argument may be relatively minor, a mass atrocity can lead to emotional scars that are passed from generation to generation. And it’s this large-scale historical trauma that we have all been born into no matter where we live. 

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Taking Care of Others (Without Exploding into a Thousand Bits)

“For as long as a single being remains stuck in the cycle of suffering, I will continue to do everything in my power to rescue and benefit others.” This, in a nutshell, is the vow of the bodhisattva, the individual whose entire focus is the happiness and, ultimately, liberation of all. Quite the commitment.

In my tradition, Tibetan Buddhism, inspiration may be found in the example of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion. One of his many incarnations has 11 heads and 1,000 arms with an eye in the palm of each hand. Why? Well, while manifesting in a more moderate form, he takes the bodhisattva vow (“…and if I ever break my oath, may my head and my body break into a thousand pieces…”), guides countless beings to liberation, and, according to one account, has just succeeded in emptying the realms of great suffering of their inhabitants and is feeling pretty good about life. Until, that is, he happens to have another look and sees that those realms have already repopulated. There’s just as much suffering as ever.

Disheartened, he thinks, “There’s no point. I might as well go have a holiday in nirvana,” whereupon his head and body explode into a thousand bits. In his moment of doubt he broke his vow: he considered leaving all those beings to their fate. Fortunately, his master, Buddha Amitabha, patches him back up into a higher-octane bodhisattva form and he goes on helping all who need him and always will. Now, with his myriad arms he can grace all beings with his touch; with those many eyes he sees exactly what they need.

But before he became super-bodhisattva, he had a burnout moment. Or maybe, because he had a burnout moment and had to drop his expectations about actually succeeding in alleviating the totality of suffering in the universe, he deconstructed and, with help, reappeared as a super-bodhisattva.

Avalokiteshvara’s burnout is easy to relate to. In psychology, burnout is most often defined as a three-phase depletion that unfolds as emotional exhaustion, or not feeling up to caring for others; depersonalization of those one is committed to helping; and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment or agency. According to social psychologists Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter, “Burnout is the index of dislocation between what people are and what they have to do. It represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit, and will—an erosion of the human soul.”

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Buddha Buzz Weekly: Mt. Everest Deaths Spur New Climbing Rules 

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

New Rules for Everest Climbers After Deadly Season

You can no longer pay your way to the top of the world’s tallest mountain. After 11 climbers were killed or went missing in May of this year, a high-level commission for the Nepalese government ruled that anyone seeking a permit to climb Mt. Everest must demonstrate high-altitude mountaineering experience and training, replacing the policy of granting a climbing permit to anyone who could pay an $11,000 fee. The Guardian reports that the Nepalese commission found that the Everest deaths were primarily caused by the inexperience of the climbers and crowding near the 29,035 ft (8,850 m) summit. Now, anyone who has the desire to summit the mountain must have previously climbed another Nepalese peak of more than 21,325 ft (6,500 m), must submit a certification of good health, and must be accompanied by a trained Nepalese guide—an effort to discourage overzealous climbers from tackling the treacherous peak on their own. It is unclear what percentage of these compulsory guides will be Sherpas, a small ethnic group based in the villages below Everest. Culturally similar to Tibetans, most Sherpas are adherents of the Nyingma school, the oldest sect of Tibetan Buddhism founded by the legendary figure Padmasambhava. They also believe that the deity Miyolangsangma, or the Goddess of Inexhaustible Giving, lives at the top of Mt. Everest. 

Related: The First Bilateral Amputee Who Climbed Mount Everest and The First (and Only) Woman to Summit Everest Seven Times

Tibetan Nuns Complete Rigorous Geshema Exams

Over 50 Tibetan Buddhist nuns recently completed the prestigious geshema exams at Jangchup Choeling Nunnery in southern India, according to the nonprofit Tibetan Nuns Project. From August 1 through August 12, 51 nuns took various levels of the exams, which included both written tests and traditional Tibetan Buddhist debate. The geshema degree (known as geshe for monks) is the highest degree in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, equivalent to a PhD in Buddhist studies. Women were unable to pursue the geshema course until His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama opened the doors to nuns with his official blessing in 1995. Yet it wasn’t until 2016 that 20 women were actually granted the degree, a historic first in Tibetan Buddhism’s 1,200-year history. Nuns must complete 17 years of study to qualify for the four years of geshema exams, which are followed by two years of tantric study. 

In China, stressed-out workers are finding refuge in studying Sanskrit 

Hangzhou is one of China’s major financial hubs, but in the “city of entrepreneurs,” some people are electing to de-stress by learning an ancient language, the Washington Post reports. At the Buddhist Academy at Lingyin Temple, monks offer classes in Sanskrit, the ancient language of many Buddhist sutras. Similar to learning Latin, Sanskrit study has limited practical application in today’s time outside of academic or religious settings. Yet many people are enrolling in the courses as a way to separate themselves from the relentless pace of society and from a workaholic culture that glorifies a 12 hour workday. Student Jenny Li, who works in international trade, told the Washington Post that the Sanskrit classes allow her to “slow down and find a deeper meaning, reflect on what is important.” She enrolled in the classes partly because she is Buddhist and wants to read religious texts. But many of the Sanskrit students are “not necessarily Buddhists,” says Lingyin Temple’s deputy abbot Jun Heng. “There are a lot of people who come here because they’re looking for inner peace.They might be addicted to technology or stuck in the rat race or depressed by life. They are living with a lot of stress, so when they are up here with the Buddhist monks, they can find quiet.” Despite the fact that Sanskrit has little chance of enhancing one’s earning potential or social status, the courses are exceedingly popular—fewer than half the 380 applicants could be admitted to the first class (although only 50 students made it to the end of the semester, and 20 enrolled for a second class). And while the Chinese government is generally hostile toward organized religion, the Lingyin Temple has retained its right to train Buddhist monks, and also functions as a successful tourist destination. With three genders and a complicated script, Sanskrit is a difficult language to learn, but students say they don’t stress over it. “Sometimes you need to do things for your inner needs,” Li said. “For us in the millennial generation, we don’t need food or money as much as we need more spiritual sustenance.” 

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Thai King Bestows High Honor on Western Buddhists

Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn (Rama X) recently invited four senior Western monks in the Thai forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism to receive royal titles in honor of their contribution to Buddhism in Thailand and around the world. While the event was part of a long-standing tradition, it also marked a new development for Buddhism in the country.

Thai forest monks historically have disregarded social status and systems authority, preferring to focus on meditation practices in remote forests and caves, as the Buddha and his disciples once did. Yet despite its often-secluded practices, the Thai forest tradition has had a tremendous impact since its beginnings at the turn of the 20th century. The school’s dedication to meditation, commitment to renunciation, and lack of emphasis on ritual and ceremony held great appeal for Buddhists in the West, where disciples have established hundreds of Thai forest monasteries.

In honor of the Western teachers’ contributions to the proliferation of Thai culture, the king invited the monks to receive the royal titles on July 28 as part of his birthday celebration. The invitees were Ajahn Sumedho, the retired abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in southeastern England (Sumedho was not able to attend); Ajahn Amaro, the current abbot of Amaravati; Ajahn Jayasaro, an author and teacher who lives in a hermitage near Khao Yai Mountain, about two hours outside Bangkok; and Ajahn Pasanno, former abbot and guiding elder of Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in Redwood Valley, California.

To better understand the significance of this event, Tricycle spoke with Ajahn Pasanno about the title he received, Chao Khun, its history, and what it means for his tradition in Thailand and the West.

How would you describe the Chao Khun title in Thai Buddhism?

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An El Paso Buddhist Center on Violence and the Seeds of Hate

On Saturday, August 3, after posting a 2,300-word anti-immigrant manifesto online, a young man used a semi-automatic rifle to open fire at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people and wounding more than two dozen others. Just 13 hours later, another lone gunman killed nine people and wounded at least 27 in a separate attack in Dayton, Ohio. While the two men were united in a desire to harm others, the El Paso shooter was motivated specifically by racial hatred. 

In the days after the attack, Tricycle spoke with Helga Carrion, president of the Chenrezig Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Center in El Paso, about how her sangha responded to a mass shooting in their community and the importance of cultivating awareness and compassion in the wake of extreme violence. 

How have members of your center responded to the shooting? Have you met as a sangha since it happened?

That Saturday morning [of the El Paso shooting] our sangha was meeting for our introduction to Buddhism class, and so we didn’t find out until after class what had happened. The next day we came together for our usual Sunday meditation and talked about how we can move through this and help others move through this. Our teacher, Losang Samten, always says that we should do a Chenrezig practice [a meditation on the bodhisattva of compassion, also known as Avalokiteshvara, which often begins with lighting a candle or butter lamp]. In preparation, I brought three candles [instead of one]. Three is symbolic for many reasons, but in this case, it represented the victims, their families, and the perpetrators.

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