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Part 2: EcoChaplaincy and the Occupy Movement [guest post]

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Sarah Vekasi

Note: This is the second part of the letter that I received from Sarah Vekasi a couple of weeks ago. Part 1 appears here on the Jizo Chronicles. To learn more about Sarah’s work, please visit her website: You can support what she’s doing by making a gift here:

EcoChaplaincy and the Occupy Movement

by Sarah Vekasi

I know that there is a great amount of anger out there, and for good reason. Despair, apathy, fear and cynicism too. Some say that captivating and cultivating “righteous anger” is the moving force for change, but I disagree. I know that it is a spark, a symbol of our need for justice, but not a spark that can sustain itself. Anger has an opposite, an enemy, and for many real and justified reasons. However, in order to truly sustain oneself, it is vital to find your vision and place your intention in something far greater than yourself and the specific injustices of the moment. In Buddhism, this often comes down to a great vow – for all beings to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering; in Christianity we hear about the greatest commandment of all –to love thy neighbor as oneself.

This is the key work of the Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative: to help activists, organizers and people in all forms of environmental and social justice work synchronize our intentions with our actions.

There is a lot of writing about it online at  Eco-Chaplaincy comes out of the professionalism of chaplaincy, and offers support within movements, organizations, affinity groups, for individuals, etc.  There is an art to chaplaincy, like the specific training for psychologists or the medical professions, and that training can be applied in the streets, hollows and meeting halls, as well as in a hospital, prison, hospice, the military or anywhere else there are chaplains.

Last night at the general assembly in Asheville, a man spoke from the “Spirituality and Support Group,” and then another man voiced his discontent with that group saying that, “this is political, not spiritual, there is no room for religion here.”

My heart opened to him in my guess that the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ probably carry all sorts of negativity for him with people not accepting him for who he is, or loving him as who he is. I am an eco-chaplain and not a minister or a dharma teacher for a reason – so that I can offer support for groups and individuals in the religious or secular language that makes them tic, not me. But I still have my own opinions about religion and work as a “religious leader,” so let me ask yall: “What is real religion honestly if not the practice of trying to work for our collective liberation, trying to love our neighbors as ourselves, forgive the best we can, keep trying, and working for the liberation of all beings?”

Tell me truly. I know that I write these letters to people on all sides of every political spectrum, so tell me – what could be more political than loving our neighbors as ourselves and working towards our collective liberation?

Here is what I know for sure. A movement based on anger cannot sustain itself. A movement based on fear cannot mobilize itself. A movement void of spirituality, or intention, is not a movement, just a cause or campaign. Only when there is a vision and an intention large enough to sustain many victories and many losses will it surpass the passion of the moment and carry forward lasting change.

This is the goal of eco-chaplaincy. To help activists, organizers, friends, neighbors, all of us to connect with a vision large enough it can sustain us through the ups and downs of our times so we can stay engaged in the world and not drown in anger, despair, fear, apathy, numbness, etc.

How? Eco-Chaplaincy is just like all chaplaincy: being present as best one can, offering active listening, mediation, conflict transformation, and spiritual and religious support. I love working as an eco-chaplain and love creating the Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative, and what I love even more is the thought that there are many thousands of people tonight who will sleep outside in cities throughout this country after participating in an ongoing dialogue about what needs are not being met in our country and the world at the moment, before jumping into “demands” with specific strategies of how to “fix”it.

Let’s all make ourselves more open to seeing one another and truly hearing one another. I am not so interested in hearing all the divergent and often polarizing strategies for how to fix things until there is a real conversation about what needs are not being met first. To do this, we have to listen, and we have to connect, and that is why I love that the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Your Street mobilizations are not based on a demand or demands, do not have a specific agenda or leaders – because it is a time for people to begin to connect, to listen, and see what needs we all share and what needs are not being met. From there, we can co-create solutions that will satisfy a real majority through consensus.

Maybe the process of connecting is itself the solution. The process is the product. Imagine!

Here are some more ways that I know how to participate in a Great Turning:

• Begin by exploring ourselves. Our anger. Our fear. Our apathy. Our grief. Normalize it, express it, release it, be in it, don’t just deny it. Ask, what is my story? What is your story? Go through it. We don’t have to stay there, and we won’t, we just cycle through. The way through is exactly that – through. Be willing to make mistakes, to forgive others for mistakes, and hold tight to integrity, honesty, traditional values like not killing or lying or stealing, etc. Let the personal be political, our unique spiritual practices reveal themself through our actions of body, speech and mind, our unique religious practices show through our love and care for one another.

• If you feel up to it, try this exercise out. Next time you find that you have the time, ask someone you don’t know, or maybe even someone you do know questions like:

  • “What do you think about the condition of our world?”
  •  “How has the recession and financial meltdown affected you or your family?”
  • “What concerns do you have about the world these days?”
  • And then don’t let the conversation just dwell in what is wrong, ask also:
  • “What is your favorite part about being alive during these uncertain times?
  • “Tell me about a place you love.”

There is a power in making yourself available for listening. There is so much need to be heard out there. I know because I listen for a living!

• If you really feel up for it, check out whatever general assembly is happening near you, or start one, or watch a live stream online.

As you all know, the Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative runs through your donations. Thank you to those of you who have donated recently. If you are willing to chip in, please sign up to be a monthly donor or for a one time donation online at or through the mail at PO Box 890, Swannanoa, NC 28778.

I would love to listen more to you too. Truly. Call me for a listening session if you want, or call anyways because it is always great to connect.

Love and Solidarity,


Occupy Yourself! [guest post]

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This post comes from Sarah Vekasi, MDiv. Sarah is a member of the network of trained facilitators of The Work That Reconnects, created by Joanna Macy. She is currently serving as an eco-chaplain in rural North Carolina. You can learn more about her work here:

I received the following email update from Sarah on October 5th, and loved it so much that I asked her if I could share it with you here. It’s long, so this is Part 1 of 2… I’ll post the last half in a few days.


More than just the leaves are changing these days, and our leaves have gone from green to bright oranges and red.  Young people, older folks, and all of us in between are beginning to speak up in all sorts of ways.

Do you know also about the Occupations of Wall Street in New York City and now all across America? I have been participating in the Occupy Asheville general assemblies throughout this past week, so I decided I wanted to write a letter to all of you about how eco-chaplaincy can and does work in these moments of mobilizing and change.

Groups of people are mobilizing in cities and towns throughout America and holding general assemblies to discuss their relationship to living in these times of global crisis under the banner that “we are the 99%.” Why? One reason I understand is a deep and vast need to connect, to be heard, to hear and break through the alienation and pervasive suffering permeating the times.

The slogan “I am the 99%” follows up with “and so are you.” There are people all over America are posting photos on blogs, through news channels and Facebook with a short hand-written story of their situation followed by “I am the 99%.” For example,

I began working when I was 13 years old and made $6.50/hour plus tips in 1992. Now, after four years of college, two years in a monastery, and three years in grad school I am under-employed through a non-profit I run, was paid $8.00/hour as a barista last year, and struggle to make ends meet. I am not sure I can ever have children since I don’t know how I would support them. I am the 99%.

How are you a part of the 99%?

I am not sure there is actually anyone out of that “99%.” Wealthy, poor, middle class, the radiation from Fukushima is everywhere, the water from Appalachia feeds half of the population of the US, and the decisions that have created the system now collapsing throughout the globe don’t seem to be exactly in anyone’s control. I know there are many conditions that have created the present situation, the student debt and unemployment, the massive deployments and lack of affordable health care, and still I am not in the business of pinpointing any exact cause because it seems a lot more like themes brought about by systemic greed, hatred and delusion to me.

I love that these protests did not begin with “demands” or a list of objectives, something the mainstream media is deriding and dismissing it for. There is brilliance to opening up a space which says, things aren’t right in my life, how about yours? What needs are not being met? What are the themes? What are the causes?

There is a reason the occupations began on Wall Street in New York City, and a reason why rather than all flock there, we are standing up in our towns across the country to say the same thing – let’s have a conversation, what is it like for you being alive in this time of global crisis? These conversations, general assemblies, open forums seem to me to be an expression of active hope – a thread slowing sewing itself throughout the frayed seems of our society which says:

“…wait a minute – I am not alone – you are suffering too – whoa – your story has similar roots as mine with a different storyline – hmmm…..we are tired of being controlled by forces beyond our control, which seem to make choices based off greed, not our best interests, profits for the very few with the illusion that finite natural resources are somehow infinite. We are no longer willing to trade our creativity, intelligence, bodies, minds and hearts for a daily grind that is still not going anywhere. We are in debt, bankrupt, lost our homes, have been deployed too many times, need a job, sunk in student debt, and more. Mountaintops are being blown up in Appalachia and the valleys filled in so that coal can be sold in China and India while the water supply for half of the United States is irrevocably polluted. The political forces out there seem interested in maintaining some sort of status quo that has forgotten us – all of us, left wing, right wing, whatever…. It feels overwhelming. It makes me angry. I feel despair. Before I saw this mobilization I was overcome with cynicism, depression, anxiety….etc.”

So these general assemblies are somewhat long and rambling meetings which use a lot of consensus jargon we often use in organizing here, a sort of sub-cultural lingo, with the intention of creating space for everyone to be heard. I don’t know how long the openness will continue, it is hard to sustain and I personally have plenty of doses of my own skepticism, yet I believe in  it too because I believe in the power of listening and the power of trusting solutions to arise from a collective, and I deeply believe in the intelligence in open systems which knows that there is room for everybody.

At the same time, this is a fragile and important moment to pay attention to because it could go oh so many ways, and seems to be going every which way at once. What is needed more than ever is open-mindedness, open-heartedness, and expansiveness. We have a choice when conditions get tough to get smaller and tighter or more open and flexible. One leads to a great unraveling into even more scarcity, alienation, isolation and tightness, and the other a great turning toward a more life affirming society. Which do you want?

Before answering, think about this: which you are willing to help create?

[Part 2 coming soon…]

Bodhisattvas in the Trenches: A Zen Priest at the Tar Sands Action

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Shodo Spring sits outside the White House / photo courtesy of tarsandsaction

This is a guest post from Shodo Spring, a Zen priest who has dedicated her life to socially engaged Buddhism. Shodo is a trained therapist, mother of two, and grandmother of four, who received priest ordination from Shohaku Okumura. She recently sent me this account of her time in Washington, DC, where she took part in the Tar Sands action, and I wanted to share it with all of you.


Leaving Washington after ten days in front of the White House, I ride the train through hills and mountains – Maryland, West Virginia? I look out on trees, rocks, river as: wide river, shallow with rocks, winding, here and there a small island;  now an old stone building, a wide field, a farm; now trees again, roads, farms. “Beautiful,” I think. There’s a bit of mist, now turned to rain streaming down the windows. Across the aisle a baby is entertained by his mother.

This is what it is about: that life should continue.

Read the rest of this entry

The Power of Words to Harm and to Heal: In the Wake of Tragedy in Arizona

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Hundreds gather for a vigil at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix, Jan 8, 2011. (AP / Ross D. Franklin)

Cross-posted from The Liberated Life Project

Since yesterday’s terrible and tragic shootings in Arizona, I have found myself searching for some way to understand what happened and to ascertain what, if any, action might be skillful at this time.

Words are very powerful. It is words (and the thoughts and feelings behind them) that have created an environment of fear and hatred which permeates many levels of the United States, from politics to the media we ingest to the way we move through our daily lives. Words in some way contributed to yesterday’s event and to poisoning the mind of an already disturbed young man.

Like many of you, perhaps, I’ve been seeking some healing words over the past day. This morning I came across some writing from Marianne Williamson and it’s the first time since yesterday I’ve felt myself settle into a place deeper than my own fear and anger. I feel that Marianne’s words are so important that I want to share them in full with you here today:



by Marianne Williamson

“Bullets can’t stop love,” said Arizona official Steve Farley today, claiming that Arizona will be better for having gone through the trauma and tragedy of this day.

America is looking deeply at itself right now, and we have desperately needed to do that. Vigils are being held all over the state of Arizona, and on invisible planes we know that miracles are happening because of it. Hearts are softening; sanity is returning. People are remembering that all of us are human, and all of us are infinitely valuable. A deranged young man merely reflected the insanity of our current political discourse, and as the saying goes, “every problem comes bearing its own solution.” It has taken a tragedy like this to make us all take a deep breath.

All of us are praying for Congresswoman Giffords and the others who were shot today. But let’s put feet to our prayers, as well. Wherever we are and whoever we are, we can participate in de-escalating the violence of our society by de-escalating the violence in our hearts. Whoever we haven’t forgiven, tonight let’s simply do it. Whoever we’re thinking about with anger, tonight is the night to let it go. And to whatever extent we haven’t been a powerful voice for love in our own lives, let’s commit tonight to stepping up our game. Life is a serious business, and to whatever extent we haven’t been playing it seriously, let tonight be the night when we awaken from our stupor and decide to be a player in the healing of our world.

Among other things, let’s look deeply at how easy it is for deranged people to get guns not only in Arizona, but in other places in our country as well. If you feel this isn’t right — that it isn’t safe for us or for our children — then know the only way we will override the resistance of the National Rifle Association is if we ourselves get involved in the effort. The NRA is right that guns don’t kill people — that people do. But with so many unstable people out there, there is no rational reason for us to make it so easy for them.

May those who died in today’s massacre rest in peace. They have done what they came to do this lifetime, and it is time for them to sleep.

But for the rest of us, it is time to wake up. To pray yes, but also to act. To think deeply, but also to speak powerfully. To feel concern, but also to act with courage. God’s blessing doesn’t just mean that He does something for us; it also means that He does something through us. And now is the time to let Him. God bless Arizona, God bless America and God bless us all.

Compassion in Action: The Cambodia AIDS Project

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Beth Goldring (left) and Brahmavihara patient

One of my readers recently reminded me of  Brahmavihara/The Cambodia AIDS Project, a small Buddhist chaplaincy program working with Cambodian AIDS patients too poor to access traditional resources. The program was founded in 2000 by Beth Goldring.

Since the tagline for The Jizo Chronicles is “Bodhisattvas in the Trenches,” I’m always on the lookout for powerful first-hand accounts of engaged dharma. Beth more than fits that description. She is an American Zen nun who has studied with Gil Fronsdal, as well as a former ballet dancer, university humanities teacher, and human rights worker. Beth works closely with Cambodian staff members to fulfill the project’s mission.

I found this article by Beth on the Brahmavihara website, which was originally published in the German Buddhist Association magazine in Spring 2004. It’s a wonderful exploration of the role that intention plays in service work. Here’s an excerpt:

When I began this project my intention was to help people die peacefully, confident in the Buddha’s boundless compassion. That is still true. Every bit of our work is directed towards helping people realize that the Buddha’s compassion is already fully present–right in the middle of their suffering.

What has changed enormously in the past five years is my sense of what this intention entails. What is striking me most powerfully recently is the need for us to let go of every other intention beyond seeing clearly and  accepting completely the person: just as they are right in the middle of their suffering.

And here is the full article–I hope you enjoy it.


Working Without Intention
AIDS, Death and Dying among the Cambodian Destitute
by Beth Goldring
Brahmavihara/Cambodia AIDS Project
Phnom Penh

Sok is lying on the floor in the tuberculosis hospital dying of AIDS. She is partly outside her mosquito net. Her face has taken on the alienated, impersonal quality people sometimes get when death is approaching. Her skin has open sores but she is beyond paying attention to them. Lok Yay, the Cambodian nun who works with me, simply pulls on her gloves and begins massaging Sok, making soothing sounds. Ramo, my assistant, and I go into the next room to do Reiki with another patient. By the time we come back Sok has returned to herself. She is sitting up, held by Lok Yay, who is also feeding her a little rice porridge. Sok is very weak but she is once again a specific, recognizable human person.

The next day Ramo and I take Sok’s little daughter, who also has AIDS and lives in a group home for children, for a final visit with her mother. Sok is lying in her bed and Lok Yay has shaved her head. Srey Tout, who is only three, is terrified. I sit next to Sok on the bed.  Srey Tout, on my lap, sits so that she doesn’t have to see this person she is too terrified to know. We visit quietly. Slowly Srey Tout begins to give tiny glances to this person in the bed.  Slowly she recognizes this person as her mother who loves her. Eventually she allows Sok to give her some hard candies and to kiss her. Sok is radiant, even in the face of her impending death. She dies within days.

Recently I received a set of wonderful letters about the death of a Thai woman practitioner, written by a fellow practitioner and friend who accompanied her dying.  A Thai monk who translates Sogyal Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama into Thai also assisted. What was breathtaking was the ongoing intimacy between her spiritual practice and her dying.  Her ability to incorporate her dying, with its pain and difficulties, into her practice seemed seamless.  I was and remain in awe of it.

Our work, while it does not lack inspiration, is not like this. In writing this paper I am increasingly forced to realize how little of our actual experience with death and dying in Cambodia conforms to the patterns normal for discussions of death and dying and Buddhist teachings. This worries me because I would like to make a bridge between the conditions we work under and the conditions normally taken for granted in the West.

Ordinary Cambodians have seen more death and dying than most Westerners can easily imagine. Most of it has taken place under terrible conditions: war, torture, brutality, starvation, lack of the most elementary medical care. I know of no adult over 30 who has not watched at least one family member starve to death or die from lack of elementary medical treatment during the Khmer Rouge period( 1975-79). Recently there are also mob killings of people suspected of stealing motorcycles (one of which took place in a wat with monks looking on) and arbitrary killings because of drunkenness or in the course of theft. There are also routine suicides and regular killing of rape victims, many of them tiny children. A look at the biweekly Police Blotter in the Phnom Penh Post gives the picture of a society in which death is routine and trivial. Deaths from tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS, an increasing infant mortality rate, a terrible maternal mortality rate and routine child deaths from malnutrition, diarrheal diseases and fevers broaden but hardly complete the picture.

Buddhist teaching in Cambodia has not recovered from the legacy of war and genocide. The clergy were destroyed under the Khmer Rouge and politically controlled during the Vietnamese period (1979-91).  With some stunning exceptions, the reconstruction of Buddhist teachings has lacked skilled and knowledgeable teachers. This handful of skilled teachers are called upon to do everything from reconstructing the teaching of Pali through operating rice banks to conducting anti-smoking campaigns. While the level of knowledge is to some degree being reconstructed and there are monks and achars and nuns to chant and perform ceremonies the deeper knowledge of what the tradition means takes a far longer time to develop. One such stunning exception to these problems is the annual dhammayietra (peace walk) in which the commitment of monks, nuns, achars and laypeople to dhamma and to peace in Cambodia is palpable in every step they take.

It is impossible, however, that the increasing and uncontrolled corruption that stains every level of Cambodian society has left Buddhism untouched. Too often the wats lack even the most elementary discipline; too often the monks, mostly young boys, are taught simply that people should give them things; too often they are encouraged to study English and computer and not dharma. The nuns are old women. Since they receive little if any support from the wats (normally they have to build their own cottages to live in and may or may not receive food) they largely come from families able to support them. Many wats have no nuns at all and no space or welcome for them. The nuns tend to congregate in wats where there is dharma training for them. There they are respected for the sincerity of their practice but they are  not sought out for their wisdom. The Association of Nuns and Laywomen in Cambodia works to provide encouragement, support and training but it is the only active institution working on their behalf.  The achars (older men who keep five precepts and run ceremonies as well as the temporal affairs of the wats) are a mixed group. Some of them have studied dharma for a long time; others tend to concentrate almost exclusively on the material side of the work.

I am not saying things this critical of the current situation in Cambodian Buddhism lightly. The situation is all too understandable given Cambodia’s history of massive and ongoing trauma. Often I am astounded by the Cambodian capacity for recovery in the face of it; for the kindness and compassion we find in desperate situations.  I doubt I would have even one-thousandth of the grace under stress we are routinely privileged to witness.  But without at least some background in the realities of current Cambodian Buddhism the problems the dying face are unintelligible. I know of one monk who sits with dying people. He works in a project which is mixed Christian and Buddhist and which has a home care project, a hospice and programs for orphans.  I have heard of other monks who visit the sick. I have heard of, but not seen, one wat where the destitute dying are accepted and where orphans are taken care of.

Our patients don’t ask the monks to come and chant because they have nothing to give them and are ashamed. Our patients believe that their destitution and AIDS are the result of their karma. They believe that their poverty, suffering and disease place them outside the Buddha’s concern and care. They know of no other way to overcome this problem except by giving things to monks. They believe that because they have nothing to give the monks their next lives will be even worse. It is easy for them to hate and fear death; they have seen too much of its ugliest face. It is especially easy for them to die in terror, rage or simple alienated, exhausted indifference.

When I began this project my intention was to help people die peacefully, confident in the Buddha’s boundless compassion. That is still true. Every bit of our work is directed towards helping people realize that the Buddha’s compassion is already fully present–right in the middle of their suffering.

What has changed enormously in the past five years is my sense of what this intention entails. What is striking me most powerfully recently is the need for us to let go of every other intention beyond seeing clearly and  accepting completely the person: just as they are right in the middle of their suffering. It means using all the tools we can bring to bear on the situation: chanting, meditation, ceremonies (including ghost ceremonies), Reiki, massage, amritta, candles, incense, small Buddha statues, pictures, whatever practical assistance we can offer and whatever compassion our own training and practice allow us to embody. But, paradoxically, it means using those tools without any idea of accomplishing anything with them.

It is late Friday evening. Bunna is dying in her house.  She is a woman of intelligence and fortitude and has refused to go to the hospice or hospital. This afternoon she was restless and upset. She also had uncontrolled diarrhea, which shamed her since she had no strength to change her clothing or clean it. Chey Lang, who has just received her Reiki II initiation, came with Veasna, my second translator. They cleaned everything, cooked some rice porridge and fed her as much as she could eat. Chey Lang did Reiki and  they left her resting in her mosquito net with the things she needed easily at hand. Meanwhile I had called her home care supervisor, who said they would pay for someone to care for her if we could find the person.

Ramo and I have come back and have asked Ka, who is normally practical, warm and energetic, to be the caregiver. Ka agreed. But when she arrived she was badly out of control emotionally because of her own problems. Her organization (different from Bunna’s) had just cut housing subsidies and the people caring for Ka’s children had sent them back. She had nothing to feed them. Although Ka wants the job for financial reasons she is in no emotional state to do it. She becomes hysterical about the house not being safe; about whether her own antiretroviral medication might be stolen; about where she will sleep since her mosquito net is too big for the available space; about anything and everything. She does not interact with Bunna, who, meanwhile, is withdrawing further and further into herself. I tell Ka that we have other people for the job but she insists she wants it, calms down a bit and goes to get her things. While we are waiting another woman comes in, ostensibly to see about Bunna but actually to scream about her own problems and situation. Bunna by this time is practically in a fetal position; her eyes are withdrawn, shadowed and hollow and her mouth is a rictus. I feel that she is willing to die immediately, just to get away from the hysteria surrounding her. I leave Ramo to deal with the other woman and get back into the mosquito net with Bunna. I start to do Reiki, very gently and simply. Slowly she turns over onto her back. I move the pillows behind her, raising her head to help with her lung congestion. She is too weak to cough up matter from a lying down position.

The visitor leaves and Ka comes back to tell us her son has disappeared and that she can’t stay with Bunna because she has to go find him. Ramo deals with her gently but we are both enormously relieved. We call Lok Yay’s assistant and ask him to bring another woman we know, Heng, who is gentle and kind. I do not expect Bunna to live even the half hour that it will take them to arrive.

I have been studying about giving Reiki attunements to the dying and it strikes me that there could hardly be a better time to start. So I do what I can, holding in my mind no intention or simply the intention that Bunna go as peacefully as is possible. Focussing on the attunement process I am not watching her face closely. When I look back at her she is peaceful and present and I feel an enormous gratitude.

Heng arrives and immediately gets under the mosquito net with her cheerful, peaceful presence. We make the necessary arrangements quickly and without fuss. Bunna is concerned that I am there very late in the evening and must be tired. It is characteristic of her to be concerned about me as soon as she is reasonably conscious again.

That was  February 27. Bunna went into the hospital March 3, was eating successfully, even corn on the cob, several days later and began antiretrovirals March 10. Perhaps she will make it.

My sense of things right now is that it is necessary to let go of all intentions, even, at one level, the intention of helping someone find peacefulness. My sense is that the more we are able to do this, the more we are able to let people be who they are, to have their own lives and deaths and not the ones we might wish for them, the more effective the work will be at the deeper levels. This does not mean withholding our skills, capacities, knowledge and/or most powerful efforts. Rather it means using them as fully as we possibly can, moment to moment. But it also means using them unconditionally, letting go of all ideas about what should happen or how it should happen.

There is, of course, nothing new in this. It is classic Buddhist teaching and teaching that Zen, in particular, emphasizes strongly.  Cambodia is an easy place to learn about the limitations of efforts. But it is also a wonderful place to learn about the power of what works through us when we let go of ideas. We are enormously privileged to be able to work here.

Why Buddhism? Violations of Trust in the Sexual Sphere [guest post by Roshi Joan Halifax]

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This is a guest post from Roshi Joan Halifax, founding Abbot of Upaya Zen Center


We all know that rape as a weapon of war has been used against women and nations for thousands of years. Rape, forceable seduction, seduction through trickery, power and domination, seduction through loneliness or delusion have also been part of most, if not all, religions. Yes, if you want to demoralize a nation, rape its women, its daughters, its sisters, its wives…….. And if you want to deepen the shadow of any religion, turn wisdom and compassion into hypocrisy, and stand by, conflict averse, as its male clergy disrespects women, has sex with female congregants, dominates women, abuses women, degrades or rapes them.

But as a Zen Buddhist priest, as a woman, I have to ask, why my religion? Why Buddhism? This is not what the Buddha taught. I like Buddhism; I love my practice of meditation; Buddha’s teachings are practical; they make sense to me. But for too long in the West, and I am sure in the East, gross misogyny has existed in the Buddhist world, a misogyny so deep that it has allowed the disrespect and abuse of women and nuns in our own time, and not only throughout history, and not only in Asia. The misogynistic abuse is not only in terms of the usual gender issues related to who has responsibility and authority (women usually don’t have much if any), but it is as well expressed through mistreatment of women, through sexual boundary violations of women, and the psychological abuse of women.

Since 1964, according to the late Robert Aitken Roshi’s archive, a Buddhist teacher, Eido Shimano, has been engaged in sexual misconduct with a number of his female students; sometimes the sex was forceable; sometimes crude, tricky, and coercive. And it has been ongoing, for more than forty-five years. Many Buddhist practitioners have known about this for a long time, although the late Aitken’s archive was closed until just before his death in the fall of this year. What was this silence about, I have asked? Why did we not act? Why are we, as Buddhists, so conflict averse?

On August 21, 2010, the NYTimes published an article, Sex Scandal has U.S. Buddhists Looking Within. This article publicly surfaced Eido Shimano’s long pattern of sexual violation. Sadly, On December 1, the principle figure in this article wrote a rebuttal, basically denying his culpability and blaming the NYTimes for dysinformation.  The Times reporter, Mark Oppenheimer, responded to this self-serving letter from Eido Shimano.

I think that this rebuttal by Eido Shimano was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many of us Buddhists. We were incredulous on reading Eido Shimano’s communique to the Times‘ reporter. Naively, we had thought that this problem was taken care of; the teacher was full of remorse and had resigned as abbot and board member of the institution that he founded; and the institution was committed to addressing this issue and redressing the ills suffered by the women involved and the wider community.

But we were wrong……. and I assure you, this is not the first time we have been wrong about similar violations…….

Fortunately, the response to Eido Shimano’s unempathic, self-centered and self-serving communique has been building, nationally and internationally, over December and into January. Buddhists are finally getting it. You have to take a stand, a strong and vocal stand, against the predatory behavior of its religious figures. You have to speak truth to power, and speak it loudly. And you have to act……….

I have been waiting for this moment not just for the many months since the discussions have been happening among Zen teachers. I have been waiting for years for a concerted response to such violations against women in our Buddhist world. Many of us women who have brought these issues to the attention of the wider community and have been shamed and shunned over the years. But finally, just before New Years, the flood of letters addressing Eido Shimano’s behavior has found its way onto the shores of his Buddhist monastery and the internet. Herein, one of first of those letters, my own.

It will take a while for us to fully understand why we as Buddhists took so long to act. If Eido Shimano had been a doctor, lawyer, or psychotherapist, there would have been rapid social and legal consequences. But there is something about our religions, whether Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Islam, or Buddhist, that disallows us facing the shame associated with sexual violations and the gross gender issues that plague most, if not all, religions.

I understand that letters are easy to write. Less easy are the creation of protections so women (and religious communities) will not be harmed like this ever again. And even more difficult is changing the views, values, and behaviors that made it possible for someone like Eido Shimano and others to engage in such harmful acts for so long. Yet, it is not only a matter of the sexual violation of women and the painful violation of boundaries that are based in trust between teacher and student, it is as well a matter of the violation of the core of human goodness; for his behavior is also a violation of the entire Buddhist community, as well as the teachings of the Buddha which are uncompromising with respect to the unviability of killing, lying, sexual misconduct, wrongful speech, and consuming intoxicants of body, speech and mind. The northstar of goodness has been lost sight of in the long and recent past, and we are all suffering because we cannot see how deep the wound is to the heart of our world and to the coming generations.

Protections, dialogue, education are all necessary at this time. And a commitment to not forgetting……… as well as vowing to not repeat the mistakes of the past, and to practice a compassion that is clear and brave, liberating and just.

I am aware that these words do not address issues related to the sexual violation of children and men by clergy. I am also aware that power dynamics between women and men are inadequately referenced here, nor are issues related to the exploitation of students by female clergy. What I have written, however, is meant to address specifically the violation of boundaries and trust, whether by force or consent, by Buddhist male religious clergy of their female congregants and students, and a particular case in point that is in the foreground of the Zen Buddhist community in the United States at this time.

As author and Buddhist Natalie Goldberg wrote in her book The Great Failure: “We are often drawn to teachers who unconsciously mirror our own psychology. None of us are clean. We all make mistakes. It’s the repetition of those mistakes and the refusal to look at them that compound the suffering and assure their continuation.”

It seems as though the time has come for us to take a deep look at our individual and collective psychology……… and to strongly request that those teachers who have crossed the boundaries of trust to engage in sexual intercourse with students and congregants step aside, so the healing of individuals and sanghas can begin.

Thanksgiving for Real [guest post by Alan Senauke]

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November sky over Upaya Zen Center, Santa Fe

I was thinking about what to write for a Thanksgiving post when this showed up in my in-box this morning from my friend Alan Senauke. So I happily give the floor to Alan, and wish all of you a happy holiday.


Thanksgiving For Real

Hozan Alan Senauke


When the Way is entrusted to the Way, we attain the Way…When treasures are entrusted to treasures, these treasures certainly become giving. We offer ourselves to ourselves, and we offer others to others.

—  Eihei Dogen, “Bodaisatta Shishobo”


Digging around a bit I find that the first “thanksgiving” in the so-called New World may have taken place in June of 1564 on the River of May (now St. Johns River, Florida), celebrated by French Huguenots who fled religious wars in Europe. Another thanksgiving was marked on September 8, 1595 in the Spanish colony of what is now St. Augustine, Florida.  By then the Spanish had massacred most of the early French colonists and many of the local native peoples.

In 1619 English settlers landed at Berkeley Hundreds on Virginia’s James River and offered a day of thanksgiving, as per a regulation in their charter.  Within several years, the ongoing Anglo-Powhaton wars had driven the native tribes out of the region, and left many of the early settlers dead.

The surviving fifty-three members of the Plymouth Colony celebrated their first successful harvest in New England with a day of thanks in November 1621. A larger group from the Wampanoag tribe, led by Massasoit, arrived uninvited at the festival, causing initial alarm.  But they came with generous offerings of food and drink (hence the now traditional Thanksgiving dinner of eel and stuffed lobster), and they partied together avidly. By 1676, only 400 Wampanoags remained and their leader Metacom, or King Philip, was captured and shot.  His severed head was displayed on a pike in Plymouth for twenty years.

By now you are surely wondering what does this have to do with Buddhism?  I am getting at the fact that our annual fourth Thursday in November tryptophan orgy, followed by Black Friday — the traditional kickoff to Christmas shopping — has a history marked by domination: domination over native peoples, domination over poultry — ask any turkey — and the domination of consumerism over all of us.

Still the force of giving and gratitude cannot be erased by history. It is a universal activity of the true human. Many of us will, in fact, experience just this as we sit down with family and friends on Thanksgiving Day. Or as we serve a meal to those in need. In Buddhist terms Dogen Zenji writes:

When we can give up even one speck of dust as the practice of giving, though it is a small act, we can quietly rejoice in it. This is because we have already correctly transmitted and carried out one of the virtues of the buddhas, and because we have practiced a bodhisattva’s act for the first time.

The Bodhisattva’s first perfection or paramita is dana, giving. There are many kinds of giving: material aid, spiritual comfort, the Buddha’s teachings, fearlessness, and more.  This is a universal principle. Judaism calls it tzedakah, in Islam it is sadaqah (clearly the same word), Christianity has caritas (Latin) and agape (Greek).  We can draw fine distinctions, but these are related practices — giving without the expectation of reward or recompense.

In his inspiring book The Gift, writer Lewis Hyde says:

Between the time a gift comes to us and the time we pass it along, we suffer gratitude… Passing the gift along is the act of gratitude that finishes the labor. The transformation is not accomplished until we have the power to give the gift on our own terms.

This is a curious expression, to “suffer gratitude.”  The Latin roots of “suffer” imply to carry up or to bear from under. In earlier days it meant to allow something to arise. At the same time, the word suffer inevitably suggests our experience of the pain of life, the mark of our precious human existence.

This awareness undercuts the theme of domination running through the history of thanksgiving as a holiday. When we suffer gratitude there is no room for domination. When giving and gift circulate freely we have moved beyond the realm of subject and object.  Giving gives, receiving gives, suffering disperses like morning mist in sunlight.

My own Zen teacher says, “Don’t treat anything as an object.”  This means to see all that we encounter — persons, material things, feelings, ideas, and so on — as part of oneself.  That is, subjectively.  With such an attitude, which is the mind of zazen, domination cannot emerge.  We meet the world with an open hand. We immediately know thanks in giving, thanks in receiving, thanks in being. And then we are in the next moment, where the hand is opened once more.  This is thanksgiving for real.

I give the last word to Dogen, again from “Bodaisatta Shishobo.”  Enjoy the day.

It is like offering treasures that are going to be discarded to people we do not know. Give flowers blooming on the distant mountains to the Tathagata. Offer treasures accumulated in our past lives to living beings. Whether a gift is Dharma or material objects, each gift is truly endowed with the virtue of offering.



Guest Post: The Saffron Revolution: Lessons on a Conceptual-based Compassion

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I’m honored to feature a guest post by Lynette Genju Monteiro, author of the wonderful blog 108 Zen Books. Usually bios come at the end of articles, but in this case I’d like to give you her bio first so that you have some context for this piece.

Genju was born in Burma.  She and her family were accepted by Canada as “certified with identity” in 1965.  Because this was after the military takeover in 1963 and “nothing was happening” at that time in Burma, they have never fit into either category of refugee or immigrant.

Genju’s paternal grandmother was a cheroot-smoking, devout Buddhist who taught her that, especially when nothing is happening, it is a good thing to have a refuge.  When she received the Five Mindfulness Training from her dharma teacher Chân Hội, she ran home to tell her father she was finally a “refugee!”  When she received the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing, nothing happened again – pleasantly.

She is now a student of the Dharma staggering along the path via the Upaya Zen Center and the Upaya Chaplaincy Program.  She is also a shodo artist and lets her blog 108 Zen Books speak for her.


The Saffron Revolution: Lessons on a Conceptual-based Compassion

by Lynette Genju Monteiro

On September 26, 2007, the monastic community in Burma lead a formidable protest against the military rulers, creating what would be an iconic moment for the people of Burma.  Thousands of monks in their maroon and yellow robes marched through the streets of Rangoon and Mandalay holding aloft their alms bowls to signify their refusal to accept acts of generosity from the army.  They chanted the Metta Sutta to give voice to the suffering of all beings represented by the suffering of the people of Burma. This would become the Saffron Revolution – a spiritual strong-arming of a superstitious government who now could not buy their way out of the bad karma they had cultivated.

The monastic community inspired the people and garnered huge support globally. Unfortunately that support is likely to have tipped the balance of fear felt by the government from fear of a hell in the afterlife to a fear of being seen as weak in this one.  The army attacked leaving thousands dead and many monastics missing.  The video documentary Burma VJ captured powerful images of the marches in the streets, wide ribbons of maroon-robed monks walking resolutely into what they must have known would be a violent confrontation with the army.  Through the eyes of the videographers, we witnessed the dead and dying – lay and monastic – as well as the fear-ridden monks held captive in temples just before they disappeared.

The world watched helpless and enraged.  Politicians and well-known spiritual leaders spoke out.  The Dalai Lama announced solidarity with the monks and Thich Nhat Hanh instructed his monastics to wear their sanghati robes during a conference in California on mindfulness.  In the immediate aftermath of the Saffron Revolution, many organizations sprung into action.  There were Adopt a Monk programs, web-based posters, badges, and slogans, and numerous other ways to keep the momentum of the protest going as well as provide sanctuary for the monastic community.

On September 27th, I was interviewed by CBC Radio in six different sessions set to be released through the day.  The producer told me they wanted to get a feel of the spiritual implications of what the monks were trying to accomplish.  In a surreal moment, I watched myself rapidly Googling for updates as I waited for the next interviewer to call.  Much of the interviews were focused on the meaning of the protest but it was the last interviewer who asked the turning question:

CBC:  What happens next?  Do you have any hope that things will change for Burma?

A.    I have held hope for over 40 years.  I can’t imagine not holding to hope.  But what I hold hope for is a unified global movement that will change the conditions.

CBC:   But will it change?

A.   Everything changes.  There are two important tenets in Buddhism.  The first is impermanence.  This junta will come to an end.  Because all things are impermanent, it too is impermanent.  The second tenet is the interconnectedness of all things.  Technology is now such that the world can see into Burma and the Burmese people know that.  We now cannot turn our eyes away.  We must continue to keep looking so the junta knows they are being seen.  Through that interconnection of the global sangha and the people of Burma, change will come.

Three years later, I know many people have lost interest or have become discouraged by the apparent loss of momentum from the Saffron Revolution.  It should not be surprising yet we are challenged when we discover that passion too is impermanent.  Yet it is in that moment of realization that we have the opportunity to see that our passion fades because it is based in our conceptualizations.

The Saffron Revolution contained elements that heightened our experience of empathy.  The sights and sounds (and, for those close to the events, other senses) strongly activated our systems to respond with fear, compassion, and a desire to lessen the suffering of the monastics who had stepped into the battle zone.  But it was our minds that created the seeds of eventual disappointment by latching onto the idea that it was inconceivable for monastics to be brutalized.  Even practitioners who tended to be reserved about the role of the monastic community would speak to me in terms of how awful it was for peaceful (saintly, innocent) monks to be attacked.  Protests I attended fixed the conceptual mind on the sanctity of the Metta Sutta as the innocent violated.  Ultimately, once the pictures and sound bytes featuring the monastics faded, it became more difficult to sustain that passion for change.  It even became harder to remember that the violence and genocide was there before September 26, 2007, and continues to this day.  (For more information, the movie Total Denial made by the founders of EarthRights International and the inexhaustible work of Zoya Phan , author of Little Daughter, are powerful resources.)

This, I believe, is the enduring lesson of the Saffron Revolution.   If we focus on saving the monastics or preserving the right to chant the Metta Sutta, we miss the point: these are only conceptual pointers to what we are called to witness.  It takes events like the Saffron Revolution, the earthquake in Haiti, the tragedies in Rwanda or the very recent events in Ecuador to bring attention to the suffering of a people.  However, our conceptual mind is fickle.  For that reason, we cannot allow it to take charge and direct our compassionate action to an event-triggered suffering or a category of being who is suffering.

We must cultivate a deep vision to see under the drama into what is present and, therefore, what is needed.  The adult and child, human and animal, vegetation and earth – all can be contained in this vision with equanimity.  It is through this non-conceptual vision that we will experience our Interbeing and our inter-responsibility for Life itself.

May all life everywhere, in all times, without category be free from suffering.

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