Monday, January 31, 2011

Ameland Reflection III--The Role of Individual Practice in Healthy Sangha

It seems appropriate to round out these reflections with a discussion of the place of the individual practitioner.  How does our individual practice relate to the building and maintenance of a healthy, conscious sangha?  

In my first pose I wrote that "[E]ach member of the sangha has a responsibility to be aware of the inside and the outside of the container, of the culture and the structures, to continuously monitor their relationship to it as individuals, and to note when and where dissonance arises.  That place can be a rich edge for our practice.”  It is also the place from which we can and should act as practitioners of the Buddha dharma.

Our primary practice is meditation in large part because our world is so oriented toward exteriors, yet much of my suffering is has its source in my interior.  My meditation is a practice of looking deeply into the interiority of the world of my experience and seeking to understand how my moment to moment response to that world causes me suffering, how much I act in response to a world that I wish for, rather than the one that I live within and that I am not separate from.  My practice shows me that I co-create much of the world I inhabit through the perspectives I take, and that I can change that world by taking a different perspective. 

But my meditation cannot be responsibly limited to this.  The Mahayana Bodhisattva ideal is to save not just myself from suffering, but all suffering beings, and the suffering of each of us is not caused solely by our interiors.  The world within which I live may be largely co-constructed by me, but it also consists of concrete realities that I do not co-construct, including the very real interiors and exteriors of the communities of which I am a member. 

I extend my meditative awareness to include the ways in which my encounter with the culture and structure of my community, my sangha, may cause me and others pain because of dissonance between the declared values and structures for the distribution of power which I endorse with my continued membership in the community and the way people actually treat each other and power is actually exercised.  My practice, my Bodhisattva activity, includes thoughtfully and compassionately manifesting my insights into the causes of this dissonance.  A conscious sangha values such expression and provides structures within which they can occur.  In this way, each individual practitioner’s meditation is a support for the continuous co-creation of a healthy container within which all of us can practice with mutual awareness, mutual respect, and mutual compassion.

With palms together.


Friday, January 28, 2011

Ameland Reflections II--Relationships and Roles Within the Sangha.

This is a second reflection on sangha as an organism which arises out of my anticipation of the opening of our new space in Salt Lake City, sharpened by this year's Ameland gathering. 

The student-teacher-sangha interrelationship is central to Zen practice, and critical to the constitution of a healthy sangha.

Ananda asked the Buddha who would lead the sangha when he had died.  Ananda was concerned the community would be leaderless.  Buddha responded that the sangha did not need to be concerned about having a leader.  He said, in effect, that we each are our own refuge, we are each our own light unto ourselves, we are each the vehicle of our own awakening.  To me, this means no teacher is going to save us from our craving, from our delusion.  We are responsible for our own awakening.

Yet Zen posits a strong role for others in our practice.  Members of the sangha join together to create the container within which we practice, they provide mutual support.  And the teacher provides the direction for the group's practice and assures that the sangha's culture and structure, the  interior and exterior of the sangha, are maintained.  Here, as I wrote yesterday, it is critical that the members of the sangha and the teacher have a shared understanding of its values, its culture, as well as of the necessarily congruent structure that provides the container for the practice.  Part of the culture, and of the structure, is the definition of the roles to be occupied by each member of the sangha, including the teacher.

I said I see the teacher as responsible for maintaining the direction of the sangha's practice and assuring its continuity.  But the teacher does more.  The teacher has a relationship to each member of the sangha.  At its best, a close and confidential relationship that supports the unique practice of each member and its manifestation, both the interior and the exterior of the individual practitioner.  To me, the teacher's role is to be a supportive guide, someone who assists the student in working toward their own awakening and who works to make the accumulated wisdom of the lineage available in a way that is accessible and that furthers a particular student's practice.  This is an intimate relationship, one that has perils for both the student and the teacher because of its intimacy.  As I see it, the perils are of role confusion.

The teacher and student have a defined set of roles.  In fact, the very terms "teacher" and "student" mean nothing without a definition of their respective roles within the context of an institution.  These definitions limn the relative powers and responsibilities of each.  Only if both have a shared understanding of those definitions can each function smoothly in their role.  In turn, those definitions are the reference point for determining what constitutes ethical behavior for each.  If either acts outside the scope of their role, they invite confusion, both on their part and on the part of the other, with the potential for resulting ethical problems.  These problems will not be only the concern of the teacher and the student, but will reverberate through the sangha because they will result from conduct inconsistent with the sangha's self-definition.

Both the student and the teacher share responsibility for assuring that role confusion does not occur, but the teacher's responsibility is paramount.  In fulfilling their responsibilities, it seems to me that both teacher and student should be aware of the teachings of western psychology about the problems posed by transference and counter-transference, as well as the universal tendency, as Lord Acton put it, "of power to corrupt, and of absolute power to corrupt absolutely". The power given to the teacher by the sangha, and by the student as his or her spiritual guide, is perhaps the teacher's greatest aid in doing their work, and their greatest challenge.

My years in the judicial system, and of working for and with those who exercise political and financial power, have firmly convinced me that the most difficult challenge confronting those with power is to avoid being seduced by it, to avoid coming to think that the power is given to me because of personal entitlement, rather than institutional or role-related entitlement.  The difference is profound.  For if I see power as a personal entitlement, then there is no aspect of my personality, no egoic preference, that is not a legitimate criteria for the exercise of the power.  But if the power is seen as invested in the office, in the role I occupy, then that role's definition circumscribes that legitimate scope of the exercise of that power.  And importantly, the limits of that power are relatively clear for all to see.

A spiritual teacher is no different than any other human being when operating in an institutional role in which power is vested, and no more immune to the seductions of that power.  It is for this reason that it seems so critical that a sangha have a shared and clearly understood culture and a set of congruent structures, both of which are regularly revisited.  This assures that all know the parameters of their joint venture. The challenge of putting these in place, and of maintaining them, is apparent from the troubled history of a number of religious communities over the past forty years.  I do not minimize those challenges, but if  those who seek their own emancipation through the Dharma are to be well-served, we must take this challenge seriously.  It is our mutual responsibility.

Student-teacher-sangha: the interrelationships within which our practice is contained and refined, and through which we manifest its fruits.  A healthy sangha requires their constant conscious cultivation.

With palms together,


Ameland Reflection I--The Elements of a Healthy Sangha

I had a strong experience in Ameland this year, at the gathering of the larger Kanzeon sangha.  It prompted me to reflect on the nature of and prerequisites for healthy sangha.  Because Diane and I will be opening a practice place in Salt Lake soon, it is an issue that has been on my mind over the past months.  I suspect I will be posting on this subject in the future as my thoughts clarify.

First, to have a strong, ethical, and honest sangha, it seems essential that all participants, from the oldest teacher to the newest student, explicitly join in a shared set of values that express why we are practicing together and what it means to be a member of the sangha.  Those values, which represent the culture of the sangha, need to be expressed clearly and regularly.  They are the interior of the container that holds each of our practices as well as our shared practice.

Second, that culture can be sustained only if the exterior of the container which embodies it--the structures which distribute power--manifest those values.  For this congruence to be maintained, both the values and the structures need to be regularly examined to assure their continuing capacity to promote, and not hinder, our separate and shared awakening.

Third, each member of the sangha has a responsibility to be aware of the inside and the outside of the container, of the culture and the structures, to continuously monitor their relationship to it as individuals, and to note when and where dissonance arises.  That place can be a rich edge for our practice.  And awareness of that edge can also tell us when the dissonance is intolerable and we no longer can comfortably be a "member" of that sangha.  Members who reach that point should be free to leave the sangha without pain or penalty.

It is my intention to strive to assure that these tenants are reflected in The Boulder Mountain Zendo's sangha.

With palms together,


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

New book chosen to read, and no meeting on January 25th.

Tonight we discussed Andrew Olendzki's Unlimiting Mind--The Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism.  The group consensus was it is a good treatment of the essential teachings of the Buddha from the earliest sources, couched in thoroughly modern phenomenological and psychological terminology with no mythical or mystical elements and no sectarian kant.  The treatments of karma and of the mechanism by which craving gives rise to the self were highlighted, as well as the manner in which the book brings the teachings into every day life.  One person noted that because the book is a collection of essays, it can be picked up and read in increments without losing any of its impact.  I think it is refreshing in its presentation of the earliest teachings without any of the anachronistic elements that might put off a modern or post-moder reader.  Overall, highly recommended.

We selected a new book to read.  Steven Hagen's Meditation: Now or Never.  We will discuss this on February 15th.  (The projected date for our soft opening of the new City Center.  Keep your fingers crossed.)

Finally, because I am attending the Kanzeon Sangha gathering in Ameland, Netherlands next week, we will not meet again until February 1st.  I will be jet-lagged, but present.



Saturday, January 8, 2011

Integral Spiritual Experience 2--return

Diane and I returned from ISE2 on Monday.  I am still digesting the experience.  If you are curious about it, Goggle "Integral Spiritual Experience 2" and browse the web.  The full program was recorded and should be available sometime from Integral Life.

About 500 people attended this second in a promised five-year series of events.  The best way to describe it is an ecumenical gathering of people from many spiritual traditions, and of many from no particular tradition, most of whom have some familiarity with Ken Wilber's integral philosophic approach to truth claims and some of whom are complete Wilber wonks.  Diane Musho Hamilton, my amazing partner, along with Rabbi Marc Gafni and Sally Kempton, f.k.a. Swami Durgananda, are the design team.  My take on the events is that they are creating a container within which people with spiritual interests (whatever you take "spiritual" to mean) and strong cognitive inclinations can come together and be exposed to an eclectic mix of teachings and practices from an incredible range of traditions and non-traditions.  As a consequence, all leave with a broader appreciation of other approaches to teachings and practices, and a clearer view of our own. The result necessarily is a more sophisticated and more whole view of our small "self" and of its relation to all that is.

The range I personally experienced ran from being in a session where a talented pianist would invite anyone who wanted to noodle on the piano to come forward and then together would produce both an  amazing "holding" experience for the one accompanied and a stunning listening experience for the audience (Willie, our son, played with her to greater effect than I), to listening to translator Coleman Barks read the Sufi poet Rumi accompanied by a Grammy Award winning cellist, and then sitting with him far into the night discussing his mystical experiences, poetry, and our common Presbyterian upbringing, to sitting early morning silent zazen, to participating in a discussion of the ways each of us in our seeking must be alert to the ethical issues raised by our encounter with the personal characteristics of those who would be our teachers, to listening to a Jesuit with a Ph.D. in psychology discuss St. Ignatius of Loyola's personal meditation methods, to hearing Depak Chopra describe the elaborate conceptualization of the non-dual as taught in the Advaita Vedanta strain of Hinduism.   That is only a small sampling of the offerings.  And it went on for five days.

For anyone interested in taking a perspective on their perspectives, I highly recommend the event.  Both the attendees and the teachers are an amazing collection of talents, the atmosphere is open, friendly, and completely supportive, and the location--Asilomar conference center in Monterey, California--a stunningly beautiful spot on the coast.  Whatever the goals of the organizers, the event itself is developing its own momentum.  I have a very strong feeling that this commodious container is an essentially new development in American spirituality, indeed in world spirituality.  (The gathering had attendees from over 30 countries.)  A place for Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and non-sectarians of all stripes who are interested in the interior life and its manifold manifestations to come together and discuss and experience both the exteriors and interiors of each others' teachings and practices.  The whole leading edge of Western spirituality will be affected by this series of events in powerful ways that cannot help but lead to a deepening of individual traditions and an expansion of their horizons.

Not a bad way to spend a week between Christmas and New Years!