Everyone can develop a good heart, but not everyone will: On President Obama’s delayed meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama

9 10 2009
Then-Senator Obama meets with His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Then-Senator Obama meets with His Holiness the Dalai Lama

It is a cool, rainy day at Pelden Farm, and I am sitting on my front porch, wrapped in a nice, soft shawl made from alpaca yarn sheared and spun by the nuns up the road. As I drink my nice hot cup of tea, I am pondering President Obama’s decision to delay his meeting with His Holiness until after he visits with President Hu. I voted for Obama, which means I trust him, and so I have been reluctant to enter into the discussion over his “snub” of the Dalai Lama or even to pass on the link to the Jon Stewart show that took him to task for it (http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-october-7-2009/hell-no–dalai)  Today, however, we learned that Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, which means there is a new context for this conversation.

After all, twenty years ago, His Holiness won the prize too.

When the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee accorded him the honor, it was in recognition of his 40-year nonviolent crusade to end China’s oppression of Tibet. In 2009, Obama’s award recognizes his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” And he deserves it: Obama not only has brought the U.S. back from the dark side, but he also has proven to the world that “politician” and “leader” needn’t be mutually exclusive terms.

When I think about these bases for their respective Peace Prizes, I almost understand Obama’s snub . . . I mean his reasoning. For while His Holiness certainly is a proponent of human rights in general, his own country is at stake here. He has a horse in the race right now, and some bully from another team has sneaked in, jumped on its back, and is whipping it feverishly. Obama, on the other hand, is still in the clubhouse, working out a strategy for a whole stable of horses. And so he can afford to defer to the bully, believing that it is less important to walk away with a trophy in this one race than it is to establish a tone of civility that may diffuse the tension and lead to some productive discussion about sportsmanship that will make a long-term difference.

So yes, I understand why President Obama believes that delaying his meeting is appropriate, and why the Dalai Lama might kindly term the delay as a way to prevent “embarrassment to the Chinese President.” I understand that Obama needs President Hu’s support of the economic and environmental goals that are near and dear to his heart. And I understand that China has currency reserves big enough to allow it to gobble up auto factories and iron mines and huge chunks of the U.S. national debt.

What I don’t understand is why anyone would excuse the delay as a means to improve the U.S.’s ability to serve the people of Tibet. Why would China, a country that has expressly forbidden the world from having official contact with His Holiness—a country that in fact believes refusing the Dalai Lama’s visits should be one of the “basic norms of international relations”  (http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2009-10/07/content_8766382.htm) —decide to allow Obama to negotiate the terms of its relationship with Tibet simply because he did Hu the courtesy of meeting with him first?

The answer is that it wouldn’t: No matter what Hu says in November, once Obama meets with His Holiness, all bets are off.

And so I re-read His Holiness’s acceptance speech, and sit here soggy eyed in the rain:

The problems we face today, violent conflicts, destruction of nature, poverty, hunger, and so on, are human-created problems which can be resolved through human effort, understanding and the development of a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. We need to cultivate a universal responsibility for one another and the planet we share. Although I have found my own Buddhist religion helpful in generating love and compassion, even for those we consider our enemies, I am convinced that everyone can develop a good heart and a sense of universal responsibility with or without religion. (http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1989/lama-acceptance.html)

Yes, your Holiness: Everyone can develop a good heart. But not everyone will.

Is Twitter Bad for Buddhism?

5 09 2009

On wefollow.com, 287 Twitter users have registered their sites with the tags “Buddhist” or “Buddhism.” Among those with the most followers (and I’m focusing only on those for whom Buddhism actually is the focus of their lives or work) are Tiny Buddha, His Holiness the Dalai Lama(not HIS Holiness, but followers who tweet quotes from him), Daily Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh (whose account is run by those directing his North American tour), Smart Buddhist, Lama Surya Das, Tricycle Magazine, Buddhist Buzz, and Daily Buddhism. Those I have listed have followers ranging from a high of about 41,000 to a low of about 2800 (all very respectable numbers). Most of these Buddhist Twitterers crank out about a tweet a day, though Tricycle typically does three or four, and Smart Buddhist and Buddhist Buzz may send out as many as seven. I personally block anyone who tweets more often than this, so I cannot speak for other accounts.

Most of the tweets are quotes from the Buddha or other well known Buddhists. Many alert followers to local Buddhist events or to international news that affects Buddhists—the typhoon in Taiwan, for instance, Thich Nhat Hanh’s health, or anything the Dalai Lama happens to be doing (or China thinks he’s doing). Some describe the tweeters’ efforts to apply the dharma in their daily lives. Others are, well, sales pitches from teachers of Buddhism who make a living by selling their books and offering their retreats. Many tweeting Buddhists are counselors, writers, musicians, other artists, and entrepreneurs who use Twitter to market their particular goods and services.

But whatever the topic, the fact is that there is a lot of Buddhist tweeting going on out there—about 40 tweets an hour, based on my very unscientific perusal of bingtweets.com.

The question is, is Twitter actually good for Buddhism?

The light side of Twitter. . .

The light side of Twitter. . .

And what, you ask, would make Twitter good for Buddhism? Well, it strikes me that Twitter could be good for Buddhism if it truly makes Buddhism more accessible to more people—which it appears to do. But let’s keep going. Twitter could be good for Buddhism if it helps us to understand and to live by the dharma. Twitter could be good for Buddhism if it unites us in common causes and leads us to take action on them.

The dark side of Twitter. . .

The dark side of Twitter. . .

On the other hand, Twitter could be bad for Buddhism if it results in a superficial understanding of Buddhism, either because it is followers’ only source of information or because only so much information can be communicated in 140 characters. Twitter could be bad for Buddhism if it becomes another of the 84,000 things in our lives that compete for our attention, shredding it to the point that we become habituated to devoting no more than a minute or two to any of them. Twitter could be bad for Buddhism if it thus contributes to our inability to sit still long enough to meditate, to listen to others with attentive compassion, or to focus well enough to absorb and contemplate teachings.

Some of these potential outcomes are measurable: It is possible to monitor not just the increase or decrease of Buddhist tweets over time, but the level of discussion contained in those tweets. Sanghas that create Twitter accounts to communicate with their members or to raise funds for charitable projects could track their success. At some point, someone will develop a Twitter account that systematically teaches the dharma, and in that case, there WILL be a test. And then we could compare these test results to those of students who complete a more traditional course of study. (There is evidence that students learn better in online environments than in face-to-face ones. Whether Twitter counts as a “learning environment” is up for discussion. )

What do I think is the answer to my own question? That it depends. In the long run—by which I mean except as an introduction to Buddhism–Twitter probably isn’t good for those who are otherwise disconnected from Buddhism, people who are not part of a sangha, who have no teacher, or who lack the means to pursue a well founded practice on their own. Like a friend of mine whose text message signature is “Sexy Buddhist,” those for whom Twitter is their only source of Buddhist teaching are likely to have a facile understanding of the dharma and of meditation. They also may have little inclination to read the dharma and contemplate it, not because they lack the ability but because they lack the proper role models to set good examples for them. For this audience, Buddhism in 140-characters is fast-food Buddhism: It may seem to satiate the appetite, but it never really nourishes either the spirit or the mind.

On the other hand, for Buddhists who already have a solid practice, I can attest that Twitter is an aid, a way to stay connected in a spare moment, a way to reinforce a teaching. For these people, Twitter is dessert. . . made with organic ingredients, of course.

Sweet Corn Dharma

22 08 2009
Pelden Farm Sweet Corn

Pelden Farm Sweet Corn

In the Midwest, we are in the thick of sweet corn season.  And at Pelden Farm, we have had a magnificent crop. Perhaps it’s because Auntie had the monks to lunch here during the full moon at planting time.  Perhaps it’s because of the more than abundant rain and the cooler temperatures we’ve had. Perhaps it’s because the raccoons have decided to spend the summer at the river’s edge eating mussels instead of raiding the garden.

Or perhaps it’s because the universe is trying to teach us something.

Just yesterday I asked my husband how much sweet corn his mother (Auntie) had planted.  Apparently, this field takes up a half an acre.  That’s 21,780 square feet.  It’s also about 10,000 ears of corn. Of course, she staggered the planting so that the whole crop wouldn’t ripen at the same time.  Every week, six of us head out at dawn to pick the rows she says are ready so that the fresh ears of corn can be tucked inside the CSA tubs the grandkids deliver to Auntie’s customers.  Every week, then, we each pick about 250 ears of sweet corn. 

Which means that so far, I have picked 1000 ears all by myself. 

To someone like Auntie, this wouldn’t be a particularly special accomplishment. But I didn’t grow up at Pelden Farm—I married into the family, and while I am a regular visitor and garden helper, farm life and the kind of repetitive, seemingly mindless work it entails is still new and a little bit alien to me.  I am accustomed to measuring my achievements in deadlines met and personnel problems solved skillfully. Picking 1000 ears of sweet corn doesn’t figure in to my professional development.

Does it? 

Well, let’s see.  On corn-picking days, family and friends who are able to help gather on Auntie’s front porch just as the sun is coming up.  We have some hot tea and a muffin, grab a pair of work gloves and a few canvas bags, and trek over to the field. The sweet corn is past the sunflower field where the gold finches are already perched, eating their breakfast, past the pond where the blue heron stand still as posts, guarding their frogs.  We are first to see the newest webs the spiders spun the previous evening, first to hear the red-tailed hawk keening overhead, and first to imagine we hear the quail and pheasants quaking in their nests.  The field itself is a kind of forest of corn, well over my head, glistening with dew, trembling in the slightest breeze. And we are always so conscious of entering a sacred space that we rarely speak—we just spread out, staking claim to our rows, snapping off the ears of corn and tucking them into our bags.  When we meet again at the end of a row to set down a full bag, we smile and go back to our work. Two ears of corn on most stalks, plant by plant by plant, leaves that can cut if you don’t pay attention, silks that stick to your gloves and, when you reach up to scratch an itch, plaster themselves to your face.  Grab, support, snap, over and over and over.

And when I’m done, my mind is as empty as if I’d spent the last hour-and-a-half in the most blissful meditation.

So perhaps there is room for sweet corn picking on my resume.  What do you think:

“My skills include the ability to focus on and appreciate the task in front of me, which has helped me to develop the equanimity required to deal skillfully with more difficult situations.” 

That is, I can pick 1000 ears of sweet corn.

Buddha Beets!

14 08 2009

I love beets! They are unlike any other vegetable—sweet and fleshy and smooth, so sensuous against the tongue . . . yum! And all they ask is that you wrap them in foil and bake them for a couple of hours (for a baseball-sized beet) in a 400-degree oven, and then, when they’re cool enough to handle, wipe off their skins with a handful of paper towels. Nothing tastes better on a hot evening at the farm than a plate of sliced, chilled beets.

Beets are related to another favorite vegetable of mine, chard. And in addition to being rated one of the 11 best foods you aren’t eating, I have proof that Buddha approves:

Buddha Head Beet

Buddha Head Beet

Sharing the Responsibility

14 08 2009
Every year on Pelden Farm we reach the point at which it seems there is no end to the work to be done and no time for anything but work.
We’re there now.  We’ve shucked a pile of corn husks about six feet high. We’ve snapped enough beans to wrap around the globe a couple of times. And we’ve cut enough zucchini to enable every great-aunt and grandmother in the Midwest to bake and freeze about a dozen loaves of tea bread for the winter.
We all agree we’d be happier if Auntie Seldoen didn’t have such a green thumb . . . but only for a little while. 
Pelden Farm Squash

Pelden Farm Squash

To keep this blog alive during this incredibly fecund and thus busy season, a few of us in the family decided to pitch in.  We don’t have Auntie’s wicked sense of humor or her command of a narrative line. And we certainly aren’t as good at keeping the precepts as she is. But we all have strong opinions about right living, and we promise to do our best.
So which one of you is going first?

Auntie Seldoen on Loopholes

21 07 2009

Sometimes any kind of sex is sexual misconduct.

I remember taking refuge from a young Geshe fresh from Dharamsala who explained the specifics of sexual misconduct to me, and it clearly was the most uncomfortable part of his job—a celibate monk advising a much older woman on how she should and should not have sex? What he told me was straight out of Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, a text based on one by Atisha (which makes it nearly 1000 years old). For lay people, the basis of sexual misconduct is “any wrong orifice, or, all orifices except the vagina; any wrong time, such as when the woman is pregnant or during one-day vows; at any improper place, such as before one’s guru or near a stupa; any wrong partner, such as one’s own mother or father.”

The prohibition for ordained people is fairly generic. It says “all sexual activity becomes sexual misconduct,” and it describes the “deed” as “two organs coming into contact.” Yes, there is room for interpretation here, and yes, where there is a loophole, human beings will crawl into it and get sweaty.

And so I asked Geshe-la the obvious question: “What about gay sex?” Once I explained what that meant, he responded just as His Holiness did: “Don’t do it.” And I shrugged my shoulders and understood his answer for what it was: 1) as few words as possible on an uncomfortable subject; and 2) another aspect of their cultural history that the lamas are eager not to lose—regardless of how archaic it is–given all that they’ve lost already.

And that’s pretty much the end of the conversation as far as I am concerned. But James Shaheen, author of “Gay Marriage: What Would Buddha Do?”, believes His Holiness the Dalai Lama ought to have a more enlightened response to this question. And it’s not that he believes the Dalai Lama is homophobic: It’s just that he’s the Dalai Lama—i.e., he ought to uphold civil rights more explicitly.

I understand why Shaheen raised the question. . . . I just wish he hadn’t. Because what came next on the Tricycle blog was a lesson on the sex lives of Tibetan monks. And just what did this have to do with Buddhism? Well, Jeff Wilson’s point is that we should not presume to understand others without knowing something about the culture they’re part of. Knowing that gay monks were part of the accepted culture in Tibet, then, apparently gives us a larger context with which to interpret His Holiness’s response, since via the “Drombo” system, homosexuality—if not a form of gay marriage–had already been sanctioned.

What got lost in a conversation that has done more harm than good to the Dalai Lama was any discussion of how we might use the information provided in these posts to improve our practice. The obvious answer? Perhaps it’s time we re-examined our commitment to “right action” to make sure we aren’t taking advantage of “loopholes.”

Because you see, I can’t indulge in the semantic game that no vow is broken if “penetration” does not occur. I’m just a simple old lady who believes that for a monk, sex is sexual misconduct.

What Auntie Learned from Practicing Loving-Kindness for President Hu

13 07 2009

I have a reasonable amount of equanimity. Some of it is the result of my meditation practice. Some is the result of living a long time, most of it at Pelden Farm, of raising five children, of marrying well, and of coming from good stock. And so I’ve dealt with hail that flattened a wheat crop we were counting on to send our oldest to college. Sons with broken bones (and smashed up cars they’d promised they wouldn’t drag race anymore). Plagues of Japanese beetles so thick they made every fruit I picked, cooked, and preserved taste like . . . horse pee. Tipped over tractors, flying saw blades, scarlet fever, German measles. I even lived through a year of having five teenagers who all were in love at the same time. And I did it without raising my voice or my hand (though maybe not without the occasional eye rolling or head shaking).

Anyone with a lick of sense can see that getting angry isn’t Step One in the “How to Deal with Adversity” manual. But I have a weakness: an Achilles heel for injustice, particularly where Tibet is concerned (East Turkestan is in my sights now too). And every week, the Chinese government gives me new cause to defy Shantideva’s advice to “act like a piece of wood” and keep my mouth shut and my blood pressure low.

What’s a good Buddhist to do? Practice loving-kindness for President Hu.

President Hu Jintao

President Hu Jintao; photo by Reuters

So I took my seat on the porch this morning just as the sun was beginning to come up behind the pond. What I felt, at first, was sheer reluctance: I didn’t WANT to try to see the world from Hu’s perspective, and it took a while to melt the wall of my own resistance.

I imagined him sitting next to me, happy to be at Pelden Farm—clean air, organic food, altitude a mere 1000 feet above sea level. “What makes you tick?” I asked him.

He smiled a little wanly, probably a little worn out from dealing with the Uyghurs. “I’m just a man,” he said. “I want what everybody wants—to be happy.”

“But what makes you happy?”

“Seeing my country progress—knowing that every year, more of them can afford to eat meat every day or drive a Buick.”

“You’re not in it for the power—or the money?” I asked.

He waved the question away. “Those are corollary benefits.”

“What do you worry about most?”

He pressed the heels of his hands against his temples. “I’m responsible for the welfare of more than a billion people,” he said. “Four times as many people as live in your country. The only way to move a billion people forward yet keep them under control is to regulate their lives—how many children they can have, where they can work and live, what they can agree and disagree with—and to restrict their access to information about their own country’s past and present.”

“You didn’t answer my question: What do you worry about most?”

“In my dreams, I see China as a gigantic machine with thousands of parts, and I’m the foreman responsible for seeing that they all work together. ‘But some of them already ARE broken!’ I yell at my supervisor. ‘We’ve programmed this machine to run on progress, but now it wants to define what ‘progress’ means! We are running out of resources to feed it, and in our haste we are polluting the ones we have! It’s only a matter of time before the machine knows we are not controlling it!’” He sighed. “I wait for my supervisor to say something, and then I realize, there’s no one in the factory but me. . . .”

May you be happy, healthy, and safe, President Hu. . . .

Do I feel better about him as a result of trying to see the world through President Hu’s eyes? Yes and no. I would like to say that acknowledging that he’s human—not just an abstract head of state–with his own set of motivations, fears, and desires may help me to respond differently the next time he violates human rights. Perhaps(?) I will be able to say “I don’t like what you did, but I understand why you think you had to do it.”

But let’s face it, I really don’t have a clue as to what motivates President Hu—I merely projected my own hopes for him. But that in itself is an act of kindness, a first step in the right direction.