Friday, February 25, 2011

Abortion Reflections After Inquiry

Abortion brings up this fundamental matter of interdependence and interbeing which is the core of our life. It is so whether or not we recognize it or live it.

Abortion is a life death koan to clarify, actualize and manifest. It is a koan for the mother/father, and if the father is not involved, it is a koan for the mother.  It is very unfortunate that some of the time the decision about abortion has to be made only by the mother - as this adds to the difficulty of clarifying this. In truth, it is koan for the mother/child, but since the mother actualizes this I say it is for the mother. Abortion is this Great Matter, fundamental practice. 

Abortion is a personal choice that the mother, the father, must make; hopefully after deep consideration and reflection on causes and consequences. It is past, present, future causes and conditions coming together as this moment. There may be fear and suffering in the midst of unknown future consequences of action or inaction. And choices and actions radiate in all directions. It is not at all easy. This is not something someone else can do or even see clearly for the mother, for the father. We do not live in their moment, do not sense the cause/conditions/habits/fear that are their body mind world. And we must support and nurture them in this life practice, doing what is skillful and appropriate to enable them to do their life.

As a matter of public policy, of law and as a matter of practice, I do not want the government  involved, neither in forbidding abortion nor in encouraging it.

As I said, unfortunately, much of the time this decision has to be made only by the mother, which adds to the difficulty of the choice. Having a child has lifetime consequences – and having an abortion has lifetime consequences. Nevertheless, despite it being a personal decision in which I do not want the government involved, I also am clear that abortion is a form of killing. In fact, in living we are all in a web of killing living. This web of interdependence, of the interbeing manifested in our actions, is our opportunity to clarify and deepen our appreciation of what our life is. Where there is birth there is death, to paraphrase Shakyamuni Buddha.

In the Buddhist tradition the fetus is considered a life. Many, including myself, do funeral and memorial services for the fetus of a miscarriage and of an abortion. There are important practices at various Zen Centers which the parents can and do engage in for themselves, and as part of a Sangha community. This is being this life death process. This is not a simple matter; it has deep roots and consequences.

We are dependent upon the killing of other beings for the life we live. Do we truly appreciate this?

Even vegetarians and vegans are part of the web of killing beings in the growing and transporting of their food – just drive on a country road in the summer and see what your windshield looks like afterwards. Or do you privilege life to exclude the insects on the windshield, the road kill and the insects of the earth the food is grown in? This killing as part of living is just what we must do, is just what happens in the process of this body functioning - and we get to make choices of what to do and not to do. Often we think little of the vegetation we kill. And we can talk of the killing on a microscopic level that is part of animal life, vegetable life, of the flora and fauna within our body. 

Are you a vegetarian with a dog or a cat? Their food often has meat. And if you allow your cat out of the house to roam, that results in the killing of birds, small mammals, lizards and snakes.  The cat is doing it for sport, since you are feeding it and giving it medical treatment and so forth.  Therefore the cat does not really face the balance of nature’s web whereby only the best hunters survive, and others die due to hunger and disease, which would give the birds, small mammals, lizards and snakes a better chance of life.

And there are very real, very significant, differences between killing a human and killing other beings.  Just as there are very real, very significant, differences to be faced in comparing actions in different circumstances. This interbeing interdependent life in the midst of differences, in the midst of nonduality, is exactly what fundamental practice is.

So we all make choices about killing in living.  Being in the midst of this web of killing and giving life, being entangled in this web, what is the next step? Do we entangle more? Do we see the entanglements and how to live in the midst of them, to be and act freely in the midst of entanglements? Who to kill, what to kill, how to kill, when to kill; this is the fundamental matter at this moment to clarify and actualize.

Intention, choice and clear effort is the essence of this practice.

The choice of abortion is a most difficult one, since it involves a lifetime and a human life. Does the mother, or parents, have the ability and capacity to give birth and raise the child? What are the options? I do not say this is simple or easy. This is why abortion or giving birth needs to be deeply considered before it is undertaken. Having clarified this as best we can, we act – doing our best right now.

© 2011 Elihu Genmyo Smith

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Congress Rides Buses and Trains

Public officials should be required to ride public transportation.

Public officials, whether elected or appointed, tend to live in a very different world than most of us. Even when they are financially middle class, they have benefits that allow them to avoid the circumstances of life which we, middle and lower class people, regularly encounter. Unfortunately for the public interest, most of them are much wealthier than middle class. And because they do not live with the same conditions and circumstances of most of the people whom their decisions effect, even when they are trying to be empathetic it is primarily a conceptual, theoretical and political process.

It does not matter where in the political spectrum officials are. The issues among those on different sides of the political spectrum are about what to emphasize, which aspect of a decision or the consequences of the decision to focus on. For instance, a generalized question might be, do we focus on the benefits of spending or on the burdens of taxing? Another instance, do we focus on the need to maintain and increase national security in the face of potential enemies or do we focus on concerns about the effects of military industrial coalitions in terms of power corruption and wasteful spending, as well as unnecessary violence?

We lack a way to allow those who make the decisions, especially the legislative and administrative officials on all levels of government, to experientially sense the consequences of their actions. Therefore they miss seeing many sides of the issues and potential options. Instead, often it is only the limited conceptual and ideological positions which are the focus of their attention.

Public officials should be required to ride public transportation. Similarly, when rules are made for airport screening, this should apply to ALL – including administrative officials, legislators and even TSA officials. ALL means rich and poor, doing away with special privileges to those who pay extra. Then all might experience a bit more what the results of their actions are for people on a daily basis. And therefore they might reflect more deeply on what rules and decisions they make, whether these are appropriate and will accomplish what is desired without too many negative side effects. If they experience the results of their rule making then what is done politically and administratively would reflect this. It is good to have all walk in the same shoes – and take off the same shoes.

No more special planes for government officials (except maybe for the President and VP for security reasons). Even the press corps, those who opine and attempt to lead the public thinking on various matters, should have to be part of the public if they want to speak for and to the public. Similarly, the decisions about highways, traffic rules, parking and public transportation funding and regulations should only be made by those who live the talk, taking away special parking permits and reserved parking of public officials in crowded cities, taking away the chauffeured vehicles  and the many other ways that these officials avoid the rules they impose on everyone else.

These are just the tip of an iceberg of finding ways to insure that political leaders and rule makers experientially live the changes they make in our societal and cultural life.

This sort of approach is relevant to a number of different areas, including some recent or longstanding political conflicts. For instance, regarding illegal immigration, here are just a few of the questions we could look at:

What is it like for citizens in communities and states who now face increased tax burdens and decreased publicly available services because of an increased population of illegal immigrants, most of whom do not and have not been paying their share of the taxes to provide these services? 

What must it be like for the immigrant who is facing a life of poverty and other hardships in their homeland to take the risks to enter the US illegally and living as an illegal resident, with the potentials for arrest and limited opportunities? 

And what does hiring of the illegal immigrants do to the moral fiber of all of those involved? 

What happens to the society where the rule of law is flouted? 

Unfortunately, in the political debates on this issue, in the difficulty in finding an appropriate solution, of finding a skillful means to address the reality of the conditions on the US border and within the US, often we tend to focus on only one perspective. There is not the willingness by most public officials, the media or even scholars to encompass the many different perspectives, to see them all as legitimate for some individuals, and to see that what is done needs to at least acknowledge them all, despite the fact that there will always be those who do not like any decision, who will feel that they “lost. ” 

Do we need to believe that decisions will be a zero sum game – where if one wins that means the other losses?

This sort of experiential creative empathy approach that I am writing of is also relevant to thorny and long standing areas of conflicts. For example, between the Israelis and Palestinians there is a conflict that is about two peoples having two very different perspectives, history and claims to the same land. Around abortion in the US the conflict is between the rights and life of the woman verses the life and rights of the fetus/unborn. (Notice that even the way of framing these issues can generate disagreement.) It would be interesting to explore these issues from an experiential empathy perspective. Because of the complexity of the issues it would take more than just a paragraph to clarify this matter, so I will write about those in future blogs.

Creative empathy is not simply “walking in someone’s shoes.” Regarding public policy, it is on an ongoing basis not exempting the rule-makers from the rules, enabling them to truly be part of the greater public, living their life, seeing with their eyes. Then, even in the midst of political and ideological disagreements and compromises, they can truly act with the public interest, for the public interest.

Lest we forget, these sorts of issues with public officials are not new: "The arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and assistance to foreign hands should be curtailed, lest Rome fall." said Marcus Cicero   - 55 BCE.

© 2011 Elihu Genmyo Smith

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Non-Harming is Serving - Being Humility is Non-Harming

The precept of non-harming can be stated as being serving, being humility. Humility is required to encounter life. It is to be ordinary. It is serving rather than harming.

Recently, there have been public revelations of two charismatic Zen teachers, Eido Shimano and Genpo Merzel,  being involved in sexual misconduct which has harmed many of those close to them and those who trusted them. I bring this up to clarify these reflections on non-harming because our own practice life is working with the self-centeredness habits which drive the sort of extreme behavior engaged in by these individuals. This is about our practice life, about indulging in these habits which results in harm.  Certainly this non-harming is the first Bodhissatva Pure Precept, which is often translated as “Not Doing Evil.”

These events are quite public now - I will not go into details which are available on the net:(see Shimano Paper
and Big Mind  as a starting point.)

I have been connected to both of these men (yes, they are both men – there have been problems of abuses of power by women as well, though different in detail and without the sexual abuse).  At times each of them was my teacher. They supported my practice and life, encouraged and even nurtured me. I loved them. And I am indebted to them in ways that I cannot repay. This makes it all the more sad and painful to see the harm, the tremendous harm in some cases, that they have done despite their  abilities to help others and their personal and organizational accomplishments, despite their Zen practice. And even as the scandals about their behavior have been exposed time and again over many years (these latest revelations are not a first), even when they made some changes, their harming behavior continued in the midst of maintaining power, privilege and all the other structures that seemed to feed whatever personal demons which manifested as their harmful actions.
Their charisma and attractiveness seemed to allow others, and maybe because of this allowed them, to believe that they deserved special privileges and rewards. It is good for us all to reflect on these sorts of habits in terms of our life practice.

Of course, this is not unique to Zen teachers. We have similar scandals in many religious/spiritual groups, the Catholic Church and in Orthodox Judaism to name just two recent examples. Working with this behavior should most certainly be a central part of practice life and yet somehow seems to escape notice for some. How come?

The pomposity and hubris of celebrity culture is well known and even reveled in by American and world media. Does a public persona and publicity have to feed self-aggrandizement? 

The abuses and expectations of privilege are rampant in our political culture, on all sides of the political spectrum, whether John Edwards, Nancy Pelosi and Charlie Rangel on the left or Tom DeLay, Mark Sanford and Sarah Palin on the right, to name just a few. Political, media and business elites expect to get more, do as they wish to others and not have the rules and expectations of daily life apply to them. Entertainment celebrities seem to take this to a special height. There is an expectation of privilege and power which goes far beyond how most of us live.  Many world political leaders and autocrats also seem to exhibit this behavior.

An antidote to some of this, and to these tendencies and habits when they arise for us – which they certainly do from time to time – is to develop the practice of serving, of humility.  It is to recognize and emphasize the importance of being ordinary.  

Certainly major transgressors of all sorts, including both Eido Shimano and Genpo Merzel, would learn a lot if for an extended period they took humble jobs, humble duties. Maybe in the midst of the turmoil of their resignations and withdrawal from their past life responsibilities this would be especially appropriate for these Zen men. There are all sorts of venues wherein one could serve beings in everyday functioning, so that the habits of charisma and being in the spotlight would not be fed. But this is not about others but about our life, our practice. In our daily life, in ordinary ways - especially when we are not seen or known by others, where and how can we serve? How can we take care of and nurture the ordinary universe that is our life? What is it for us to be humble? Doing this, rather than encouraging self-centeredness, rather than feeding greed or an underlying fear of being ordinary, is wonderful and easily available. And yet it requires a conscious effort at first. The effort is to see the opportunities and then do what is needed – not living out of habits of self-focus and self-concern.

© 2011 Elihu Genmyo Smith

Friday, February 4, 2011

Snow Everywhere - Waves, Water, Ocean

Today in the Midwest there is snow covering all. While being out in it, clearing the snow, I also am covered in snow. In clearing the snow, it is important to know which snow drifts to leave as they are, which driveways and paths to clean, where there is ice that cannot be shoveled but needs to be chiseled or left as is, and especially what snow I can walk or drive on and where not. Though it is all snow, differentiating between it and acting accordingly is necessary and useful. And appreciating the snowness of it all makes it easy to move snow from the driveway onto snow piled on a lawn.

Being body-mind is a simple Zen practice instruction. Sometimes I say body-mind-world, but that is a mouthful. Just be this; be intimate. Of course, these expressions are to encourage, support and remind us to be who we are. They may help to clarify when we get stuck in one-sided expressions and manifestations of our life such as reactive and self-centered habits of greed or anger. So, be not-knowing. 

Analogies are one way to help us see more clearly the many faceted aspects and functioning of our life. 

Dogen begins Genjo koan, “When all dharmas are Buddha-Dharma, there are delusion and enlightenment, practice, birth, death, Buddhas, and sentient beings. When the myriad dharmas are all without self, there is no delusion, no realization, no Buddhas, no sentient beings, no birth, and no death. Since originally the Buddha way goes beyond abundance and scarcity, there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and Buddhas.”  

My teacher Maezumi Roshi used the analogy of waves and water to clarify this, to clarify our life. Most of us usually function in our life so that sometimes we focus on the "waves," sometimes we focus on the "water." Yet if we only focus on one aspect and miss the rest we can get into trouble because that leads to suffering for us and others. It leads to actions and reactions which are based on and perpetuate either/or dualistic thinking, thus feeding anger and greed.

If we do not see that a wave is water, then what we are able to see and do is narrow and limited. But if we focus on the waves and at the same time are aware of their waterness, doing that broadens our perspective and ability to deal with the wave as it is, height, momentum and so forth. This enhances being body-mind-world, supporting  noticing when we withdraw or what and how we exclude.

If we only see water but do not see that water is wave, then we can not appropriately respond to this moment's specific needs and circumstances. When we see the water in the midst of awareness of the specificity of these waves, this enhances life and our ability to function and respond. Supporting seeing clinging or pushing away when they arise deepens being present.

Seeing/being this indivisible whole, going beyond duality, we can be the ocean, water and waves that we are all along. So, to paraphrase Dogen, we can walk on the ocean as walking the floor of the deepest ocean. 

This is encouragement for us in surfing the waves of our life, in encountering and serving those we encounter - it is not merely a conceptual analogy. Sometimes it is especially difficult to remember that the wave we meet that we do not like is exactly the same water that at this moment we are. Even the ice floes on the water that we bump into or that bump us and almost sink us are exactly the water of this life. So being this watery ocean, how to deal with all sorts of waves and ice floes? This is our life. And it is ours to clarify this so that we can broaden and enhance our vision and our capacity in the midst of the ocean of our life.

© 2011 Elihu Genmyo Smith