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…”

Canvassing Like a Buddha

On a scorching day in July 2019, sweating and shaking with nerves, I knocked on the door of an immaculate house in Staten Island, New York. A sweet-faced young woman opened it, eyeing me curiously. I took a deep breath and launched into my script.

“If you had two minutes to tell President Trump about the job he’s doing, what would you say?” I asked. She had voted for Trump, she told me, but didn’t like the callous way he treated people. On a scale from zero to ten—where zero meant she would definitely vote Republican and ten meant definitely Democrat—she put herself at a three.

“When I vote,” I said, “it’s a political act, but it’s also personal, a gift to someone I love.” I told a story about a teenager I had mentored in a writing program. I loved her for her brilliance and talent, and also for her willingness to resolve the initial conflicts between us. “I’m curious,” I went on. “Does this make you think of someone you love?” She wouldn’t discuss a particular person but said she wanted her gay friends to be free to live as they chose. When I pointed out that she and I shared a value of caring about others—a value that the president’s behavior rarely displays—she moved from a 3 to a 5.

This exchange was my first experience of “deep canvassing,” a method of voter outreach that aims to bypass political speech by connecting with people emotionally and engaging with their sense of ethics. It’s based on the principle that facts and opinions don’t change people’s minds, values do.

I’d finally found a form of political action that matched my own convictions. For the past twenty years, I’ve practiced vipassana, or Insight Meditation. Since the 1960s, I have also participated in political action—marches against the Vietnam War, demonstrations toward a more sustainable climate future, and protests against the war in Iraq. But by the time of the Iraq War, I’d become uncomfortable with angry chanting and strident rhetoric demonizing political enemies, which felt at odds with the shift in thinking about dealing with conflict brought about by my Buddhist practice. I’m absolutely anti-Trump, but I don’t want to hate Trump voters. I want to understand them. And it was now clear to me that not only did anger feel wrong, it was also an ineffective strategy in a country so divided.

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Practicing Questioning

Over the past forty years, I’ve trained with meditation teachers in the lineages of Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan, both in Asia and in the United States. I’ve found that, in all of these lineages, learning how to ask wise questions is a huge part of cultivating a skillful practice. Meditative inquiry fosters greater inner freedom and allows us to loosen up and let go of conditioning. But how do we do this? 

In meditation practice we calm our minds, and then we look into the true nature of things as they are, which leads to greater understanding. This understanding brings about inner liberation. Investigation or inquiry is another key aspect of practice. To investigate is to contemplate with a silent mind. It’s to illuminate that which is cloudy or confused—to explore and to discover what we have not yet noticed or understood.

This kind of deep inquiry provides us with the tools to free the mind from suffering and the pitfalls of an unexamined life. Of course, freeing the mind from suffering is the point of the practice and at the core of the Buddha’s teachings. Looking into life as we generally live it—carefully examining our habits and our patterns—encourages us to examine the whole world differently. Asking questions is a way to allow intrinsic wisdom to emerge, wisdom that is there within each one of our hearts, that has not yet had a chance to come forth and inform our lives. 

I also think questioning is part of the Buddha’s injunction to practice ehipassiko, a Pali word that means “comes and see for oneself.” Meditative questioning is one way to understand for ourselves and to build a greater sense of self-confidence and self-trust. We learn to know for ourselves what brings about liberation and what does not, what further mires us in misery or confusion. 

In this practice, doubt is totally OK—we’re encouraged to test the teachings out so that they become our own. But questions like, “Why am I here?”, “What is the meaning of life?”, “When can I get what I want, or get rid of what I don’t want?”, “Why am I so deluded?”, or “Why are others so deluded?” tend to take us nowhere. I’ve found that they cause us to circle around and around and do not reveal a way out. The deep inquiry I’m talking about doesn’t mean constantly questioning oneself, obsessing, or running after thoughts. 

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Don’t-Know Mind and the Election of Our Lives

Noam Chomsky recently warned that we are now living through the most dangerous moment in human history. He cited the climate crisis, threat of nuclear war, and rising authoritarianism, but a long list of other issues can be added, among them the COVID-19 pandemic, economic breakdown, increasing social polarization… and the November election, in which many of those problems are at stake, perhaps including the very future of our democracy. No wonder so many of us are feeling anxious these days.

Buddhist teachings have always emphasized impermanence, and this year certainly offers us plenty of examples to demonstrate that truth. The instability of the world that most of us nonetheless took for granted has become more apparent and the future seems more unpredictable than ever. It’s not that we should want to return to the “old normal,” which was never that good for most people and certainly not for the biosphere. But it’s also looking doubtful that there will be anything like a “new normal” in the foreseeable future. We may not know what happens after we cast our ballot in what could be the most important election in US history, but there is good reason to believe we’re in for a wild ride that will test the maturity of our practice. 

One Buddhist teaching that is all the more relevant today is don’t-know mind—a teaching that calls attention to the “not knowing” state of our consciousness that exists before discursive thought. 

One Buddhist principle that is all the more relevant today is don’t-know mind—a teaching that calls attention to the “not knowing” state of mind that various meditation practices cultivate, in which we let go of discursive thought. The practice of don’t-know mind applies this state of mind to everyday life, but it’s easy to misunderstand. It doesn’t imply willful ignorance about what is happening. When a student once asked Chan (Jp., Zen) Master Yunmen what the goal of a lifetime of practice is, he replied: “An appropriate response.” We, too, must determine how to respond appropriately to our formidable array of challenges, and we need to keep abreast of developments in order to be able to respond appropriately. 

Don’t-know mind is not an excuse to evade responsibility. Rather it involves letting go of our fixed ideas about the world, including our expectations. Such “not knowing” is the first tenet of the Zen Peacemakers, a network of socially engaged Buddhists co-founded by Zen teacher Bernie Glassman in the late twentieth century. (The second tenet is bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world, and the third is taking action that arises from not knowing and bearing witness.) Peacemakers co-founder Roshi Egyoku Nakao describes it as a “flash of openness or a sudden shift to being present in the moment” in which we “take shelter in the place before anything arises, a place of emptiness and profound silence.” We become more spacious, more aware of our own reactivity, and more open to the perspectives of others. 

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Buddha Buzz Weekly: A Buddhist on Death Row Ends Hunger Strike

Jarvis Jay Masters ends his hunger strike over phone restrictions, the Kung Fu nuns win an award for outreach work, and Thich Nhat Hanh celebrates his 94th birthday. Tricycle looks back at the events of this week in the Buddhist world.

By Emily DeMaioNewton and Karen JensenOct 17, 2020

Jarvis Jay Masters with Buddhist teacher Ani Pema Chödrön | Photo courtesy Free Jarvis: The Campaign to Exonerate Jarvis Jay Masters

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

“The Buddhist on Death Row” Ends Hunger Strike

Jarvis Jay Masters, the subject of the new book The Buddhist on Death Row and author of Finding Freedom: How Death Row Broke and Opened My Heart, has ended his hunger strike in protest against  a wave of phone restrictions at San Quentin State Prison, where he has been incarcerated since 1981. On September 18, Masters started refusing food to raise awareness about a new policy that cuts death-row inmates’ phone use from 3.5 hours each day  to only two hours a week, according to the group Free Jarvis: The Campaign to Exonerate Jarvis Jay Masters. Jarvis said that the new rules curtail inmates’ contact with attorneys, family, and friends and exacerbate the suffering brought on by the pandemic. After meeting with an associate warden on October 7, Jarvis ended his strike; arrangements are now being made to allow for equal distribution of phone access. 

The Kung Fu Nuns of the Drukpa Lineage | Photo courtesy Live to Love International

Kung Fu Nuns Receive Unsung Heroes Award

The Kung Fu nuns, Tibetan Buddhist renunciants known for teaching self-defense to Himalayan girls and women, will receive an Unsung Heroes Award for their work in gender equality, environmentalism, and humanitarian aid, according to a press release from Live to Love International, the nonprofit group founded by their root teacher Gyalwang Drukpa. The Atlantic Council, an organization that promotes constructive leadership and engagement to solve global challenges, chose to honor the nuns, whose martial-arts practice challenges centuries of restrictions on women monastics. The award also honors the nuns’ various relief efforts, which includ running free health clinics, cleaning up plastic litter from Himalayan and Indian land, delivering critical aid after the 2015 Nepal earthquake, and providing food, supplies, and hygiene education to neglected Nepalese and Indian villages throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “This is an incredible honor,” said 27-year-old nun Jigme Rupa Lhamo. “In the Himalayas, help doesn’t always come, especially for young girls. We want to show everyone we can be our own heroes.”

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The Life of Yvonne Rand

no wind, yet the windbells
keep on ringing
—Kokan Shiren

Yvonne Rand (née Boye), a member of the first generation of American Zen teachers, died on August 19, 2020, shortly before her eighty-fifth birthday. Her life was as rich as it was long, and lived at full intensity. She brought to the world a wide range of gifts and a compassionate mind. An early and enduring dedication to horseback riding had taught Rand to be fluidly settled in her seat, mindful and aware in the moment. Rand’s ability to weave together so many strands of Buddhist teachings carried through her decades of teaching and echoed the diversity of her interests.  

Rand with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

Born September 23, 1935 and raised in California, Rand graduated from Stanford University in 1957. She first turned her attention to Eastern religions during her college years, and began studying the teachings of the Buddha dharma in 1954, entering a Soto Zen path shortly after. She became a close student of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in 1966, served as his secretary and personal assistant, and together with his wife Mitsu Suzuki, cared for him through his dying and death in 1971. After helping to found the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) in 1967, Rand was ordained as a priest there and served on the board of directors for many years, practicing and teaching primarily at Green Gulch Zen Center. She also studied with Dainin Katagiri Roshi and received dharma transmission from him in 1989. 

Committed to rooting the dharma in Western soil, Rand renounced formal titles, such as roshi, the traditional term for a senior priest and teacher like herself.. She described herself as a lay householder priest, emphasizing the importance of the world of family and daily life in dharma practice.

Rand’s profound interest in the dharma led her to study with notable teachers in many Buddhist traditions, including Rinzai Zen roshis Maureen Stuart and Shodo Harada; Theravada Buddhist monks Ven. Henepola Gunaratana and Ajahn Sumedho; as well as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and Tibetan teacher Tara Tulku Rinpoche. Her work with Tara Tulku Rinpoche led to her active support of the Tibetan Buddhist community in diaspora and to a recognition of the deep connections between Vajrayana Buddhism and Soto Zen insights and practices. 

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