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Inside the March 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine
Featuring Norman Fischer
on six ancient Buddhist slogans that can help transform life's
difficulties into awakening and benefit, tales of trauma and
transformation from Buddhist practitioners, and a profile of three
psychotherapists who combine Western psychology and Buddhism into a
powerful path to love and fulfillment.
Plus: a survey of the world of Buddhist-inspired popular music, Rick Bass on friendship and eco-warriorship, and much more.
feature section: life is tough / here's how to deal with it
ancient set of Buddhist slogans offers us six powerful techniques to
transform life’s difficulties into awakening and benefit. Zen teacher Norman Fischer guides us through them.
Norman Fischer on why 52 sayings formulated almost a thousand years ago are more relevant than ever.
Andrea Miller talks to Tara Brach, John Welwood, and Barry Magid, three psychotherapists who are combining Western psychology and Buddhism into a powerful path to love and fulfillment.
• Tales of Trauma and Transformation
Inspiring stories and helpful methods. Preview these via the links below.
Jazz, metal, rap, and beyond: Rod Meade Sperry reports on the intersection of Buddhism and popular music. Featuring Tina Turner, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, Born I Music , and more fascinating dharma-music innovators.
showed his friend Scott the best places, the secret places, of
Montana’s remote Yaak Valley. Together, they fought to protect the
wilderness and dreamed of a new Atlantis in the mountains.
Mother to one, sister to the other—award-winning novelist Karen Connelly on three interwoven lives and the call she will always accept.
The intention to benefit all sentient beings is the best of all thoughts, says Sakyong Mipham. Dedicating ourselves to others, we become bodhisattvas.
RELATED SHAMBHALA SUN SPOTLIGHT:
This oriole, this friend, this daughter, this fox—Michael Sowder on all the poems that are just waiting for us to write them down.
Leanora McLellan’s grandma handed down many skills and four crazy cups that have no price.
Recognizing the judgments we all pass on ourselves, says Bonnie Friedman, is the first step to freedom.
Diana Winston reviews May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga and Changing My Mind, by Cyndi Lee.
Andrea Miller reviews new books by Marc Lesser, Jeffrey K. Mann, Rachel Neumann, Zachiah Murray, and more.
Shambhala Sun, March 2013, Volume Twenty One, Number 4. On the cover: Inset #1 by Frank Yang, #2 by Randy Beacham
To order a trial subscription to the Shambhala Sun, click here.
Ruin, Beasties, and Constant Craving (March 2013)
Shambhala Sun | March 2013
Ruin, Beasties, and Constant Craving
The dharma speaks through music—it always has, it does today. From jazz to metal to rap, ROD MEADE SPERRY surveys the scene. Read his introduction and entries on k.d. lang and Born I Music, and browse our list of online music articles, below.
Buddhist Music: What is it? Is it gongs, bells, and chants? Well, yes. And, no.
has always been part of Buddhist practice, of course, but as the dharma
has made its way into the West—and the West has found its way into the
dharma—the idea of what might constitute Buddhist music has opened up.
was in 2005 that I first noticed how varied, fun, and meaningful modern
Buddhist-influenced music could be. Music had always been a constant in
my life, and that wasn’t going to change now that I’d taken up Buddhist
practice. I’d come up as a punk-rock kid, so I started with what I knew
and found out about the “first Buddhist punk band,” Ruin. If Ruin was
out there, and was so good, I reasoned, there had to be more. I found
many musicians with the artistry, the inventiveness, the passion, and
the commitment I’d come to see in my fellow practitioners. I started
mapping them on my website, TheWorstHorse.com, and it didn’t take long
before an exciting new world appeared to me.
the gongs, bells, and chants of yore might be sampled or stood in for
by scalding punk guitars, otherworldly vocals, or wholly unforeseen new
approaches across a variety of genres. Sometimes the connections are
explicit, sometimes less so—sometimes they’re bald-faced marketing
choices—but like the
dharma itself, Buddhist-inspired music can prompt us to see beyond the
boundaries we so often take for granted. It can be (almost) anything. So
now’s a great time for dharma-music nuts like me. Here’s just a
sampling of the many artists who are making it so.
The Pioneers: Setting the Western Stage
Meredith Monk, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, John Cage, Yoko
Ono: These are the names that come to mind right away when
we consider Buddhism’s influence on contemporary music. And
rightly so; these composers have been instrumental in blending
dharma and adventurousness from the get-go, seizing on the
attitudes adopted by America’s Beat poets—Allen Ginsberg was
only too happy to bust out his harmonium and perform his loving takes on Buddhist sutras—and applying them to a range of
Others would join them in bringing a dharmic influence into
so-called serious music. Avant-garde composers such as Eliane
Radigue, Toshiro Mayuzumi, and Terry Riley harnessed orchestras and electronics alike to mimic Tibetan chants and drones
and to create musical complements to actual Buddhist teachings.
Peter Lieberson’s “Drala” was commissioned by the Boston
Philharmonic and his “King Gesar” was recorded by Yo-Yo Ma.
In the pop realm, Laurie Anderson and now-husband Lou Reed
would reflect their own dharma studies in their later work, and
poet/balladeer Leonard Cohen would take up serious Zen practice with the master Joshu Sasaki Roshi.
Meredith Monk, speaking on Public Radio’s On Being, neatly
explained how Buddhism and music-making complement one
another: “It’s really about fluidity, about being so in the moment
that you are in pinpoint focus, but at the same time you’re completely open to what the moment has to give you or to tell you.”
Putting that openness and focus to work, these pioneers
helped set the stage for whole new generations of genre-busting,
Classic classics: The Kundun soundtrack and his Symphony No. 5 are fine examples of Philip Glass’ work
and its dharmic content. The late Peter Lieberson balanced classical and avant-garde elements in Ashoka’s
Dream. All-out experimentalism rules the day in Toshiro Mayuzumi’s Nirvana Symphonie and Eliane
Radigue’s Trilogie de la Morte.
k.d. lang: Singing it Loud
“‘Constant Craving’ is all about samsara.” Ask people about Buddhism and modern music, and you’re almost certain to hear that comment about k.d. lang’s lush and enduring 1992 hit, with its lyrics of longings never fulfilled. Even Buddhists who don’t know that lang is a dedicated practitioner herself seem to make the connection.
And a dedicated Buddhist she is. finally off the road after some nineteen months of touring to support her latest album, Sing It Loud!, lang has new songs brewing but is currently focused on another passion: furthering the practice of dharma as expounded by her late teacher, Lama Chödak Gyatso Nubpa, a master of the nyingma or “old school” of Tibetan Buddhism.
“I think dharma has been a part of who I am, in this lifetime, since before I found my teacher,” says lang. “When I met Lama Gyatso Rinpoche, I felt immediate connection and devotion, and then dedicated the next ten years, until his passing, to him. I still continue giving my ‘civilian life’ to dharma.”
Before his passing, lang says with a little laugh, her teacher gave his student “a to-do list that was almost infinite.” There was a general mandate to build a strong, functioning sangha in Los Angeles, as well as all manner of other initiatives:
“We started Ari Bhod, the American Foundation for Tibetan Cultural Preservation, a sort of umbrella for various things like Tools for Peace, the mindful program that we’re bringing to schools now. We have cultural preservation, text translation, thangka painting, statue-making. Everyone should have an opportunity to integrate the dharma into every aspect of their life and make their everyday life a practice. Rinpoche taught that over and over and over again.”
Meanwhile, lang’s fan base seems at ease with her devotion, just as they were when she came out in ’92 (not such a common pop-culture occurrence back then) or when she’s been vocal about her activism for human and animal rights (although her very public vegetarianism has not gone down well in her native Alberta).
“I want to be all inclusive,” she tells me. “I’m interested in having an extremely diverse audience. It’s a worthy aspiration to appeal to everyone and not sell out.” To keep up with k.d.’s work, visit her online at kdlang.com and at aribhod.org.
Kickin’ It Old School: Though performing in an idiom wholly different from lang’s, Sir Richard Bishop (of Sun City Girls and
a huge catalog of solo work) and W. David Oliphant (of Life Garden, Maybe Mental, and his own solo catalog) have released Beyond
All Defects, an album inspired by Dzogchen (“The Great Perfection”), the main teaching of the nyingma school. The album seeks to
evoke a spiritual journey through programming, droning guitars, and what Bishop calls “big-ass Tibetan horn sounds.”
BORN I MUSIC: Hip-Hop Smooth as Honey on a Razor's Edge
music, and religion—those things are in constant interaction in my
songs,” says rapper/producer Born I Music. “There’s a dharma-piece in
everything I do.” What he’s doing right now is getting ready to release a
new album, King of Kings.
one hand,” says Born about the album’s title, “it’s an egotistical
statement about what I feel my position will be when the project drops.
But it also has to do with the mind. In my music, you’ll hear competing
impulses from the sensory worlds: ‘This feels good. This looks good.’
These are like feudal lords battling for our awareness, our primordial,
fundamental mind. In the end, I believe our natural awareness or
awake-ness is the real king.”
ego/awareness dichotomy is present in all that Born does, and that’s no
accident. “I’m a Buddhist artist and I don’t want to sugarcoat things.
But I’m also in the rap world, which has its trappings: material things,
status. They’re sticky and sweet, and we’re hardwired to be attracted
to them. I’m going to be honest about that, but I also know that
materialism by itself is like honey on a razor’s edge. That’s important
on the dharma path, if we want to lead ourselves to genuine happiness.”
feels that such genuine happiness is something everyone should have,
and he gives his time in several ways, including teaching meditation to
kids. He also thinks his music can inspire an oft-ignored contingent. “I
want to reach out to the audience that’s reached out to the least—those
who are rejected as a ‘criminal element’ or outcasts. I want to tell
them, ‘I’m right there with you. We’re all in this life together.’”
Judging by his excellent Tomorrow Is Today LP, his album with the rap duo Shambhala, and his 2012 single “Number One,” Born’s King of Kings should deliver.
Hear more from Born I Music in this Shambhala Sun Audio interview, all about his Buddhist practice and his Tomorrow Is Today LP.
Ian Astbury and The Cult: Reborn, again
The influential postpunk-turned-
rock band known as The Cult recently
resurfaced with a new album, Choice
of Weapon. Dharma first showed up
as an overt influence on 2007’s Cult
LP, Born Into This. This time around,
spiritually inclined frontman Ian
Astbury is talking to the press not just
about the new music but also about the Buddhism that informs it.
Astbury told MTV that he’s read Chögyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism “countless times.” He considers Pema
Chödrön a “great teacher”: “She has incredible insight. She’s lived
the Western life. She has grandchildren. She understands, but she’s
an ordained Buddhist nun. If you have the opportunity to see her
speak, do.” Choice of Weapon’s cover art even depicts a shaman (a
figure not unfamiliar to diehard fans of the band) brandishing a
dorje, a Buddhist symbol of enlightenment.
Tina Turner: The Queen, Happier Than Ever
Unsurprisingly, much of R&B legend Tina Turner’s connection to Buddhism comes by way of sound—specifically,
chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo (“I devote myself to the
Lotus Sutra”), the key practice of Nichiren Buddhism and
of Turner’s Buddhist community, Soka Gakkai International.
She talks about how it has made a famously difficult life better.
How has your practice changed you?
I feel at peace with myself, happier than I have ever been,
and it is not from material things. Practicing the words Nam-myoho-renge-kyo for so long has put me in another frame of
mind, so that even when I don’t practice for a day or a week, I
still feel happy. But I do practice. The chant makes you comfortable because it removes uncomfortable mental attitudes.
What does it mean that your album Beyond is about prayer?
It means that people who work in the arts need prayer as
much as anyone else. I don’t separate my work as a rock
singer from prayer. Everything has been very positive, and
that’s because of my spiritual practice.
Is singing a spiritual practice for you?
Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is a song. It is a sound and a rhythm,
and it touches a place inside you. That place we try to reach is
the subconscious mind.
Lotus Flower Formula: Back in 2007, rapper Xzibit sampled the chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in his
single “Concentrate” (its use of less “enlightened” language peeving some adherents in the process). The leg-
endary psychedelic outfit Acid Mothers Temple devoted a full-length song/album/freak-out to the chant. Pop
figures Courtney Love, Belinda Carlisle, and Duncan Sheik, as well as the late songstress Phoebe Snow, have
also engaged in the practice of Nichiren Buddhism.
Sculptures of Sound: San Francisco Zen Center Opens the Musical Gates
In the public mind, Zen temples are envisioned as bastions
of quietude and order. But the practitioners at the famed San Francisco Zen Center—which just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary—see something more. They see a realm where statues of
bodhisattvas can collude with sculptures made of sound. Hence
Zen Center’s adventurous musical programming that, more and
more, is bringing in respected avant-garde acts.
SFZC’s program director, David Zimmerman, explains that
a member of local arts-and-events collective The Bold Italic
began sitting at Zen Center and suggested that meditation and
music programming might go hand in hand. It’s proven to be, Zimmerman says, “a wonderful dharma-gate outside the traditional.” Soon enough, the celebrated drone-metal duo Barn Owl was performing at SfZC, followed by August’s Soundwave festival, featuring semi-electronic soundscapers En.
At Soundwave, sessions of guided meditation, kinhin (walking
meditation), and chanting led directly into band performances.
This made for one-of-a-kind shows, and the musicians appreciated the heightened quality of presence in their audiences.
Zimmerman says the public can expect more such collaborations
in the future.
Dharma Thunder: The Metal-and-Punk Connection
The interconnection between Buddhism and punk is pretty well
established by now: Zen teacher Brad Warner writes about them
both and still plays bass for the revivified old-school punk outfit
Zero Defex. Dharma Punx, established by Buddhist teacher noah
Levine (also the founder of Against the Stream), even repurposed
a cover graphic from Black flag contemporaries Blast! for its logo.
And as far back as 1982, Philadelphia’s Ruin, founded by guitarist and future Buddhist author/scholar Glenn Wallis, was covering
Leonard Cohen (reportedly a Ruin fan himself) and performing its
own Buddhism-informed material.
Just as punk and metal eventually crossed over into each other,
it was only a matter of time before dharma and super-heavy metallic music did the same. Sometimes only a slight influence, or even
straight-up cultural co-optation, is at play: cult-favorite bands like
Yakuza, Earth, Sons of Otis, Meshuggah, Stargazer, and Skullflower,
as well more arena-oriented acts like Rage Against the Machine,
Loudness, and Uriah Heep, have all used Buddhism-related imagery in their album art. Sometimes there’s real substance. There’s
no better example than Portugal’s The firstborn. Starting as
a death-metal act, the band soon found inspiration in The
Tibetan Book of the Dead—hey, it worked for The Beatles—
and used it as the basis for their first LP, The Unclenching of
Fists, recorded in 2004. This was followed by 2008’s The Noble
Search and last year’s Lions Among Men. Both explicitly address
dharmic themes (Buddhist scriptures and Mahayana Buddhist
thought, respectively) while incorporating an Eastern musical
palette into an often aggressive, always full-spectrum sound.
THE FM3 BUDDHA MACHINE: A Temple of Sound, in your pocket
Aesthetically, it’s sort of a cross between
your grandpa’s transistor radio
and an iPod. But the sound that
comes out of the fM3 Buddha
Machine isn’t what you’d
expect out of either of those.
Instead, the Machine plays
dreamy, drony loops cre-
ated by a duo in Beijing who
took their inspiration from a
similar gadget that some Asian
temples employ to play full-
volume loops of actual Buddhist
chants. (The machines keep the chants
make it seem to the world that the temples are
packed with enthusiastic and vocal aspirants.) The fM3 machine
works in much the same way, only with its own custom sounds.
Music fans quickly learned to love its soothing, lo-fi charms.
Musicians, too: since its 2007 release, the Machine has spawned
four “remix albums” that feature contributions from Chinese as
well as Western artists, including Robert Henke of Monolake, the
metal/drone-duo SunnO))), and the Sun City Girls. The Buddha
Machine can be hard to find; luckily, there’s now an iPhone app that stands in nicely.
IN THE CLUB: Dharma Talks and “DubSutra” on the Dance Floor
While he has yet to rap, Tibetan teacher Sogyal Rinpoche,
author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, has been
experimenting with club music as a way to reach young peo-
ple. “Awake Amsterdam,” held at a hip concert venue in May
2011, combined Buddhist teachings with electronic music in a
nightclub setting, followed by a dharma talk and, yes, meditation. Attendance topped out at 700, and a 2012 “Awake” event
was quickly planned.
In Japan, two aspiring Jodo Shinshu priests, performing as
Tariki Echo, are making Buddhist dance music inspired by the
musical trend of the moment, dubstep. While their helmets
might evoke the famed french electronic act Daft Punk, TE
are their own unique animal. They’ve created their own genre,
“dubsutra,” made by matching Buddhist sutras to dubstep
beats, and released their first album, Buddha Sound, last year.
You can hear their work online at tarikiecho.jp.
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan : Musical Adventures in the Pure Land
As a fan of heavy and—okay—often weird music, I was pretty excited when I
learned about Yamantaka // Sonic Titan. Their name is a hybrid, combining a
Buddhist deity and the title of a truly epic track by the classic doom-metal band,
Sleep. And they sound it: the band’s self-titled debut LP is at turns beautiful, pummeling, noisy, and transcendent. YT//ST is ambitious; they’ve
already completed 33, a rock opera that incorporates Buddhist themes,
and another, Star, is in progress.
When I got the chance to see them recently, I found the band’s blend of musicianship, exploration, Buddhist themes, and theatrics even more potent on stage than it is on record. Led by drummer Alaska B. and vocalist Ruby Kato Attwood, the band—all in face paint evoking noh theatre as well
as heavy metal’s more extreme forms—is capable of holding a music hall in thrall.
Attwood enhances the band’s already undeniable presence through a series of
Buddhist mudras matched with facial expressions that seem at once compassion-
ate and fierce. See them if you can, but listen to them either way. You can stream all
of YT//ST’s debut album online at yamantakasonictitan.bandcamp.com.
Jerry Granelli: The Real Stuff
“I didn’t come to the dharma looking to be a better musician,” Jerry
Granelli says. “I’d accomplished most of what I’d hoped for. But
I didn’t know how to be a human.” At 71, the jazz drummer and
music-and-meditation teacher is as vital and inventive as any artist
could hope to be.
As a jazz musician, he made a name for himself young. That’s
the 22-year-old Granelli drumming on Vince Guaraldi’s beloved
“Linus and Lucy,” the Peanuts’ theme song. He played with the likes
of Carmen McRae, Bill Evans, and Sly Stone, but by the time he
met his teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, in the early 1970s, he was at a crossroads: tired, and perhaps even “done with music forever.”
But Trungpa Rinpoche told him, “no, no, that’s where your real
stuff will come up.”
At Trungpa Rinpoche’s urging, he began connecting with
musicians and meditators as a teacher, and he still teaches both,
blending them together. He says meditation is “mandatory”
for the many players—pros and beginners alike—who attend
his workshops in the hopes that his talent and wisdom might
rub off on them. “They love it,” he says. “It’s a way for them to work with their whole artistic process, their whole lives.
Dharma Americana—Jazz and Beyond: Pianist Herbie Hancock, reed
players Wayne Shorter and Bennie Maupin, and bassist Buster Williams are all
practitioners of nichiren Buddhism; singer Tamm E. Hunt is a Mahayana Buddhist;
Joseph Jarman of the famed Art Ensemble of Chicago is a Jodo Shinshu priest. In
the singer-songwriter realm, musicians like Jake LaBotz, Ravenna Michalsen, Meg
Hutchison, and Alan Senauke are applying Buddhist lessons to musical hybrids
that include elements of the blues and other folk musics. There’s even, thanks to
the great Peter Rowan, a Heart Sutra-inspired bluegrass tune, “Vulture Peak.”
For more about the Buddhism-and-music connection, see this full article in the March 2013 Shambhala Sun. And don't miss these online stories from the Shambhala Sun archives and our blog, Shambhala SunSpace:
The Wu-Tang frontman sat down with the Sun to discuss how far his spiritual quest has taken him, and how far he still hopes to go.
Over a long and brilliant career, the poet
and singer has lived many lives already, from essence of hip to
celebrated lover to serious Zen man. Pico Iyer on Cohen’s
journey from Suzanne to Sesshin.
And to a remarkable extent, Leonard
Cohen is succeeding. In 2007, Sarah Hampson had a rare opportunity to
spend an afternoon with the famed singer and poet. He had the wisdom of
age but was still the essence of cool—the perfect reflection of his
years of Zen.
Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo speaks to Jeff
Pardy about his introduction to meditative practice, and it’s impact on
both his music and the band.
Judy Bond Interviews Radiohead's Thom Yorke at the 1998 Tibetan Freedom Concert.
A series of deaths—her husband, brother
and closest friend—has softened the heart of the once angry poet and
singer. "Sorrow is like a precious spring," says Patti Smith, and with
it has come an outburst of writing, recording and performing.
The Cult's Ian Astbury shares his feelings about the dharma teacher.
the Queen of Rock 'n' Roll. An unwanted child. A believer in the power
of love. A longtime Buddhist. Andrea Miller talks to Tina Turner.
Her new album, Watershed, reflects the dramatic changes in her life since she became a committed Buddhist. k.d. lang talks for the first time about her Buddhist teacher and practice.
In the public’s minds, Zen temples are probably most often envisioned as bastions of quietude and order. But the pioneers at San Francisco Zen Center see a realm where statues of bodhisattvas can collude with sculptures made of sound.
In Japan, two aspiring Jodo Shinshu priests, performing as Tariki Echo, are making Buddhist dance music inspired by the musical trend of the moment, dubstep.
While he has yet to rap, Tibetan teacher Sogyal Rinpoche has been experimenting with club music as a way to reach young people.
k.d. lang photo by Jeri Heiden
Born I Music photo by Chris Carr
About a Poem: Roger Housden on Ellen Bass’ “If You Knew” (March 2013)
Shambhala Sun | March 2013
About a Poem: Roger Housden on Ellen Bass’ “If You Knew”
IF YOU KNEW
What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.
When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport,
when the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.
A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee,
kissed her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.
How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?
One Of the many wonderful things about a poem is that you can pour everything into it—joy and sorrow, the remarkable and the ordinary—and the poem will use all of it, turning stones into bread along the way. In this poem, If You Knew, even a man wheeling his suitcase through an airport and the clerk in the pharmacy who won’t say Thank you come newly alive for us when we remember that they, like us, are drifting toward an irrevocable finality. Ellen Bass is affirming that we are most alive when we are aware of the shadow of death that hovers over everything, perhaps especially over ourselves. It is our mortality that makes life so precious.
Imagine looking at yourself in the mirror, or at your lover or your parents, and seeing you or them soaked in honey, stung and swollen. How forgiving your look would become—the lines in your face would soften in the glow of the truth before you. In this one image, Bass joins our beauty to our wounding.
And our greatest wounding—the imperfection that no amount of prayer or goodness or psychotherapy will ever do anything to erase—is that we are pinned against time. Time is both our friend and our ultimate demise. It is our friend when we awaken to the reality that this life will not always be so. When we know this from the inside, the caution that may have colored our days will dissolve like mist over the bay. With nothing to lose, knowing there can be nothing to hold on to, we can fall headlong into life at last. We can be reckless, like butterflies still hovering over a flower even as the collector leans forward with his net.
Far from being a tragedy, there is something poignantly wondrous about our mortal predicament. I wish only that I might live out my days like this, in wonder.
Roger Housden's books include the bestselling Ten Poems series, which began with Ten Poems to Change Your Life and ended with Ten Poems to Say Goodbye. His latest book is Twenty Poems to Bless your marriage and One to Save It.
Books in Brief (March 2013)
Shambhala Sun | March 2013
Books in Brief
By Andrea Miller
KNOW YOURSELF, FORGET YOURSELF: Five Truths That Will Transform Your Work, Relationships, and Everyday Life
By Marc Lesser
New World Library 2013; 256 pp., $14.95 (paper)
As an executive coach, Marc Lesser helps clients make a shift in their immediate work issues. But in order to do that, he must transform their entire way of looking at themselves and the world.
The key to thriving in our work and lives, he says, is to embrace life’s paradoxes. After all, the way to find balance is to be open and responsive to imbalance—to be like a tightrope walker continually and instinctively feeling every wobble. According to Lesser, life’s paradoxes can be distilled into five core truths: know yourself, forget yourself; be confident, question everything; fight for change, accept what is; embrace emotion, embody equanimity; and benefit others, benefit yourself. This book is strongly rooted in Buddhist thought and practice. Lesser is a Zen teacher who lived at the San Francisco Zen Center for ten years and is a former director of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.
WHEN BUDDHISTS ATTACK: The Curious Relationship Between Zen and the Martial Arts
By Jeffrey K. Mann
Tuttle 2012; 224 pp., $16.95 (cloth)
The great Zen master Hakuin contended that a samurai could accomplish in a few days of Zen practice what would take a monk a hundred days. His reasoning was that monks generally assume they have years to devote to Zen, while warriors are well aware of impending death, so warriors will throw themselves into practice with a far greater sense of urgency than monks. That being said, the relationship between martial arts and Zen has been greatly exaggerated, especially in the West.
In When Buddhists Attack, Jeffrey K. Mann unpacks the facts and fiction. The fiction, he claims, begins right with Bodhidharma. As legend has it, this patriarch developed an exercise program for the monks at Shaolin Monastery who were struggling to endure his rigorous meditative practices, and these exercises eventually evolved into forms of staff fighting and unarmed combat. In reality, however, the most famous text attributed to Bodhidharma was penned a thousand years after his death, and scholars now doubt that he even set foot in Shaolin.
NOT QUITE NIRVANA: A Skeptic’s Journey to Mindfulness
By Rachel Neumann
Parallax Press 2012; 128 pp., $14.95 (paper)
Rachel Neumann has been Thich Nhat Hanh’s primary editor for ten years. When she first landed the job, she would read each page reverently and keep her editing ultra light. “I was like a housecleaner in a fancy home,” she writes, “tidying up here and there, perhaps washing out a particularly muddled paragraph or trimming the edges of a sentence, but certainly not rearranging the furniture.” Then one day she was simultaneously editing and nursing her new baby when she came across this line in a transcript: “When I was younger, I was a revolting monk.” Thich Nhat Hanh? Revolting? Thinking that was highly unlikely, Neumann changed the word to “rebellious,” and it was making that edit that gave her confidence to muscle around more with content and otherwise get her into her editing groove. Not Quite Nirvana is the engaging true story of Neumann learning mindfulness on the job and discovering how to apply it in her busy life with her family.
TIBET WILD: A Naturalist’s Journeys on the Roof of the World
By George B. Schaller
Island Press 2012; 374 pp., $29.95 (cloth)
Tibet Wild is a finely crafted memoir detailing George B. Schaller’s travels and conservation projects in the rugged Tibetan Plateau. (Schaller will be familiar to many readers as Peter Matthiessen’s expedition partner in his classic The Snow Leopard.) For thirty years, he has studied the region’s wildlife, including the rare Tibetan brown bear, the blue sheep, and the plateau pika, a small mammal that often is considered a pest (and is therefore poisoned), yet is key to maintaining the biological diversity of the region. Schaller’s driving passion, though, is for the chiru, or Tibetan antelope, and his studies have helped bring back its decimated population by drawing international attention to poaching. “Ultimately, the decision to save the environment must come from the human heart,” Schaller quotes the Dalai Lama as saying. Then Schaller himself adds: “The Buddhist religion stresses love and compassion toward all living beings, and this predisposes its followers to be receptive to an environmental message.”
JOURNEYS ON THE SILK ROAD: A Desert Explorer, Buddha’s Secret Library, and the Unearthing of the World’s Oldest Printed Book
By Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters
Lyons Press 2012; 336 pp., $24.95 (cloth)
Journeys on the Silk Road tells the fascinating story of Aurel Stein, an archaeologist employed by the British government. His scholarship and explorations are at the root of almost everything that’s currently known about the Silk Road and Buddhism’s migration along it. While Stein died a hero in the West, in China he has long been reviled as a thief, and today many Westerners also see him in that light. In 1900, a Chinese monk named Wang Yuanlu discovered a hidden cave, unearthing scrolls piled from floor to ceiling that had been hidden for a thousand years. Among them was what is now recognized as the oldest dated printed book in the world: a complete copy of the Diamond Sutra. Printed on paper at a time when paper was unknown in the West, this scroll was produced 600 years before Gutenberg had even heard of ink. Stein bribed Wang with a mere four horseshoes of silver, then sneaked out of China, his caravan loaded down with loot from the caves.
MINDFULNESS IN THE GARDEN: Zen Tools for Digging in the Dirt
By Zachiah Murray
Parallax Press 2012; 160 pp., $16.95 (cloth)
THE BACKYARD PARABLES: A Meditation on Gardening
By Margaret Roach
Grand Central Publishing 2013; 288 pp., $25.99 (cloth)
Under the silvery-green-leafed olive trees in her yard, Zachiah Murray planted her first garden. She immediately fell in love with the scent and feel of the earth and with how gardening loosened the knot in her mind. Her love endured, and today Murray is a landscape architect and the author of Mindfulness in the Garden, a small, handsome book in which she offers gathas for gardeners. (A gatha is a short verse that we can recite as we do an action, which in turn helps us develop awareness of what we are doing.) For instance, for watering: “Don’t think you will die of thirst, dear soil. I bring to you the sky and the sea. I carry it to you in my hands, and together we shall drink.”
From Margaret Roach, the first garden editor of Martha Stewart Living, comes The Backyard Parables. It’s part memoir and part compendium of horticultural lore, and it even features a couple of recipes for garden-fresh veggies. “The garden is a perennial dharma talk—a meditation, a reminder to reflect,” writes Roach. “It teaches us to live with intimacy and attention, and asks that we feel the pulse of more than just our own interior life force, instead seeing ourselves as part of a vast, complex organism and story.”
Loving-Kindness for Your Body (March 2013)
Shambhala Sun | March 2013
Loving-Kindness for Your Body
May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind
By Cyndi Lee
Dutton Adult 2012; 272 pp., $25.95 (cloth)
Reviewed by Diana Winston
Body hatred is suffering.
How many women and men, nationwide, suffer from eating disorders? Why is cosmetic surgery a multibillion-dollar industry? What respite is there from endless media images exhorting us to be thin, beautiful, and youthful?
No one I know has escaped this type of suffering, so one would assume spiritual teachers aren’t immune either. But most teachers aren’t public about it. An exception is Cyndi Lee, in her courageous new book, May I Be Happy. It’s not every day that one of the leaders of the yoga world—in this case, the founder of OM yoga—comes out as having body-image issues. A yoga teacher who hates her body. Huh? It’s about time someone was straight about this. Her willingness to do so takes guts and is an inspiration to the rest of us.
Lee’s journey to “Changing Her Mind,” as the subtitle says, takes us from her self-hating adolescence, her early years in the New York East Village alternative art and dance scenes, and her life as a jet-setting yoga teacher to her current-day search for answers to her health and body fixation, before she settles on metta (loving-kindness) practice, which, in combination with other practices, ultimately transforms her.
Woven throughout the book is the story of her aging mother’s decline, some of the most powerful writing in an occasionally rambling book. I was moved by Lee’s bittersweet compassion and love for her mother, since clearly her mother was a factor in her body struggles.
Though I didn’t connect personally with some of the expert advice she sought, I was impressed by how Lee meets the topic with fearlessness and a determination to heal. Her journey might lead us to ask an important question: Is the dharma the right medicine for these particular cultural and personal maladies—body hatred galore, and more generally, self-judgment and unworthiness?
Historically in Theravada Buddhism (my own practice lineage), the body seems to get a bad rap. We can trace this back to the dominance of a monastic tradition. Monasticism, such as in Burma where I practiced, is infused with patriarchal attitudes such as the inferiority of women, the unworthiness of the body, and the denial of sexuality. It suggests that the Buddha encouraged us to hate this inconvenient bag of flesh and get out of samsara—fast!
But a closer look shows us that throughout the Pali canon, the Buddha exhorted us to find awakening within the body. From the Dhammapada: “They awaken, always wide awake: Gotama’s disciples whose mindfulness, both day and night, is constantly immersed in the body.” Just as the body is a vehicle of awakening, the dharma can, as Lee discovers, be a healing balm. But what if we hate our body? What if our body is too fat or too thin or too saggy or too...?
I suffered in my twenties from comparison, judgment, and perfectionism, and my body was not excluded. When I found Vipassana meditation at twenty-two, I was overjoyed to find that I could concentrate my mind and attain some peace from my periodic bouts of self-hatred. This liberation by seeing through thoughts and emotions, by opening to more and more beautiful states of concentration and understanding, has brought a deeper joy than I’d have ever imagined.
But things would have to crash first, as they did some ten years after my discovery of Vipassana. I was in the midst of a yearlong retreat in the Burmese jungle and came face to face with my belief in my own unworthiness, a belief that I had so carefully pushed away through my meditation practice. If you’re serious about practice, at some point that which needs tending to will emerge. My unworthiness demons arose in full force. The horror of seeing my desperately cultivated emptiness practice fall apart, in combination with unbearable emotions, brought me to a crossroads. I could quit, head to Thailand to numb out on the beach, or face it and try to heal.
What I had to find was my own self-compassion. And this is ultimately what healed Cyndi Lee.
Self-compassion, as defined by scientist Kristin Neff, involves mindfulness, compassion practices, and the recognition of our shared humanity. Neff writes, “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings—after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?”
In Burma I spent hour after hour in intensive self-directed loving-kindness and compassion practices. Vipassana went to the wayside. This was coupled with the understanding that my inherent nature was not flawed or something I had to get out of. (Contrast that with my Theravadin teacher’s daily exhortations to purify my impure nature and get out of samsara immediately.) Instead, I realized that my inherent nature was one of radiance and utter goodness. By connecting with this, everything shifted, in particular my sense of unworthiness. By the time I left the monastery, that chapter had more or less ended.
This unworthiness, the feeling that we are deeply flawed, lies at the heart of body hatred, and dharma practice can bring relief. Lee addresses this, sharing how hard she worked not to take those critical voices in her head so seriously: “That day at the snap of a finger I saw that I had gotten it wrong all those years. I was always getting mad at my body but, in fact, my body has been fine. It’s my relationship to my body that is hurting me and my mind that is the real troublemaker.”
Through determined observation, we can learn to see self-critical voices as just that—voices and our stories arising in our head. We do not have to take them to be “me” or “mine.” I have taught this for years to students, particularly younger women who seem to suffer, on an almost epidemic level, from self-hatred (body and otherwise). Nonidentification is a basic understanding that comes from meditation, but it can be absolutely revolutionary when practiced, internalized, and enacted on the spot to counteract a voice that says, “I hate my thighs” or whatever is the self-loathing du jour.
This observation, often helpfully enhanced by noticing what’s happening in our bodies in the midst of challenging thoughts, is complemented with the practice of self-directed metta. This was Lee’s magic bullet, but I don’t believe she gave the how of the practice the thoroughness it deserves. she simply describes how she learned to direct four metta phrases (“May you be safe / May you be happy / May you be healthy / May you live with ease”) not to others but to herself. And her self-hatred was transformed.
My experience both practicing and teaching self-directed metta is that it’s much more nuanced than Lee describes. It can help, you may find, to slowly repeat metta-related phrases even if they’re in wordings that make sense only to you. It can take work to nail these down; this is more than the mere repetition of canned phrases. In my own practice, I invite creativity: some- times images come, sometimes I engage the practice for myself as a child. Always it is done slowly, with the emphasis on how it feels inside my body. Am I connecting with the feeling of metta? If so, I try to connect viscerally and let it be there and grow. If not—and this is key—I see what gets in the way of opening to more and more love. Usually it’s self-judgment and shame that flood my body, and these are fully revealed. Then I turn my mindfulness to it, tenderly bringing compassion. I say, “What- ever it is I’m feeling, may I hold this too in kindness.”
With persistence, I’ve begun to chip away at my own perceived unloveabilty, my storehouse of metta has begun to grow, and the obstacles to feeling it have dissolved in a greater “ocean of metta.” This is how the practice works for me, and it’s how I teach it. Ultimately, it can transform the very fabric of our being.
So why, if I had that big transformation in Burma in the late ’90s and healed my self-hatred, am I still practicing metta for myself? Well the bad news is that this programming runs deep and requires a lifetime of vigilance. Much of the really crusty and entrenched core unworthiness can get cleared out, but there are always layers upon layers. It just seems to come up again, no matter how hard you work.
When life changes, self-judgment comes up in all-new forms, like the pregnancy weight that doesn’t seem to want to go away, or my most recent battle with wrinkles and aging. Recently it’s been painful to look in the mirror and feel thirty-five-ish inside but see a forty-six-year-old’s face. The level of shame that accompanies this thought stream is not insignificant—and I don’t even have it that bad; I’ve never suffered from an eating disorder, as have so many of my peers. Perhaps the fact that I live in Los Angeles—where a little Botox here and there is seen as good grooming—has reactivated this form of body hatred.
When the shame and comparing and self-judgment rear their ugly heads, my experience tells me to start again. Work with those voices and then turn up the level of metta while reconnecting with your own inner goodness. I turn up my mindfulness to vigilantly catch each self- hating voice: “Oh my god, that wrinkle appeared overnight!” It’s about calming, breathing, remembering the insidious nature of these voices and the fact that the mind states they signify are fleeting. Then I amp up my metta some more, sending it to the deepest recesses of my body shame and hoping it does its magic. Which it seems to do, for a while anyway. And I’m always reconnecting with something way larger than me. Call it buddhanature, innate primordial goodness, or a sense that underneath it all, I’m okay.
The dharma insists it’s possible that we can be liberated in this body, in this lifetime. You don’t have to get outside the body to do it. Instead, it’s about facing our internalized messages and learning to see through them so the body becomes a source of love for ourselves and others, and the vehicle of liberation. Thanks, Cyndi Lee, for bravely paving the way.
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