Monday, August 3, 2015

Excerpt from Time to Stand Up

Excerpt from "Time to Stand Up"
An Engaged Buddhist Manifesto for Our Earth
The Buddha’s Life and Message through Feminine Eyes

North Atlantic Books
Berkeley, California 2015

Most scholars agree that what is recorded as the Buddha’s story—from conversations committed to memory for four hundred[1] years after his death before they were written down—is subject to interpretation.[2]  The men who recorded his teaching, while offering an extraordinary and vital service, did so with a natural bias for the worldview they inhabited, where women’s perspectives were largely invisible. In this book, I aim to bring a feminine view to a tradition that became one of the most androcentric in the world; Buddhism has been recorded almost entirely from a male perspective. I want to do this because the enlightenment narratives in contemporary Buddhist-inspired movements are deeply informed by a hierarchical, patriarchal, and often misogynist Buddhist monasticism.

Image 1: Before boarding the Climate Train, September 15, 2014, Oakland-Berkerly, CA. Ayya Santacitta and Ayya Santussika with poster made by her granddaughter.
In a very general, broad brushstroke, at the heart of androcentric Buddhism there tends to be a psychological bias toward nihilism. This is a life-denying and somewhat aloof disregard for the world, in which personal salvation and the transcendent are held as primary, and engaged compassionate action, while valued in rhetoric and as an ideal, doesn’t necessarily translate into a sharing of resources or support for the impoverished or marginalized. Followers of Buddhist traditions are just as prone as others to accumulating wealth and landed property for themselves, while displaying insensitivity to issues of economic equity and social justice around them. As we face a burning world that needs proactive and effective response, we have to evolve beyond our tendency toward introversion and narcissism as Dharma practitioners—which is often justified by a cynical ethos that sees the world as samsara[3] (illusory and bound to suffering), and therefore not overly worthy of redemption.

I remember once staying with a family from a line of peasant farmers in Chengdu, China, near the renowned pilgrimage site of Emei Shan. This is a stupendous mountain that has more than fifty Buddhist monasteries nestled within it. The perspective of the family toward the monasteries was interesting. The monks did not impress them; they felt many of them were opportunistic and overly focused on soliciting money. They were also critical of the old tithing system of land rentals imposed on the farming community by the monasteries. I wondered if a reason the tide of Communism could not be stemmed by the presence of Buddhism, which had been integral to Chinese culture for nearly two thousand years, was because of the remoteness and feudalism of the monastic system. A Buddhism that removes itself from direct engagement with the struggles of ordinary people will struggle to send roots into the soul and culture of its surrounding community.

Many Westerners, cynical of faith-based theistic approaches, which offer few, if any, contemplative practices, are attracted to Buddhism’s via negativa. This is a Christian term, which means stripping away conceptual imagining of God. Instead, through meditation, the direct, personal knowing of what Buddha called the “deathless Dharma”[4] —or in Christian terms, the “kingdom”—is realized, which is an internal refuge, not an external place. As Western Buddhism secularizes, it tends to extract Buddhist meditation methods from an overarching Buddhist context, which puts meditation practice in the context of ethics, compassion, depth wisdom, and the energy of faith and devotion, as well as a larger philosophical, cosmological, mythical, and archetypal worldview, all of which contribute to the building of an enduring Sangha, or community. Even with the more classical Buddhist frameworks in place, there is still the question of how well contemporary Buddhism plants itself into the soul and surrounding cultures of the West, either in its secular or traditional forms. More important, how well can Buddhism, in all its manifestations, stand up to the catastrophic crises of our times, like climate change? A good place to begin this exploration is the core insight of Buddhism, the deathless Dharma, which the Buddha also called nibbana[5].

The Buddha equated nibbana, or nirvana, with the liberated citta (heart/mind). He called nibbana the “everlasting,” though it’d be more accurate to say the “ever-present,” as nibbana transcends time. A return to our most natural, ever-present, awake, and aware deepest heart is not a nihilistic abdication from life, but an opening into the most intimate experience of life. This is the experience of the interconnection of all things. While the Buddha was reluctant to define nibbana, to avoid making it a concrete “thing” and another “objective state,” he did have positive things to say about the liberated citta. The citta is “pabhassara,” luminous and radiant, and nibbana is “peaceful, beyond reasoning, secure, deathless…bliss.”[6]  The Thai meditation master Ajahn Maha Boowa said, “The citta is the mind’s essential knowing nature, the fundamental quality of knowing that underlies all sentient existence. The true 
nature of the citta is that it simply ‘knows.’ There is no subject, no object, no duality; it simply knows. The citta does not arise or pass away; it is never born and never dies.” He also said, “When dukkha (agitation and suffer- ing) completely stops, nothing remains. All that remains is an entirely pure awareness; it is the purity of the citta (mind). If you want, you can call it nibbana.”

Realization and deepening our alignment to the deathless heart alters our perspective. As insight into the living reality of interconnectedness unfolds, our practice shifts from a personal goal of transcendence that seeks to “leave the world,” to a fuller transmission that embraces the world from a place of compassion. In our unprecedented times, when all we care for is endangered, a personal, pragmatic, and ethical response is vital, but it is not enough to inspire the collaboration needed to challenge the hubris of our mega-carbon-producing lifestyles. Driven by a power-crazed predator fossil fuel industry that is generating an increasingly unsustainable biosphere, we are perilously close to the collapse of human civilization, as we know it, and the possible extinction of viable life on earth.[7]  When we recognize and align with our deepest refuge, which is our essential, indestructible, diamond-like heart that can cut through ignorance, yet not be cut, we connect with a different kind of power. If we do this together, as a global community, we could generate a tremendous alignment and support that is effective and enduring. As pointed out by Kumi Naidoo from Greenpeace International, in dialogue with the Buddhist Teacher Collaborative for Climate Action,  almost all successful revolutionary movements—such as the Anti-Apartheid and Civil Rights movements, Gandhi’s Satyagraha, and the Polish Solidarity movement—became highly effective when coupled with faith-based congregations, which energize with their prayers, songs, chants, fasts, and communally focused, spiritually informed, activism.

The marriage of spiritual practice and activism has always been a dimension of religious life, as modeled by most of the great founders of traditional religions. Some religions have exemplified this more than others. On the whole, while the Buddha himself was clearly engaged in social reform, Buddhism itself does not have a strong activism ethos or history. It tends to excel in its extraordinary insights into the human mind, with its map of consciousness laying out the path of enlightenment. However, Buddhism has always adapted to the context it is in, and while it tends to be conservative, it tends not to be fundamentalist. It can respond and adjust. Based on the example of the Buddha, who was a radical pragmatist, alongside the ethical imperative of Buddhist practice, there is no reason Buddhism can’t actively respond to our times while creating alliances with other faiths in order to work together toward a sustainable world.

Buddhism, with its deep, incisive understanding of the nature of consciousness, has a key contribution to make. There has never been a greater need to shift from a dualistic consciousness, which habitually focalizes around “me” and “mine” to recognizing our profound interconnectedness with the Earth and all beings. When the dualistic mind only relates to the Earth and her creatures as objects to use or exploit, it continues to generate environmental collapse at an alarming speed. On the other hand, the journey of awakening invites a shift from the mind, which objectifies, into our deeper heart, which knows the intimacy of all things.  A present, aware, and listening heart, attuned to intuitive intelligence, manifests as wisdom and compassion. This profound listening is cultivated through meditation. As we reconnect, again and again, to our innate awakening process, it dynamically reveals appropriate response. Rooted in the unmoving ground of being, unshakable and authentic in our truth, mindful and discerning, we can work toward a more conscious world.
A contemporary articulation of spiritual practice and activism, which has inspired the writing of this book, is the Sacred Activism movement of contemporary mystic and prolific author Andrew Harvey. Andrew and I have met many times, and spoken in depth about the urgency of our times and how important it is to infuse activism with spiritual truths, in order not to burn out or get caught in hatred and suffering. And in turn, activism can energize spiritual practice, and the path of right action, as set out by the Buddha. The Buddha demonstrated his right action not solely through an introverted quietism, but also through far-reaching deeds.

Image 2: Forest Fire
by Juha Nyman
To secure a sustainable Earth, we have to move in a radically different way. As Buddhists, and those following the Dharma, it is absolutely possible to be part of compassionate activism within a larger faith-based movement. As we negotiate our way through the times ahead, we will need to create strong and resilient, heart-full communities that can stand up together. Overall, a nihilistic, life-denying, relationally challenged Buddhism, which generates splits based on disdain for the world, and negative feelings about women and the larger domain of the feminine, is a disservice to the overall transmission of the Dharma. This is particularly true in our current times, because traditional patriarchal religions that look to heaven, paradise, and nirvana for salvation have been slow to speak out in defense of the Earth.

As Western Buddhist leaders and practitioners, we have been too slow to respond to the ongoing degradation of our environment. Over the past thirty to forty years, we have been busy cultivating our personal enlightenment journeys, building centers, monasteries, and Sanghas. Alongside that, we have been finding ways to bring the Dharma into very different societies than those we received our initial transmission from, which—besides translating texts, writing, and teaching—has involved adapting the Dharma to different issues, psychologies, and cultures. It has, and continues to be, profound, beautiful, and challenging work. We have explored internal territories and healing modalities not available to previous generations in the West. But generally speaking, it’s a journey that has been more interior than focused on social and environmental activism. Perhaps this is due to the influence of monastic practice, which advocates non-involvement with political issues and processes in favor of bettering the individual, which in turn is hoped will positively influence society.

Buddhists, unlike adherents of some other religions, are inclined to not actively change their surrounding societies. While there are movements emerging from traditional Buddhist cultures such as Tzu Chi Foundation, founded by Master Cheng Yen of Taiwan, or Rogkpa, founded by the Tibetan Master Akong Rinpoche, or the more recent Buddhist Global Relief, initiated by Theravada monk Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, they tend to be exceptions, rather than an expression of the philosophical precedent found within Buddhist tradition that advocates for engagement with social justice issues, gender equity, and proactive care of the planet. This wasn’t always the case, as we see from the Buddha’s own example: he did, indeed, challenge the injustices of his time.

On the whole, as modern Dharma practitioners, we haven’t really felt the need to become radical activists focused on changing the system. If we moved into Engaged Buddhist practice, it was in areas like hospice, or helping people reduce stress, or responding to the suffering that is often a byproduct of systemic inequality—ministering to prisoners, for example. We have yet to come to terms with centuries of injustices that perpetuate systemic suffering and that, therefore, need to be addressed systemically and collectively, beyond just our personal practice. Generally speaking, in the white middle class where Buddhism has found a strong following, various forms of pressing injustices haven’t directly challenged practitioners. For the most part, people of color have a different experience. At the same time that the first Beats and hippies were discovering Asian-based spiritual practices, people of color in the U.S. were consumed by civil rights, surviving a deeply racist system or negotiating the difficulties of being second-generation immigrants. Those who traveled to Asia to study with meditation masters were mostly the children of white middle-class families who had the luxury of focusing on internal shifts of consciousness. We assumed this would be enough to positively influence the world. Few of us looked beyond that.

This is a generalization, of course; there are white families struggling due to class inequity, and there have been many brave Buddhist activists trying to raise awareness about the environment or social injustice issues for years—people like Joanna Macy, Sulak Sivaraksa, bell hooks, Ken Jones and members of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists and Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and more recent movements like the Zen Peacemakers of Zen Master Bernie Glassman and the recently launched One Earth Sangha. While there are a multitude of positive impacts from the practice and teaching of meditation and the establishment of monasteries and meditation centers, as a Buddhist-inspired community we are just beginning to find ourselves as activists in response to catastrophic climate change.

Image 3: Ayya Santussika, Denver railway station,
on route on the Climate Train to New York.
But now, as if out of the blue, our personal journeys are intersecting with a global evolutionary arch of colossal proportions. We are in crisis, and time is short. We are being awakened into the realization that our special, personal enlightenment trek and our small, tribal Sangha endeavors are not going to inspire the kind of “game changer” needed for collective transformation. That is, not unless we evolve as a Buddhist community. This means we need a deeper understanding of what has led us into the situation we now find ourselves in. For example, we need to open to the implications of centuries of European Colonialism that that decimated First Nations and used people of color as a means for profiteering and extracting resources from nature. We need to understand the ways in which Buddhism perpetuates misogyny and hatred of women. Patriarchal religions that denigrate women, the body, and sexuality tend not to challenge the denigration of the Earth, but instead to operate within hierarchies that oppress through race, class, and gender to preference privilege—all of which leaves a distorted and sometimes abusive inheritance. The times also require we move beyond petty prejudices that different Buddhist traditions hold against one another—for example, Theravadans dismissing Mahayana and Mahayanists dismissing Theravada solely out of blind adherence to a generational narrow-mindedness.

All of a sudden, we are being challenged; what can we offer from all this practice in response to a world in crisis? And what value is all this meditation and mindfulness if we just sit by and let the world burn? The old premise “getting involved in politics is inappropriate” isn’t going to hold ground when the ground beneath us is disappearing—washed away by floods, decimated by typhoons, and dried up by drought. If we just sit this out, our “equanimity” will become indifference, our focus on personal awakening will be revealed as self-absorption, and our seeking of peaceful, mindful moments will become willful avoidance and denial.

We are being challenged to look at ourselves, our intentions, what our lives have been built on—personally, nationally and globally—and to revisit Buddhism itself; how we’ve interpreted and embodied it. Is our dharma practice helping us to be truly and authentically responsive to the times we are in, or are we simply traditionalists, good meditators, nice people who are not free or empowered enough to really meet a new global paradigm? We are racing to secure a sustainable planet in the face of a psychopathic petroleum and fossil fuel empire that simply doesn’t care if it kills us all. Just as Siddhartha was shocked out of his apathy by the sight of the heavenly messengers of sickness, old age, and death, we too are being shocked awake. The question is, are we equipped to meet the challenge, or have we rendered the radical dimensions of the Buddha’s extraordinary example to a preferred introversion, even in the face of catastrophe? We can’t avoid what is happening, and as all of us are impacted, inaction is not a viable option. We have an ethical and compassionate imperative to respond, and as Dharma practitioners we also have something to offer.


[1] The Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism was preserved orally until it was written down during the Fourth Buddhist Council in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE, approximately 400 years after the death of the Buddha. 
[2] Linda Heuman’s article, “Whose Buddhism is Truest?” published by Tricycle in 2011, explores how the roots of Buddhist scripture are more diffuse that previously thought, indicating that there is no one authoritative source. 
[3] Samsara is a Sanskrit and Pali term that means “endless wandering.” Implied is the endless and continual search for peace, happiness, and contentment, a search that only creates the conditions for further suffering. 
[4] Amata dhamma is a term found in the Pali Canon (early Theravada Buddhist scripture), which means “deathless Dharma.” 
[5] Nibbana (Pali) or nirvana (Sanskrit) is the word the Buddha used to describe the goal of his path. While it literally means “to cool,” it is generally translated as “peace.” 
[6] The Not-Born Iti 2,43
[7] Bhikku Bodhi, “Moving from a Culture of Death to a Culture of Life: Preparing for the People’s Climate March,” Truthout (August 14, 2014).
[8] The Buddhist Teacher Collaborative for Climate Action began at the Vipassana meditation teachers’ annual global conference in June 2013 at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. Out of that discussion, a group of twenty-five Vipassana teachers from South Africa, Europe, Canada, and the U.S. began to work together to discuss how the Dharma can help inspire Buddhist and non- Buddhists alike to engage in solutions to climate crisis. 
[9] This is from a phrase spoken by Zen Master Dogen: “To be enlightened is to be intimate with all things.” Quoted in Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 332. 


Thanissara: Author

Thanissara (Linda Mary Peacock / Weinberg) is Anglo-Irish from London. She began practice in the Burmese Theravada School in 1975, and went on to live as a nun in the Forest School of Ajahn Chah for 12 years. She has taught meditation retreats since the late 1980’s, and has an MA in Mindfulness Based Psychotherapy. With her husband and teaching partner Kittisaro, she founded and is co-guiding teacer of Dharmagiri Insight Hermitage in South Africa. Thanissara is a core teacher at Insight Meditation Society and affiliated teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, USA. 

To access Time To Stand Up: http://www.amazon.com/Time-Stand-Up-Buddhist-Manifesto/dp/158394916X

“For those who long to find in Buddhism a path dedicated to compassion-in-action, there is now a book that can illuminate the way. With clarity and deeply penetrating insight, Thanissara follows the contours of the Buddha’s awakening and emergence, both as a catalyst for the evolution of consciousness, and, inextricably related, as a caring agent of human and social transformation. She calls on us to reclaim and empower the feminine archetype, shining a light on the enlightened qualities desperately needed to counterbalance the shadow masculinity that has dominated world affairs. Please read this powerful, energizing, frightening and hopeful book, and share it with all who want to hold hands and serve the healing of our world.”
—Tara Brach, PhD, author of Radical Acceptance and True Refuge

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