Surveying the Buddhist Landscape
Surveying the Buddhist Landscape
Charles Prebish, a leading chronicler of Buddhism in the West, surveys some of the many choices open to the would-be Buddhist practitioner. Things sure have changed.
In the Summer of 2001, while visiting my boyhood home in a predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago, I decided to drive by my old high school. Directly across the street, much to my surprise, was a rather prosperous looking Korean Zen center. It was located only a few doors from what used to be a small restaurant where I spent many happy lunch-hours wolfing down cheeseburgers and sneaking Marlboros. Not far away were the Chicago Zen Center, the Kubose Dharma Legacy, the Lakeside Buddhist Sangha, the Dhammaka Meditation Center of Chicago, the Chicago Shambhala Center and the Buddhist Council of the Midwest.
This was a far cry from my early days of mapping American Buddhist communities in the 1970’s. Then I was always very careful to telephone groups before I visited to make sure they were still there. As often as not, I got the "Sorry, this number has been disconnected" message. Back then, dharma-hopping from community to community was almost a sport, and it seemed like Buddhist groups came and went faster than franchise restaurants.
To be sure, the world of Buddhist practice in America has changed a lot since 1970. Now when I want to locate a center I simply consult one of the many on-line Buddhist community locators. [See the Shambhala Sun's here.] The challenge now is not to count how few Buddhist centers and teachers there are, but how many.
So how does the beginning, would-be Buddhist practitioner sort out what’s available today? What traditions and practice lineages can be found? Which communities have lasted the longest? Which teachers, Asian and Western, have had the most impact on American Buddhism? Do Asian immigrant Buddhists and American convert Buddhists go to the same centers? Are there any special resources and communities for Buddhists chanters, or gay Buddhists or social activists?
With the exception of those American converts who have taken up the chanting practice of Soka Gakkai, the consensus is that American converts to Buddhism gravitate toward the various meditative traditions of Zen, Vajrayana and Vipassana, while Asian immigrant Buddhists maintain practices coincident with ritual activity or Pure Land observance, depending on the nature of the parent tradition. But prospective Buddhist practitioners can find virtually every Buddhist sect, from every Asian Buddhist tradition, present on the North American continent. In fact, the field of American Buddhism is so large now that a single magazine piece can only offer an overview, so please excuse any omissions.
The oldest Buddhist tradition in the United States is Buddhist Churches of America, a Japanese Pure Land sect that has been here for more than a century. With headquarters in San Francisco, BCA at last count had about 50,000 members, almost exclusively Japanese-Americans, who constitute what Richard Seager calls "America's old-line Buddhists." There are currently about 60 temples, of which 44 are in California and 5 in Washington state.
There are many other ethnic Asian Buddhist communities in the United States, most notably Chinese monastic communities such as the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, California, which is the largest Buddhist monastic complex outside of Asia, and the Buddhist Association of the United States, founded in 1964 in New York. Ethnic Theravada communities from Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam are generally located in major cities and provide a rich resource base for the religious practice of their constituents.
Don Morreale reported in his Complete Guide to Buddhist America that the number of North American Buddhist meditation groups grew from 429 in 1987 to 1,362 in 1997. No growth was more dramatic than that of the Zen tradition.
Although Zen exploded onto the American Buddhist scene following the popularity of the Beat movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, Zen has been present on American soil almost as long as Pure Land. Following the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, a veritable parade of Zen teachers appeared over the next several decades, including Shaku Soen, D.T. Suzuki, Nyogen Senzaki, Shaku Sokatsu and Sokei-an. By mid-century, both the Soto and Rinzai lineages were thriving, and shortly thereafter, they were joined by the Sanbyo Kyodan tradition, which utilizes both Rinzai and Soto techniques.
The list of Zen teachers who have established themselves here in the last fifty years is long and significant, populated by many exemplary teachers from China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, with large followings from coast to coast. Zen schools such as the Kwan Um School of Zen, founded by Seung Sahn Sunim in Providence; Dai Bosatsu Zendo, founded by Eido Tai Shimano Roshi in the Catskills; the Diamond Sangha, founded by Robert Aitken Roshi in Hawaii in 1961, and the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives, founded by Jiyu Kennett Roshi in northern California, have been enormously successful.
However, no Zen communities have had as much impact as those begun by Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi Roshi at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi at the San Francisco Zen Center, and Philip Kapleau at the Zen Center of Rochester.
Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi arrived in Los Angeles in 1956. By 1967 he had established the Zen Center of Los Angeles, which by 1980 had over 200 students. He founded an association of his students known as the "White Plum Sangha," which became formally incorporated after his death in 1995. Wendy Egyoku Nakao Sensei is the current abbot of ZCLA. Many of Maezumi Roshi's dharma heirs in the White Plum Sangha have established their own centers throughout the United States and Europe. Most notable of his dharma descendants are Roshi Bernard Tetsugen Glassman (Maezumi Roshi's most senior student), founder of the Zen Peacemaker Order; Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi, founder of the Kanzeon Sangha in Utah; Jan Chozen Bays Roshi, founder of the Zen Community of Oregon, and John Daido Loori Roshi, the recently deceased founder of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, New York.
In 1995, I visited Zen Mountain Monastery for the first time. Although I'd known Daido Roshi somewhat, we'd never spent any significant time together. Much to my surprise, Daido spent the entire day with me, walking the many acres of ZMM, leafing through the library in the abbacy, sitting in the zendo, playing with the computers, and talking Buddhism.
In all my travels, I'd never been treated more hospitably in any Buddhist center. Several years later, during a forum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., I reminded Daido Roshi of that magnificent day. I told him how much his warmth and guidance had meant to both my study and my practice, and how much I'd clung to the recollection of that visit. Daido looked a bit perplexed, scratched his bald head, and leaned over and whispered to me, "Chuck, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I don't remember your visit at all."
Although he later explained that he simply has a bad memory, I learned a lot about my own craving and grasping and expectations that day. Authentic teachers always find simple ways to teach important lessons.
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi arrived in San Francisco in 1959 and established the San Francisco Zen Center in 1961. Tassajara Hot Springs—the first Buddhist training monastery outside of Asia—opened in 1967. Upon Suzuki Roshi's death in 1971, his dharma heir Zentatsu Richard Baker was installed as abbot, one of the first Western students trained by an Asian master to become a Roshi. Among Suzuki Roshi's famous students are Dainin Katagiri Roshi, who died in 1009, Tenshin Reb Anderson, and Sohun Mel Weitsman. Zoketsu Norman Fischer and Zenkei Blanche Hartman have also served as abbots of SFZC.
Philip Kapleau, the first American student of Hakuun Yasutani Roshi, founded the Rochester Zen Center in 1966 after returning from a long training period in Japan. Kapleau Roshi was one of the first Western Zen teachers to emphasize an Americanization of Zen, eschewing Asian dharma names and Asian dress. Bodhin Kjolhede became his dharma successor in 1986, but his most famous disciple, Toni Packer, left his center and its Harada-Yasutani lineage to found her own Springwater Center. Rochester Zen Center now has affiliates in Canada, Mexico and Europe.
The earliest noteworthy Tibetan Buddhist to arrive in the United States was Geshe Ngawang Wangyal, a Gelugpa teacher who came to the United States in 1955 and established the Lamaist Buddhist Monastery of America in New Jersey. It was renamed the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in 1986. Geshe Wangyal is perhaps best known through his famous students Robert Thurman and Jeffrey Hopkins, each of whom is a highly respected "scholar-practitioner" in the American Buddhist community. Other well-known Gelugpa centers include Osel Shen Phen Ling in Montana and the Vajrapani Institute in California, both founded by Lama Thubten Zopa. The Dalai Lama's personal monastery, Namgyal, founded a North American branch in Ithaca, New York in 1992.
The Sakya and Nyingma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism can also be found in the United States. As early as 1960 the Sakya teachers Deshung Rinpoche and H.H. Jigdal Dagchen Sakya arrived in Seattle, and by 1971, Lama Thartse Kunga had established the Ewam Choden Tibetan Buddhist Center. A Sakya monastery in Seattle was opened in 1974, followed by two Sakya centers on the other coast: the Sakya Institute for Buddhist Studies and Meditation in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1980), and the Sakya Phuntsok Ling Center in Silver Springs, Maryland (1986).
The first Nyingma teacher in America was Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche, who arrived in the U.S. in 1968. He established the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center in Berkeley in 1969. In 1973 he founded Nyingma Institute, also in Berkeley, and two years later began work on an extensive retreat center known as Odiyan in Sonoma County. He has also founded a series of international communities in Holland, Germany and Brazil. Other prominent Nyingma teachers in the United States include Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, Tulku Thondup and Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche.
No doubt the best-known Tibetan Buddhist in North America was the Kagyü/Nyingma teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939-1987). He arrived in America in 1970, taking up residence at Tail of the Tiger—later renamed Karmê Chöling—in Barnet, Vermont. Soon after, he established headquarters in Boulder, Colorado, from which he developed two organizations known as Vajradhatu and the Nalanda Foundation.
In 1974 Trungpa Rinpoche founded the Naropa Institute (now an accredited university), which has become the most interesting and influential Buddhist educational organization on American soil. It was at that first summer of Naropa that I had my first face-to-face meeting with Trungpa Rinpoche. Although I described this visit in my 1999 book Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America, the details remain interesting and revealing.
Within sixty seconds of beginning of our meeting, Trungpa Rinpoche related to me in great detail every aspect of my decade-long meditation practice. It was private, personal information that he simply couldn’t, or shouldn’t, have known. But he somehow did. And his diagnosis of my spiritual malaise was perfect, if unsettling: I was using my four daily hours of satipatthana practice as a means of withdrawing from the world rather than encountering it mindfully. So he offered a startling prescription (not described in the book): “Stop sitting periodically and just let the events of your life be your guru. Go back to your cushion only when you begin to have doubts about the dharma…and you will have them. Then your meditation practice will be fertile again.”
Following Trungpa Rinpoche’s death in 1987 and the death of his successor Ösel Tendzin (Thomas Rich) in 1990, leadership of Trungpa Rinpoche's extensive communities fell to his son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. Now operating as Shambhala International, with headquarters in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Trungpa's legacy has yielded a series of international communities and Western teachers (known as Acharyas) who are fulfilling his creative mission.
Another important Kagyü center is Karma Triyana Dharmacakra in Woodstock, New York. This is the North American seat of H.H. the Gyalwa Karmapa, head of the Kagyü school. The Kagyü teacher Traleg Rinpoche, who has been based in Australia, is in the process of establishing a center in upstate New York. There are a number of other significant Kagyü teachers, including Thrangu Rinpoche, Ponlop Rinpoche, Tenga Rinpoche, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso, and Khandro Rinpoche, who, while based in Asia, teach extensively in North America and have many students in the West.
There are currently more than 150 Theravada-based centers in North America, and it was in one of them that I took refuge in Buddhism in the mid-1960’s and got my first instructions in meditation. My teacher was the Venerable Bope Vinita, a no-nonsense Sri Lankan monk who resided at the Buddhist Vihara Society in Washington, D.C. He had an incredible knack for throwing me out of his office every time I balked at doing precisely what he told me to do. On one of those occasions, after I had become especially terrified about something that happened in meditation, he just smiled and told me to go home and get back to my sitting practice. Utterly fearful, and with tears streaming down my face, I proclaimed, “But if I do that again, I could die.” He just smiled and said, “I know,” and then he laughed. End of story.
The best-known form of Theravada meditation in the U.S. is Vipassana, promulgated mainly by the Burmese monk Mahasai Sayadaw. It was brought to America by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, with considerable input from Sharon Salzberg, Jacqueline Schwartz, Ruth Denison and others.
Goldstein, Kornfield and Salzberg first met at Naropa Institute in 1974, and within a year they had founded the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts. In subsequent years, an impressive network of Vipassana teachers developed in America, as well as an offshoot center, Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California (1988).
Vipassana has developed as a movement for householders, not monastics, emphasizing both loving-kindness in lifestyle and health benefits for all meditators. Its attempt to blend Buddhist and Western practices and values into a harmonious whole has made Vipassana one of the most popular meditation practices for Western Buddhists, as witnessed by the doubling of Theravada centers between 1987 and 1997.
Not all American convert Buddhists meditate. As early as 1960, Daisaku Ikeda, the president of what is now called Soka Gakkai International (SGI), visited the United States. Within a decade, Nichiren Shoshu of America, as it was then called, was cited by Life magazine as having 200,000 members.
Although its history, both in Japan and worldwide, has been complicated, SGI now has more than sixty community centers in the United States. SGI-USA has its national headquarters in Santa Monica, California, and centers in about two-thirds of the fifty states. It is a completely lay organization based on the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, a 13th-century Japanese fisherman's son who founded a major school of Buddhism based on the efficacy of the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. The practice component of SGI-USA involves a ritual chanting of portions of the text—and especially the phrase nam-myoho-renge-kyo, or "Homage to the Lotus Sutra"—and emphasis on a peaceful, humanistic lifestyle. Current American membership may be as high as 300,000.
Non-Denominational Buddhist Groups
Because the American Buddhist community mirrors the rest of American society, there are now a significant number of Buddhist practitioners who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered people. Until recently, not much Buddhist literature has addressed the lifestyles of these groups in relation to their practice. Now, however, groups such as the Gay Buddhist Fellowship in San Francisco are providing a safe haven. Moreover, it is not uncommon for mainstream American Buddhist communities to run meditation retreats exclusively for gays or lesbians, or gays and lesbians together, in order to better meet the spiritual needs of this component of the American Buddhist community.
As Buddhist social engagement—emphasized by Thich Nhat Hanh, Sulak Sivaraksa, and others—has become important in American Buddhist communities, organizations such as the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, founded in 1978 in Hawaii but now headquartered in Berkeley, have sprung up. The BPF refers to itself as a group of "meditating activists" and has about fifteen chapters (and an equal number of affiliate groups) across the United States.
Finally, there are an increasing number of American Buddhist communities that have no special sectarian affiliation or are cross-sectarian. These groups have been referred to by Don Morreale as "Buddhayana" groups, and he maintains that between 1987 and 1997, for example, their number grew from 14 to 135. Moreover, these groups can be found in about two-thirds of the states.
Jack Maguire, in his book Essential Buddhism, points out that "Becoming a Buddhist means quite literally becoming a student." No doubt, becoming a student involves finding an appropriate teacher, irrespective of whether that teacher is a bhante, lama, rinpoche, sensei or roshi. Recently, when I was on a flight from Nashville to Pittsburgh, it became clear upon takeoff that there was a serious problem with the jet’s left engine. About five minutes into the flight, and without having been able to climb very much, the pilot came on the intercom: he announced that there was a problem and he was going to “try to return to the airport.”
The five minutes or so it took to return to the ground were far longer than any meditation retreat I’d ever been on, and it wasn’t until we were safely back down on the ground that I realized I had been reciting the Pure Land expression Namu Amida Butsu—“Homage to Amida Buddha”—continuously. Trungpa Rinpoche was right: sometimes the events of our lives make remarkable teachers.
Dr. Charles Prebish is the author of Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America, and co-editor of The Faces of Buddhism in America. He holds the Charles Redd Chair in Religious Studies at Utah State University.
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New York, New York, now there’s a helluva town
You know it ain’t no lie and it ain’t no guff
They got five big boroughs chock full of stuff
They got skyscrapers, subways and a sea of humanity.
Loudon Wainwright III
Chock full of stuff indeed. When you travel around New York, you’re struck with the enormous amount of stuff there: advertisements for stuff, thousands of stores filled with stuff, trucks stuffed with stuff, vendors’ tables piled with stuff, people delivering stuff. And that’s just the stuff they’re keeping. Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill is brimming to capacity with stuff that’s gone by the wayside.
Our focus is usually on things kept, but a year or so ago my brother Bob started to take an interest in things lost. And for someone taking an interest in things discarded, New York is a playground. Bob has now become the owner of New York City’s preeminent collection of stray balls, numbering in the several thousands: tennis balls, Superballs, soccer balls, bowling balls, golf balls, Nerf balls.… Name any kind of ball and chances are Bob has a specimen (or two, or two dozen).
Most of us collect—that's why moving is such a pain—but some of us take that predilection a step further. When Bob was a toddler, he carried around "the bag of bup" (toddler for “stuff”) and he just filled it with whatever struck his fancy. The habit endured. A few years ago he was collecting ducks, little flat-bottomed multi-colored wooden ducks in the Indonesian style. That collection grew to such impressive proportions that it went on display in the front window of Hunting World, the venerable Fifth Avenue purveyor of safari wear where Hemingway was known to shop. This crowning moment—the enshrinement of the collection—brought the duck thing to an end. There was nowhere else to go with it.
Not long after, a ball rolling forlornly, orphan-like, across a grimy street, picked up in a moment of distraction, became the trigger for a new collection. Now, Bob and the crew that works with him in his cabinet-making business will bring their truck to a dead stop on the Bronx-Queens Expressway (safety be damned, collecting is all!) and run out to retrieve a road-grit-encrusted soccer ball lying limply on the shoulder. It’s an ignominious trophy, not the sort of thing that will elicit oohs and ahs when its price is revealed on the Antiques Road Show, but in this kind of collecting, addition is as important as distinction. Sometimes Bob will park the truck and pause for a meditative walk on the outskirts of a playground and find a half-dozen balls nestled in the ivy. Idle searching calms the mind.
When the truck has made its way back to the shop—tucked away in a Civil-War-era warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront—whatever quarry has been retrieved and tossed in the back will be dropped in a barrel. No inventory is taken, no curatorial effort expended.
It’s not that Bob has no appreciation for the distinctiveness of some of his pieces. There's mild excitement in finding a new kind of ball. Not long ago, he encountered an errant ball of a type he'd never seen before, one that strained the definition of ball. With accompanying gestures befitting someone who works with his hands, he tells of a ball that is “a sphere of suction cups, so that when you toss it, it sticks to the wall.” Though these are commonly known to parents, and even passé these days, Bob had not yet encountered one, until some child likely let it slip from his hands as his stroller moved on.
Bob - s definition of a ball is pretty inclusive. “It needs to at least approximate a sphere.” Can it have flat faces? “Yes, I came across a polygon sort of a 'ball' just the other day.” Are any rejected? “No, we’re equal opportunity. We take all balls.” What’s the most common? “Those baseball-sized rubber balls, some of them with the fake seams. You would not believe the number of those that get loose in this city. I see them right and left.”
I thought Bob’s duck collection was pointless until I saw how big their smallness became in the store window. Likewise, I thought the ball collection was a weird obsession until I saw them all together. The thousands of lost balls taken together become a work of art or archeology. This is the world as the atomists would have seen it. It's an oddly familiar picture. We want the world to be new, neat, purposeful and organized, but it's not so terribly different from the balls, starting out shiny and cherished and ending up loose and lost.
We are not only collectors. We are collections. Anything we see, including any grouping of people, is merely a loose collection brought together for a while, before it's dispersed. It's like any classroom, bus, waiting room or stadium I've ever been in, or any state of mind for that matter. It's like friends and family: a loose collection of items of various sizes and colors that happened to end up together. When I look at the balls, I see a huge family photo, a picture of the world, multicolored, multifaceted, in different dimensions and states of wear and tear, with one thing in common, a rough approximation of roundness. And above all, it's not something to take all that seriously. It's just a collection after all.
Barry Boyce is senior editor and staff writer for the Shambhala Sun.
Eating the Middle Way
Eating the Middle Way
More and more patients have been walking into my office waving articles about how people who indulge in a moderate amount of alcohol, chocolate or nuts are healthier than abstainers, who apparently drop like flies due to their lack of dietary hedonism. My patients also point with thinly disguised envy to the "French paradox," whereby the French have fewer heart attacks than us North Americans, despite the fact that they eat more rich, fatty foods. My patients want to know how something that is supposedly bad for them can be good in low doses. I tell them that sometimes in health, as in other areas of life, there is a middle path. Nature, it seems, embraces moderation.
One explanation for the benefits of moderation is that biological compounds often have opposite effects at different levels of exposure. Medications are a classic example, healing at one dose and having adverse effects at higher doses. The same is true of compounds found in food and beverages.
Alcohol consumption at low levels has positive effects on cholesterol and platelets (the cells that can clog arteries) and can help prevent heart attacks and strokes in people at risk. At higher intake levels (more than two drinks a day to a maximum, for women, of nine per week), alcohol's toxic effects may start to manifest, increasing the risk of liver disease, high blood pressure and cancers.
Nuts are extremely high in fat and were previously a no-no. But we now know that many nuts, especially walnuts and pecans, have monounsaturated and polyunsaturated "good" fats that can actually improve your cholesterol profile when consumed in moderate amounts. Research indicates that eating about five ounces of nuts a week is associated with reduced risk of heart disease compared to no consumption. But despite the good fats, if you eat too many nuts you could eventually run into health problems such as being obesity.
There is another explanation why dietary moderation can lead to health benefits. Food and beverages are often a mix of potentially harmful and beneficial ingredients. At moderate doses you may avoid the harmful effects of the bad parts while reaping the benefits of the good. Nuts may contain excess salt and copious fat, but they are also a good source of protective substances such as magnesium, potassium, fiber, and especially vitamin E. Chocolate has lots of calories because of the high amounts of sugar and fat, but it also contains health-protecting antioxidants called flavonoids, just like red wine. Catechins, a specific type of flavonoid found in greater concentrations in high-quality dark chocolate, have cardio-protective qualities. When eaten daily in small amounts, chocolate may reduce the risk of death due to heart disease in older men, despite the fatty content.
Medical science predictably looks to physiology for explanations but there may also be psychological factors at work. For some people, extreme dietary patterns are coupled with negative states of mind, which have their own adverse health effects. Depression is sometimes associated with dietary excess and unhealthy alcohol use, and depression itself is considered an independent risk factor for heart attacks and strokes. For some people, rigid dietary abstention is based on the worry that an occasional little bit of whatever is going to negatively affect their health. If they are the type of person who experiences chronic anxiety and stress in their life then they may be at increased risk of hypertension and heart attacks. Their stress can also worsen existing medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and ulcers.
On the flip side, folks who describe themselves as happy usually have better overall health and longevity, and maybe their relaxed attitude toward lifestyle is partly responsible. They can be a bit liberal in their health habits without overdoing it. My suspicion is that the benefits of the French paradox, which are currently attributed to moderate alcohol consumption, are in part due to pervasive French cultural attitudes of laissez-faire and bon appétit!
However, an attitude of moderation toward eating and drinking is not salutary for everyone. It obviously doesn't apply to people who have big problems curbing their cravings for some foods. And even moderate alcohol use needs to be examined with extreme caution. Despite the potential health benefits for some people, I never recommend starting to drink or increasing alcohol consumption.
Despite my temptation to get rich and famous as a health guru flogging a mono-diet of rum-soaked chocolate-covered nuts, a broader perspective is also called for. A little nuts and chocolate may ultimately be healthy for some, but we can still best improve our health with simple basic measures such as eating a few more fruits and vegetables each day, increasing physical activity and relaxing more. These measures can be enjoyable and have virtually no downside.
Healthy nutrition doesn't need to be about rigid control, unless you are predisposed to excess. So if you buy that persistent negative mind states can eventually affect your overall health then consider that there is also a "North American paradox." For some, an ongoing obsession with optimal wellness may give rise to distress and anxiety around rigid nutrition goals, and those persistent negative emotions may be a health liability. Balance of mind and equanimity are key in eating as in all things. Not only are there health benefits in some culinary delights that previously got a bad rap, but the relaxed frame of mind that goes with savoring them can also be healthy. Enjoy nuts without going nuts. Bon appétit!
Chris Stewart-Patterson, M.D., is assistant professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia and works as an emergency department physician at an inner city hospital in Vancouver.
Coconuts and Peaches
Coconuts and Peaches
On a recent teaching tour in Europe, a German yogi asked me if there was a difference between my students in Berlin and in New York. He suspected the Berliners were less expressive. Though they did laugh at my yoga jokes, which I took as a good sign, for most of the weekend the Germans were quiet and undemonstrative until after the very last OMMMMMMM and final group bow. Then, to my surprise, one by one they thanked me effusively and through an outpouring of hugs, smiles and even tears, they expressed how meaningful the weekend had been for them.
Some people learn to be coconuts and some to be peaches. Coconuts may appear to be hard on the outside but inside they are milky, while peaches are cuddly fuzzballs with a rock-hard core. My Berlin students had once again reminded me of the transformative process of yoga and how we can all be both coconuts and peaches at the same time.
Different cultures have different ideas about what constitutes strength and weakness. Although it is obvious that mainstream America values big strong bodies, I was still surprised by a serious meditator friend who confessed that the reason he has resisted yoga is he doesn’t have time to add another thing to his life. He’s afraid that if he only does that wimpy yoga stuff he will lose the hunky physique he has worked so hard at the gym to obtain. There are Chinese Tai Chi masters who would call him a lobster—hard on the outside but no inner strength.
What is strong and what is weak? Haven’t you been crushed by a dirty look or melted by a smile? How is it that a blade of grass can crack the sidewalk to grow up to the sun? How is it that the falling snow can break a tree branch? How can we find the balance of both inner and outer strength? And how can we find the time for both an athletic work-out and a meditative work-in?
You guessed it! Hatha yoga is the answer. Hatha means “willful” or “forceful,” and refers to a set of physical exercises designed to align your skin, muscles and bones. The poses are a system for reorganizing your physical architecture so the drainpipe of your body becomes unclogged. This process opens the channels for your breath and energy to flow freely and for your neurological patterns to get remapped, soothed and strengthened. When this kind of balance occurs, your body begins to feel even all over. This equanimity of sensation is a support and container for relaxed awareness in the mind and heart. “Yoga” means “yoke” or “bind together,” and the parallel pulsation of body and mind brings about this state of being.
The following yoga sequence is designed to develop our coconut- and peach-like qualities in equal measure. The outer body needs to be a firm but flexible shell for the inner body, which should be fluid and elastic. In yoga we work on suppleness of the spine and inner organs while developing support through the organs of action—the arms and legs.
These exercises will develop strong back and abdominal muscles, as well as the heart, lungs and even diaphragm. Notice how your body feels as you do these poses—where you feel tight, slack, weak, bright or dull. Try to use your energy efficiently, with intelligent awareness, so you don’t over-exert. Most of us think exercise is supposed to be intense and so we work too hard. Then the activity itself becomes too hard and so do we. That’s what coconuts do. Remember too much is too much. If your body gets too hard on the outside, your organs get dry and tight and lose proper functionality. So does your mind.
By ignoring what is going on inside of us, we can get quite blocked up. An ultra-soft outer form cannot hold the space for inner movement, so the inside gets hard in an effort to find that support. We’re too peachy. That core hardness ultimately shows up as mental obstacles like being crabby or physical tension that turns into migraines.
Try to make a commitment to doing yoga on a regular basis. Use your mindfulness to observe how each session is different, how your body starts to get oiled up and opened up. You will see that what felt stressful yesterday now feels like a massage, and then how that good feeling vanishes. But that’s fine and no big deal. The next day you can take a fresh start. Watch how your mind and body find space again, which allows your breath to deepen and your mind to open even more. As you stay awake with all of this, your clarity, concentration and confidence will grow. This kind of strength helps you connect to both your coconut and peach nature—not too hard and not too soft.
Warrior Two Your feet should be approximately 3 1/2-4 feet apart. Feel as if your arms grow from your spine and extend out past your fingertips. Press your feet down into the floor and strongly engage your leg muscles. Breath deeply in this pose for 5-7 breaths, in and out through the nose.
Extended Side Angle Keep both legs strong and active. This big side bend will open up the ribs and shoulders and aid digestion. This might look like nothing, but stay here for at least 7 breaths and you will feel how it works your heart and lungs. Before continuing with the sequence do Warrior Two and Extended Side Angle to the left.
Downward Facing Dog Reach your arms right into the floor like superman and lift your hips up as high as you can. Use your legs to take some of the weight off the arms. If your lower back or legs feel tight, bend your knees slightly but keep extending your sitting bones up to the sky so your pelvis becomes a giant blossoming flower. Let your belly be soft and feel your breath moving there. Stay here for 5-10 breaths.
Dolphin Begin this exercise on your forearms and knees. As you inhale, move your chest forward until your chin comes just past your hands and then lift back up on the exhale. If this is too hard, just move your chest 2 inches toward your hands and then back. Repeat that and go farther when you can. If this is too easy, do the same exercise with straight legs and hips high, as in Downward Dog. Work up to 10 Dolphins.
Wind Relieving Pose (with twist) Don’t you love the name of this pose? You know that means it’s good for your innards (though hazardous for your neighbors). As you do this one, try to avoid strain in the neck and shoulders by moving your head slightly, relaxing your jaw, and keeping your chest open. Use your abdominals to lift up. Stay with your nose to your knee for 5 breaths, then twist for 5 more breaths.
Boat Pose As in Dolphin, take your time building strength with boat pose. Easiest variation: keep your fingertips on the floor slightly behind you, toetips on the floor in front, and lean back slightly. As you get stronger, you can lift one bent leg up, then both. Next extend your arms straight forward from your shoulders and eventually you will lengthen both legs. Try to stay in whatever variation you are doing for at least 3 breaths. Then repeat it 2 more times before continuing.
Seated Spinal Twist As you do this twist to the right, send your breath to the upper right corner of your right lung. Soften your neck and throat. Tone your eye muscles by looking to the upper right corner of your eyes and then the lower right three times. Close your eyes as you untwist. You can stay in the twist as long as it feels good.
Cyndi Lee is founder of the OM Yoga Center in New York and co-creator of OM Yoga in a Box, available at www.omyoga.com.
The Practice of Karma
The Practice of Karma
REGINALD A. RAY on how T'hrinlay Wangmo tranformed an horrific incident into a situation of blessing through her understanding of karma.
My previous column outlined the basic principles of karma. Now I would like to look at karma as a spiritual practice, and do so by considering an event in the life of T'hrinlay Wangmo, a woman of remarkable realization and power. T'hrinlay Wangmo lived in Tibet during the Chinese occupation and was known for her outspokenness and courage. The incident in question, recounted by her brother Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, occurred many years ago.
It seems that one day, as T'hrinlay Wangmo was riding her horse along a certain road, she was seized and brutally beaten by the highest Chinese official in the area, who used as his weapon the thick branch of a thorn tree. As she was being beaten, she understood that this incident was the ripening of her own negative karma that was now exhausting itself, and so she was not angry at her tormentor. Her understanding of karma enabled her to accept responsibility for what was occurring (the karma of result). And since she knew through her own practice how easy it is for negative feelings and aggression to arise, and how hard they are to work with, she did not form ill thoughts or intentions toward the official (the karma of cause). In fact, she managed to use this horrific situation as an occasion to generate a positive intention toward all who suffer. As Chagdud Tulku tells us, "In that tumultuous moment, she made a prayer that, by her suffering, others might be spared."
This story raises a key question: what understanding of karma enabled her to act in such an extraordinary way?
Knowing that everything we do produces results we will have to experience sooner or later directs us to pay full attention to all our actions. In T'hrinlay Wangmo's case, so great was her respect for each moment of her life that even while she was being savagely beaten, she did not lose her mindfulness and awareness. She was fully present to what was going on. Beyond this, rather than reacting with terror, rage or aggression, she was able to find in her suffering a path filled with opportunity. By seeing it as the fruition of her own previous actions, she was able to take full responsibility for it and use it.
T'hrinlay Wangmo consciously used this experience as a vehicle to exhaust her own previous negative karma. Buddhism teaches that it is important to let karma ripen in an open and fearless way, simply surrendering to its upwelling within us. Holding our awareness open and steady, we can let our feelings, thoughts and memories arise and experience them fully without comment, reaction or intervention. When we do so, the karma exhausts itself, the debt it implies is discharged, and positive karma is generated.
T'hrinlay Wangmo's acceptance provides much food for thought. We Westerners tend to have difficulty working creatively with our own suffering: either we feel guilty and therefore diminished, or, feeling wronged, we react with anger and aggression. The teaching on karma cuts through all of our attempts to hate ourselves or hate others. It says that like everyone else we have accumulated a certain amount of negative karma in the past, and such karma is going to come to fruition sooner or later. In a certain way, this is an occasion for optimism and good cheer because we are exhausting some of our store of demeritorious and obscuring karma. This understanding enables us to relax about our lives and find a new interest and appreciation in how things unfold for us.
T'hrinlay Wangmo's approach creates the kind of powerful acceptance without which no real spiritual path is possible. At the same time, her acceptance is neither passive nor despairing. In fact, it represents an utter affirmation of life, even—or perhaps especially—in its most negative and painful manifestations. Knowing that the blind, impulsive reactions of ego have nothing to offer, she waits for something deeper and less personal to show itself.
First to appear is simply an open and clear mind, unobscured by negativity. Then, emerging out of this, a selfless aspiration arises that in her pain she may bear the suffering of others. This situation thus provides T'hrinlay Wangmo, the aspiring bodhisattva, with a unique opportunity to fulfill her vow to willingly suffer pain on others' behalf, to lighten their burdens and to help them on their paths. It is interesting that T'hrinlay Wangmo, accepting her life at that moment as the fruition of her own previous deeds, was able to come to new courage, empowerment and dignity, even in the midst of brutality and potential degradation. T'hrinlay Wangmo shows us a profound spiritual truth: if we are willing simply to experience the ripening of our own karma without judgement and reactivity, then out of that will arise something positive and pure.
I have so far been speaking of the ripening of negative karma simply because it is usually the most problematic for us. But the same principles apply when the ripening circumstances are positive. When things are going really well for us, we need equally to avoid reacting impulsively by grasping on to our good fortune or jumping to conclusions that our ego has been fortified or confirmed. We need to resist thinking that this proves our superior worth and attainment. As in the case of pain, we need to abandon our judgementalness and boycott our impulsiveness, waiting for the deeper, wiser and more compassionate dimensions of being to show themselves.
T'hrinlay Wangmo's experience also shows us how karma provides guidelines for working with others. An understanding of karma enables us to be more tolerant and compassionate in the face of others' confusion and shortcomings, because we see that people actually have far less freedom than we might think. We realize that everyone wants to be happy and everyone is doing the best they can to achieve this, even when their efforts are misguided. In a certain sense, T'hrinlay Wangmo was able to accept the horribly ignorant aggression of the Chinese official because she had first understood how negativity arises within herself and how hard it is to deal with. And she was able to wait until the right moment in her relationship with him, later when he was no longer crazed by his aggression, to show him extraordinary and openhearted kindness.
Afterwards T'hrinlay Wangmo's remarkable mastery of the situation produced equally remarkable results, the fruition, we could say, of her sowing of positive seeds as she was beaten. The official, having inflicted numerous wounds and convinced that he had beaten her nearly to death, let her fall to the ground. She immediately jumped up, leapt on her horse, and with a triumphant cry, galloped off. The official managed to catch up with her, to find that not only was she neither angry nor afraid, but her wounds had already healed. Amazed and moved, he invited her to his house, gave her abundant hospitality and a gift of money, and begged her to pray for him when he died.
The positive karma from this event continued even further, for sometime later when T'hrinlay Wangmo was in the region's capital, she passed a funeral procession. She inquired about the identity of the deceased and was told, "That is the governor of this region, who just died." T'hrinlay Wangmo began to pray for him, happy that she was able to help him even now and to be able to fulfill his former request. What was initially an horrific incident with the potential for untold negative karma for all concerned was transformed by T'hrinlay Wangmo into a situation of blessing, by virtue of her understanding of karma and her willingness to act in its light.
Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D., is professor of Buddhist studies at Naropa University and teacher in residence at Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center. His most recent book is Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet.
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