What the Buddha Taught Us About Race

What the Buddha Taught Us About Race
The Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Thailand | Photo by Christopher Rose http://tricy.cl/2evDRt3

Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu discusses four main takeaways from his new translation of the Sutta Nipata.

By Emma Varvaloucas
Below, the monk answers four quick questions about the Sutta Nipata.

What are some suttas in the Sutta Nipata that are not famous, but are worth getting to know? Perhaps the most important section of the Sutta Nipata is the Atthaka Vagga, a collection of 16 poems on the topic of nonclinging. But there are some hidden gems in the rest of the collection, too. The Arrow (3.8) is a very strong statement on the need to overcome grief, and The Rod Embraced (4.15) starts with the vision of the world that led the young Buddha-to-be to seek awakening. As he says, he saw people floundering like fish competing with one another in small puddles, and there was nothing in the world that wasn’t laid claim to. Every time I read that passage I think of the time I saw salmon arriving at their spawning grounds in a stream no more than an inch deep, struggling to flop themselves over other salmon already dead, while bears were hovering around ready to strike. All that fighting, while in the end they were all just going to die.

You describe the common thread among the suttas in the Sutta Nipata as a response to the culture of ancient India, where brahmanical doctrine was the prominent religious tradition. How would you describe the Buddha’s relationship to the brahmans and their system of belief, and how does this collection illustrate that? We know from other texts that brahmans in the time of the Buddha were obsessed with the question of defining the true self, whether the true self survived death, and if so, how to make sure that it had enough to feed on. And we know from other parts of the canon that the Buddha regarded all these questions as wrong-headed because they got in the way of answering what he saw as a much more important question: how to put an end to suffering and arrive at a dimension where there’s no need to feed. The Sutta Nipata, though, touches on these topics only briefly. Instead, the brahmans presented here seem to be united only in their belief that they are better than everyone else, and the Buddha goes into great detail as to why people cannot be judged on their birth and social status, and should be judged by their actions instead.

That sounds especially pertinent to the issues of racism and classism that we still deal with today. How can we apply the Buddha’s positions from ancient India to contemporary times? Two of the Buddha’s teachings on racism and classism are especially applicable today. The first is the point I just mentioned: There’s nothing about birth or social status that makes a person good or bad. People are good or bad solely in terms of their actions, and so that’s how they should be judged—not by the color of their skin. There’s a nice passage in the Vasettha Sutta (3.9) where the Buddha notes that, with common animals, you know the animal by its coloring and markings, whereas the same standard doesn’t apply to human beings: There’s no physical mark that tells you whether a person is trustworthy or not. If you judge people as good or bad by their appearance, you’re reducing human beings—yourself and others—to animals.

The other teaching is a little less intuitive but just as important. There’s a sutta on the topic of body contemplation whose title, interestingly enough, is Victory (1.11). It gives a long catalog of the disgusting details of the human body, and then ends by saying, “Whoever would think, on the basis of a body like this, to exalt himself or disparage another: what is that if not blindness?” If you think that white skin is somehow special, imagine what a pile of white skin would look like on its own. That should be enough to subdue racial pride…




Why Right Livelihood Isn’t Just About Your Day Job

Why Right Livelihood Isn’t Just About Your Day Job
Photo by Eutah Mizushima | https://tricy.cl/2vtDa9t


In our messy and entangled world, it is impossible to separate what we do for a living from the larger system that makes living possible.

By Krishnan Venkatesh

If we are embarking on a spiritual path, we need to live our lives ethically, and this means ensuring that we do as little harm as possible to anyone or anything while we’re earning our daily bread. If we don’t, our practice will be undermined by our daily actions, not only because of the practical consequences of harmful acts but also through the internal agitation of remorse and denial.

The Buddha’s statements about right livelihood are mostly what we would expect him to say. Avoid business in weapons, human beings, meat, intoxicants, and poison, according to the Anguttara Nikaya. Monks and contemplatives should steer clear of fortune telling, blood sacrifices, and other “base” or “lowly” arts, the Digha Nikaya reads. The careers of a soldier and actor are also full of dangers to the soul, warns the Samyutta Nikaya, and any activity requiring dishonesty and injury will annul spiritual progress.

All of these guidelines seem clear enough, and yet the path to right livelihood itself isn’t that simple. For example, is a soldier’s career necessarily incompatible with a spiritual life if he aspires to keep the peace and protect sentient beings? If plays and films have the potential to bring an audience closer to the truth about the human condition and to awaken compassion, why can’t there be Buddhist actors?

Even professions that seem admirable and praiseworthy can be tangled up in negative consequences. A physician today is implicated in a dubious industry that often benefits corporations and shareholders more than patients. My own career as a professor at a private college is mottled with questions about the consequences of the debt these young people take on in order to study. Is it truly worth it for them, or will it hurt them in the future in ways they cannot yet imagine? And, if so, does this negate the beneficial aspects of my work?

Almost every profession carries a burden of nagging doubt. Life was simpler 2,600 years ago. A butcher’s job related to the farmer who sold him the cow, the cow he butchered in his yard, and the customers who bought the meat.

Today, any means of livelihood is knotted into a vast system that impacts lives and landscapes thousands of miles away. A modern butcher’s livelihood is inextricable from the powerful farming and slaughtering industry that has the power to wipe out small farms and entire communities.

It has become much harder to evaluate the consequences of our jobs: we can do the research, or we can shut our eyes. In either case, the result is that deep inside, we find ourselves unsettled.

Since stepping out of the great economic net is also not possible for most of us, how can we find right livelihood?

We might resign ourselves to the fact that any profession we choose will be a messy mixture of good and bad consequences. We can make a daily effort to maximize the good and minimize the bad; indeed, nearly every job gives daily opportunities to help people and improve the world in some way. The effort to understand the antecedents and consequences of our work is also a mindfulness practice in a system that would prefer us to function on autopilot. To a thoughtful person, this effort also creates a constant tension with our work; we cannot hurl ourselves into our jobs with unquestioning ardor.

Many of us crave careers about which we can be wholeheartedly enthusiastic, but it can be a good thing to be in two minds about our jobs and to not identify with them too strongly. In Pali, the prefix samma means “complete, perfected,” rather than simply “right,” with its connotations of orthodox correctness. Thus, samma-ajiva may mean something more like “livelihood fully understood and rightly conducted, with all its tensions.” This would involve a saner relation to our work lives, in which we strive to be the best we can, and yet do not expect our jobs to give us the impossible, namely complete happiness and fulfillment…




Two Exercises for Turning Intention into Motivation

Two Exercises for Turning Intention into Motivation
Brian Finke/Gallerystock

How do we motivate ourselves to live true to our best aspirations?

By Thupten Jinpa
Framing our days between intention setting and joyful dedication, even once a week, can change how we live. It’s a purposeful approach of self-awareness, conscious intention, and focused effort—three precious gifts of contemplative practice—by which we take responsibility for our thoughts and actions and take charge of our selves and our lives. As the Buddha put it, “You are your own enemy / and you are your own savior. “The Buddha saw: our thoughts, emotions, and actions are the primary sources of our suffering. Equally, our thoughts, emotions, and actions can be the source of our joy and freedom. Living, as much as possible, with conscious intention is the first step of this transformation. So, the following two exercises in intention and dedication are the first step to greater clarity and cohesion in our life, our work, and our relationship with others.

Not only that, when our aspirations include the welfare and happiness of others, our deeds and our life as a whole acquire a purpose that is greater than our individual existence.

In everyday English, we often use the words intention and motivationinterchangeably as if they mean the same thing, but there’s an important difference: deliberateness. Our motivation to do something is the reason or reasons behind that behavior, the source of our desire and the drive to do it. We may be more or less aware of our motivations. Psychologists define motivation as the process that “arouses, sustains, and regulates human and animal behavior.” Simply put, motivation is what turns us on. For some it might be fame; for others, it might be money, excitement or thrill, sex, recognition, loyalty, service, a sense of belonging, safety, justice, and so on. The force of motivation develops through a mutually reinforcing cycle of desire and reward—when something we do is rewarding, we want to do it again; if we do it again, we are rewarded again, and want to do it more…

Intention, on the other hand, is always deliberate, an articulation of a conscious goal. Intention is necessarily conscious; motivation, as Freud pointed out, need not be conscious even to the person himself. We need intentions for the long view. We set and reaffirm our best intentions to keep us inclining in the directions we truly mean to go. But, we need motivations to keep us going over the long haul. If our intention is to run a marathon, there will be times, when the alarm clock goes off for a ten-mile run before work, or in the middle of running, when we’ll ask ourselves, quite reasonably, “Why am I doing this?” We need good, inspired answers to get us over such humps. Conscious or unconscious, motivation is the why, and the spark, behind intention.

You could do this intention-setting exercise at home, first thing in the morning if that is convenient. You could also do it on a bus or a subway on your commute. If you work in an office, you could do it sitting at your desk before you get into the day. You only need two to five uninterrupted minutes. The Tibetan tradition recommends setting our intention and checking with our motivations, in this manner, at the beginning of the day, at the start of a meditation sitting, and before any important activity. Our intention sets the tone of whatever we are about to do. Like music, intention can influence our mood, thoughts, and feelings—setting an intention in the morning we set the tone for the day.

Exercise: Setting an Intention

First, find a comfortable sitting posture. If you can, sit on a cushion on the floor or on a chair with the soles of your feet touching the ground, which gives you a feeling of being grounded. If you prefer, you could also lie down on your back, ideally on a surface that is not too soft like a sinking mattress. Once you have found your posture, relax your body as much as you can, if necessary with some stretches, especially your shoulders and your back. Then, with your eyes closed if it helps you to focus, take three to five deep, diaphragmatic or abdominal breaths, each time drawing the inhalation down into the belly and filling up the torso with the in-breath from the bottom to the top, like filling a jar with water. Then with a long, slow exhalation, expel all the air from the torso, all the way. If it helps, you can exhale from your mouth. Inhale… and exhale…

Once you feel settled, contemplate the following questions: “What is it that I value deeply? What, in the depth of my heart, do I wish for myself, for my loved ones, and for the world?”

Stay on these questions a little and see if any answers come up. If no specific answers surface, don’t worry, simply stay with the open questions. This may take some getting used to, since when we ask questions we usually expect to answer them. Trust that the questions themselves are working even—or especially—when we don’t have ready answers. If and when answers do come up, acknowledge them as they arise and stay with whatever thoughts and feelings they may bring.

Finally, develop a specific set of thoughts as your conscious intention, for this day, for instance. You could think, “Today, may I be more mindful of my body, mind, and speech in my interaction with others. May I, as far as I can, avoid deliberately hurting others. May I relate to myself, to others, and to the events around me with kindness, understanding, and less judgment. May I use my day in a way that is in tune with my deeper values.”

In this way, set the tone for the day…





Dying while Alive

Dying while Alive

Cory Taylor, author of Dying, a Memoir


A memoirist documents her final months.

By Cory Taylor

I had never seen anybody die. Until my mother became demented I had never even seen anyone gravely ill. My mother’s decline was slow at first, and then very fast. Toward the end she was barely recognizable as the mother I had so loved and admired. I was out of the country when she finally died, but I was there in the months preceding her death and I saw the ravages she suered, the pain and humiliation, the loss of independence and reason.

She was in a nursing home when she died, a place of such unremitting despair it was a test of my willpower just to walk through the front door. The last time I saw her, I stood by helplessly while she had her arse wiped clean by a young Japanese nurse. My mother was clinging onto a bathroom basin with all of her meager strength, while the nurse applied a fresh nappy to her withered behind. The look in my mother’s eyes as she turned and saw me watching reminded me of an animal in unspeakable torment. At that moment I wished for death to take her quickly, to stop the torture that had become her daily life. But still it went on, for a dozen more months, her body persisting while her mind had long since vacated the premises. I could not think of anything more cruel and unnecessary. I knew I had cancer by then, and a part of me was grateful. At least I would be spared a death like my mother’s, I reasoned. That was something to celebrate. 

It was my mother who introduced me to the debate around assisted dying. She first came across the voluntary euthanasia movement, as it was then known, sometime in her sixties, and I knew it was a cause she continued to support, because she made a point of telling me. Back then I took far less notice than I should have. My mother was asking me for help, but it wasn’t clear what kind of help she wanted­—perhaps just a bit of encouragement to look into the problem more closely, to obtain the necessary means if it came to that. I wasn’t very receptive. In those days there was nothing wrong with my mother, or with me, so her arguments in support of the concept of assisted dying were purely academic. Of course, by the time they were real and urgent, my mother had left it too late to put theory into practice, and her mind had lost its edge, so that even the most well-meaning doctor in the world could not have helped her, despite her years of devotion to the cause.

I wasn’t there when my father died either, also in a nursing home, and also from complications arising from dementia. My parents had divorced some 35 years previously, and I had subsequently become estranged from my father. But one of my abiding memories of him is his fantasy solution to the indignities of old age. He told us—me, my mother, and my older siblings—that he planned to sail out into the Pacific Ocean and drown himself. He repeatedly balked at the first hurdle, however, by never obtaining a boat. He would read boat magazines and circle the For Sale ads in them. He would drive long distances to look over boats he liked the sound of, but he would always find a reason not to buy: money was short, or he didn’t want to sail alone. At one point, he even asked my mother to buy a half share and to crew for him, an oer she declined. Maybe she should have taken him up on it. Maybe they should have sailed o into the sunset, never to return; instead they lived on and died badly…





Confronting Death and Dharma at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery

Confronting Death and Dharma at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery

Photo courtesy of Green-Wood Cemetery

Can we shift our perspective on the reality of loss?

By Lauren Krauze

When I arrived at the main gate of Brooklyn’s Green-WoodCemetery, I was greeted by two talkative green birds hopping and flapping about in the grass. I was surprised; the birds seemed bright and exotic compared with the pigeons, jays, and sparrows I normally see. I later learned that these playful birds are monk parakeets—a very fitting name given that I was attending an event called Death and Dharma, a lecture and meditation series co-presented by the Brooklyn Zen Center and Green-Wood Cemetery.

Green-Wood’s high, rolling hills and shady lawns offered a cool and quiet respite from the heat and hum of downtown Brooklyn. A group of about 40 people gathered on the grass near the cemetery’s Modern Chapel, a serene space for meditating and contemplating death and dying.

“Death is a fundamental question. It’s sometimes called ‘the big question,’” said Rev. Francisco (Paco) Genkoji Lugoviña, the founder and guiding teacher at the Hudson River Peacemaker Center. “There are lots of questions, actually, and no real answers. However, at age 78, I try to live each day with as much involvement and obedience to what emerges and go with it.”

Joining Lugoviña was Rev. Daiken Nelson, the founder and guiding teacher at the Pamsula Zen Center in Harlem. Nelson and Lugoviña are both teachers and priests in the White Plum Lineage of Taizan Maezumi Roshi and the Zen Peacemaker Order. As a pair that often teaches together, they were invited to share their insights with the Brooklyn Zen Center community.

“In the West, and particularly in the U.S., people don’t deal with death until they have to,” Nelson said. “They don’t think about it until someone they know passes away. I think it’s important to at least think about it before that happens and try to realize that it’s everyone’s fate.”

While the discussion was rich with teachings, stories, and koans from the Zen tradition, Nelson and Lugoviña also created space for people to briefly talk about their own relationships with death and dying. At the start of the discussion, they asked individuals to share one or two words that reflected their thoughts on the topic. While many people expressed a cautious wonder and curiosity about the topic, others shared words like “fear,” “uncertainty,” and “dark.”

Lugoviña didn’t seem very surprised. As a Zen teacher, he said that he often ventures into this very territory, especially in his conversations with people struggling with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. He also relayed a poignant story about his grandson, who passed away at age 23 after a methadone overdose. That experience taught him to reevaluate his intellectual understanding about death and shift toward a deep experience of gratitude.

“A friend of mine once told me she that she used to count her life by the number of summers she had left,” he said. “I think that’s a very poetic way to look at what we value in our lives and cherish what’s important to us.”

In a short work titled “Vulnerability,” acclaimed poet David Whyte writes, “The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance.” Nelson echoed this by imparting a teaching about impermanence and what can come of embracing the transient nature of experience.

“What I’ve been working with in my own practice is accepting whatever is arising,” he said. “We can learn to accept our inevitable passing, the passing of others, and the passing of this moment. Realizing something is just how it is—that it’s ‘just this,’ without it having to be any different—can give rise to freedom.”…




More than This Body

More than This BodyPhoto by Volkan Olmez | https://tricy.cl/2uYyUkh

We can’t rid ourselves of bodily pain, but by changing how we relate to it, we can awaken our minds.

By Ezra Bayda
Pain, by definition, kind of sucks. So unpleasant emotions like fear and anger often arise along with it, making for an especially demoralizing experience.

We usually try, then, to simply get rid of it. Being cured of pain is the outcome our culture teaches us to expect—we carry a sense of entitlement that life should be free from pain. But one of the worst parts of the pain syndrome—whether the discomfort is short-term, as in meditation, or long-term, with chronic pain—is that our physical pain and our urge to nullify it feed off one another in a most unfortunate loop, and our life comes to revolve around our discomfort.

It is essential to understand that both our pain and the suffering that arises from it are truly our path, our teacher, in that we can learn from them and experience our life more deeply as a result. Once we understand that pain is our path, we can begin to work with our pain and our suffering in a more conscious way. At the very least, we can consider our pain an opportunity to learn from our many attachments—especially our attachments to comfort, to body image, to control, and in the case of chronic pain, to our seemingly never-ending misery.

Yet practicing with our pain gradually frees us from these attachments. When pain arises, instead of immediately thinking, “How can I get rid of this?” we can say “Hello” to it, and ask, “What can I learn from this?” It’s not always easy to do this, but when possible, it turns the whole experience upside down.

Once we do remember to ask what we can learn, it’s essential that we notice the difference between pain itself and how we relate to it. Often we conflate the two as one confused whole. Pain is the physical experience of discomfort; how we relate to it, meanwhile, is mental and emotional. For example, in meditation, when we relate to knee or back pain with fear or self-pity, it exacerbates the uncomfortable physical sensation. If we relate to pain with an element of curiosity, however, the experience becomes much more tolerable.

That said, there may be times when nothing provides relief. In such cases, it’s healthy to intentionally distract ourselves from our bodies and minds. This might include activities we genuinely enjoy—like walking in nature or listening to music—since it’s so easy, when in pain, to forget about the things that bring us happiness. By diverting our attention in this way, we bring lovingkindness to ourselves and our situation.

Even though practicing with physical pain and its related emotional dis-ease can prove difficult, it’s most often worthwhile.

First off, in working with the emotions that we associate with physical pain, we need to recognize our judgments—especially insofar as we normally accept them, unquestioned, as the truth. This recognition allows us to see how our blind belief in thought solidifies our unpleasant physical experience of pain. One particularly pernicious tendency is catastrophizing, automatically anticipating the worst. If we get a pain in the belly that lasts for a few days, we may start believing we have cancer. To counter such thinking, we can deploy a simple phrase to remind ourselves that these imagined ailments are “not happening now.” Another pernicious tendency is selective filtering, whereby we ignore positive experiences and magnify negative ones. In the case of that same belly ache, we may focus all of our attention on how our pain bothers us, rather than how our eyes, ears, legs, and all the rest work fine…




Buddhist Teacher Michael Stone’s Family Says He Likely Died from Opioid Overdose

Buddhist Teacher Michael Stone’s Family Says He Likely Died from Opioid Overdose
The psychotherapist and yogi was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
By Wendy Joan Biddlecombe

An initial toxicology report found that Buddhist teacher Michael Stone had opioids, including fentanyl, in his system when he died last week, according to a statement released by his family late Thursday.

Stone’s family also said the meditation teacher, psychotherapist, and yogi had bipolar disorder, “feared the stigma of his diagnosis,” and was on the cusp of revealing publicly how shaped he was by the disease.

Earlier coverage: Buddhist Teacher Michael Stone Removed from Life Support 

On July 13, Stone traveled to Victoria, British Columbia, from his family home in Gulf Island. After running errands, exercising, and getting a haircut, he “acquired a street drug,” according to his family.

Stone was found unresponsive and without brain function after his wife, Carina, issued a missing person’s search with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He was declared brain dead the following day and kept on life support until July 16 so that he could donate his organs.

Last year, fentanyl overdoses increased by 80 percent in British Columbia, with 922 deaths in the Canadian province alone. Fentanyl is said to be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Most overdoses in the United States are from illegally manufactured fentanyl “sold through illegal drug markets for its heroin-like effect,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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