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: Looking Forward, Looking Back

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

Ladakh Celebrates Split from Kashmir

This past week India passed a bill that officially revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special status as an autonomous region, dividing the territory into two states: Ladakh, and Jammu and Kashmir. Despite outcry from citizens in Kashmir and bordering Pakistan, the decision to repeal what was known as Article 370 in the Indian constitution was met with celebration by some officials in the primarily Buddhist region of Ladakh, who have long claimed that the special status was Kashmir-centric. According to Reuters, the bill transforms Ladakh into a distinct district with its own administration, effectively granting the region a “fresh identity” as India’s first Buddhist-majority territory. “We are very happy that we are separated from Kashmir. Now we can be the owners of our own destiny,” said Tsering Samphel, a politician from the Congress party in Ladakh. He indicated that the region could finally step out of the shadow of Kashmir, a majority Muslim area. Citizens in Ladakh hope that the change will spur tourism and help the Indian government counter China’s influence in parts of the western Himalayas. While Ladakh’s economy has traditionally depended on agriculture, in recent years the number of tourists visiting the area’s ancient monasteries has increased. (Tricycle hosts an annual pilgrimage to Ladakh.) Bordering Tibet, Ladakh is a highly mountainous area that spans about 59,146 square kilometers. 

Billionaire Says Dalai Lama Inspired $100M Donation for Compassion Research Lab

Saying that he was inspired by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, billionaire philanthropist T. Denny Sanford donated $100 million to the University of California San Diego to create a program to research the neurology behind empathy and compassion, according to a press release. Sanford said he came to the decision after meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2017, when the Tibetan leader gave a commencement speech at the school. “I have been inspired by the work and teachings of the Dalai Lama, whose interest in the intersection where science and faith meet is deep and profound,” Sanford said. “I have had the opportunity to see how grace, humanity and kindness can change people and the world. This gift extends that vision.” The founder of First Premier Bank in South Dakota, Sanford has said he wants to “die broke” and vowed to give away all of his money before he dies. He had already donated more than $1 billion as of 2018 but still had enough left over to appear that year’s Forbes billionaires list, his net worth increasing to $2.6 billion from $2.2 billion in 2017. 

Rare 2,000-year-old Buddhist Scroll Images Now Public

The Library of Congress recently made public a rare 2,000-year-old scroll from the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Gandhara, in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to CNN, the manuscript retains nearly 80 percent of the original text and has been in the hands of the Library of Congress since 2003, when it was purchased from a private collector. One of the most fragile pieces that the Library of Congress has ever worked on, it took specialists several years to devise a treatment strategy. (They even practiced unrolling techniques on dried-up cigars.) Yet the treatment of the text would not have been possible without the unique means by which ancient Buddhists preserved and worshipped the text in the first place. Gandharan scrolls like this one “were typically buried in terra cotta jars and interred in a stupa, a dome-shaped structure often containing Buddhist texts or relics,” said Jonathan Loar, reference librarian in the Asian Division at the Library of Congress. “Another reason is that the relatively high, arid climate of the Gandharan region helps preserve materials like manuscripts on birch bark.” The scroll offers a glimpse in early Buddhist history. Told from the perspective of Shakyamuni Buddha, the text offers short biographies of the 13 buddhas who came before him, information about his own birth and transformation into Shakyamuni, and a prediction of the future buddha Maitreya. The biographies contain details about the buddhas’ lifespans, the eons in which they lived, the social class they were born into, and some description of their assemblies of disciples and the duration of their teachings. Since the scroll’s fragility renders it unfit for public display, the Library of Congress has shared images of manuscript online

Submerged Thai Temple Reappears During Record Drought

A Thai Buddhist temple has resurfaced after being submerged when a nearby dam was erected 20 years ago, Reuters reports. A drought has dried up the reservoir in Lopburi, Thailand, where the Wat Nong Bua Yai temple is, and now monks and other tourists are flocking to the site to catch a glimpse before it ends up underwater again. A Reuters video (below) shows visitors exploring the ruins, placing flowers, and offering prayers. However, the temple’s resurfacing comes at a high cost. Thai meteorological authorities say that this is the country’s worst drought in a decade, and for the most hard-hit regions, the worst in 50 years, according to Live Science. Wat Nong Bua Yai also reappeared during a drought in 2015, but this year’s drought is more severe, with the reservoir at only 3 percent capacity. Farmers have been struggling as a result. Rice in particular has taken a hit as rainfall in the main growing regions was 12 percent below average this year. Thailand is the second largest exporter of rice, and industry officials, who have already lowered their yield estimates, believe they will need to further adjust their projections, according to the Japanese newspaper Nikkei

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Sole Searching: What’s a Mindful Pedicure?

As rose petals swirl around my feet, a voice instructs me to focus on the “tip of the right big toe, tip of the right second toe . . .”  My aesthetician, Alex, has made sure to get all conversation out of the way (“Round or square?” “Cut the cuticles or push them back?”) so I can close my eyes and spend the next half hour immersed in meditation. By my side is a mug of tea and peppermint oil to sniff if I need to re-center. Alex massages a sugar scrub into my heel while I try to both tune out and tune in: to be mindful of the sensations of the pedicure while focusing on “a wave of relaxation moving in through the soles of the feet, up through the body, and out the top of the head.” I’m trying to connect body and mind and wondering: Is this McMindfulness run amok, or is a guided meditation pedicure a legitimate path to the present moment?

Sundays Hudson Yards is one of a trio of Manhattan nail salons where clients are encouraged to view nail care as self-care. As part of this mission, sundays (styled with a lowercase “s”) offers a $5 guided meditation add-on to any service (the signature pedicure is $45, the signature manicure is $25). The six pre-recorded teachings, provided via an MP3 player and headphones, were designed and recorded for sundays by founder Amy Ling and MNDFL meditation teacher and native New Yorker Valerie Oula. “Meditating during a manicure and/or pedicure is unique in itself,” said Oula, whose own meditation practice is rooted in Kundalini yoga and influenced more informally by her work as a Reiki master teacher. “When Amy first mentioned the idea to me, I thought it was absolutely brilliant. You have a captive audience sitting still already. What an opportune moment to introduce a mindfulness practice.” Each of the sessions focuses on one of the salon’s values: clarity, focus, gratitude, grounding, letting go, and relaxation.

Photograph by Jeenah Moon

These are secular meditations targeted at beginners: the idea is that meditation doesn’t have to be intimidating. Longtime practitioners and Buddhists might find the instructions a bit hackneyed (“taking in light on the inhale”; “whatever feels right for you”; “tuning in to heart space”; “letting go of what no longer serves you”), though, of course, there’s nothing trite about following the breath. At either 12 or 17 minutes long, the meditations are brief enough that you can listen to two or three during your visit—especially because sundays does not offer machines to accelerate polish drying. For $28 you can purchase them on a wooden thumb drive designed for everyday use. In fact, nails are referred to only in the final mantra: “Now that you’ve taken a small step into wellness, you can begin to build upon it in the days and weeks to come. And maybe every time you notice your lovely nails, you can also feel good about that.” 

During a typical pedicure, there’s a vast distance between my feet and my mind—and I suspect this is true for many New Yorkers. Walk into almost any nail salon and you’ll find people multitasking. As nail techs bend over their hands and feet, they catch up on emails, read tips on fuss-free dinners, even flip open laptops or make business calls. Manicures imprison the hands—but that doesn’t stop some from texting with tinfoil claws or flipping through magazines with their elbows (or teeth!). I’ve been known to edit manuscripts as a coat of Unrepentantly Red is swiped across my nails.

Photograph by Jeenah Moon.

Sundays Hudson Yards’ Scandinavian-inspired space is designed to create a “hygge experience,” a Danish term for a feeling of coziness and contentment. The aesthetic is blond wood, rattan, pastels, and houseplants. Instead of Cosmopolitan, there’s a communal gratitude journal and a station for writing love letters—to yourself. Instead of water in a Dixie cup, there’s a “mindful tea bar.” Instead of remote-control massage chairs, there are armchairs with low-slung seats and throw pillows. The room smells of essential oil rather than acetone, the light is pink rather than fluorescent, and French jazz unspools from the speakers instead of Miley Cyrus. And in place of crusty OPI and Essie bottles, there is a battalion of nontoxic polishes created by the salon’s founder, Amy Ling Lin.

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At Fort Sill, a Prayer That History Would Not Repeat Itself

In the following letter, scholar and Soto Zen priest Duncan Ryuken Williams recounts the events of July 20, 2019, when 25 Buddhist priests and lay leaders joined over 400 demonstrators in Oklahoma to protest the transfer of immigrant children to the Fort Sill Army Base, once the site of a Japanese internment camp. Shortly after the Trump administration’s June announcement that it planned to use Fort Sill to house 1,400 undocumented and unaccompanied migrant children, Williams joined a demonstration at the base organized by the immigrant-youth led advocacy group United We Dream and the Japanese American activist organization Tsuru for Solidarity. Planning for the next stage of action, Williams called on Buddhist leaders to come together and hold a remembrance ceremony paralleling a historic funeral service performed by 90 Buddhist priests at Fort Sill in 1942 for the people who died in internment camps (which Williams wrote about in his book American Sutra). He asked people who could not attend to show their support by sending paper cranes. The Buddhist leaders answered the call, and sangha members sent over 4,000 paper cranes. A week later, the White House announced that it was halting plans to transfer the 1,400 children to the former internment camp. In his letter, Williams expresses his gratitude to supporters and reflects on the power of “Buddhist free speech” to change the course of history. 

“We should study how kind and compassionate words . . . have the power to turn the destiny of the nation.” Zen master Dogen (1200-1253), from his Bodaisatta Shishobo

Multi-layered Buddhist robes are not usually worn in 102 degree heat or advisable for marching down a two-lane highway in front of a US Army base, but it felt perfectly fitting to wear them despite such conditions on July 20, 2019 in Lawton, Oklahoma. On this day, a group of 25 Buddhist priests and lay leaders donned their robes and marched with nearly 400 other protestors—including members of a Japanese American organization, Tsuru for Solidarity, that had invited us—toward a fence in front of the Bentley Gate at the Fort Sill Army Base.

We Buddhists walked the highway hoping not to get arrested before we could fulfill our responsibility to the day’s direct action. We planned to chant a Buddhist sutra as close to that fence as possible—a fence that was the site of two shootings of Japanese immigrants by US Army guards at the World War II Fort Sill Internment Camp, and a fence that was also slated to demarcate the confinement site of up to 1,400 asylum-seeking children from Central America, who have been separated from their families. 

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Buddha Buzz Weekly: What Americans (Don’t) Know About Dharma

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

Most Americans Don’t Know Much (Or Anything) About Buddhism, Poll Shows

More than half of Americans polled by the Pew Research Center said they know little to nothing  about Buddhism, according to a new report. Of the people asked what they knew about various religions, 38 percent responded “not much” and 20 percent answered “nothing at all.” Only 6 percent said they knew “a lot,” and 36 percent said they knew “some.” The survey also included a brief quiz, on which only 18 percent of respondents correctly answered the question Which of the following is one of Buddhism’s four “noble truths”? [Answers: the truth of suffering (18%, correct), the truth that every living being has an immortal soul (22%), the truth that the Buddha was perfect and free from sin (5%), the truth of monotheism (1%), and not sure (52%).] And 20 percent answered “The Mahayana Sutras” as the text “most closely associated with the Hindu tradition,” beating the correct answer, “Vedas,” at 15 percent. 

Related: Buddhism For Beginners 

Bhikkhu Bodhi Addresses the United Nations on Climate Change

On the International Day of Vesak held in Vietnam in May of this year, Buddhist teacher Bhikkhu Bodhi gave a speech to the United Nations, suggesting that Buddhist teachings provide indispensable insight into the psychological craving that is at the root of the widespread reluctance to take the climate disaster seriously. “We know what lies behind climate change; the causes have been determined with scientific precision,” he said in his speech, a video of which was posted online in late July. “The Buddha’s diagnosis would take us a step deeper and show what underlies the climate crisis at the most basic level are distortions at the base of the human mind: the interplay of craving and ignorance, greed and delusion.” In September, Bhikkhu Bodhi, the founder of the Buddhist Global Relief charity, will join other climate activists at the New York Insight Meditation Center for “Right Action in the Anthropocene: A Buddhist Response to Global Warming,” a two-day event of meditation and lectures that will explore the causes and conditions of climate change, as well as the ways we can move forwardly collectively.

Related: A Call to Conscience and Climate Change Is a Moral Issue by Bhikkhu Bodhi

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Why We Yell and Scream

The other day I was talking with a friend about the sexual abuse in my former spiritual community, and she said that she didn’t think so-and-so was doing any favors for those trying to make their voices heard because so-and-so was going on and on and, in effect, ranting. My friend said she thought people would be able to hear so-and-so better if she toned it down and spoke more selectively and in a less inflammatory way, instead of getting people’s backs up and making them feel attacked.

I said that I thought everyone has to express these horrifying things in their own ways, which may not necessarily be completely diplomatic or “nice.” I said that so-and-so had gone through periods of being suicidal, of many years of therapy, of dropping out of her Ph.D. program because she couldn’t focus, and, like most of us, losing many of her friends who feared that associating with her would be a blot on their need to appear loyal to the offending organization. I reminded my friend about how crazy-making all of this can be, when someone is finally trying to understand their own abuse.

Later on, as I thought back on this conversation, I began to wonder why so-and-so was perceived to be yelling and screaming (figuratively, through her writing), and why so many of us, no matter how we present our stories, are accused of being angry whiners, disrupters, unhappy people, aggressive “feminazis,” revenge seekers, complainers, man-haters, and on and on. And, aside from all that, I wanted to try to express why we do yell and scream and why, yes, we absolutely have the right to do so.

So here it is: We yell and scream because the person who molested, raped, or harassed us was our husband, or uncle, or priest, or guru, or boss, or neighbor, or date. They violated our bodies and our trust in humanity (to whatever degree we still had any), and we were shamed and confused by the way they made it seem as if the abuse was partly (or entirely) our fault. So we could never tell anyone, because we weren’t clear about it ourselves. No one ever told us that these things, these behaviors, are flat-out wrong, often even illegal, and that no one has the right to violate another human being in these ways, no matter what. We got the message that no one wanted to know, no one would believe us, and that telling would be worse than our long, confused silence. In our cultural paradigm, we had no context for recognizing the wrongness of these behaviors. They were minimized even in our own minds.

On top of that, our society has had very little meaningful language for these pervasive, almost normalized violations. The misogyny is so old and deep that women who dare to speak out risk vilification, or denial, or some other crazy-making response (ergo laws that say if it’s your husband it’s not rape; ergo our Sunday school teachers telling the girls never to tease a boy or touch his knee [this was my experience as a teenager] because we would be asking for it because he wouldn’t be able to control himself and it would be our fault; and on and on.) And, beyond belief, there are whole societies and sub-societies that still believe this insanity. They believe that boys are natural predators and girls are prey, and therefore girls need to be constantly watchful, never walk alone at night or in unsafe areas, never dress provocatively, never leave our drinks on the counter when we go to the restroom, never “lead a boy on,” you name it. Boys, on the other hand, can do almost anything and have it excused as being part of their bestial, predatory nature. And if something happens to us as girls in this poisonous environment, the first thing that’s examined is what we did that let it happen. (I call this the “short skirt” question.)

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