Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Buddhism and Mental Illness

President Obama has declared May “Mental Health Awareness Month.” At the announcement the President said (thanks to Adrian Warnock for posting this):
“Today, tens of millions of Americans are living with the burden of a mental health problem. They shoulder conditions like depression and anxiety, post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorder — debilitating illnesses that can strain every part of a person’s life. And even though help is out there, less than half of children and adults with diagnosable mental health problems receive treatment....

As part of this national awareness campaign, the whole of Patheos has been invited to write on the topic of Faith and Mental Health, you can see a few selections on the front page on the right.
So here I am, jumping in a little late with my own post on the topic.
Having faced mental illness, in a number of different capacities, it’s hard to know just where to start. Before I was born, perhaps.
What is the Zen koan? “What was your face before you were born?”

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Six Subjects of Reflection (and a short lesson on Pāli)

This post is a bit different; it's a 'back to basics' in a way and hopefully a helpful and quick introduction to Buddhism for those who could use it.
Anguttara Nikaya 6.9

Subjects of Recollection (as translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
"Bhikkhus, there are these six subjects of recollection. What
six? Recollection of the Buddha, recollection of the Dhamma,
recollection of the Sangha, recollection of virtuous behavior,
recollection of generosity, and recollection of the deities. These
are the six subjects of recollection."

“Chayimāni, bhikkhave, anussatiṭṭhānāni. katamāni cha? buddhānussati, dhammānussati, saṅghānussati, sīlānussati, cāgānussati, devatānussati imāni kho, bhikkhave, cha anussatiṭṭhānānī”ti. navamaṃ."

Simplified Pāli Glossary of terms as they appear in the text (I have broken up the compounds, but left case endings as in the text):

Cha: six
imāni: these
bhikkhave: Oh Monks
anussati: anu (prefix here used to make sati transitive) + sati: mindfulness/recollection/memory
ṭhānāni: place, standing, cause, grounds, ways, respects [subjects isn't given in the PED dictionary, but one can see how it fits here]

katamāni: which
cha: six

Recollection of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha
#4 - sīla: ethics, morality, virtue, (good) behavior
#5 - cāga: generosity
#6 - devatā: divinities*

imāni: these
kho: indeed
bhikkhave: Oh Monks
cha: six
anussatiṭṭhānānī: as above,
ti: our equivalent of a closing quotation mark, indicating the end of what was said.

navamaṃ: ninth (indicating the number of the sutta in the collection)

* The PED tells us that this refers to those who hold the quality of being worthy of worship and includes ascetics, domesticated animals, forces of nature, as well as 'lower' and 'higher' gods/devas). This is elaborated upon in the next sutta, the Mahānāma sutta (AN 6.10), wherein only the various devas are discussed, but they are to be recollected with the understanding that the good actions that led them to their higher awakening is within the ability of the student.
A few words.

In Buddhism, mind is foremost (cf. Dhammapada 1). One could say that the mind is everything, but that can be taking it too far. Certainly what matters most is your mind, your mental states, and your intentions. This guide is one of dozens, perhaps hundreds of short lists or groupings of very important aspects of Buddhism. The disciple memorizes a list like this and then 'unfolds' them in commentarial form, often situated around further lists. For instance, beginning with the Buddha, one might frame his life in terms of his twelve acts, then move on to the Dhamma, which opens with the 4 Noble Truths, leading conveniently to the 8-fold Path, and so on. So lists are important, and memorization of those lists, as an aid to memory and to story-telling, should still be a goal of aspiring Buddhists. 

Next, we should all try to pick up at least a little bit of Pāli. We should also familiarize ourselves with the PED (Pali-English Dictionary), available in full at the U Chicago website. Accesstoinsight offers a great guide to getting started with Pāli here. For those looking to dive in with the help of an excellent teacher, see Bhikkhu Bodhi's introduction, which has hours of audio recordings as well as sets of downloadable charts. 

Getting into the canonical language (you can do the same with Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc depending on what area of Buddhism you are interested in) helps to put you in the thought-world (Gedankenwelt) of the text's transmitters, composers, and -one can usually hope- original author. As you can see, some words have a great multitude of meanings and while we can generally place our trust in translators when we are starting out, it quickly pays off to be able to look at the original. Nearly all of the Pāli words above have a half-dozen or more possible English translations; which ones the translator picks can often say as much about him/her as it does about the original author.

It's quite true that you don't need to learn Pāli or another canonical language to understand Buddhism - the language itself and the sounds it makes have no intrinsic power (although a belief in the intrinsic power of sound did seep into later Buddhism from early Hinduism). But it helps.
Justin Whitaker is a PhD candidate in Buddhist ethics at the University of London. He helps to administrate this blog and does his own writing mostly at American Buddhist Perspective.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Crowdfunding The Next Generation of Buddhist Activists: Youth In Action

I am partial to my root teacher, as always. They have a crowd funded project underway to provide hope to the next generation of Engaged Buddhism.

Notice the picture of MLK in the background. He nominated a certain Zen Mater for the Nobel Peace Prize in the 1960's. MLK is a model for Buddhist activists for non-violent, community centered solutions.

$10 can help fund the revolution. Please donate today.

If you are a member of Charlotte Community of Mindfulness, your donation will be matched for up to $1,000 in outllay, please donate!

Check it out here for more info.



Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Right Livelihood: An Interview with the President of New Wind Energy Solutions

Progressive Buddhism was recently granted the privilege of interviewing Stuart Wiston, who is president of New Wind Energy Solutions. Stuart spent over 20 years in commercial real estate before making a radical career switch to sustainability.

Today he is a recognized expert in small wind' and has taught Continuing Education classes for the American Institute of Architects.

He is on the board of the Middle Tennessee chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council and lives out of Hendersonville, where he also served as board member of the Hendersonville Chamber of Commerce. As a member of the West End Synagogue, he uses his livelihood to contribute to our global welfare.

He and his wife, Debby, have four great kids from 2-7 years old. Stuart has somewhat of a passion for bourbon and has even recently started a blog about the subject. He can speak three languages, but he admits not as fluently as he would prefer.

Stuart, do you have any advice for Buddhists who like to sit around the camp fire and chat about the world’s problems but really don’t participate in any solutions?

“In Jewish tradition, we say 'every mitzvah (commandment or good deed) stands on its own'. If you only keep Kosher in your house but not out, it's certainly better than not doing either. Similarly, if people talk, but do much less, at least they are thinking about it and perhaps by voicing their concerns they are encouraging others to act.”

So, how does a smart guy like you earn a living?
"Our business model is fairly simple. We sell products that create renewable energy or that increase energy efficiency. We only represent products that are independent third party verified as, unfortunately there is a lot of snake oil in the sustainability field.

We recognize that sustainability is an admirable goal And that businesses must make profit to succeed. We specialize in products that have a return on investment of under three years.

Lastly, as a business we can be classified as a Social Enterprise. We have a preferential policy of hiring veterans. We judge our success or failure by the numbers of people we employ and the families they support as well as the amount of resources and money we are able to help our customers save or conserve."

Can you give us some background on how your spiritual tradition has shaped your way of thinking about sustainability?

“While most people know the story of Noah and the ark, Jewish tradition teaches that the world was destroyed because it was corrupt. But in Hebrew, the root of the word corrupt is the word for destruct. So another way to look at it was that the world was destroyed because it was full of destruction.
But Gd did not destroy the world immediately. He sent Noah with a message to tell the people to change And he commanded him to build an ark, a job that took 120 years. But despite the warnings and even with the time given, Man did not change. Many laughed at Noah and scoffed at his prophesies.

Today I feel we have also been sent a warning that we must change our ways of destruction. This time though, while there are still those who scoff, there are more and more who hear and are heeding the warnings.

A fundamental part of Judaism is Tikun Olam, or repair the world. We are taught "you may not be able to compete the task, nor are you free to abandon it."

What Is The Impact of Global Warming On Sustainable Energy:

As you may be aware, Global Warming is having a devastating impact in other countries where hydropower is critical to their energy systems. When I asked Stuart how he thought this will play out, here is what he said:

“Hydropower is not really in my wheelhouse, but climate change is creating all kinds of change. Some areas will see less rain, some more. Storms will get more violent as more energy is added to the earth's weather systems. Unfortunately, no one anywhere is isolated from these effects.

Solar farms may reduce carbon gases, but climate change means many of them will be subject to more frequent and more damaging hail storms. Studies have predicted that rising temperatures will reduce average wind speeds in many areas that now have wind farms. And changing rain patterns can leave some hydroelectric systems with too much or too little water, or even worse way too much for short periods, as happened in Nashville.

But perfect should never be allowed to be the enemy of good. If we do not use solar, wind and hydroelectric in place of coal or diesel power plants, then the change will be faster and worse. 100 year storms are becoming regular events. 500 year storms are not once in a lifetime events. Some of something is always better than all of nothing. Even if renewables don't fix the problems, they are important tools to help.”

Thank you, Stuart, for helping us get the word out on our blog about how you are making a difference!

Thursday, 2 May 2013

How to be your own role model: The Tiny Buddha

A little over a year ago I was in much grief and despair about what seemed countless and inescapable negative situations in my life. One day during meditation I realized that there was no light at the end of the tunnel because there was no tunnel and that the light I was searching for was inside me all along. Needless to say, I am feeling much better now.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Walkabout Problem and Joe's Story

It is part of my traditional community educational culture to foster a Walkabout of sorts for the very young adult. My Walkabout ended at 3:45 AM this morning, about 25 years later, because it was time to come home. I discovered that I did not need to travel the wilderness anymore in my narcissistic preoccupation with my own suffering. I donated all of my retreat money for the year to an unknown person in Chicago.

Joe's mother asked me to watch this video with her. It was inspiring but excruciating. His father waited outside on the front porch because he was working through his remembrances with my housemate.

All of our intellectual knowledge is gained from boiling down information. That information can then be consumed by other instruments, namely our sense organs and our cognitive processes. These are just instruments and they eventually die and it can hurt like hell to have all this stuff. That is why we do the Walkabout.

The Royal We tend to encounter people who travel great distances, read a lot of books and do some nice things for other people in the midst of an unfruitful preoccupation with ordinary life predicaments.

So I traveled great distances, read a lot of books and did some nice things for other people, but it wasn't really productive from a practice standpoint. In many ways my journey was drawn on a map by a 16 year old boy named Sean who couldn't get into the best prep school in the Southeast. That journey is winding down in the best interest of a 41 year old man with the same name who does a little blogging here and there because it is therapy.

Thursday night I got a call from a priest that I knew in high school because he was a fellow student in our chess club nerd factory and we were relying on each other for something. I told him I feed the homeless and then I go home. He told me he welcomes people into his life that have done some terrible things and that he has learned a lot from them, even though his parishioners sometimes object to the background of the people he welcomes . We are meeting in Knoxville in a few months. The home town feelings from Chattanooga were stirring in me by Friday morning and shortcomings of my Walkabout were surfacing and boiling over.

Friday night, last night, I met a couple here in Charlotte that had a son that I never knew growing up, but he was part of our community educational culture in my hometown. He had his Walkabout while he was dying of cancer before he got out of college. They describe his journal entries as bizarre but his final thoughts are remarkably gifted articulations. He had to make a pit stop while in Ireland where he was cared for because he was too sick to return home in good order.

It was humbling because I attended what constitutes a "backup plan" for prospective McCallie high school students who do not gain admission, or for current students who are expelled or drop out. My brother went to their rival school for a while and I really wasn't made of the stuff that these schools want.

Joe traveled to his high school campus and gave his last speech as an alumni of his school with six oxygen tanks in the back seat of his parent's car. In addition, he had to have his lungs aspirated by a doctor before his final speech so he could talk.

The slots to give these student speeches, for students by students, are highly coveted. This broke a sacred protocol because by that time Joe was an alumni and a student gave Joe his spot to make this final speech to his friends after his Walkabout.

The things he talks about here will resonate with you on a deep level. I sense that you may have traveled great distances, read a lot of books, and have done some nice things for people.

The video preview does not render well but please watch it. I can see the traffic on this blog and I know who are. Don't be a casual tourist today.


If you want to help Joe's friends help others: http://www.joedance.org/project/joe/


Friday, 19 April 2013

A Very Buddha Day

I am humbled by the kind nature of human beings. If I look into the mirror and I see a human being staring back at me, then I have had a good day.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

A Very Buddha Thinking Hat

Today I heard a Dharma teacher say "The world needs the fruits of our practice."

I hope this means the seeds of our practice are in the fruits of our practice.  It is a lot of hard work on a day to day basis.

My thinking hat has grown old. Maybe it is time to start blossoming instead of designing the perfect practice.


Thursday, 11 April 2013

And Then One Day I Realized X

It is quite stunning that I get excited over so many personal revelations and live off the fumes from my inner glow, then things get dull or life gets bad. Then I seem to always renew the personal revelation that I really don't know anything and carry on.

I have managed to see life from several perspectives: affluent, broke, fat, thin, smart, ignorant... and at each perspective, I always came to the conclusion that I didn't know anything all along. Seeing this pattern is my latest revelation, and today is the day that I realized X.

So what now? I just bought a bunch of books from a fellow practitioner who is taking his practice out west to find some "real teachers" because he couldn't find any to his satisfaction here in Charlotte. Maybe I'll read his books until things get dull or life gets bad. If that doesn't work, maybe I'll move west too.

I've moved North a couple of times. That was kind of cool, but I seem to alienate people no matter where I move.....

Wow! Was that a new revelation? Maybe I'll keep the books in the trunk of my car today......

With Trust,


Friday, 29 March 2013

There is Urgency Among Us

Greetings friends and readers,

Unlike my other posts that have a sort of seriousness to them this one will have even more seriousness to it and may cover more than I hope.

For those of you who do not live in the United States there is a Supreme Court hearing currently taking place regarding same-sex marriage. Being openly gay I certainly have hopes that those trusted with the roles as judges realize that my dignity and that of my fellow lesbian-gay-bi-transgender-queer and even heterosexual allies will not be dismissed.
Yet this is not the only issue at hand that is taking place in this nation at the very least. There are food products that have been approved and are quite harmful, there are movements against the children of the nation in reducing funding for schools and other forms of education, there are pop icons who are being severely (and rightly so) criticized  for their lyrics regarding women, rape and drugs. There are LGBTQ youth who are every single moment of the day crying themselves in effort to comfort themselves because they have been beaten, bruised, neglected, punished for something they cannot change.

Each moment that we are on the meditation cushion or spend in silence, all of this is taking place. This sort of silence cannot be appropriate can it? How can we just sit comfortably while our fellow human beings and the planet itself is beginning to shake in agony as the loss of precious lives begins to rise in an age where we once believed this would no longer take place?

I strongly believe that meditation does not have to take place quietly while sitting, standing or even being alone. Meditation can take place in action, global action, that pushes forward equality, justice, peace, dignity and all those other things we value and have fought for in our own lives so hard. 

We have absolutely no right to sit while children next door may be calling out for help in some way. Our meditations can only be validated in our solitary practices or communal practices if we do something about all of this. 

Yes--this is yet another call to action that is incredibly explicit. I stated today in a philosophy class  that being a member of an institution of any sort that is responsible for the death of even one  with others walking along their own paths in that institution doing nothing is cowardice. 





I am fully aware that each and every single one of us have our own struggles that we must resolve including myself but is there a way that to resolve the plagues in our own lives is to first resolve the plagues in someone else’s life? 

Is a thank you or even an absent thank you from a good deed a fulfillment of all that we do not just strive to be....

but we already are.

This is the Buddhism that I fell for, a non-silent Buddhism that believes that each and every single human even the murderer, even the psychotic have a light shining from them. A black light, a light of Emptiness. I so strongly believe this that I had it tattooed on my chest in Latin: Lucemus non Incendemus which translates to:
My tattoo

We shine not burn. 

The irony, of course, is that we must burn to shine. 

“Everything is burning. What is burning? The eyes are burning, everything that we see with the eyes is burning.” This little phrase comes from many many different Buddhist traditions and can certainly be interpreted in a variety of ways. We burn with Desire and so everything around us is engulfed in flames. Yet how negative can this be? I am a fan of warmth and a fan of the Eight Fold Path which teaches that Desire, all together, need not be something negative. It can change the world in drastic ways.

We can begin to protest and maybe everything we know about Buddhism will change. 


Is not one of the most important teachings of Buddhism is that everything is constantly changing, shifting, molding, responding, bouncing back and forth and in all directions. So if Buddhism is to change because we do not sit for twenty minutes but for ten and spend the other ten in aid to somebody else. Even if that somebody else is an ant on our table that has lost his way home. 

We are capable of so much, I need not prove that since I am posting this on something called the internet. Wow. What a thing the internet is....really....just for a few moments...think about it. Isn’t is a spectacular phenomena? In sorts, even a miracle?

As this world becomes smaller and smaller we have less and less room for foolish error. It will take place and mercy has already been granted by me and hopefully by those around me as well on those foolish mistakes. Even the Earth is merciful but, too, has its limits. It cries for help. 

I am certainly among the guilty as is everybody else, even the child. 

But I do not believe this guilt is negative one. It is a lotus blooming and blossoming into the beauty and fragrant flower that it is and so then inspiring everything around it to come and taste its nectar. The shame that I feel from time to time is soothed by the bee which comes to me not caring about the shame and the guilt that I hold onto but joins with me in a celebration of life. 

It is because we are guilty that we must act.

It is because we feel shame that we must act.

It is because we feel humiliated that we must act.

It is because we are amazing that we must act.

It is because we are capable of such beauty and love that we must act.

It is because we can act that we must act.

I never leave the meditation cushion and perform Zen miracles every step that I take. The only wish that I have is that the breath that I take each step reaches the child who is contemplating suicide because she has been told that her being a lesbian is “wrong” “sinful” “disgusting.” There is no room for tolerating these situations in Buddhism. The most simple logic will show that:

We are all interconnected.

Buddhism teaches on the cessation of suffering.

Suffering and its cessation are both incredibly complicated.

To end our own personal suffering is to also end the suffering of another person.

To end the suffering of another person we must be in the world doing stuff.

It’s really that simple. I am not the first to have said this and I hope that I am not the last. 

There is an urgency among us that cannot be ignored. 

I invite all of you with your friends, with your Sanghas, by yourselves or with whomever to remember the children, adults, plants, animals that are beginning to shake in agony because of us. We are responsible and we must do something about this. 

What did the Buddha do after his Enlightenment? He went and he taught, inviting all of those around him to join in his teachings on theorizing on how to end suffering. Many forms of Buddhism teach that we are already Enlightened, so lets do as our Teacher did....go into the world and end its suffering because frankly, I’ve had enough of it.

With Love, Sincerity and Plea

Denis Kurmanov

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