Wednesday, December 31, 2014


I only read one book this year that was published in 2014, so I don't feel like it's fair to give out my yearly best book award. I did read The Path to Awakening: How Buddhism's Seven Points of Mind Training Can Lead You to a Life of Enlightenment and Happiness. I did find it worth reading, and I like the seven point mind training.

My dharma practice has moved away from reading. But I am looking forward to Stephen Batchelor's book After Buddhism, which I read about on Facebook, coming out next year. I also saw a video that if Subhuti can get enough money to publish his next book, that it will be out next year, and it will be about the mental events. These are two books I am very much looking forward to reading.

Sisters of Dolma (Film Review)

Just watched Daughters of Dolma. It is a kind of profile of some young female Buddhists. The way women are treated in the society is the way the women are treated as nuns. They have to fight for equal status, they discuss sexism in their society.

What struck me about the movie was that the young woman struggled like young women, forget that they were nuns. They fight and argue, and they like to watch romance movies. Feels almost like a career decision. But it's not even a decision it seems, at times. The eldest son is supposed to be a monk and the youngest daughter is supposed to be a monk. Anandi kept asking, how does that help the society? I got the feeling that a few of the women did not really fit in to regular life, and did not want conventional lives, and so they just chose being a nun as the path of greatest freedom. I could see that.

My experience is different. I came to it middle age. I could really feel the youth of the students, the pull of the world. I'm kind of sick of the world, so it's easy for me to retreat from it. They had their whole lives ahead of them, and they wondered if they were doing the right thing.

They have a culture where this is an option. I suppose it's an option in my culture. America is supposed to be multicultural. But the fact it that it's mostly a Christian nation. So most Buddhists are in some way a non-conformist. I get the feeling that the women were trying to please others, were conforming.

The interviews with older men in power were politically correct. I want them to interview a sexist monk. In fact, if there was a defect in the movie, it felt like with the language barrier, that they were mostly speaking in slogans, saying what they thought people wanted to hear. The movie admitted as much in the end, that it was superficial.

There's a part of increasing nunneries, that is feminist revolutionary. They talked about how the modern world was impacting their traditional ways, and I felt like expanding the nunneries was one way of modernizing. But I also got the feeling that they were kind of like orphanages. I wondered if one mother was projecting her own spiritual wishes onto her daughter. She said her daughter was naughty like a boy so many times, it was kind of weird.

Sometimes I yearn for a culture in which to embed my spiritual practice, and sometimes I think I create my own world in my home, and that it doesn't matter what is outside the home so much, as long as there is stuff in the world somewhere that promotes it. I don't believe in the lay/monastic split, but I see how it functions to carry the tradition and in some ways I am very grateful. In some ways it seems cultural and superficial. The children are learning to read and write in a Buddhist context, but like any kind of education, it's a process that helps one to develop.

I certainly appreciate documentaries in that they present experience, but we also need to critically evaluate what we see. I saw a changing world of young female Buddhists. It's no easy to convey the spiritual life, less so in the movies. There was some interesting footage, and cultural information. I would have liked more geographical information. I would have liked more depth. Even so, it was an interesting movie. There's only one review of it on Netflix. It appreciates their honesty, that they don't try and sugar coat things, but I kind of felt they did. I mean a documentary does present raw experience, in a way, but if you don't think there were filters there, well, that seems naive.

There is another movie about Buddhist nuns: Blessings: Tsoknyi Nangchen Nuns of Tibet.

transition day into a home retreat

(photo by Anandi)

We got in late last night, and were pretty wiped out from the travel, so decided to make today a rolling into the retreat day, and not the rigorous and structured schedule we planned out. We're going to flow with how we feel. But we are having retreat oatmeal. Had to move the car so I didn't get a ticket.

Part of the duo home retreat is that we read to each other. When Anandi woke up I read her a Noah Levine interview from Tricycle. He started Refuge Recovery, which has a meeting in NYC. I should probably go to support my recovery, and working with people in recovery. I read his book Dharma Punx. Anandi read his second one, I could read that one. I recently got Eight Step Recovery: Using the Buddha's Teachings to Overcome Addiction. I stalled pretty quickly on that one, but I need to charge up my kindle so I can read that and The Purpose and Practice of Buddhist Meditation: A Source Book of Teachings.

I read section 5.2.4 of The Essential Sangharakshita about natural versus conventional morality, and how the mental states behind actions is a focus of Buddhist ethics. It's an excerpt from The Bodhisattva Ideal: Wisdom and Compassion in Buddhism, which is an awesome book in it's own right. I think that was the first book we were reading when I originally started mitra study in the FWBO.

Hearing the words aloud helps to connect to the tradition that was originally oral.

We sat for 20 minutes of mindfulness of breathing. I had monkey mind of course, and my legs were not used to sitting.

I love talking about meditation experience with Anandi. I had a hard time not rearranging the books on my book shelf, they're all out of order.

I'm calling this the Hansel and Gretel retreat, because we're going to see the opera on DVD and live at the Met.

We're not strict yet about not watching TV or using technology for anything other than writing and reading. I feel a strong urge to clean the house strangely. I'm like space, I abhor a vacuum. I'll read non-Dharma today. Since we're doing this retreat with both of us we can have any form we want. I want structure and scheduling tomorrow and after that. We get more done that way. But with the travel I really need a transition day. Must be kind to ourselves.

We're going to have curried chick pea salad for lunch. Last time I went backpacking and totally bonked, when we were done I remember eating chick peas from a can I left in the car. That was really yummy. First few bites anyway.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Wrong intension.

Right intension is a very important aspect of Buddhism.

Yesterday I woke up and did a puja. While I was doing it, my son woke up. He is old enough to read quietly, and he did. I continued my puja. I think an old me would have been annoyed at the interruption, but I went with it. I handled the situation fine. I meditated for 10 minutes, but I heard my girlfriend creeping around, so I didn't meditate longer.

I'm working to build up my meditation endurance for a home retreat I'm going to have. Going places costs money, so I'm going to try an in home retreat for 3.5 days with my girlfriend, ending in the Opera Hansel and Gretel. I've started an opera blog.

This morning I started meditating. I didn't look at the time. My sons needed to get up for church. I was cranky because I hadn't understood my circumstances. Part of being a Buddhist in my opinion is trying to make circumstances conducive to practicing and understanding your circumstances. I didn't really pay attention to my circumstances, and then I reacted negatively emotionally because the "world wasn't going my way." Not very Buddhist of me.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

what is spirituality?

What is spirituality?

I’ve heard so many people say they don’t like that word. I used to think spirituality was other worldly, but now I think that can be escapism, or spiritual bypassism. Still, I want to use the word. I feel like I opened up a file in my head when I found Buddhism, and filled it in with something that wasn’t there before. Maybe that’s an illusion. I’m not sure donating time to the local sangha is somehow inherently more spiritual than doing other things.

A part of spirituality is about striving for equanimity and not getting flustered and flummoxed so easily. There is a kind of emotional transcendence, not numb, still present and feeling, but somehow not fully embroiled and overwhelmed with horrified anxiety. The half-smile. I can do the facial expression, but are there corresponding thoughts? The guys that serve me food at the Sri Chimnoy restaurants have a goofy smile that feels forced. I’m very concerned about aping spirituality, pretending to be spiritually evolved. And yet, even trying is a good thing I think sometimes. It’s a balance. Authenticity is very important.

One sense in which spirituality makes sense to me, is that it’s non-materialistic, it’s not about your personal gain. But then again, people like to brag about how giving they are. There is nothing wrong with being proud about helping others. So doing things for others because that makes you feel good and proud of yourself is OK. But is there anything inherently “spiritual” about that. Is spirituality just not being egotistical? Thinking about others? Realizing our interconnectivity? I’m inclined to say that’s a piece of it, but it’s in conjunction with clarity of mind, with deep insight.

I would say there is an inner/outer journey to connect to something larger, a higher power. That includes being less egotistical and having equanimity, but it’s also true and authentic, not pretend. Does it matter what your higher power is? People will tell you absolutely, and fight wars over it, but that feels very worldly, materialistic, exploitative, and egotistical. I’m not prepared to say any spirituality is OK, cults are bad by definition, and you hear of religious practices that you don’t feel like they will stand the test of time. People could go on a journey, and not just join a group to enhance status. Secular humanism is a fine higher power, in my opinion.

Can I drive to work in a spiritual way? I don’t know. When I listened to talks all the time, I felt a little more spiritual. But now I don’t listen to those talks or read the books so much. I do feel less spiritual, but I also feel more independent, and filled with stuff. I think spirituality sometimes is about unfilling, emptying.

I still want to somehow progress. What does progress mean? You can get ordained, that makes people feel like they have achieved something. You can work for your community, build community, build a building. You can reach deeper states of meditation. You can be less ethically messy. You can be kinder. You can relate to people better. You can communicate better. You can feel a continuity of purpose, feel certain kinds of confusion less. Does the number of blog posts make me more spiritual. I think not, but I am at that moment trying to do something spiritual, so in a way it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Being spiritual depends on what you mean by it, but if you’re not clear about what it means. People say they know it when they see it.

The religions will tell you what to do if that’s what you’re looking for. I find connecting and giving to others very fulfilling. I like to read and learn. I’m curious about psychology and how people work. I like to study great people, I liked watching a documentary on Thomas Merton and reading his books and journals, I like spiritual giants. I feel like some people throw themselves at spirituality, but they’re not very spiritual. There have been times in my life when I felt very reverential towards the Buddha, the Dharma and the community. There were times when my gung ho attitude pushed people away.

The people standing on the street just waiting to talk to you about something, the evangelists are really trying hard. I feel like they’re also pushing some rigidity, so I don’t like to engage, I feel like helping them, and that feels presumptuous, so I just don’t.

What about the dark night of the soul when you don’t get any reinforcement for being spiritual? Is that the true test, or is just how people open others up to manipulation? That’s the other thing. With so much exploitation through religion, you really have to watch out for that. Nobody sees being exploited as being spiritual. Sacrifice yes, but exploited, no.

I like the phrase “open handed generosity” because it conveys giving that has no regret or qualms, but is not just indifference or aping behaviors. I remember after my first retreat, I just felt like putting money in the dana bowl. I wonder if it was exuberance that was misplaced, but I was just so grateful and I wanted to try it out.

The complications of an organization can be confusing, the human and non-spiritual motives. Giving without regrets and qualms can sometimes be a hard ideal to reach. I think there are spiritual ideals that guide people, but what are the best ones for you? That’s to be discovered, I wouldn’t say there were necessarily universal ones for each religion. I find the differences between the many kinds of Buddhists in the word pretty amazing. There is something of an extreme in some spiritual approaches, but I think balance can be very spiritual.

So balance, generosity, energy, community, relationship, equanimity. The answers I tried to just pour forth could easily be put into the 7 noble truths. How would I know if I’m aping another’s ideas? Is originality important? I don't think in this case. Authenticity is important, “start where you are,” and all that. Becoming an individual, personal development seems an important aspect of it, regardless of spiritual development.

Religious organizations will give you a format to understand your spiritual experience. The Buddha is notorious for saying, "check it out in your experience." I believe in experience, that is non-denominational. The advice to Bahiya is about putting your experience into the right place, and thinking into the thinking category. Thinking is wonderful, I often have quite a lot of joy with my thoughts. But Keats' negative capability, not hankering after facts and theories, helps one to keep open to the information instead of quickly categorizing and taming it by boxing it. A better program for assimilating experience into the whole. I believe in experience, including the thinking that tries to make sense of it, and the negative capability that allows things to flower without quickly trying to control it.