Archive for June, 2008

The rules of living

Posted in General on June 27, 2008 by Al

There are a lot of rules in the Pali Canon – 227 major rules for bhikkhus and 311 major rules for bhikkhunis, to be exact. I mean, let’s all face it, that’s a hell of a lot of rules. Modern Buddhism isn’t too big on rules. Most focus on the 5 precepts and the noble 8-fold path, at most. Americans like basics and bullet points, apparently. I know I do, as long as it isn’t on a Powerpoint slide.

A lot of newbie Dharma revolves around ways to incorporate the rules of Buddhist living into your everyday life. It’s very inspiring to read stories of austere monasteries and virtuous monks, but once you get on the highway or talk to your mother-in-law, you’re an asshole again. This can lead to a dangerously delusional interpretation of how to practice with Buddhist morality. It’s all the time, every day, not just on the cushion or during Dharma talks. That doesn’t mean you’re a perfect person every second of the day, though. It just means being aware of your intentions, and every time that awareness gives you pause, when it gives you a choice instead of a gut reaction, you make the decision that’s in line with the Dharma. You make the decision that doesn’t harm, delude, or obfuscate.

So what are some ways that you can bring this newbie friendly awareness into your life? What are Dharmacore values on a radically mundane level? All I can speak to are the ways I’ve created my own traditions based on those ancient rules.

Waking – know your intention for the day. Begin with the wish not to harm others in any way.
Eating – moderation, and gratefulness.
Speaking – does it need to be said? is it hurtful? is it truthful? is it helpful? is it necessary?
Consuming – what am I watching? what am I reading? how is it affecting me?
Contributing – how have I helped my wife today? have I missed an opportunity to help a stranger?
Participating – Buddhist communities and forums online, plus this blog.

Long term:
Vassa observance – Starting in July, this will be my 3rd Vassa. No alcohol during this time, less TV, more Dharma books and audio talks
Uposatha observance – Rice and milk for breakfast, signifying the Buddha’s symbolic meal. Precepts, no alcohol.
Classes – Local and online classes whenever possible.

These are a few really simple, really personal interpretations of some Buddhist traditions. As you can tell, they’re not strictly denominational or strictly anything. They’re just ways that I remind myself of what it is I’m doing.

How do you remind yourself of your practice?

Family values, Dharma style

Posted in Western Buddhism with tags , , , , , on June 20, 2008 by Al

Often in modern Western life, our families and friends are our sanghas. Buddhism has fallen dramatically short at creating family-friendly fellowship among its practitioners. For all the emphasis on the sangha (a group of people who support your practice) in the original teachings, traditional Buddhism has been less than inclusive of family life, at times even outright discriminating against women, children, and family concerns. In her article, Change or Die: American Buddhism When Baby-Boomer Converts Are Gone, Andrea Useem talks about Zen monk Clark Strand’s recent article in Tricyle, “Dharma Family Values.”

Clark asserts that while Buddhism has made a good start in the US and has become part of the lexicon (a subject I’m interested in myself), we haven’t yet figured out how to “get married and buried” as Buddhists. Ritual, family, and ceremony have either been stripped away completely in the name of creating a more agnostic Buddhism or they’ve been copied verbatim, preserved in the form in which they were imported but not adapted to our own modern lives.

This is one of the most important places Buddhism can learn from Christianity (yes, we should be mindfully paying attention!). Christians have summer camps, youth groups, Bible studies, pot lucks, and fellowship after services. Now, I know that many local Buddhist groups often have gatherings and work very hard to be family-friendly. However, I think that overall, Western Buddhism has failed to put together a cohesive system.

I got married yesterday. When trying to research how to have a “Buddhist” wedding, I came up with almost nothing. The choices are either ultra-traditional (robes, precepts, blessing by a monk) or vaguely New Age stuff that was made up by wedding portal websites to target a demographic. Where is the in between where we, as Westerners, often rest so comfortably?

The good and bad news is that we are creating the in between, the new traditions, here and now. Really, it’s a call to action for young Western Buddhists to be mindful of their own actions and take an active role in developing what Buddhism will be in this country. I didn’t have a “Buddhist” wedding ceremony. But I did vow to treat my partner with kindness, compassion and mindfulness, and I believe others in the post-boomer generations will uphold these and other Buddhist family values, no matter how they manifest in ritual and ceremony. A little bit of ceremony wouldn’t hurt, though.

Modern Buddhist traditions

Posted in Theravada, Vajrayana, Vipassana, Western Buddhism, Zen with tags , , , , , on June 16, 2008 by Al

A lot of people come to Buddhism seeking to improve themselves and to make their lives better, simpler, and more productive. There is nothing wrong with this approach. Even in Buddha’s time, kings and householders came asking about their everyday problems, and Buddha’s answer wasn’t “just sit” or “become a monk.” His responses were practical but firmly rooted in the Dharma. I was inspired by Buddha’s response and compassion to everyday people and everyday problems, and that’s how Dharmacore was born.

Today, there are certain schools and traditions of Buddhism that are modern interpretations of the Dharma. I define these as modern-beginner-friendly traditions. I’m talking about the person who feels vaguely dissatisfied with their life, walks into a Barnes and Noble one Saturday afternoon, and has no idea which book to choose from the vast Buddhist section in order to start learning more about the religion.

So what are these modern, Western-accessible, beginner-friendly traditions?

Thich Nhat Hanh – Plum Village – Vietnamese Zen
TNH is one of the most popular Buddhist authors currently alive today. He rivals the Dalai Lama for that precious Barnes and Noble bookshelf real estate, and his books and are friendly, accessible and easy to read. His teachings are often described as a mix between Zen and Vipassana (insight) meditation. He draws from both Theravada and Mahayana scriptures, but has a firm basis in the Pali Canon. Most of the practices at Plum Village can be easily integrated into daily life. I’m a big fan of the gathas. Plum Village is in France, so it may not seem that accessible for US and Canadian seekers, but there are many TNH-inspired sitting groups in the states.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche – Shambhala – Kagyu and Nyingma schools of Tibetan Buddhism
The Shambhala lineage is one of the best organized Buddhist sects in the West. They have a lot of features normally associated with Christian churches, including Sunday services, childcare, childrens’ programs, fellowship activities, and classes. Though Shabhala is definitely Tibetan in flavor, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (the original leader) and his son (Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche) have borrowed aspects from other traditions, including Zen’s focus on the arts as well as elements of Bön, Taoism, Confucianism, and Shinto. Their beginner meditation classes are friendly and free, and you can find a center via their website.

Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, et al – Insight Meditation Society – Theravada/Vipassana
Some of the most prolific Western authors writing about Buddhism today are associated with IMS and their educational organization, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. The teachings focus on the basics of Buddhism from the Theravadan perspective, including instruction in breathing meditation, vipassana, and metta (lovingkindness). IMS doesn’t have really have satellite centers around the country, though you might be able to find a like minded lay sitting group near you. They do offer plenty of retreats throughout the year, though, so if getting away appeals to you and you have the time to do it, IMS is a great candidate.

Noah Levine – Dharma Punx – Theravada/Vipassana/eclectic
Noah’s book, “Dharma Punx,” inspired a lot of younger practitioners to get started on the path. He deals with topics like addiction, sex, drugs, and morality with an unflinching honesty. The community of people inspired by these teachings have organized themselves via the message board on his website and sitting groups have sprung up everywhere. The community announcements board is the best place to look for (or even start) a group in your area. The Dharma Punx crowd tends to be accepting, unconventional and dedicated to bringing the Dharma into the reality of our modern lives.

Jundo Cohen – Treeleaf Zendo – Soto Zen
As far as I know from my online travels, Jundo is responsible for providing the world’s first legitimate online sangha, led by an experienced teacher and run as well or better than any brick-and-mortar practice center. Treeleaf has daily video Dharma talks, daily sittings via webcam, and an active community forum. Jundo answers emails and is very active on the forum. If you’re looking for direct experience with a teacher, Treeleaf can provide that even if there’s not a practice center within 500 miles of where you live. This is an amazing example of modern Dharma.

This list is not all-inclusive, by any means. Groups like Soka Gakkai and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order are very active in Europe and in other parts of the US. The groups listed are those of which I have the most personal knowledge and experience. As always, see for yourself and find your fit. To find a sitting group near you, check out, a non-sectarian meditation directory. Please also consider joining the Dharmacore community.

The top 8 things Buddha had to say about productivity

Posted in General with tags , , , , on June 14, 2008 by Al

Buddha talked about productivity? Yeah, well, not in the ways you might think. Productivity for productivity’s sake wasn’t really Buddha’s bag. Buddha had a lot to say about how to live your life, though, and much of the wisdom still applies today. Being a good person, living well, and living with mindfulness are the basics of using Buddha’s words for a more productive life.

Most people have some mystical childhood story about how they came to be interested in spirituality, but mine is decidedly lame. First, I became obsessed with tea, and read The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura. Then during my big hipster PDA/GTD/productivity kick, Merlin Mann posted about mindfulness on 43folders.

Soon I found like minds at Zen Habits and Buddhism and productivity were inextricably linked in my mind. Once I really started practicing Buddhism, though, I realized that Buddha had a very different definition of productivity.

Without further ado, the top 8 things Buddha had to say about productivity:

1. How to be a good parent
“There are these four grounds for the bonds of fellowship. Which four? Generosity, kind words, beneficial help, consistency. These are the four grounds for the bonds of fellowship.”
AN 4.32

If there are any four things that describe what holds a modern family together, generosity, kindness, help, and consistency would definitely be those qualities. You can run a “productive” household like a successful business – scheduled, organized, and to the point. But to produce togetherness, you have to dig deeper.

2. How to be a good friend
“The friends and associates thus ministered to as the North by a clansman show compassion to him in five ways:

(i) they protect him when he is heedless,
(ii) they protect his property when he is heedless,
(iii) they become a refuge when he is in danger,
(iv) they do not forsake him in his troubles,
(v) they show consideration for his family.”
DN 31

This one sorta sounds like the Buddha knows you hang out with some dudes who like to get crazy. If you just substitute the word “drunk” for the word “heedless” then you might have an accurate assessment of last Friday night. The message is still clear. Protect each other, don’t abandon each other, and respect the family.

3. How to avoid offending people
“[6] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.”
MN 58

Okay, so you can never really avoid offending people. But can you imagine an entire day where you only spoke what was a fact, true, good, AND pleasing? I probably wouldn’t say much that day. The point isn’t to keep your mouth shut until you’re perfect, it’s to elevate your own awareness of the intention behind what you’re saying. Look carefully.

4. How to stop making excuses
“It’s too cold,
too hot,
too late in the evening —
people who say this,
shirking their work:
the moment passes them by.”
Thag 3.5

There are a lot of things to complain about, and complaining can quickly become an energy drain that leads you further and further away from getting on with life as it is. The Buddha directly addresses procrastination and asks us to kick the habit. No, not just when we get around to it. Wake up now.

5. How to have a positive attitude
“Staying at Savatthi. “Monks, if someone were to give a gift of one hundred serving dishes [of food] in the morning, one hundred at mid-day, and one hundred in the evening; and another person were to develop a mind of good-will — even for the time it takes to pull on a cow’s udder — in the morning, again at mid-day, and again in the evening, this [the second action] would be more fruitful than that [the first].

“Thus you should train yourselves: ‘Our awareness-release through good-will will be cultivated, developed, pursued, handed the reins and taken as a basis, given a grounding, steadied, consolidated, & well-undertaken. That’s how you should train yourselves.”
SN 20.4

Okay, I don’t know about pulling on a cow’s udder, but this passage speaks to modern life more than it might seem at first glance. In the US, we often outsource our goodness simply by donating money to a charity or cause while still remaining the same angry, judgmental people every day. Spending time cultivating our own mental good-will just might be more productive (but don’t stop giving money to that charity).

6. How to eat in moderation
“And what more is to be done? ‘We will have a sense of moderation in eating. Considering it appropriately, we will take food not playfully, nor for intoxication, nor for putting on bulk, nor for beautification, but simply for the survival & continuance of this body, for ending its afflictions, for the support of the holy life, thinking, “I will destroy old feelings [of hunger] & not create new feelings [from overeating]. Thus I will maintain myself, be blameless, & live in comfort”
MN 39

Buddha asks us to see food as medicine for the body, and not a crutch in dealing with emotions, trying to make ourselves bulky or gorgeous, not for stuffing down our emotional problems with a Twinky. This contains a great guideline – eat until the hunger’s gone, but stop before you create new bad feelings from overeating.

7. How to lead a balanced life
“Four conditions, Vyagghapajja,3 conduce to a householder’s weal and happiness in this very life. Which four?

“The accomplishment of persistent effort (utthana-sampada), the accomplishment of watchfulness (arakkha-sampada), good friendship (kalyanamittata) and balanced livelihood (sama-jivikata).”
AN 8.54

For the householder (that’s the guy who lives in the everyday world, dealing with regular problems, family issues, money, and work), the Buddha lays down the truth about how to deal with things. Work hard, so that no question can be asked about your integrity. Be watchful of your own efforts. Cultivate good friendships with trustworthy people so that you have a network of support. Balance your livelihood with your family and spiritual life.

8. How to respond with kindness in the face of anger
“Monks, there are these five aspects of speech by which others may address you: timely or untimely, true or false, affectionate or harsh, beneficial or unbeneficial, with a mind of good-will or with inner hate. Others may address you in a timely way or an untimely way. They may address you with what is true or what is false. They may address you in an affectionate way or a harsh way. They may address you in a beneficial way or an unbeneficial way. They may address you with a mind of good-will or with inner hate. In any event, you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic to that person’s welfare, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading him with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with him, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.”
MN 21

Anyone can say anything to you at any time, for almost any reason. People can become overwhelmed by their emotions and erupt in a fit of anger and your only choice is how to respond. Especially in the workplace, keeping your cool can mean keeping your job. The above passage doesn’t ask you to stuff down your feelings so you never respond in anger – it asks us all to remain sympathetic to the other person’s welfare even in the face of their hostility. This kind of calm is unshakable.

Please join the Dharmacore community.

Zentertainment, Dharma burgers, and the Buddhaweb

Posted in Western Buddhism, Zen on June 13, 2008 by Al

Brad Warner recently explored a topic he’s termed “Zentertainment” – the insistence of Western dabblers that Buddhist teachers perform various snazzy Buddhist rituals, make “Zen noises” (another great term from Brad) and generally feed the overdeveloped ego. Zen has become a kind of catchphrase that can be a design style, a mood, or a wallpaper pattern. Brad combats this by steadfastly being the exact opposite of what most people imagine a Buddhist teacher would be like.

The Worst Horse, another fantastic source of Buddhist sacrilege (and I mean that as a compliment), posts frequently about “Dharma burgers.” These are delicious tasty pop culture morsels, usually advertising, featuring the Buddha using the Yellow Pages or someone meditating while others around them do ridiculous things. The Worst Horse points out these examples and lets us laugh at the silliness of it all.

Zentertainment and Dharma burgers are terms for explaining the misappropriation of Buddhist concepts in the US. People respond to this pop culture Buddhism in a myriad of ways, ranging from decrying the religious persecution of Buddhists to laughing heartily at the Glade Scented Candle ad. Whether we like it or not, this is one of the ways the West has changed and embraced Buddhism. It has become a Jungian symbol for peace and serenity in the midst of our chaotic lives. As religious appropriation goes – and I’ll probably get a lot of crap for saying this – it’s not that bad, and it could be a lot worse.

That’s right, I’m not that offended by it. I can’t count the number of times an atheist has told me that if they had to pick a religion, it would be Buddhism, or that a Christian has said “Oh, I love Buddhism, it’s so peaceful.” I’m happy to have a peaceful coexistence with those of a different belief system than mine. I think that’s incredibly valuable. Buddhism enjoys an elevated status, even in the current conservative cultural climate, because it has somehow managed to be so damn cuddly, adorable and inoffensive. I blame the cuddly Dalai Lama (no offense Dalai Lama, I love you).

Most serious practitioners know that Buddhism isn’t cuddly (unless you like to snuggle your zafu even though your butt’s been sitting on it all day), adorable (see photos of me on Flickr) or inoffensive (check out some of the comments Brad and other controversial teachers draw on their blog posts).

Should we work vigorously to correct these wrongs and correct misconceptions when they arise directly in our path? Absolutely. Should we spend all our time fighting the perceived injustice? Absolutely not. There are much bigger fish to fry in the world than the perception of Buddhism in the US, and no two people would ever agree on how Buddhism should be perceived, anyway. When people come and they ask, give them truth. Don’t Zentertain them.

Please don’t forget to join the Dharmacore community.

Creating a Western Buddhism

Posted in E-Sangha, General, Western Buddhism on June 12, 2008 by Al

There’s an interesting post right now over on the ever-controversial E-Sangha forum that asks the question, “Which school is making the biggest strides toward a Western Buddhism?”

This hot button question can create a lot of hostility among us peace-loving Buddhas. Is the desire to strip away Tibetan or Japanese or Chinese influences racially motivated? Are we confronting our own biases? Is Buddhism still Buddhism when it’s no longer steeped in a certain culture?

Traditionalists argue that wanting to strip away these cultural signifiers is simply our ego rearing its ugly head, demanding that Buddhism be more like us. Reformers argue Buddhism has been radically changed by every culture it has ever encountered, and ours shouldn’t be any different.

Personally, I have faith in Buddhism’s ability to contain all of our human trappings. I don’t think the trappings themselves matter so much. And besides that, what we decide on a forum or what I write about in this blog doesn’t matter – Buddhism is already changed by us, and we’re changed by it. If we take a step back and just look at where the entire argument is taking place, on a huge online forum with representatives from dozens of Buddhist sects from dozens of countries, we can see that the change has already taken place. Our only choice is whether or not we accept this reality. And even this, once we’ve acknowledged the fact that we have a choice, is not much of a choice at all.

When I posted about Dharmacore on the Livejournal Buddhists community, one commenter responded, “Hopefully as online practitioners we can graduate to novice practitioners by going to real dharma centers instead, eventually.” This is the fundamental mindset that I would like to drill into and explore with Dharmacore. Aren’t we practicing now? Can’t we practice wherever the Dharma is?

Please don’t forget to join the Dharmacore community.

Dharmacore community

Posted in Dharmacore community on June 11, 2008 by Al

When I originally conceived the concept of Dharmacore, it was always about community, not just one person blogging the issues of modern Dharma. I’m happy to present the Dharmacore community built on the Ning platform. This provides functionality WordPress never could, like a forum for discussion, photo sharing, events and more. I invite everyone to join the community and make it your own.