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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Buddha Don't Lie: The Suffering Buddhist Christian

I have come to the inescapable conclusion that the Buddha did NOT say, "Life is Suffering," and not just because he didn't speak English - yet in another way, precisely because he didn't speak English. I have also arrived at the conclusion that it is absolutely impossible to completely eliminate physical suffering and THAT truth does not contradict the First Noble Truth, that Life is Dukkha.

Americans are too literal, and too impatient, for precise translation. We seem to naively believe that word for word translation is possible for every word in every language to an equivalent word in every other language. That misunderstanding may be the best argument I can think of for mandatory foreign language study in public schools. According to Monier-Williams in his Sanskrit-English Dictionary, dukkha means "uneasy, uncomfortable, unpleasant, difficult." How one jumps from there to "suffering"
is a bit beyond me. Yet much of contemporary Buddhist teaching in the west asserts just that, leaving us with picture of someone with a just-severed arm sitting by equanamously like the Black Knight of Monty Python fame exclaiming "it's just a flesh wound!"

In fact, it is quite often suffering that draws us to spiritual practice in the first place! Maybe it would be more accurate to say that what draws us to spiritual practice is suffering and the desire to find a way out. That's just fine, I have no argument with that, but throughout history people have been engaging in spiritual practice and still suffering remains. To me that indicates that suffering serves an important spiritual purpose - opening the door to transformation. Are we to reduce spiritual practice to a selfish, individualistic pursuit of eliminating MY suffering and to hell with the rest of you, or might there be something more to the question? Boddhisattva* vows notwithstanding, cancer still exists, birth defects still exist, illness and injury of all sorts still exist, accidents still happen, and I believe we fail to honor the very real suffering of those who encounter tragedy of all sorts when we attribute their suffering to a certain degree of spiritual naivete through simplistic mistranslation. Somewhere, perhaps as part of the Judeo-Christian culture in which most of us were raised, there is an expectation that everything will be just fine - which we distort to mean I will be just fine and everything will work out the way I expect it to (nice to meet you, Mr. or Ms. God, who has such sway in the universe!) - despite the fact that nowhere in the tradition does it guarantee we won't encounter adversity! That would be absurd, because it is adversity itself that transforms us! As Julian of Norwich famously wrote "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing will be well." To that I would add, "...but there's gonna be some shit first!"

On the other hand, if we look at the proposed definition above, we have quite another picture, don't we? If the First Noble Truth is that Life is uneasy, uncomfortable, unpleasant, and difficult, who could argue? If the Noble Eightfold Path is about a path of transformation out of life's uneasiness, discomfort, unpleasantness, and difficulty - situations and circumstances that are most often a matter of our own misperceptions and false expectations, after all - then there is a completely different picture! Gone is the expectation that my failure to sit by with equanimity as my body is racked with cancer or my spine collapses onto itself, and it is replaced with a path that helps me to learn to cope. I can have my pain and my physical suffering without denial - it is after all just the body working as designed - and still come to understand that all of us are of the nature to get sick, age, and die. That experience isn't some sort of punishment, but the price of life! I can even stop waiting for any spiritual, religious, Divine, or super hero figures to swoop down and save me because I can realize life simply doesn't work that way. What a relief!

The First Noble Truth? If you must have a one word slogan, how about Life is Unsatisfactory?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Priest Model Must Change

The model of Christian priest that was predominant in the middle to latter part of the last century has outlived its usefulness. That priest was a kind of technician, the spiritual equivalent of a very good guitar player who knows all the chords and how to put them together in all the right progressions but never improvises and so is perceived as having little soul. They were trained to be expert in a number of areas including parish administration, church history, doctrine, even church music. On the other hand, they received little training in pastoral care or preaching. Depending on where they went to seminary, they may or may not have had a degree of spiritual formation or developed a spiritual practice. If they did succeed in developing a practice in seminary, somewhat against the odds, the demands of parish life soon pushed their spiritual practice out the door as committee meetings, visiting the sick, and other administrative tasks came to predominate their life. In the Catholic Church the priest shortage has made this situation even worse, but even in the broader Church the decision to focus on a morality and theology of the groin and manage the local church like a business has only increased the problem. What does it mean to be in charge of a parish with a two hundred fifty thousand dollar budget that allocates no money for outreach into the local community and that does not want to be spiritually challenged from the pulpit? You might say it means that you are the administrator of a country club. For these reasons it's perfectly understandable that many clergy have lost their spiritual grounding, but that doesn't mean it's desirable.

With the implosion of organized Christianity in the west, new forms and ways of being church are emerging. On the whole, both these groups and the remaining local parishes of the institution tend to be smaller, with under fifty people in attendance. These situations don't require a country club manager. In the case of a shrinking parish, a grief counselor may be what's needed most - along with someone who can do some visioning around moving forward in a new way. In the case of a new community developing, what's needed is someone who can teach spiritual practice. Ostensibly, that's why we seek out spiritual community. While there is need for a survey of church history and belief - we need to know where we have come from if we are to know where we are going - the emphasis needs to shift to preparing leaders who themselves are spiritual practitioners and who can teach others to develop their own spiritual practice. I want to say that it is from these things that all the rest emerges. It is from practice that compassion and the realization we are called to serve others develops. If the practice is missing, so is the understanding of the importance of service, outreach, and helping others. It's as if the Christian community as a whole has gotten the cart before the horse, believing that if we get the forms right the discernment and drive to serve will follow. The evidence is in that the opposite is true.

A person can be an absolute technician at the altar, flawlessly executing every ritual assigned to them - but if they can't improvise at the sick bed they will fail to support people at the time they need it most. A person can know the month, day, and year of every ecumenical Church council, but if they can't remember how many children someone has they are done before they have started. A person can be the stoic leader of an organization, but if they can't weep with us they cannot lead us spiritually. All of yesterday's leaders who have been trained to erase their personality and present an image have gotten us precisely to where the Church finds itself today. I don't want to lay too much blame at their feet, they were after all simply doing what they were trained to do. I want to ask, though, how one feels fulfilled as a spiritual leader when one has a flock that doesn't want to be challenged to grow but rather prefers to have a congregation that gathers to make professional connections and find new clients?

This is why I believe a spiritual teacher model is a more fitting one for the future. Yes, we certainly need to be able to negotiate the mechanics of our various settings. Equally if not more important is that we help people develop their spirituality. Healthy spirituality is much more than a moral code, it's a way of making sense of our world. We can only do that with a paradigm shift, and there's no time to start that like the present!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Everything Dies

Everything, and everybody, dies - yet somehow many of us seem to miss that point. I read a story about a shoe store here in Milwaukee that closed one of its branches after almost forty years. You would have thought someone lost a favorite Aunt, which was especially perplexing to me since another branch of the same store remains open in another part of town. It wasn't even as if a locally owned business was disappearing. Somehow, though, the author of the article couldn't pass up the opportunity to predict economic doom and gloom for the shops on this particular street. Knowing the area as I do, reports of its demise are a bit premature. More importantly, everything that is born eventually dies and every business that is opened eventually closes. There are no more Model T Ford dealers in business, very few horse drawn carriage repair shops continue to exist, and not much call for VHS rentals, either. It's the nature of things to pass away.

This week one of my daughter's classmates from grade school died in a car crash. He was driving while intoxicated, and from what I understand not much was left of his car. It has been interesting to look at his Facebook wall, as the people who knew him are all leaving him tributes, which is fitting. They also are expressing confidence that they will "see him again in heaven," or similar words. Of course, we know from church attendance data that the vast majority of the people expressing that certainty are not practicing Christians (Christianity being the faith that would express such a belief in that way). One of them promised to work on his dancing so that they could dance together when they meet again. You don't have to be a practicing Christian to express these beliefs, and I believe that most if not all of those expressing such sentiments were sincere. I can't help but wonder, though, if such beliefs are part of the system of denial of death in our culture, a denial that does not serve us well at all.

It's as if we want to convince ourselves that this twenty-five year old young man has just gone on an extended vacation and we will see him again when he returns. There's an unwillingness to engage in a serious way with the dangers involved in both substance abuse and driving while impaired. There's no open discussion about resolving to behave differently in the deceased's honor. Of course, his Facebook wall is not the place to have that discussion, but I know it's not happening anywhere. Their twenty-something invincibility continues unabated, even in the face of shocking evidence to the contrary, because in our culture nothing dies, not even a shoe store.

Working to change that trend will take a tremendous effort, and we will not succeed overnight. We have industries that have arisen - especially the long term care and funeral industries - to insulate us from death. We ship the old and infirm off to places where we do not have to see them or be confronted by the reality of their decline, and when they finally succumb to the effects of sickness, old age, and death we send them off to a makeup parlor that puts them in a nice padded box in such a way that they appear to just be sleeping. Is it any wonder that people believe the friend they lost will awaken from his nap in a dance hall awaiting their arrival? Is it any wonder we die unprepared? Most tragically of all, many of us die without ever having lived because we believe death is a universal law that doesn't apply to us. We need to wake up.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Building Empire

I am discouraged at how often Christian leaders seemed more concerned with building empire than with doing actual spiritual teaching and ministry. I don't believe they start out that way, I believe most begin by discerning an authentic call to ministry in some form or other but then quickly succumb to the American fascination with size. Earlier in my ministry I was caught in that trap as well. How many clergy could we have, how large an organization could we build, how many could we serve? On the surface these seem like legitimate questions, but when we stop to consider that more than eighty percent of America is not in a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple on a regular basis the only conclusion we can come to is that while many may claim massive ministries and some may actually have them, the vast majority of us do not and will not have them. In fact, as Lyle Schaller pointed out in his 2003 book Small Congregation, Big Potential, the vast majority of American Protestant congregations worship less than one hundred people on any given Sunday. In that book he argues that the optimum size for a congregation is between eighteen and forty people. That would be enough so that everybody could know everybody else fairly well, that people would notice if someone was missing and check to see that they were okay, that intimate relationships would develop between people - and less than half the number of people necessary to afford a full time clergy person's salary. It's hardly the stuff empire is made of, but it's exactly what's needed at our time in history.

Despite that, I have known more empire builders in all forms of ministry and spiritual leadership - and in all traditions - than I have known people who want to serve those who are actually in front of them asking for spiritual leadership! They want the stuff of building campaigns, sabbatical and continuing education funds, fancy cars supplied by those they serve, membership drives, repaving the parking lot, and building a large staff to do their work for them. In short, they may as well want a brand new Edsel because those other things belong to the same time as that car does. I have seen bishops look to their clergy to shower them with money and fail to pay attention to them when they cannot, apparently blind to the fact that none of us has the kind of revenue stream that allows for such questionable practices any more, and then become angry when their clergy move on for lack of leadership from the bishop. It's not just Christians, however.

It seems there isn't a Zen tradition in America that hasn't been rocked by sexual scandal, most often at the hands (or other parts) of the teacher - whether the teacher is American or Asian. The other Buddhist traditions aren't without their scandals, either, and what astounds me is that the teacher is often highly thought of even after his misbehavior comes to light. It's as if they say, "oh, sure, he screwed half of the women in the Temple, but he was enlightened and so it was a privilege to be abused by him and, besides, his teachings are still valid." What this says to me is that we are so hungry for authentic spiritual teaching and leadership we will even allow ourselves to be abused if we believe there is half a chance we might get a morsel of truth from the exchange. That's pretty dismal, if you ask me.

The first thing we need to do is abandon this idea that we are somehow deficient and in need of secret information that someone else possesses. That's not to say that there aren't people who are further along our particular path who can help us as we traverse our path, but it is to say that they don't have anything we need them to give us to reach the goal of the path - because we possess the goal within us already, just waiting to be uncovered. What's more, there are one hell of a lot of people out there who can help us along the way. In fact, in any one person's journey they will have several teachers - from their romantic partners to their coworkers to dedicated spiritual professionals and others - and so if this particular person either doesn't want to help us or is asking something from us that is unacceptable in return for helping us, we can just walk away. The truth is that they need us much more than we need them, and the price they want us to pay will actually set us back on the path, not move us ahead.

There will most likely always be frustrated empire builders. They, too, like the perpetrators of other transgressions and injustices upon the faithful, are asking from us something we cannot give and have nothing of value to offer in return that we don't already possess within ourselves. When we walk away we can expect that they will throw little tantrums just like the spiritual children they are, but it is not our job to placate them. In fact, by resisting their manipulation and control games we may just call them into psychological health. Whether or not they answer that call is completely up to them. Our responsibility is to our own path, and nothing more.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Annual Anti-Fourth Blog

It's that time again.
It's a season for fools
To lose digits,
Scream patriotic slogans,
Drink too much,
Air our their nationalist crap
Without fear of contradiction,
And diminish our nation
Just a little more.

There's hardly anyone
Left to mistreat,
Save for masochistic WASPs.
Whom don't we hate?
Whom can't we diminish
Just a little more?
The rich rule the day,
And most of the ninety nine
Are too dumb to see it.

Stand for the flag
As it passes by,
It's easier to get bent over
Already on our feet.
No sense of history,
Infantile, genital morality,
Everybody packing heat,
But nobody's brains
Are fully loaded.

Excuse me if I once again
Skip the flag shirt, the parade,
And the social pressure
To drivel on about
This great land of ours
That tortures prisoners,
Builds walls to keep children out,
Degrades women and
Worships at the corporate altar.

Wake me when it's over
When we come to understand
There's nothing patriotic about sheep,
That the biggest patriot
Questions authority and
Challenges power, and so
Calls the powerful to account.
Tearing down assumptions
To expose the asses behind them.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Intoxicants and Mental Clarity

The Fifth Buddhist Precept for lay people, though translated many ways, amounts to: "I refrain from
the use of intoxicants, which cause carelessness." Sometimes the word "heedless" is added, so that we refrain from the heedless use of intoxicants. This effectively changes the precept to mean that we might have a beer, but won't get buzzed. The reason is that substances bring with them a certain level of disinhibition. When a person has a few drinks, they tend to do or say things they otherwise wouldn't. Then there is the issue of the impact of intoxicants on our mind, and our awareness being clouded by the use of substances.

On the surface all of this seems like pretty common sense. In fact, as somebody who primarily experiences alcohol as a sedative I just don't drink much any more. I may have a beer at a wedding reception and I will certainly join in the toast of the bride and groom, but the truth is that for the most part the decision to have more than a drink or two is a decision to go to bed early and I am not very interested in that at my age. From what I gather, a lot of people experience alcohol differently and don't get especially fatigued from social drinking. They can just party all day and all night, and so for them this precept is probably a different issue entirely.

Where I run into conflict over this precept is pain medication. Some argue that pain medication clouds awareness and so should be avoided. That's great as far as it goes, but there are two problems. The first is that simply isn't my experience of pain medication. Of course, people can take too much pain medication and choose to zone out with everything that comes along with it - clouded sensorium, decreased awareness, altered mental states, and spending a lot of time sleeping. That really isn't taking appropriately prescribed pain medication - it's either being over prescribed or taking more than prescribed, or both. While there may be a period of adjustment when started on long acting pain medication, after a week or so the body adjusts and there aren't many, if any, side effects that impact awareness.

The second problem is that pain itself clouds awareness. It impacts concentration, mood, and mobility. Chronic pain often leads to depression, or in people with pre-existing depression it makes it worse. It isn't a matter of being uncomfortable with everything else in life moving along normally, rather it's about a constant struggle to find a position to sit or lay down in which one can be comfortable or get some rest, finding people to help doing the physical things that the patient can no longer do, and a host of other distractions that make awareness of the present moment problematic. Yes, there are meditative practices that help - but in my experience has been that may of them help only as long as one is
experience many of them help only as long as one actively engaged in them. It's great in principle to say that I can do body scan meditations and listen to guided meditations to reduce my pain, but there are still meals to prepare, work to be done, phone calls to make, and errands to run. Sooner or later you have to step away from intensive practice and then the pain returns. In my experience, pain that is out of control is much more disruptive of awareness than appropriately prescribed and taken pain medication. There are plenty of people who have heard some of the abundant horror stories around pain medicine and who have no actual experience with chronic pain and who become self-appointed experts full of rhetoric around pain and medication that simply isn't accurate - but that doesn't stop them from talking as if they were informed.

When it comes to spiritual practice, it's been my experience that poor pain control is one of the biggest barriers to effective practice. I'm aware that obstacles can actually increase the strength of our practice, but when the obstacle is trying to resist blowing your brains out because you just can't take the unrelenting pain any longer the obstacle is no longer an asset. The idea that someone shouldn't take any sort of medication because it is somehow better spiritually to suffer is nothing less than spiritual abuse - and I say that as someone who believes that dealing with unavoidable suffering is a path to great spiritual progress, but the key word is unavoidable. When I hear stories of people dumb enough to go have dental work and refuse Novocaine, which is a local anesthetic and so doesn't impact awareness at all, I have to shake my head in disbelief. Why not just hit yourself in the head with a hammer in the name of awareness and spiritual growth?

Our society tends to create stigma around illnesses and conditions that most people are afraid they might contract one day. They reassure themselves that they won't become pain patients because only weak people become pain patients and only addicts take narcotics, but the numbers of people affected by chronic pain are staggering. We do the same thing around mental illness, sexually transmitted infections, addiction, and even cancer. When it comes to the first four conditions in the last sentence we attribute them to weakness. When cancer is the issue we set out to blame the patient buy speculating about what lifestyle choices they made. The truth is, as the Buddha pointed out, we are of the nature to age, get sick, and die. All of us will eventually face something with which we will need help coping. When spiritual teaching actually gets in the way of quality of life, it's time to reform the teaching.