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About a Poem: Naomi Shihab Nye on Rosemary Catacalos' "Homesteaders" (September 2013) Print

Shambhala Sun | September 2013

About a Poem: Naomi Shihab Nye on Rosemary Catacalos' "Homesteaders"

They came for the water,
came to its sleeping place
here in the bed of an old sea,

the dream of the water.
They sank hand and tool into

soil where the bubble of springs
gave off hope, fresh and long,

the song of the water.
Babies and crops ripened

where they settled,
where they married their sweat

in the ancient wedding,
the blessing of the water.

They made houses of limestone
and adobe, locked together blocks

descended from shells and coral,
houses of the bones of the water,

shelter of the water.
And they swallowed the life

of the lime in the water,
sucked its mineral up

into their own bones
which grew strong as the water,

the gift of the water.
All along the counties they lay,

mouth to mouth with the water,
fattened in the smile of the water,

the light of the water,

water flushed pure through the
spine and ribs of the birth of life,

the old ocean,

the stone,
the home of the water.

—from Again For the First Time, 1984 and 2013, Wings Press.

Poetry pulls us toward sourcesof memory, loss, creation, beauty, or peculiarly curious juxtaposition. Poetry says, things don’t always make sense or fit together in ways we might have dreamed or preferred, but sometimes this layered, leaping language we love may offer healing cure or comforting refreshment. Poetry as wellspring—we want to camp near the spirit it opens in us, make a small, tidy fire beside the bubbling source of being and thinking, inside the quietly mindful air.

In her poem “Homesteaders,” Rosemary Catacalos, who grew up in San Antonio, Texas, of Greek and Mexican ancestry and has spent most of her life here, casts an eye back toward earlier inhabitants of this lovely green region, warm much of the year. (This gentle, soft-aired city is frequently surprising to visitors who come to south-central Texas expecting the flat panhandle.) Catacalos’ poem invokes the potent power of the underground aquifer that made human life here possible at all—the source of life in its own deep chamber, which we never even see.

A city famous for its elegant, well-tended river, San Antonio continues to pay close attention to the water resource underground, insisting on highly particular summer water rationing. (Depending on your address, you get only a few hours a week to water with a sprinkler or irrigation system.) I love Catacalos’ repeated chant-chorus “of the water,” which creates a dreamy rhapsody akin to the spell people sometimes feel standing on a beach. The poem feels like a blessing, a prayer. 

Recently, after our usual months of semi-drought, this city saw a rare day of nine to twelve inches of rain. The aquifer rose dramatically and ever since, the ground seems to be holding its own note of gratitude—the hundredyear- old pecan trees feel refreshed in their airy motions. This is how people feel sometimes when, after a long hiatus, they give themselves the gift of reading or writing poetry again. One thing quite agreeable about poetry is it’s short—you can sneak it in. No silly excuses about “not having time” to read any… a poem dips a reader deeply and quickly into a wellspring of text and remembering, nourishing us so intimately that no one else may even guess why we feel changed.

And what a perfect poem to signify the republication of the 2013 Texas Poet Laureate Rosemary Catacalos’ exquisite book of poems, Again for the First Time, originally published nearly thirty years ago in New Mexico, now being printed in a new edition from Wings Press, San Antonio. Time, water, and wings—we praise the loud doves that awaken us daily in this city’s old neighborhoods. Alongside them, we offer our chorus of thanksgiving and gentle bows.



From the September 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Books in Brief (September 2013) Print

Shambhala Sun | September 2013

Books in Brief

HOW TO WAKE UP: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow
By Toni Bernhard

Wisdom Publications 2013; 240 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Toni Bernhard’s first book, How to Be Sick, focused on chronic illness. But to her surprise, many readers turned out to be healthy people who related what she said about illness to whatever challenge they were facing, be it the dissolution of a marriage or job stress. This inspired Bernhard to write How to Wake Up, which is about how our difficulties—whatever they are—can lead us to awakening. “The Buddha wasn’t concerned with heaven or hell, with miracles or saints,” writes Bernhard. “He was interested in investigating the human condition, particularly the presence of suffering in our lives and how we might alleviate it so that we can find the peace and well-being we all hope for.” What the Buddha discovered was that while we can’t avoid life’s ups and downs, we can learn to attain a well-being that isn’t dependent on circumstances. To help us do that, he taught a wealth of detailed practices, and in How to Wake Up Bernhard helps us apply them to the challenges of our lives now.

 

DAKINI POWER: Twelve Extraordinary Women Shaping the Transmission of Tibetan Buddhism in the West
By Michaela Haas

Snow Lion 2013; 344 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Dakini Power offers twelve fascinating and intimate profiles of women teachers who are shaping Tibetan Buddhism in the West. The term dakini applies to both exceptional women practitioners and to meditational deities embodying wisdom. “The dakinis are depicted as strong and fiercely independent,” writes Michaela Haas. “The Tibetan word for dakini, khandro, literally means sky-goer, and it hints at the expansiveness of their view. I find this interesting. All the female masters I met are extremely compassionate, warm, and kind, with very soft and tender hearts. At the same time, they are also firm and seem to have backbones of steel.” The women profiled have had a wide range of life experiences. They include Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, an Englishwoman who did twelve years of solitary retreat in a cave in the Himalayas, and Karma Lekshe Tsomo, who went from being a Californian surfer to the head of the world’s foremost association of Buddhist women.

 

SPIRITUAL ECOLOGY: The Cry of the Earth
Edited by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

The Golden Sufi Center; 280 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Spiritual Ecology is an anthology edited by the Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee. As he explains, the book’s contributors— luminaries from various spiritual traditions—all have the same essential message: our environmental crisis is also a spiritual crisis. We’ll only be able to bring the world back into balance when we have regained a spirituality grounded in nature. Contributors John Stanley and David Loy note that while most religions reject biological evolution because it seems to conflict with their creation stories, to remain relevant they must embrace evolution and focus on its spiritual meaning. Scientists, however, also have a limiting belief: scientific materialism. So to survive, humanity needs a deeper truth than either religion or science alone provides. Contributor Susan Murphy Roshi sees our environmental crisis as “a tremendous koan set for us by the Earth,” and to solve it we “need to relearn the fundamentals that were once natural to us.” Disappearing forests, melting glaciers, heat waves—these are, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, bells of mindfulness urging us to look deeply at our impact on the planet.

POLISHING THE MIRROR: How to Live from Your Spiritual Heart
By Ram Dass

Sounds True 2013; 224 pp., $21.95 (cloth)

“When I got high,” Ram Dass asserts, “I felt like this was who I knew myself to be—a deep being, at peace, in love, and free.” Yet drugs only allowed him to touch a place of enlightenment; they didn’t let him stay there. In search of real freedom, he left for India in 1966 and eventually met his Hindu guru, Neem Karoli Baba. Ram Dass says, “I kept hoping to get esoteric teachings from Maharaj-ji, but when I asked, ‘How can I become enlightened?’ he said things like, ‘Love everybody, serve everybody, and remember God’ or ‘Feed people.’ When I asked, ‘How can I know God?’ Maharajji said, ‘The best form to worship God is in all forms. God is in everything.’ ” These simple teachings, steeped in love, are the foundation of Ram Dass’s seminal book Be Here Now, as well as his new release, Polishing the Mirror. It mixes illuminating personal anecdotes with a brass-tacks guide to spiritual practices, including the use of malas, mantras, and devotional chants.

 

THE GREEN BOAT: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture
By Mary Pipher

Riverhead 2013; 240 pp., $16 (paper)

Mary Pipher once spent a night in a tent with three of her grandchildren. The two youngest—ages four and two—blissfully listened to the sounds of the night birds, but the oldest—Kate, age six—was terrified and wanted to go home. When Pipher asked Kate why she wasn’t as brave as her little brother and sister, she cried, “Nonna, they are little. They don’t know enough to be scared.” These days, Pipher feels like Kate; she knows too much about the world’s precarious environmental situation and sometimes wishes she didn’t. Yet, she asks, if we adults don’t come to grips with the environmental crisis, who will? In The Green Boat, Pipher uses her background in psychology to explore the ways in which we avoid facing the bad news. Then she unpacks how we can get past our fear, despair, and anger to effect positive change. Pipher is also the author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls and Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World.

 

TEN BREATHS TO HAPPINESS: Touching Life in Its Fullness
By Glen Schneider

Parallax Press 2013; 96 pp., $12.95 (paper)

The Ten Breaths practice is a simple way of using the breath to help establish new patterns of happiness. Here’s the gist of how to practice it: when something beautiful touches you—a sight, sound, or feeling—stop and focus on the beauty for the length of ten breaths. Glen Schneider, a dharma teacher ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh, spontaneously devised this practice one evening in his garden. He noticed the crescent moon framed by the bare branches of a tree and decided to take ten conscious breaths while gazing at the lovely scene. During those breaths, Schneider felt nourished, and when he went outside the following evening and again saw the moon, he suddenly felt the same pleasant feeling. Schneider suspected he was onto something and trained himself to do the Ten Breaths practice at least once a day. Now, he enjoys deeper connections with people and savors life more. In Ten Breaths to Happiness Schneider explains from a neurological perspective why this practice is effective and shows how it relates to more traditional Buddhist practices.

 

THAI MAGIC TATTOOS: The Art and Influence of Sak Yant
By Isabel Azevedo Drouyer

River Books 2013; 144 pp., $29.95 (cloth)

A form of tattooing practiced in Southeast Asia, Sak Yant is rooted in a combination of Theravada Buddhism, Brahmanism, and animism. The Sak Yant masters— frequently Buddhist monks—are seen as spiritual mediums who imbue the tattoos they create with magical spells for prosperity, protection, and happiness. Popular images include real and mythical animals and deities from the Hindu pantheon or their symbols, such as Shiva’s trident. The principle inspiration for Sak Yant, however, is Buddhist iconography and the most prized image is that of the Buddha. Thai Magic Tattoos gives a brief history of tattoos in general and Sak Yant in particular. It profiles various Sak Yant masters, outlines the ritualized process of Sak Yant tattooing sessions, and attempts to explain why these sacred tattoos inspire such passion. The text is lavishly illustrated with photography by René Drouyer.


From the September 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.


Editorial: "Our Original Goodness" (September 2013) Print

Shambhala Sun | September 2013

Editorial: "Our Original Goodness"

Here’ s a Mahayana Buddhist truism: we are a mixture of wisdom and neurosis. Everything we think, feel, perceive, say, and do has both an awakened and a confused aspect.

So, we are a mix of good and bad. This we all know. The important question is which we really are, which is the deeper reality of human nature. Which is more original, as it were, the sin or goodness?

How we answer that question will define our path to becoming better people—whether we are struggling against our basic nature or trying to realize it. “You Are the Sun Not the Clouds,” the title for our cover story in this issue, sums up the Mahayana Buddhist view.

The Buddhist path to becoming a better person is about being who we really are. That’s our buddhanature, our inherent wisdom and compassion that are always present, never fundamentally diminished or sullied. 

That’s the perfect part Suzuki Roshi talks about. But let’s not be naive about it. That would be the least Buddhist thing we could possibly do. We have lots of problems—all we have to do is look at the world around us to know that. So, as Suzuki Roshi says, we need improvement. But because our stains, confusion, and neuroses are merely temporary, we can do it. There is no better news than that.

In Buddhism, this is called the view, the basic insight into the nature of reality that informs our practice. One place we can start our path, as Zen teacher John Tarrant says in our lead teaching on this subject, is with the wanting itself, with our fundamental longing to be a better person. This too is a mixture of wisdom and confusion.

It is our deepest, most heartfelt wish to be better people—wiser, kinder, more skillful, more virtuous, more awake, and full of life. In Buddhist terms, we could say this is the primordial pull of enlightenment. Or we could just say it’s our simple human desire to be who we really are—to be all we know we are capable of being.

There is deep wisdom and truth in this longing. But what happens when we lose the view and don’t know where that beautiful wish is trying to lead us? Then, we seek happiness and a sense of self in externals and dualities: success and failure, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, and that great plague of our life, praise and blame. For all its occasional pleasures, this endless pursuit of external meaning only makes us suffer, and makes us cause others to suffer too. In fact, one could argue that our very wish to be better people, when misunderstood and misdirected, is the cause of samsara, of all our suffering. But when we direct it toward the realization of our true nature, then it is the path to the home we long for.

We don’t have to change who we are—is that even possible?—and there are many proven techniques to help us deal with those temporary things that need improvement. One place to start is meditation. Sitting there doing nothing, at least we’re not making anything worse. In fact, if it’s true that fundamentally things are perfect as they are, then maybe all we really need to do is stop all the ways we make things worse.

It’s a simple path, but not an easy one (or we would have done it long, long ago). It takes a lot of courage to just be who we are. Society has given us so many reasons to feel bad about ourselves, and so many ways to distract ourselves from experiencing the tenderness of our human heart and the spaciousness of our basic being. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said a true warrior is someone with the courage and confidence to really be themselves. You are already the better person you long to be. You are the sun, not the clouds.

—Melvin McLeod, Editor-in-chief

Photo by Megumi Yoshida

 



From the September 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Why Is America So Angry? (September 2013) Print

Why Is America So Angry?

 

Someday somebody will explain why we're all so mad these days. But for now, says SETH GREENLAND, let's consider what to do about it.

When the guy driving the late-model Volvo with a “War Is Not the Answer” bumper sticker gave me the finger, I knew America had taken a wrong turn. The behavior of this hostile L.A. hippie represented more than a traffic kerfuffle. A Volvo with that kind of bumper sticker is a signifier: college graduate, votes Democratic, listens to NPR, and will think about moving to Canada if a Republican becomes president, or at least attend a dinner party where another guest will talk about it. In other words, we are not dissimilar, and we’re reasonable people, aren’t we, this paragon of liberalism and I? And here he was, my sociocultural doppelgänger, thrusting his middle finger at me, bespectacled, professorial face contorted in rage. Yes, I had accidentally cut him off on Olympic Boulevard—He was in my blind spot, Your Honor!—but did the sixties not happen? Did he not at some point also own a vinyl copy of Sweet Baby James? Are we not brothers?

 

From the perspective of a blue state resident, it’s easy—and facile—enough to ascribe the anger percolating in America to the political ascendancy of the right. The enviable market share of Fox News and the conservative monopoly of AM talk radio all speak to their dominion. But this is misleading. Perhaps the manner in which they express their rage is more colorful (thank you, Tea Party costume department), but, as my Olympic Boulevard encounter illustrates, anger is everywhere. People talk about the mainstream media’s sense of misguided fairness that makes them treat both sides equally, but here is a fact: America is furious.

The left became unhinged when George W. Bush was elected. Admittedly, given the Florida recount, the worst recession in sixty years, and the most foolish American war since, well, ever, there was something to be angry about. But the hatred expressed toward him was profound; it felt new and stronger than the opprobrium heaped on Reagan when he was in office. Interestingly, even with all of the anger toward Bush, the left pretty much stayed home while he was in the White House. There were a few economic demonstrations and some antiwar activity, but it paled compared to how people hit the streets during, say, the Vietnam era.

 

Charles Krauthammer dubbed this Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS)— basically ascribing all the world’s ills to the president— and it has become deeper, crazier, and more active now that the virus has migrated from left to right and its symptoms are projected onto President Obama. How else to explain the Tea Partiers, who had no problem with Bush’s vast spending, claiming Obama’s fiscal habits are a danger to the republic? Or the characterization of this barely left-of-center politician who has treated Wall Street with kid gloves as some kind of socialist class warrior and aspiring tyrant? This epic level of anger is most visible on the level of national politics, but it has trickled all the way to the bottom. By bottom I am referring not only to the guy in the Volvo who gave me the finger but also to the comments section of any website that allows them. The Internet has enabled the anger, allowing it to spin like a Catherine wheel, spreading toxicity everywhere.

 

Why is America so angry?

 

Someday, someone will write a book about how we arrived at American apoplexy, but for now let’s be more forward-looking\ and consider what some people are doing about it other than consuming massive levels of prescription medication.

 

One of the things they’re doing is meditating. This explains the rise of what is known as applied mindfulness, which offers practices to develop the capacity to deal with their anger skillfully. People from many religious backgrounds have engaged with this work without giving up their own spiritual identities. They can celebrate the High Holidays and still meditate each morning without annoying their rabbis. They can sing hymns and eat fruitcake at Christmas while still attending their sitting group. Chances are you or someone you know practices a form of meditation. Major universities are researching the effects of these practices. Young children are being taught mindfulness, and not just the ones on Adderall.

 

Apart from scale, anger is no different on the national level than it is in preschool.

When little Emma takes Jacob’s toy truck, Jacob’s anger springs from his thwarted need to possess the object. He is thinking about what he wants, or thinks he wants. Emma, of course, is thinking about what she wants. A fundamental Buddhist belief is that all people want to be  happy and, at root, all of our actions, even angry ones, come from that fact. So this kid thinks the truck will make him happy, when really what is probably going to make him happier in the long run is having a friendly relationship with Emma.

 

Mindfulness, as it happens, is a remarkably effective way to deal with anger. Anger is about my needs. When you get angry, here’s what you’re really screeching: What about ME? The Tea Partiers who hate Obama are really upset because THEIR ideas about economics are so much better, and why doesn’t he see that?

 

The hostile left-wing Volvo driver might be shocked to hear it, but he’s not so different from Rush Limbaugh: both lack a filter with which to screen their bile. Meditation practice provides this filter by training us to be nonreactive, to consider our actions, to “check in” and directly experience how we feel physically and emotionally before acting on it. They teach us to see the larger world and our place in it more clearly, and to experience what we are feeling with some degree of awareness.

 

We don’t need to become Buddhists to deal with our anger but everyone can benefit from what Buddhists have learned from millennia of training. These practices are not a panacea or a cure, but a process through which we learn to see our emotions as dynamic and changing. By undertaking this work, we are less likely to give the finger to the next hapless driver who accidentally cuts us off. Or start a war.

 

That’s right, Volvo Guy. I’m talking to you.


Seth Greenland is the author of three novels, including The Angry Buddhist, and was a writer-producer on the HBO series Big Love.



From the September 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

IIlustration by André Slob


Q&A: Margaret Cho (September 2013) Print

Shambhala Sun | September 2013

The Funniest Thing Is a Deep Truth

Q&A with comedian Margaret Cho.

Margaret Cho is Teri in Lifetime’s hit show Drop Dead Diva; she’s a vaudevillian

burlesque dancer who sambaed and waltzed for Dancing with the Stars; she’s a longtime anti-racist, anti-bullying, and gay rights activist. And then there’s her main gig: side-splitting and boundary-pushing stand-up comedy. Her latest show, Mother, takes an untraditional look at motherhood and explores Cho’s sexuality. She says being bisexual is an odd experience: there’s really no representation of it in the media, so she has to make it up as she goes along. “Nothing is sacred,” Cho has quipped about her show, “least of all this Mother.”

 

Despite the raunchy streak, Cho’s comedy is at heart about compassion. I became interested in interviewing her when I came across her blog post on tonglen, a Buddhist meditation practice that involves breathing in the suffering of others and breathing out compassion and peace. As she describes it, “You’re like an air conditioning filter for the pain and suffering on Earth.”

 

What was it like growing up as a first-generation Korean American? What’s really beautiful, what’s really funny, and what does it take to be a good actor? These are some of the questions Cho tackled in our interview.

—Andrea Miller

 

Like most women—maybe most people—you’ve struggled with your body image. Have you reached some peace with that?

 

I have not reached any peace with that, although now I’m beyond caring, which is maybe peace. I am so sick of thinking about it. There are so many other things that I would rather do than worry about my size. You get bored after forty-whatever years of fretting. You get, like, I’ve got to stop worrying about this because there’s no solution.

 

How would you define true beauty?

 

I think it’s peace or tranquility, and also compassion and kindness. It’s being real or authentic. Laughing is an expression of beauty because it can’t be faked. Something is funny when it’s deeply truthful. The funniest thing is a deep truth that is undeniable.

 

Have you always been funny?

 

I don’t know, but when I saw that people did comedy and that it was a job, I realized that it would be my job. I just knew that that was what I was supposed to do.

 

How did you get into it?

 

I started doing comedy when I was about fourteen. I had a teacher who encouraged me, who saw something in me, and she signed me up for sets at comedy clubs. And then I just kept going. I was in a rush to be an adult. I did not enjoy that period of being an awkward teenager. I did not enjoy school. I did not enjoy my peers. I wanted to be around people who I felt were creative. I kind of escaped my childhood by becoming a comedian.

 

You seem to be really fearless in your comedy, not afraid of crossing a line or upsetting someone. Where does that bravery come from?

 

Well, I don’t think privacy is that important. As human beings, we’re capable of experiencing all kinds of suffering. It’s more valuable to share that than maintain this guise of privacy where we have to keep secrets from each other. It really doesn’t matter anyway. Everybody has a body. Everybody has emotions. That experience is more helpful to share than it is to hide. Privacy is something that people want to use to protect themselves, when it’s not an actual protective mechanism. We’ve all felt the same, so we’re never really revealing anything.

 

You have channeled a lot of very painful experiences into your art. Do you think that there’s truth in the idea of the tortured artist? Does someone have to suffer to be able to create something great?

 

Everybody suffers, regardless of who we are. If you can utilize your suffering in your art, that’s a great way to express it, but I don’t think anybody is exempt from suffering. It’s the human experience. There is always suffering, but there’s always joy too. So I don’t think that there’s any need for an artist to be tortured because that’s just an identity that you adopt. There really isn’t anything that anyone can do to avoid suffering. It is part of being alive. It’s a value judgment even to call something suffering.

 

A lot of people who might not consider themselves traditional comedy fans attend your shows. Why do you think that is?

 

I think that people who come see me are generally people who feel unsafe in comedy clubs. Comedy can be very sexist. It can be very racist or rely on racial stereotypes. It can be very homophobic. It can be very hurtful, used to put people down or hurt people’s feelings, and I’ve never really bought into that. I think that’s what people like about what I do. It’s not about resorting to things like racism, sexism, or homophobia, or hurting people in order to get some kind of idea across.

 

Your dad writes joke books in Korean, but you don’t find his jokes funny. Why not?

 

I think he’s a bit wordy. His jokes are in story form and they’re

just long.

 

And why doesn’t he think yours are funny?

 

He thinks they’re too dirty and that I shouldn’t be talking about sex like that. My parents never told me where babies come from, so they’re under the impression that I don’t know yet. They would rather that I don’t talk so much about sex because they think that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

 

Can you speak Korean?

 

No, I can’t. My father was deported from the United States when I was four, and when he returned he was determined that my brother and I not have any kind of Korean accent whatsoever, so that we would not be perceived as foreigners. He would speak to us in Korean, but we would have to answer in English. It was so traumatizing that although I can understand the language very well, I cannot speak it at all. My father now has his citizenship and it’s impossible for him to be deported, and I was born here, so I’m not going to get deported. But I feel like if I start speaking Korean someone is going to get deported.

 

You often mimic your parents’ accents in your stand-up. Do they mind that?

 

No, they like it. They think it’s really funny.

 

How do you keep your routine fresh when you’re doing a lot of shows?

 

Shows are really a dialogue between you and the audience. In live performance, there’s such a level of unpredictability that you have to be so on top of it and really engaged. My shows tend to change a lot every day.

 

That means the shows are fresh because they really are fresh?

 

Yes, I think so.

 

You act as well now. What do you think is the key to being a good actor?

 

I think it’s really about being able to be compassionate and slip into somebody else’s skin. To be able to understand what it is to look at their life from the inside.




Excerpted from the September 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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