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4/18/2014

The Private Confessions of a Mad Nun


           Dear Father, forgive me, for I have sinned.
I continue to sin, simmering in anger, blame and hatred.
I continue to sin, being unable to forgive long enough to survive the next bout of provocation.
I continue to sin, being haunted by a dream, and what may very well have been a dream.

One dream is that of a dark dungeon. In its dusty rotunda with creaky floors and walls that must hold many ominous tales at bay, people are in motion but eerily quiet. I look about as I stand there, lost for a moment. Suddenly, someone comes from behind me and slides a razor-thin slice of glass into my neck. Bloodless and undetected, I became one of the many zombie-like figures around – deathly and mute. . .
If you recall, Father, it has been about 17 years since I last attempted a confession of sorts. That Buddhist confession did not turn out so well. Ensnared unaware in a storm of political infighting, renditions of my confession were made public in a way that made me the target of mockery, humiliation, and hostility. For the last decade I swore to myself that I will never reveal anything again to anyone in that religious institution, or perhaps, to anyone at all.
I come to you again, Father, because I am troubled -- troubled that the cuts to the neck and other parts of me continue despite my eviction from my former Buddhist order nearly five years ago. As you see in the documents I have preserved, I was chided for a list of faults that range from not wearing a nun's booties to not smiling enough, from missing meditation to having a female neighbor enter my room. In essence, I was told that I was unfit for their community. Compromises such as stays at subsidiary branches and short-term absences were rejected outright. Forced out within two hours, I grabbed what little I could of my belongings and stepped onto the next flight, for which my family purchased the ticket. What else was I to assume other than a complete severance of my relationship with that Association?
What I consider to be trouble did not stop though. Unless I am insane, it is sometimes too obvious to me that strangers and strangers I wish to befriend would deliver to me demeaning messages, cravings in memes, and morbid wishes. I feel powerless about not being able to communicate directly, in normal uncoded language so that meaning is not left to interpretation and re-interpretation. I want to tell those behind-the-scenes puppet-manipulators to knock it off! How arrogant of them to play themselves as if they were God, omnipotent and omnipresent! How cowardly of them to be hiding behind a veil, leaving me with no opportunity to respond -- or to strangle them (oh sorry)! Is this what so-called religious “leaders” must do -- repeatedly throw unspoken accusations at you as if to brainwash you until you become their insults? I refuse to adopt even their labels, not to mention responding to them.
Dear Father, I recognize my weaknesses, imperfections and neuroses, but it is too cheap and contrived to explain toying with someone's mind as lessons in Buddhist koans (meditation riddles) or tests. It is particularly dangerous, as has been shown in cases past and present, when standards vary because of an individual's status, positional power, gender, potential as a threat etc., not to mention there are cases of gross misbehavior on the part of the religious who are never addressed, and certainly those alleged are never slapped with the big stick of expulsion.
For someone who has never been through an ousting of any sort, this experience was and continues to be unpleasant. One of the major challenges is my shakened faith. I now question religious authority and the facade of those so-called “leaders”. Too often they are shrewd politicians more concerned about getting their way and demonstrating their truths in front of people. Especially in cloisters, abuses often occur under the guise of compassion. One senior nun whom I admired very much wrote a letter to this Buddhist Association before she departed about how she was tired of being a two-face and seeing two-faced individuals. There is always an image that they have to prop up for outsiders.
I also remember, for example, how I had Bells’ palsy about eight or nine years ago while in the monastery. Since I was unable to get immediate and regular medical treatment, permanent damage was done to one side of my face. The medical instruction I did receive was to avoid strong winds, but that proscription was dismissed and I was told to brave it. I hear those making excuses for my eviction about how it may have been because I was sick. I cringe at the thought that my judges thought to cure me by inducing extreme stress.
Though I have yet to experience uninterrupted respite, I continue to take things one day at a time and to take advantage of opportunities that I otherwise would not have encountered. For instance, I was able to affirm and organize activities in support of the Charter for Compassion, co-found Women of Spirit and Faith, lead group and online teachings, and serve as an ambassador at the most recent Parliament of World's Religions. I found joy and satisfaction in giving of myself with those past involvements.
I am an optimist after all and I am taking my time to reevaluate my faith and maybe in time reassemble it. I continue to be a devout Buddhist and I am certain I will remain a life-long nun unless I'm physically removed of my robes.

Meanwhile, dear Father, forgive me, and please help me forgive. Please help me rebuild faith in other people and in their inherent goodness. Do not let any figurative ice pricks and dampers make me hard-hearted. Let me take things one step at a time, one breath at a time. May I meet more people who are good through and through, and together, may we live the dream of encouraging one another and more. May we become wise and compassionate for the world. 

3/22/2011

Come Hell or High Water -- You Are Empowered to Help

A death toll of more than 18,000, nuclear radiation, shifts in planetary balance, tsunami warnings along the west coast of U.S. and other parts of the world. . .

All this occurred because The identity of the Japanese people is selfishness. The Japanese people must take advantage of this tsunami as means of washing away their selfish greed. I really do think this is divine punishment” according to Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara.

This is a most unwise and unkind statement for the Governor's own people undergoing an unprecedented natural disaster.

Given that there are also rumblings about how the Japanese people deserve this catastrophe because of their karma (action) of having slaughtered whales, dolphins and other sea creatures, I want to say a little more about the law of cause and effect.

Karma is not a verdict to be slapped on anyone, especially not neighbors in distress. When you see others experiencing difficulty, attempt compassion and know that it is good karma for you to encounter a situation where you may help. Know that better karma will result for you and those in need.

When you experience difficulty, attempt wisdom and accept that, whatever it is you are experiencing is your individual or collective karma and you are now in charge of creating your upcoming karma. Better karma will occur as a result of your assuming complete and total responsibility-- mentally, physically and psycho-spiritually-- because you are responsible for what is in your future.

Once upon a time, a village decided to burn a woman to death for being an alleged phony and whore. The townspeople watched for signs as they wheel-barreled the outcast, all limbs tied and mouth stuffed shut, to the desolate desert to receive her execution. Along the way, they smell wafts of noxious odor. They sneer at each other, giddy as they tell themselves that their judgment is affirmed by the Almighty. They decimate the said criminal until she is reduced to ashes. Upon returning home, they see their houses burned to the ground, releasing a strong stench as carcasses of their dearly beloved cauterize.
Reading natural or man-made phenomena as signs can border on superstition and can be dangerous, especially if constructed or interpreted by a select few with an agenda. Is it possible that these are divine warnings for us to stop blaming the victim(s) and treat them as sacrificial lambs?

Furthermore, I would not be too quick to judge a situation the result of good or bad karma. In the aftermath of a series of disasters in Japan, there are also heartening stories of heroism and caring for neighbors like “the good old days”.

Karma is a web of cause and effect made up of a complex number of elements including: intention, action and outcome involving thoughts, speech and physical behavior that vary in degree depending on the timing, duration, participant(s), number and size of them etc. (Master Zhizhe's Commentaries on the Meanings of the Bodhisattva Precepts). Consequently, karma is not deterministic nor easily determined.

For this reason, leaders and religious institutions must be especially mindful that people are not toys or chess pieces, being enticed or driven according to the propounded interpretation of karma. For the power that be to claim a phenomenon reward or punishment for a specific populations is to demean the intelligence of those individuals, leaving only a bitter taste of condescension behind.

Fortunately, karma can also be simple and empowering. Lest you feel overwhelmed by the troubles of the world and wonder if there is anything else you can do other than make donations, here are a few ways to contribute to a safer and steadier Japan and the earth:

  • Commit an act of kindness. For example, as feasible, send care packages or letters to friends and earthquake victims in Japan.
  • Treasure the earth's limited resources and its sentient beings. For instance, stop wearing leather or fur, shop with our own bags and use less water and energy.
  • Pray, send loving-kindness and dedicate merit. Merit is derived from spiritual practices and acts of kindness. Like invisible capital in the bank, when you accumulate merit you will also be able to share such wealth. Examples of Buddhist spiritual practices include: reciting mantras (e.g., the Great Compassion Mantra) and meditating to alter vibrations and energy fields; reading, reciting, studying, memorizing or copying out sacred texts; repenting and bowing on behalf of humanity and the earth.
  • Maintain personal vows that create conditions for others to do good, e.g., not lying, not stealing, and not creating an environment where unkindness is the norm or is rewarded.
Pick one and do it once every day for seven to 49 days. Tell me what you notice by the end of that period of time.

3/14/2011

Ancient Wisdom Needed for Contemporary Spirituality


via the elephant journal
Photo: Dennis Jarvis
More harrowing tales of sex scandals, money laundering, power struggles and coercive threats. . .
Apparently Buddhism in the West is no different than any other faith tradition. No matter how developed, an organizational structure comes to embody some aspect of unhealthy cultic dynamics— and the denial of such dynamics, or a lack of awareness of them, is one of the most common indicators of this disease.
Health is restored in acknowledging the gnawing games played, in offering an explanation, an expression of remorse and reparation, and in investing patience, open communication and large doses of the Dharma into long-term healing.

Large doses of the Dharma are glaringly absent in Buddhism in the West despite the pervasiveness of meditation and occasional emergence of sagely teachers. In this cynicism-prone society, we must admit there are role models; however, teachers are of only two types — exemplars and gauges.

According to Advice for Monastics, a compilation of exhortations by Buddhist teachers and specifically referring to Buddhist teachers here: 1. Exemplars are those who are wise and solid in their practice. They are like light in an enclosed room, filtering through the window cracks. 2. Gauges are those who understand but their practices are full of flaws. They are like crooks who light up the Way with a lamp.

Photo: R. M. Calamar
Obviously exemplary teachers are in the minority and rarely recognized as such, not to mention when they are immersed in groupthinking sanghas that condone or support misconduct or misdirection. This has been the case historically with Shakyamuni Buddha and Devadatta, the Sixth Patriarch and Shenxiu.

For modern societies in the West, instructions of ancient sages must henceforth inform our compass. The Great Wisdom Shastra further argues that we must rely on the Dharma and not on individuals. I believe Buddhism will be different in the West if potential Buddhists and Buddhists have access to a substantial number of Buddhist texts in English.

The quality of teachers and sanghas declined in Asia over time because monastics were too often simply going through the motions and engaging in secular affairs in ways more secular than the rest of society. Buddhist monastics in China, in retrospect for example, had enlightened teachers in their midst but continued on a downward spiral.

One of the major reasons for such decline is that many of the monastics were illiterate and received no further education. They had no interest in and ability to understand the wealth of teachings by the Buddha and sages as compiled in the Tripitaka (the triple basket of spoken words by the Buddha, commentaries and moral guidelines). Even to this day, monastics in Asia continue to be less educated; one online statistic on the literacy of monks and nuns in Taiwan is said to be 60% and 16%, respectively.

Buddhists in the West, whether monastic or lay, male or female, have the propensity and literacy to read about different practices, advice and exhortations from the Buddha and sages on those practices and biographies of those who have awakened through those practices. Unfortunately, only a drop in the sea of Buddhist Tripitaka (whether Tibetan, Pali or Chinese Mahayanan) has been made available in English.
To build that bridge between ordinary people and sainthood, the urgent call now is to translate as much of the Buddhist Tripitaka as possible, in language that is accessible and perhaps created in collaboration. Buddhists in the West need upcoming generations to exemplify this path of practice now!

2/22/2011

Requisite Subjects of Study for Monastics

Chinese Mahayana Sutra
 
From the Records of Preeminent Monastics

Translating Sutras. Converting Sanskrit into Chinese, [or in contemporary times, to English and other languages] the sutras can bridge ordinary people and sainthood. They turn the Dharma wheel and are teachers for all Buddhas.

Understanding the Meaning. Searching through the text for meaning, one forgets words when one reaches the meaning. The three kinds of wisdom are complete and the two reliances constantly turn.

Practicing Meditation. Cultivate until there is no thought so that good and bad both end. End the ending; one abides in peace and happiness permanently.

Understanding the Vinaya. Stern and lacking in endearment, rush to protect that which is proper. Attentively guard the three karmas like an impregnable fortress.

Protecting the Dharma. What is the need for worrying about safeguarding and shielding when a good guard is at home? A teacher with clear understanding in the Dharma will defend one against outer humiliation.

Attracting Responses. Defying the usual principles, one immediately connects with response. Responses are difficult to fathom as they occur while one is transforming in the world.

Forsaking the Body. The foremost form of generosity is to give away what is difficult to give with a sense of ease. Dedicate this untidy body to the attainment of the vajra body.

Reading and Reciting. This is the best and greatest work among the ten types of work performed by Dharma Masters. Like the medicinal citron at Zhu River, when the fruits of this work are ripe, they are red and abundant.

Building Blessings. Blessings grow and offenses diminish for oneself and others. The benefits of conditional goodness are immense.

Miscellaneous. Gathering-in all subjects completely; returning to the noble together. Masters lecture sutras and guide beings to glorify the vehicle of Buddhas.

12/27/2010

The Power of Stories



  • Who gets to tell the story?
  • Who gets to broadcast the story?
  • Who gets to underline emphases in any fact, fiction or moral of the story?
  • Who gets to associate the characters with quick sketches of stereotype?
  • Who gets to name the fictional protagonist and antagonist?
  • Who are the real protagonist and antagonist?
  • Who gets to imply good or evil surrounding the language of light and dark?
  • Who gets to impose the choices, or lack thereof?
  • Who gets to embed cultural, generational and other biases, whether unexamined or intentional, in the story? 
Be your stories, the many and the evolving.


    12/26/2010

    New Year Forecasts

    2010 is coming to a close. It is the tail-end of what appears to be the worst three years of financial crisis since the Great Depression. Economists explain that the use of complex derivatives is one of the major reasons for the collapse of large financial institutions, the bailout of banks by national governments, and downturns in stock markets around the world. It became about predictions over how much one quantity is changing in response to changes in some other quantity.

    Though the market and the shopping trends this season may show signs of economic revival, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” is simply insanity, according to Albert Einstein. As long as the banking institutions continue to gamble on the rise and fall of complex formulaic quantities rather than back to the basics, nothing will change.

    My forecast is that derivatives will continue to be played out in the financial markets as well as other sectors. In our personal lives, lest you continue to do what you have always done and expect something different, here are some less complicated derivatives:

    • Do you measure love on the cost of the gift you received this week?
    • Do you measure luck by how many times you successfully avoided cracks on the sidewalk?
    • Do you measure security by having checked that your windows and doors are locked at least three times before you leave the house?
    • Do you measure safety by how perfectly symmetrical your art pieces on the wall are aligned?
    • Do you measure cleanliness on how many times you washed your hands when you come home?

    I consider these behavioral derivatives; the original intent or motivation is subservient to the secondary or tertiary behavior. And I would argue the ultimate intent and motivation to these obsessive-compulsive symptoms and sometimes superstitious actions are our wish for happiness. It is a sad, powerless way of controlling our outer environment, believing that it will makes us less anxious and nervous, that it will make us happier.

    Whether you have a mild to severe case of anxiety this holiday season or you are actually diagnosed with symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), it is your brain chemistry causing discomfort rather than a character flaw. It is possible to redirect your brain chemistry by developing awareness of the discomfort, noticing it without judgment, pausing, then deciding on your action.

    For the new year, for all of us in this anxiety-prone and consumption-oriented society, I highly recommend taking five to ten minutes each morning or evening to just breath and watch your thoughts. You can easily find instructions on being still if you wish. You will certainly discover the benefits of being aware of your thought-stream soon enough.

    Furthermore, for some dear friends whose brains often receive urges to act on obsession or compulsion, I highly recommend Jeffrey M. Schwartz's prescription of a breakthrough treatment based on mindfulness meditation. Here is a summary of his four steps from Brain Lock:

    Step 1 --- RE-LABEL = You must recognize that the intrusive obsessive thoughts and urges are the RESULT of "OCD." You must call the intrusive thought or urge to do a troublesome compulsive behavior exactly what it is! It is an obsessive thought or a compulsive urge. You must develop the ability to recognize the difference between the unpleasant feelings that "OCD" symptoms cause and reality!

    Step 2 --- RE-ATTRIBUTE = You must realize that the intensity and intrusiveness of the thought or urge is CAUSED by "OCD," which is probably related to a biochemical imbalance in the brain . You must ask the question, "Why does this keep bothering me?" And, you must answer it by accepting that you have a medical condition called "OCD."

    Step 3 --- RE-FOCUS = You must work around the "OCD" thoughts by focusing your attention on something more constructive, at least for a few minutes. DO ANOTHER BEHAVIOR by "shifting gears" and performing an alternative, wholesome behavior. You can actually repair the "gearbox" in your own brain by learning how to "RE-FOCUS" in a consistent way!

    This is where the hardest work is done and where the change in brain chemistry takes place. However, things come together very quickly, resulting in an almost automatic response. You can recognize"OCD" thoughts as "false" messages!

    Step 4 --- RE-VALUE = Don't take the "OCD" thought at face value! It is NOT significant in itself. You must "RE-VALUE" those thoughts and urges when they arise. You will learn to "devalue" unwanted obsessive thoughts and compulsive urges as soon as they intrude.

    2011 is the year for change. Do not let your thoughts, obsessions and compulsions drive you any longer. Switch to a happier way of living by repositioning the needle on the record player of your mind. Stop chasing after consumer trends or aggregating by betting on predictions.

    May all be free from the mind's burdens!

    12/05/2010

    Remember to Exercise During the Holidays -- Exercise Empathy!

    
    Identifying a male or female by sight is easier than identifying a male or female brain.
    
    Full from the over-seasoned stuffing and booming television commercials, the holiday party moves closer to the fireplace. Having been immersed in the blinking Christmas lights and the background holiday music for so long, they are long forgotten. Bored, you begin to play the anthropologist in the family, and notice an odd occurrence.

    In one corner of the room are the boys ramming their toy cars into each other, competing to call out the loudest “Zoom, zoom.” Tiptoeing ever quietly toward the boys, you peer at the boys from behind the house plant. You see Jeremy chasing after the boys until, out of the blue, one of the boys shoves him and makes him fall while shouting, “You loser! Fatso! Go away!”

    In the eyes of anthropologist Ritch Savin-Williams, this is how the boys make a bid for social dominance: pick on someone in the group, not only by ridiculing him but also by picking on him physically, and in full view of the others. For you who are observing this group, you must wonder if social dominance comes at the expense of empathy.

    Now let's take a peek at how social dominance develops among the girls. In the opposite corner are all the girls, putting on a play of characters that comment on each other's looks and inquire into each other's feelings. They seem nice enough, attempting to build friendships at first. Overtime, you notice Tami. She is holding the puppets and would accept or ignore other girls' suggestions, sometimes not looking at a girl or making her invisible. At one point, Tami takes a piece of napkin and wipes off a piece of food from her cousin's face.

    According to Savin-Williams' studies, even when some girls do start to hint that they are in control, they mostly do this through subtle strategies--the odd putdown (in words) or the withholding of verbal communication or eye contact. I am sure that you recognize these tactics. The girls’ verbal means for establishing dominance are usually indirect. Tami's apparently caring attitude actually draws attention to the other girl’s clumsiness. Savin-Williams says a boy would simply call the other boy a slob, and invite the other boys to join in a group-ridiculing session of the victim. Both tactics may have the same effect, but the girls’ method is more sophisticated.

    In Simon Baron-Cohen's book, The Essential Difference: the Truth About the Male and Female Brain. He explains the terms, “male brain” and “female brain”, as shorthand for psychological profiles based upon the average scores obtained when testing women as a group, or the average scores obtained when testing men as a group. The psychological profile of a male brain is that it is more systematizing while the psychological profile of a female brain is that it is more empathizing. Of course, this is very different than the sad generalization that “all men have lower empathy” or “all women have lower systematizing skills.” Neither brain type Empathizing nor Systematizing is better or worse than the other, Baron-Cohen explains.

    In the present day and age, however, Daniel Pink argues that "right brainers will rule the world". His point being that in today's world, we can outsource the systematizing part of our brain (left brain activities), such as logical thinking, computer programming, law and accounting; but we cannot outsource right-brain activities such as empathizing, creativity, storytelling, symphony, play and meaning.

    In the increasingly small world and in the interest of “An Empathetic Civilization”, I would hope that science will explore the more empathetic way of leadership that females exhibit and its relationship to survival and happiness at this time in humanity's history.



    For a Buddhist nun interested in seeing more empathy in the world, I am here to share some resources on neuroplasticity research, which let's us know that we are not boxed into only one of two seemingly exclusive types. Furthermore, I suggest that each of us possesses a spectrum of the male and female within us, not just in the brain of the head, but the brain of the body and the heart.

    The Chinese word for mind, heart (physical and literal) and inherent nature are all the same character: 心. This and Jon Kabat Zinn's explanations of mindfulness illuminate for us the idea that our intelligence, emotions and particularly empathy and compassion may not reside in the head alone. Richie Davidson of University of Wisconsin and Mind and Life Institute frequently tells the story of his early visit to Dhamasala. (See him tell the story in the video below, 21:56 to 23:54.) The 200 some resident monks burst out laughing, not at the funny electrode gadget capped on the head that Richie Davidson was using, but that these researchers were trying to measure the head to learn about compassion.




    With that said, we now know that we can choose to be more empathetic or systematic. Breakthroughs in neuroscience show that we can change our brain circuits of emotion; we are capable of changing “the source of the world's suffering [that] is the suffering mind.”

    At a conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Stanford University's CCARE (Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education) scientists in October, Karl Deisseroth described his opti-genetics experiments where a laser beam can delete brain cells to increase or decrease socialability and a sense of nurturing in mice.

    There are numerous legal, ethical and philosophical implications and considerations with this particular research work; however, what is to be underlined here is that science is capable of altering our positive and negative emotions. I would propose that instead of getting botox injections of or permanent alterations to compassion, sociability, peace etc., that we strengthen our own “spiritual laser beams” so that we may choose to be more compassionate, wise or some combination we choose thereof in any situation.

    One enlightened master I know, for instance, was sometimes seen aggressively berating one student on his left side, then turns to wink at the student on his right, then back again, shouting and screaming at the student who needed the anger. My conclusion is that this is someone who has the entire palette of emotions and personalities available to him. He chooses a particular trait or role intentionally, conscientiously and empathically for the sake of the recipient. It is not a multiple personality disorder because he is egoless in any role.

    Contemplative neuroscience has shown that the brain science of meditation changes the brain for the better. Compassion meditation stimulates limbic systems, hence producing intense empathy and joy. Monks with 10,000 hours of practice exhibit significantly greater activism of the limbic systems, which permanently changes the way their brains operate even outside meditation. Like exercising a muscle, meditation is a form of mental exercise that stretches us.

    May we remember to exercise our empathy this holiday season so it is well-prepared for the times when we choose to task it.