Category: Community

Learning to know and control myself

Dancer in flight

This heartfelt tribute is by a friend who is a dancer, health care professional, community organizer, rights activist and writer who has contributed to the Angry Asian Buddhist blog, where this essay was originally posted. She frequently comments as Liriel.

I started dance late. I was nearly 13 years old and definitely not Misty Copeland. I had rhythm but not a particularly good pointe. I had flexibility but not particularly good balance. I still can’t do a back walkover to save my life. But I had a dance teacher who taught me to know my self, to care for my community, to understand my limitations, but not to quit until I’ve tested them, to love the dance, and to let it go.

I have so many memories of 羅老師. When she allowed me to perform so soon after my promotion to the advanced class that I didn’t know all the steps to the Ami dance. (She wasn’t worried about me embarrassing her; I showed up, so I was going on.) When she hired a Laker girl to teach us a very different style of dance. (She loved all types of dance and wanted us to have as broad an education as possible.) When she choreographed the perfect commencement dance for me upon my graduation from high school. (She then gifted that choreography to me – just in case I ever need it.) But the memory that returns to me most often is one of a fairly unremarkable class on a Sunday morning.

We had spent the class on the basics, focusing on form, doing across the floor exercises for the majority of the time. And I had had difficulty keeping up. My weight was balanced wrong; my fingers, droopy; my turnout, nonexistent. This last defect had 羅老師 coming up to me when I was in passé, taking hold of my leg, and guiding it to the left as I protested that I couldn’t move that way.

“See? You can move that way. You just weren’t trying.”

After class, as we were changing our shoes, 羅老師 came to talk to me.

“Prajña, dance is the art of knowing and controlling your own body. It might sound stupid. You might think, ‘I know how to control my body, I use it everyday;’ but it’s actually very hard. Most people cannot. But in this class, you need to try.”

This was the quiet, understated wisdom of 羅老師. As a full-time county welfare worker, a Saturday Chinese school principal, and a Sunday dance teacher. Dance never paid the bills for her, and she knew that none of us would ever go on to dance professionally. But she understood each of us and what we could learn from her dance class to carry with us through the storms of adolescence into the uncharted waters of adulthood.

I never thanked her for this, and now it’s too late. 羅老師 passed away last Friday, and I am grieving. But in my heart, 羅老師 left a handful of mustard seeds: “Prajña, dance is the art of knowing and controlling your own body.”

Mindfulness is the practice of knowing and controlling my own mind. But meditation has always been difficult for me. I always feel like a fraud. I always feel so alone. But today I will sit with the memory of 羅老師, tomorrow I will dance in her honor, and I will not be alone, and I will not be a fraud. Because it is hard, and I am trying.

S.N. Goenka passes away

SN-Goenka

It was my first ten-day retreat, and it changed my life. I used to look down on S.N. Goenka’s vipassana retreats, which all seemed to be just another new-agey approach to Buddhist meditation. But I found myself compelled to attend one such vipassana retreat, after I was overwhelmed with regret for mocking some friends about their dedication to this particular vipassana community. After the retreat, I wrote my friends a long apology and then finally wrapped up my studies to pursue the career I had held off on for so long.

S.N. Goenka’s passing brought me to think about the numerous ways in which he had left an imprint on my life. When I was in my teens, it was S.N. Goenka’s book, The Art of Living, that a Burmese monk at temple used as a guide to talk about meditation in English. Many of my friends, from ordained Buddhist monks to ordained Methodist ministers, have found their meditation practices bolstered after attending Goenka’s vipassana retreats. Having attended a Goenka-style vipassana retreat myself has proven to be an important connection point with many other Buddhists, even if it is not exactly the way I have continued to practice.

Perhaps most important is that S.N. Goenka managed to create an institutional movement that embodies many of the Buddhist values that are dear to my heart. His retreats were dana-based, where none are forced to donate and only those who have attended a retreat are allowed to donate. He valued the Mahasangha and saw his position as a lay teacher in complement—not a replacement—to the monastic community. And his teachings, developed by Asians and based in Asia, have been presented in a format that are accessible enough to global audiences that even Westerners are easily able to embrace them as their own.

S.N. Goenka has not been universally praised and his vipassana movement has attracted criticism. But I strongly feel that he has done a great deal to make the world more receptive to the power of meditation and has strengthened the Buddhist community—even without being Buddhist.

Aung San Suu Kyi, please speak out and help to relieve the suffering in Burma

ImageThe fires of suffering and strife rage around the world,” and continue to rage in the Rakhine state of Burma. Recent sectarian strife between Arakanese Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim community have claimed the lives of at least 78 people, and displaced over 80,000 fleeing from the violence. With the situation degenerating into a vicious cycle of hate begetting hate, it has come to light that some Buddhist monastics are actively engaged in fanning the flames by calling on lay people to disassociate with the Rohingya and actively blocking humanitarian aid to the refugee camps.

Shame on any monastics who would use their moral authority to suade others in enhancing suffering. While their Arakanese identity may compel them to act in ways that hurt others, they also wear the ochre robe and carry with it the freedoms and responsibilities of their monastic precepts. Their renunciation embodied by the first precept has now been made useless. By their own actions, these monastics demonstrate that they do not deserve to wear the ochre robe.

I realize that the situation is not so black and white. However, the Arakanese and Rohingya alike are sharing in pain. The face of suffering is the same among all people and the cycle of violence rings throughout history. In the late 1960’s, my parents, their families, and many of their Toisan community were driven away by the Burmese and fled into Maoist China. Though the conditions were not great, at least they had a state which would accept them as Han Chinese and would provide a home.

The Rohingya have no state advocates and have shuttled back and forth between Bangladesh and Burma for many decades. Burma’s Presidential Office has stated that “It is impossible for Burma to accept people who are not ethnic to the country and who have entered illegally.” Their situation grows more desperate as the violence continues, as more people are displaced, and as more languish in camps without the infrastructure or supplies to support them. Organizations that have stood up for the Rohingya include the UN and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation. Unfortunately, as the violence continues, the Rohingya’s list of advocates now include the Pakistani Taliban, who have said, “We will avenge your blood.”

Aung San Suu Kyi, in your Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, you acknowledged the ongoing strife in your native Burma. We all celebrate your release and your continued work for democracy in your country. This means that you are again a politician for your constituents: speaking on their behalf, and sharing their concerns. Your freedom to speak as you choose is also delicately tied to the whims of a state still emerging and fragile in its transition towards democracy. Nevertheless, the moral authority you possess reaches across national boundaries as we lend you our ears. Please speak out. Your voice as a mediator are needed in this conflict. Lend your compassion with the humanitarian aid organizations  and help to relieve the suffering in Burma.

Working Your Way into the Buddhist Community

Over the years this blog has had plenty of questions and comments from people asking how to join a Buddhist community, or sharing stories of their failed attempts. Truth be told, it is not always easy to become part of a Buddhist community. For many people who do not live near major cities, the nearest temple or meditation center can be far, far away. But even people who have a temple in their own backyard can have a difficult time joining a community when they don’t have a friend to guide them into the fold.

A tip from someone who has stumbled through a number of communities: to become part of the community, sometimes you have to work at it. Literally. Read more

Shinnyo-En temple visit

I recently had the chance to visit a Shinnyo-En temple with my girlfriend and learned more about this relatively new form of Buddhism.

Though Shinnyo-En’s followers are mainly Japanese, it has managed to establish a foothold in several other countries as well. The temple we visited was in the Los Angeles region and we joined a bazaar hosted by the temple where they offered food and entertainment on an overcast day.

Founded by Shinjo-Ito and his wife, I heard much about as much about their practice as I did about the followers’. Shinjo-Ito and his wife are said to have had visions of the Dharma in their dreams and set off to realize their vision. Shinjo-Ito retired from his career as an engineer and they adopted Dharma names, Kyoshu-sama and Shojushinin-sama. Kyoshu-sama went through many strict practices through Shingon Buddhism. One of his practices include meditating with lit candles on arms to train in pain tolerance and “become one with the God of Fire.” He also meditated under a waterfall. His lay followers believe they are able to pick up in their spiritual training where Kyoshu-sama left off.

Practicing meditation is a big emphasis among followers, which progress in meditation divided into 4 levels: Daijo, Kangi, Daikangi and Reino, with tests organized for followers to demonstrate their advancement. Those who attain the highest level, Reino, are able to give spiritual advise during sesshin and can assess advancement during the meditation test. Reino, however, are still lay persons.

Interestingly, the last person to practice as a monastic within Shinnyo-En was Kyoshu-sama, making Shinnyo-En a strictly lay organization. The community is now led by Kyoshu-sama’s daughter, Shinso-ito, who decided not to marry and have children so that the next leader that is chosen would be based on a consensus of merit.

Their sangha arrangement is certainly different than the traditional monastic-lay arrangement and I have respect for their succession model and am curious how they will continue practicing without a monastic tradition. Do you all know of other streams of Buddhism without a monastic tradition?

Democracy’s Dharma and Buddhist Pluralism

Recently I read a really good Buddhist Book: Richard Madsen’s Democracy’s Dharma. I don’t read a lot of really good Buddhist books, because most Buddhist books are dreadful. This is because so many of them fly too close to New Age and self-help and are more concerned with making the reader feel good than communicating something new and vital.

Democracy’s Dharma has something to say. It is a study of four major religious groups in Taiwan: Tzu Chi, Fo Guang Shan, Dharma Drum, and a predominantly Daoist group called Xingtian. The three former groups, all very active in the United States, are often underrepresented in English Buddhist writing, and they each receive in-depth treatment in Madsen’s book. A study and analysis of each of these groups’ founders, culture, and history would be valuable in its own right, but the book is more ambitious: Madsen looks at how each group was fostered by the democractizing and industrializing forces of Taiwan over the last few decades, and how the culture and character of each group serves a specific segment of Taiwan’s changing society. Read more

Engaging the Buddhist Community

Last weekend I participated in a small panel on Buddhism, where a Buddhist student in the audience asked me how I incorporate Buddhist practice into my everyday life. I gave her a fairly lame response along the lines of, “I meditate daily and—gosh, Buddhism practically permeates my life!”

Here is my attempt to give her a slightly better idea of how I have been engaged with the Buddhist community, along with the types of opportunities she likely will have in the Buddhist community after graduation.

Read more

Dhammakaya in the news

Foreign Policy magazine just did a photo-essay entitled “Close Encounters of the Buddhist Kind“, with the subtitle, “An exclusive look inside a booming multibillion-dollar, evangelical, global Thai cult.”

That’s not a fair way to introduce to their readers a “movement…little known to Thailand’s general public, and certainly to the rest of the world.” Buddhism has always had an evangelical element ever since the Buddha’s decision to teach and spread the dharma, with the same motivation powering Christianity (or any other religion’s) spread of its gospel, compassion. Dhammakaya is certainly global, but to say it is little known to Thailand’s general public is a misstatement, later corrected in the essay. And it’s okay if the rest of the world does not know about it, there’s a lot that the rest of the world doesn’t know about. Most religious groups do not have the global celebrity power of the Dalai Lama.

The most egregious assault by Foreign Policy is in the way the photo-essay labels Dhammakaya as a cult. With little explanation of the context within Thai culture, the photo-essay shows pictures of massive rallies with adherents all dressed white and standing in lines. What are most people to make of these pictures without the proper context? Afterall, Dhammakaya is “certainly” unknown to the rest of the world. Could it be that the massiveness of the rallies is fed by the Thai culture’s expectations that men be ordained at least once in their life? This is suggested by the fifth picture but there are no indications of this being a family or community event. Instead, we only see a sea of uniformity.

It would be easy to post up a group of pictures and include short commentary. The Internets does this all the time! In fact, we could invite our readers to do the same for the pictures below. Use your imaginations, sky’s the limit.

But in all seriousness, there is one troubling aspect shown by these pictures: lots of money and it’s use. Where does all the money for the Memorial Hall come from and how did they receive it? Was it necessary to enclose it with dome consisting of thousands of gold-plated Buddha statues? Why are we creating another idol? I will admit to having a suspicious bias against ostentatious displays, be it of wealth, compassion or most other things.

I am interested in hearing from Dhammakaya followers or anyone who knows more about these practitioners. What is the meditation practice like? Their website suggests imagining nimitas. Why’s that? How is the organization able to collect so much money? Since there is a local meditation center, I may just have to check them out.

Resolution

It’s been quiet around this blog lately. Last month was the first second in over two years that none of us bothered to post anything. Not for any lack of material—it’s just that other priorities won out.

When we began this blog, we did so figuring that we had unique perspectives to offer the online Buddhist community. All of us are young Buddhists who’ve been highly engaged in the community on the ground—each in our own way, and in ways you’re unlikely to find elsewhere on the Buddhist blogosphere. Our posts may not directly reference this involvement, but it’s hard to overstate how much these experiences guide our writing.

The flow of posts has slowed precipitously over the past year. The initial pull that brought us online has diminished, and so most of us have come to prefer sharing our practice offline. For my part, I’ve funneled my scant spare time and energy into “Angry Asian Buddhist” topics on the eponymous blog.

In the past few months, several Buddhists have approached me offline to encourage us to post more often. They have all been Asian Americans with an interest in deepening their practice and understanding of Buddhism. They have found little inspiration in many of the institutions they’d investigated, and were interested in hearing more from voices of young people like them. My goal for this coming year, then, is to publish at least once a month on my thoughts and experiences surrounding my personal practice in the context of being an Asian American Buddhist.

I hope my cobloggers join me as well. I deeply miss their posts—and their writing is much more eloquent and insightful than my own.

But that’s not all. We could use more writers. I’m especially interested in the voices of young Asian American Buddhist women. The community is seriously lacking our sisters’ voices in the discussion! I’m happy to publish guest posts as well. If you’d like to contact us, just leave a comment, and we’ll get back to you.

I’d like to revamp the site too—but that may be for another year.

May you all have a happy and peaceful new year!