[Tassajara monastery has no internet. I finished writing this letter in late November 2008, then I then sent it on a disk through the US postal service to my Mom, who emailed it out to a mailing list of friends]
The return of the light. These days, as we leave the Zendo (meditation hall) after the dinner ceremony ends, we walk into daylight. It’s sometimes even warm, too – like, warm enough to wear just a long underwear shirt, or even just a t shirt, under the thick layers of our ceremonial meditation robes. The afternoons are mostly hot, dry, and bright. Mornings, a few blooming trees shower the air and ground with a swirl of pink and white pedals. Birds are singing, bugs are orbiting and swarming, green things are sprouting. There is even sometimes a hint of a warm breeze at four in the morning, as we hustle through the lamp-lit blackness to the first period morning meditation. I am enjoying it all.
Some days here, it is short sleeve t shirt weather. I have shown up to our daily community work-meeting circle a few days wearing a shirt I got from cafepress.com, and that has on it a reproduction of a Japanese woodcut picture of Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. It’s weird – a number of people have asked to buy my shirt from me, or for me to give it to them. Bodhidharma : popular.
A few times in the past month during the day, unexpectedly, around midday there has been a big boom that has rattled windows, walls, and, seemingly, people’s nerves. My first thought each time was that maybe one of our propane tanks has exploded – the noises have really sounded (and felt) like something near by just blew up. But one long timer told me that what we have been experiencing is sonic booms, bubbles of compressed air created as a jet bursts through the sound barrier. This seems funny, because I haven’t seen or heard any airplanes at the time. Anyway, I believe that, since the Concord retired, the only supersonic aircraft are military. So, I wonder if they are flying here from a base the North or from the South. I wonder if they chose this spot of the world to accelerate over because it is so empty of people. I wonder if they try to create the boom for us crazy monks in our little temple down here.
It is striking to me how many of my friends have told me the exact same thing, in letters or over the phone : that they feel like I am doing this spiritual work for them, and/or for all people. A number of people have also followed that up the exact same way, also : by urging me to make the most out of my time on this journey. I find such expressions create a little anxiety in me, but they mostly create a feeling of inspiration and motivation. It also creates a pleasant feeling of connection to the living beating depths of the hearts of my friends.
We just finished our last sesshin (meditation intensive). Well, I am actually being a naughty monk and writing this particular paragraph during an after-dinner break on day five *during* our last sesshin :), but I imagine that I will finish this li’l epistle after the intensive ends.
The sesshin … I tried out a new kind of sitting cushion (a “Bodhi Seat” from Dharma Communications, which is a tall cylander stuffed with buckwheat hulls), and loved it. And, as always during meditation intensives, my mind wandered, I felt blank and unconnected, my knees, back, and ankles hurt, and I felt peaceful, placid, clear, insightful, whole, and deep.
In the monastery, you learn to understand how the feelings of love and hate, success and failure, praise and criticism all function. You learn to find that space that holds it, that knows it, and that can be with it and be still within all that occurs.
— Ajahn Amaro
My workteam – Me, Mikwa, Dave, [the Abbot Steve Stucky], Mako, Shoen, Yuki
I have been feeling grateful for having worked the past three months with the five people that I have. Each of the five people on my crew have been difficult for me at times, but I ended up feeling a world of affection and appreciation for each of them. I especially enjoyed and respected my fellow doan David Rutschman, for his solidity and open-hearted decency, and Mako Voelkel, our team supervisor. Working with Mako had me inspired about the positive potentials of Buddhist monastic practice – six years at Tassajara has seemed to bring out in her a positive balance of strength, clarity, and competence, mixed with open-hearted, humorous, compassionate laid-backness. I feel blessed that she was the ino when I was on the doan ryo.
In general, socially, I’ve been noticing lately, as I have in my earlier visits here, that people seem to be more open and more respectful to me the longer I am here. I’ve also been exploring how, as much as there are many people here in the monastery who I admire, enjoy, and appreciate, there are also folks who I experience as Grade A Assholes. And, I’ve been looking at the idea that my experience of these folks as bad people happens within me. As good ol’ Sid (i.e. our friend Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha) said : “All that we are is the result of all that we have thought. It is founded on thought. It is based on thought.” And hot n hunky Deepak Chopra said it in a more modern way : “You are your own reality. You create it; you carry it with you; and you project it onto everything and everyone that you encounter. Everything you think you see on the outside is really a projection of your own mind.”
So … thinking of a few folks here as assholes, as “I don’t know why people treat them as valued community members, they violate social rules so completely”, has had me thinking of why I see them that way. And that has me thinking about maybe I think of people as assholes because of my own feelings of vulnerability and softness, and I how I don’t often like to feel those ways around people, out of wariness of being exploited or dominated. I have been thinking about the wall that I built, the suit of armor that I put on, as a kid to survive the emotional and physical violence. I’ve been thinking about the hostility and aggression that comes up in me when I think that someone is disrespecting me. Why do people bug me? Because of how my mind constructs the world I live in. Been thinkin about it, thinkin about it, doing my best to watch it closely, make a study of the subject …
I’ve been reading “Shoes Outside The Door”, by Michael Downing, which made kind of a stir when it came out eight years ago. It is a history of the SF Zen Center, with a particular focus on the sex/money/abuse-of-power scandal that rocked the center in 1983 (and ended up with the abbot Richard Baker being disposed). Reading the book feel right-on to me, like the truth coming out. I feel like reading it answers questions I’ve had, like “why is this place so neurotic in the ways that it is”. The book even illuminates things I’ve noticed but never quite put into clear words, like “why does SFZC have so much of a constant focus on the SFZC’s founder, the saintly priest who came from across the ocean, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi” (maybe some of that focus is to establish a feeling of legitimacy, and wash away the taste of the scandal-plagued Baker-Roshi).
Reading this book reminds me, yet again, that Buddhism *as a pure philosophy or hypothetical path of action* is powerful, profound, and maybe seamless – but the catch is, Buddhism in the real world is always taught by actual people, and actual people are weird, messy animals. Reading about the weird, messy history of the SFZC has me feel better about teaching the Dharma, keeping in mind that I am the imperfect being that I am.
I’ve also been thinking about my relationship to the SFZC. Over the years, I’ve come to conclusion that this institution, in some ways, exists more to perpetuate itself than to transform people – in some ways, it is set up in a way to benefit the long-term residents, the priests who have been here ten, twenty, forty years, more than anyone else. It is my guess that, no matter how many hours I meditate here, the SFZC (the largest and most powerful Buddhist temple in the Western world) will probably never help me to move forward with my teaching career, unless I ordain and commit myself to leaving become my former identity, and becoming one of “them”.
More than a few friends have asked me in the past year or two why I don’t do that – why don’t achieve my goal of being a full-time Buddhist teacher simply by staying living and working here within the SFZC organization – I’ve already lived here for three years total, and I have an established relationship with a number of the senior teachers. So, the question goes, why not ordain, and live here at the SFZC another five or ten or fifteen years, and then get sent somewhere to found a new Zen temple there – why not follow the normal route for becoming a Zen teacher. I’ve been thinking lately about why I don’t do that. And, the simple answer is, it feels so wrong. This place is kind of a madhouse. I love it, and what it does for people, and some of the people here, so much, and yet I also hate this place.
Before my Awakening, when I was still an unawakened Bodhisatta, being subject myself to birth, aging, illness, death, sorrow, and defilement, I sought [happiness in] what was subject to birth, aging, illness, death, sorrow, and defilement. The thought occurred to me : ‘Why am I, being subject myself to birth, aging, illness, death, sorrow, and defilement, seeking what is subject to birth, aging, illness, death, sorrow, and defilement? What if I … were to seek the unborn, unaging, unailing, undying, sorrowless, undefiled, unsurpassed security from bondage : Unbinding [in the Absolute].'”
— The Buddha, “The Majjhima Nikkaya 26”
Which world do you want to save? The world of your own projection? Save it yourself. My world? Show me my world and I shall deal with it. I am not aware of any world separate from myself, which I am free to save, or not save. What business have you with saving the world, when all that the world needs is to be saved from you? Get out of the picture and see if there is anything left to save.
— Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, “I Am That”
The central cause of our suffering, the central cause of our enslavement, in Buddhism, is what we do with our mind. And Buddhists have to take responsibility for what they do. We have to take responsibility for how we contribute to our suffering, and to the suffering of the world. If we suffer, even if the causes and conditions of our suffering are in the world around us, those are the conditions for it, but not the cause; the cause is not the conditions. The cause is what our mind does.
— Gil Fronsdal, lecture on the Heart Sutra, 5/20/01
There is also something that bugs me about this the SFZC (and, well, most of American Buddhism) that I don’t expect all my friends to agree with me about, and that feels like it might be difficult to explain, but that bugs me, sometimes more, sometimes less, every day I’m here. So, I will do my best to explain.
The issue is what Ken Wilber calls “Boomeritis Buddhism”. Ken (who I consider the most important philosopher/thinker alive today) calls Boomeritis Buddhism the biggest weakness and “internal threat” to the health of modern American Buddhism, and I have to say that I agree.
In laying out the issue, he utilizes the paradigm of personal and societal evolution of consciousness called “spiral dynamics” (a conceptual structure that some friends like Mark Lewis, Bryan Bayer, and Jason McClain also seem fond of). Spiral dynamics is a complex and nuanced system, but I would say, simply put, that it traces the evolution of the human psyche from the most primitive, instinctual, survival-oriented potentials (the “beige meme”), up through tribal, magical thinking (the “purple meme”), up through power, might-makes-right-based-thinking (the “red meme”), through rigid, orderly, absolutist, conformist principles of right and wrong (the “blue meme”), through scientific, individualistic, experimental, objective, rational, mechanistic, achievement-oriented, materialistic ways of being (the “orange meme”), and then through egalitarian, ecological, sensitive, caring, communitarian, relational, dialogue-based, anti-hierarchical, pluralistic, diverse, multicultural, relativistic, nonlinear thinking ways of being (the “green meme”).
In the theory, the green meme is considered the apex of the development of the human ego, the highest point of intentional conscious human mental activity. And the memes beyond green are, to differing extents, beyond the ego – they access and involve the transcendent, meta-conscious potentials of the human psyche. As Wilber puts, “With the completion of the green meme, human consciousness is then poised for a quantum jump into “second-tier thinking.” Clare Graves referred to this as a “momentous leap,” where “a chasm of unbelievable depth of meaning is crossed.” In essence, with second-tier consciousness, one can think both vertically and horizontally, using both hierarchies and heterarchies (both ranking and linking).”
Expositions of spiral dynamics usually list two initial “second tier” trans-ego memes, ways of individual or societal mental activity that are beyond the simple ego : the yellow meme, which is “integrative”, and “sees life is a kaleidoscope of natural hierarchies [holarchies], systems, and forms”, and where “flexibility, spontaneity, and functionality have the highest priority”. This is followed by the “turquoise meme”, which is an experience of “universal holistic system, holons/waves of integrative energies; multiple levels interwoven into one conscious system; sometimes involves the emergence of a new spirituality as a meshwork of all existence.” And then there are states beyond even turquoise, but they become even more increasingly difficult to identify or describe using language.
One of the main theme’s over all of Wilber’s teachings is that the human psyche exists both in states (i.e. momentary, transient experiences) and stages (i.e. general states of evolution). So, someone could generally be in the green meme, they could be an Obama-voting, Derrida-educated, Greenpeace-member therapist, and have a red-meme moment of impulsive anger – their “stage” would be green, but, for the moment, their “state” would be red.
Similarly, people slip into experiences of the second tier all the time – through near death experiences, great conversations with other people, religious inspiration, reading a great work of literature, through drugs or alcohol, biological glitches, or all sorts other ways. But how they interpret these *states* has to do with the *stage* we spend most of our time in. I’ll let Ken himself explain the rest:
What this means, to give a very quick example, is that somebody at, say, the blue stage of development can have a [second stage] altered state or peak experience of a subtle state – say, an experience of a divine Light or interior Luminosity – but the person will tend to interpret that experience through the mental apparatus that has actually developed in his or her own case. In this example, the person will interpret the spiritual experience in terms of the blue meme, in which case we would see something like the fundamentalist’s ‘reborn’ experience: this person feels, with utter certainty, that Jesus has come to him personally, and that nobody can be saved unless they accept Christ as their personal savior. The experience of the subtle state is very real and authentic, but it is interpreted through the mythic-membership, concrete operational, blue-meme mental level.
Essentially the same thing happens with the other major levels or stages or waves of development. A person at virtually any stage of consciousness can have an elevated state of consciousness, but they will interpret that experience through the lens of the general stage they are at – that is, interpret it through the mental structures that they possess or that have already emerged in their development. A person can have a profound enlightenment-like experience of pure Emptiness (the formless realm), but that person will generally interpret that spiritual experience in the terms of his or her average stage of development (e.g., a person whose center of gravity is blue will interpret altered states mostly in blue or mythic terms; a person at green will interpret them in pluralistic terms, and so on).
It is my opinion that every one of those spiritual experiences is, or can be, a real and authentic experience. However, those experiences become more adequately interpreted the higher the stage that experiences them. A turquoise experience of the Sacred, for example, would include the fact that the Divine is given freely to all sentient beings, whereas a blue experience of the Sacred maintains that God is given only to a chosen people, or only to a few who embrace this version of God, or only to this nation, and so on – in other words, blue is ethnocentric Spirit, turquoise is worldcentric Spirit. Although both of those individuals might have had an authentic spiritual experience (in this case, an experience of a real, authentic subtle state), the turquoise interpretation is more adequate to Spirit than blue because turquoise has more developmental depth and is thus more inclusive and more integral.
In a nutshell, it appears that boomeritis Buddhism – and boomeritis spirituality in general – occurs when a person’s center of gravity is at the green meme, but then that person has a real, authentic experience of some of the transpersonal, transrational states of consciousness. But as authentic as those states truly are – and nobody is denying that! – they are immediately snapped up and interpreted by the green meme. Consequently, the person then interprets Buddhism – or simply his or her own spiritual experiences – to mean that authentic spirituality must be anti-hierarchical, relativistic, primarily a matter of participatory sharing, focused on caring dialogue, a democratic jettisoning of any ranking between teacher and student (‘the sangha is the buddha’), denying any grading and judging, encouraging a multiplicity and diversity of equally valid truths, asserting a plurality of spiritual ultimates, de-emphasizing enlightenment since any ‘higher’ states might marginalize somebody, seeing the spiritual teacher as merely an egalitarian friend with whom we walk the nonhierarchical spiritual path, hand in hand as equals, dispensing with intense discipline and denying that awakening is anything other than doing the laundry with some sort of awareness. Again, it is not that those items are wrong, or bad, or incorrect. Rather, it is that they belong essentially to the green-meme value system, and as such, they do not partake of the even more encompassing values of integral second tier. Those green values are therefore not simply included in even deeper and higher and wider interpretations, but merely become an end in themselves, at which point those green values wind up marginalizing and rejecting the many other value systems.
Run the numbers here: with 25% of the American population at green (the ‘cultural creatives’), and less than 2% at second tier, the likelihood of Buddhism being captured by the green meme is very high indeed. That is, most American Buddhists are green-meme Buddhists, by simple demographics. Again, this is not good or bad, it simply is. But it does bring certain repercussions that I believe anybody concerned with Buddhism – or spirituality in general – ought to be aware of.
The result is a Buddhism that claims to be egalitarian, pluralistic, non-marginalizing, anti-stage, and especially anti-hierarchy. And, alas, all of the moves of the mean green meme [i.e. green meme acting defensively/agressively] then swing into play: it claims to be egalitarian, but it actually condemns all those views that disagree with it (but how could it, if all views are truly equal?). It rejects the teacher-student model, since we are all equal spiritual friends on the same path together (but why are people paying these teachers money if we’re all equals here?). It rejects hierarchy in any fashion (but why does it rank its view as better than all the alternatives?). It claims that pluralism is the true voice of the Mystery of the Divine (but why does it reject all of the numerous other voices that disagree with it?). And sometimes it goes so far that it denies the importance of enlightenment altogether, because all spiritual experiences are to be viewed equally without any judging or ranking, and saying that there is a thing called ‘enlightenment’ implies that those who are not enlightened are somehow inferior, and that’s not a nice thing to say, so we won’t say it. The very raison d’etre of Buddhism – namely, release from suffering in the Great Liberation of the awakened mind, which allows the compassionate salvation of all sentient beings – is tossed out the window because it is politically incorrect.
Well, the list of the mean green meme’s tactics are as legendary as they are lengthy. That boomeritis Buddhism displays all those traits is no surprise, but the real travesty here is that a truly integral Buddhism will probably never take root in the West if boomeritis Buddhism gets the upper hand, which it certainly has at this time. If you simply look at many of the forms of spirituality now available, including Buddhism, you will, I am afraid, find them laced with boomeritis. I feel that boomeritis Buddhism is probably the greatest internal threat to Dharma in the West.
Word the fuck up. I imagine Wilber’s computer keyboard smoking after he wrote all that out. 🙂
One recent examples for me of Green-meme Boomeritis Buddhism was the Abbot stating during a lecture in the meditation hall that the first Buddhist moment the he can remember growing up was when he refused to salute the American flag. My thought is, he may have been a precocious, evolved little kid, cleverly refusing to buy into blue-meme patriotic indoctrination, but I for one wouldn’t call that action “Buddhist”.
Also, here at the SFZC, we have a yearly liturgical calendar that includes yearly ornate ceremonies to mark the birthdays of various founding teachers/Buddhist saints : namely, the Buddha himself (who, well, founded Buddhism), Bodhidharma (who founded Zen), Dogen Zenji (who founded our lineage of Zen in Japan), and Shunryu Suzuki (the guy who brought Soto Zen from Japan to the US to found the SF Zen Center). The history of doing ceremonies for founders goes back fourteen hundred years, back to the origins of Zen in ancient China. The elders of the SFZC, in their green-meme wisdom, however, have made tweaks to the yearly calendar, and added two more ceremonies : one for the imagined birthday of Mahapajapti (Buddha’s aunt, who, legend has it, founded the order of Buddhist nuns), and one for the birthday of Martin Luther King. It was disquieting for me to be at a ceremony that seemingly honored MLK as one of the six most important founding saints in Buddhist history, and to press “play” on a CD deck so that his “I Have A Dream” speech can be played as our morning service. I mean, it’s an uplifting, beautiful, spiritual speech, but it’s weird to me that the higher ups consider it one of the handful of essential moments in *Zen*.
The worst for me is that so many people here (and in American Buddhism in general) seem to feel that they actually understand the Buddha Way more than any of the great teachers of the past. The claim goes, “those old farts were delusional and antiquated when they thought that the point of our way is transcendence and liberation – really, us modern ubers-marties have figured out that the real point of Buddhism to create a worldly utopia of social, political, and economic equality for all.” Talk like this, to my eyes, indicates someone with a well-developed green-meme ego, which is great, but someone who has not yet made the jump into the second tier, which is where spiritual development really begins.
Put in simple English, sometimes thing here are too damn politically correct for me (as I have written about before). I suppose that most people I know and love [including, I suppose, most of you reading this 🙂 ] are more left-wing/p.c./”progressive” than I am, and I”ve made my peace with that. What bugs me is when Buddhist people call their green-meme views “Buddhism”- cuz, I assert, they are most definitely not “Buddhism”. Buddhism supports all sides in a political argument, and it supports no sides. Buddhism is about realizing emptiness, not about political agendas and views; and, as Ken Wilber says, “Ultimately, Emptiness takes no sides in a conceptual argument; Emptiness is not a view that can dislodge other views; it cannot be brought in to support one view as opposed to another; it is the Emptiness of all views, period.”
When I took a physics class in college, we learned that the world we lives in looks like solid matter, but that research has found that what we are, and what is all around us, is actually more like energy that blinks into existence out of nothingess, and disappears back into nothingess, a million trillion trillion (10^24) times a second. I also learned that research shows that there is no actual dividing line, on the level of molecular interactions, between any one “thing” in the universe and the rest of the universe – the whole universe flows together, one “thing” into the next, in one interconnected mush of transactional subatomic particles. Experiencing that level of truth is the kind of Buddhist practice that I would like to pursue – seeing through the illusion of the world – rather than just trying to advance political agendas (as noble as they may be) while living within the illusion.
So, over the years, I’ve spent three years living here at the (sometimes-boomeritis Buddhist-y) SF Zen Center, and I am now leaving to see what other kinds of training are out there for me. I am hoping for ones where I may possibly experience more actual non-dual transcendence. I’ve been told that in Japan things are often worse – rather than the green-meme as a backdrop for occasional second tier transcendent experiences, the backdrop is more blue-meme : obedience, religiousity, and physical violence. Nevertheless, I’m gonna leave harbor and head out to the open seas, and see what’s out there. I have a list of different centers in the US and Asia, in various Buddhist lineages, that I aim to spend from one week to three months in.
I’ve noticed that a subtle level of anxiety has been arising in my meditation over the past few weeks. That may be cuz, now comes the part when the deeper leaving home happens. Yeah, I moved out of my home (Casa Precita) and started living in monasteries nine months ago, but, so far, it’s been places I’ve been before – SFZC City Center and Tassajara. Now comes the part where I step into the forest where there is no road (at least, no road that I have been on before).
It’s amazing to think that my six months here at Tassajara are about to come to an end, that in a few days I’m gonna pack up all the stuff out of my cozy li’l room here and truck on out. Who knows if and when I will ever be back here at Tassajara for any appreciative period of time. I imagine I will always feel the Zendo here in my heart, a place of refuge and depth where I have sat in meditation for maybe three thousand hours over the past ten years.
Over the my various visits here at Tassajara, I again and again come to the feeling of the preciousness of life – that it our lives are a gift that is given to us for a time, and can be taken away at any moment, and so it is so important for us to do what is our deepest calling, to give what is our deepest gift to make.
This was brought home to me when I talked to my mom right before sesshin. My older sister Elisabeth is just forty one, and she has been fighting cancer for two years now. I think of my sister as a decent, mature, kind, through, deep person. And it seems to me that she has been a strong warrior about her cancer. I read in emails from her that she has developed a whole routine of healthy eating and exercise, juicing, tai chi, and more. She has ruthlessly educated herself, and I have been told that she often knows more than some of the oncologists she consults with. Pain, discomfort, and difficulty seems to never phase her for long, as she has again and again chosen the most aggressive course of surgical and chemo treatment, even if it’s been painful; for example, not long ago, she had her lower left ribs broken and left lung deflated to remove metastasized microtumors, and then, two weeks later, the same deal on the right side. And I feel admiration for her for the positive attitude that she has maintained throughout the whole thing – seemingly never angry or bitter, always trying to not have people worry about her. I don’t know how she does it.
And, now – shit fuck shit. My mom says that the cancer has recently spread through my sister’s body – that she coughs when talking on the phone, because of the new tumors in her lungs, and that she needs painkillers to get through the day because a huge tumor in her shoulder that hurts so much (and it’s on her dominant hand side, which makes daily action difficult).
Shit. It seems so unfair. She’s done everything right – more than right. I mean, daily mind-splitting pain. I feel sad as I think back to times with Lis that were some of the happiest, most ease-filled times for me in an often difficult childhood, and, in the later years, all the efforts she made to help me to grow into adulthood, introducing me to cool music and her cool friends, giving me good advice about how the world works.
So, I ask you to generate some prayers for her health, ease, and well-being. And, yet again – live while you can. Birth as a human is precious. I feel lucky to be able to make this journey while I can.
Paz amor amistad y salud,
P.S. Here is a whole lotta Zen (aka end of practice-period picture):