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Nancy MacLean Coppola commented on the blog post 'Leonardo's Brain'
"Flo, I was involved with Sathya Sai Baba at the time of this and many other incredible dreams/gifts happened during this time. You mentioned the lights and that is what happened to me..lights from the heart. Sathya Baba's favorite colors were…"
7 hours ago
Florence Rastogi commented on the blog post 'Leonardo's Brain'
"And, Terry, i hold you entirely responsible  if i was a zombie this morning for my grandbambies' flurry of activities.. i spent the night watching your Leonardo videos! Unputdownable.."
9 hours ago
Florence Rastogi commented on the blog post 'Leonardo's Brain'
"Hi Terry, i saw your comment afterwards. Ramana Maharishi, for one, located everything spiritual in the heart. And he insisted that this heart is in the right side of the chest. Now i think of it, everything spiritual does include…"
9 hours ago
Wulf Losee commented on the group 'Full Moon Poetry Society'
"Down Sun Canyon Gorge to a Rough Shore [Literally: Down River County’s Mountain-Sun Canyon to a Rough Shore] by Li Bai [I stand] beside the loud tumult on a cobbled shore mountains on both sides full of gibbons white waves swirl like…"
10 hours ago
Wulf Losee commented on the group 'Full Moon Poetry Society'
"Thanks, Morgan. I cheated by using the word "arising". It gave it more of a Buddhist feel, but the original was more literally "happening constantly". The "desire" was accurate, so I felt like I could get away with…"
10 hours ago
Nancy MacLean Coppola commented on the blog post 'Leonardo's Brain'
"Even the Catholics have the Heart Chakra as the center. I had a fabulous visit in a dream where a person opened up my heart chakra by drawing his hand down in front of, but not touching, my heart, and the blue and pink, light yellow rays came out…"
10 hours ago
Nancy MacLean Coppola commented on the blog post 'Leonardo's Brain'
"Comment by Florence Rastogi 20 minutes ago Delete Commentbtw, Nan, i am a lefty, ambidextre, had a free-roaming childhood, and can write fluently from right to left. Does that make me a genius? (i suppose not....... sigh) It makes you unusual at…"
10 hours ago
Florence Rastogi commented on the blog post 'Leonardo's Brain'
"i'll look up Toni Packer."
10 hours ago
 

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An Unholy Alliance

Thailand’s military government, which seized control of the country in a coup last May, has taken a special interest in Thai Buddhism and the moral authority its institutions command. After settling into power and naming itself the National Council for Peace and Order, the junta immediately set off on a paternalistic mission to rid Thailand of corruption, immorality, and anything deemed “un-Thai” (like underboobs, for example). Since Buddhism makes up such an integral part of the agreed upon definition of “Thai-ness,” junta leaders quickly set their sights on religious reform, installing a special panel to focus on the “protection of Buddhism” within their National Reform Council (NRC).

“We are under a military autocracy (again), which attempts to utilize and enforce ‘Thai’ values in order to bolster its moral superiority and compensate for its lack of legitimacy,” said Saksith Saiyasombut, a Thai political blogger and journalist. “And one core feature of these ‘true Thai values’ to many conservatives and nationalists is Theravada Buddhism—despite it not being an official national religion.”

At the end of last year, the junta sponsored the Bill to Patronize and Protect Buddhism, a reflection of its desire to return to a very traditional form of Thai society—one in which free speech is limited, sexuality is quelled, and Theravada Buddhism in its most traditional form (and only that form) is protected by law. The bill would appoint a committee to monitor temple spending and dole out legal punishments, including jail time, for monks caught breaking the rules of the monastery. Jointly written by the Sangha Supreme Council (SSC), a small gerontocracy of high-ranking monks with deep ties to the government, and the National Office of Buddhism (NOB), the bill is currently under consideration by the Thai Council of State, the government’s legal advisory board.

“Religion and politics have never been properly separated in Thailand, because Buddhism still plays a big role in the lives of most Thai people and that’s what they base their moral compass on,” noted Saiyasombut, who added that handing over moral authority to big stakeholders like Thai politicians and military leaders could be “disastrous.”

Venerable Shine Waradhammo, a Thai Buddhist monk, scholar, and writer, agreed. “It’s dangerous,” he told me. “This bill gives laymen the power to control everything about Buddhism.”

One article of the current draft of the bill proposes jail terms for “sexually deviant” monks, as well as those who ordain them, if they cause “harm and disgrace” to Buddhism. Ostensibly an attempt to weed out sexual abusers and pedophiles from the monasteries, the article tacitly authorizes discrimination against Thailand’s many gay and transgender monks. Its vague terms blur the line between crimes against Buddhism and crimes against humanity, leaving nonconforming monks vulnerable to punishment simply for acting feminine or seeming homosexual.

Until now, Thai Buddhism has generally mirrored Thai culture in its relatively tolerant “live and let live” mindset regarding LGBT individuals. Many high-level monks within the sangha system are said to be gay, and a popular Thai talk show that last year interviewed two homosexual monks who formerly identified as “ladyboys” espoused a mostly positive message of acceptance. Though there are certainly exceptions, the general consensus has been that as long as monks operate within the rules of the monastery and uphold the precepts, including celibacy, it shouldn’t matter what their sexual proclivities were prior to ordination.

“Thailand is one of the only places on earth where homosexuals are actually left alone to live their lives,” said Justin McDaniel, a scholar of Southeast Asian Buddhism at University of Pennsylvania and a former monk in Thailand. “But now, of course, it has to be an issue, dealt with through official rules and legislation. It’s like, ‘We gotta fix the problem.’ No, you invented a problem in order to be the hero who fixes it.”

Feminist activist Ouyporn Khunkaew suspects that the junta and SSC are spotlighting “sexual deviance” in order to distract the public from their ineptitude in dealing with more pressing issues, such as the Dhammakaya embezzlement scandal, currently one of the most talked-about controversies in Thailand.

The contentious and somewhat cult-like Dhammakaya tradition, said to be modern Thailand’s fastest-growing Buddhist movement, was founded in Thailand in the 1970s and is known today for its influential leaders, massive ordination ceremonies, and spaceship-like golden temple just outside Bangkok. The SSC’s recent decision to clear allegations against Dhammakaya’s leaders for distorting Buddhist teachings and embezzling hundreds of millions of baht enraged laypeople and clergy alike.

Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai historian and founding member of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, echoed the thoughts of many Thais when he wrote on Facebook that the “money and power of Wat Phra Dhammakaya monks . . . can buy almost all of the Sangha members.”     

Many take the Dhammakaya movement as a sign of a growing crisis within Thai Buddhism.

“The cooptation of Buddhism by consumerism and nationalism takes the practice of Buddhists, especially monks and Buddhist teachings, away from the real essence of the Buddhist morality,” said Ven. Phra Paisal Visalo, a respected monk, Buddhist scholar, and activist. As a result, “Buddhism in Thailand is weaker and it cannot creatively respond to the changes of the time.”

McDaniel, however, believes that positing a narrative of Buddhist decline only provides fodder for religious conservatives.

“It sets up an idea that there was a pure Buddhism at one point that wasn’t involved in politics or with culture. There’s never been a time in Thai Buddhism where that was the case,” he said. “I think this rhetoric of decline actually fits into what the government wants us to think.”

It’s no secret that many Thai people are fed up with the current state of Thai Buddhism. News of misbehaving monks appears near daily. They’ve been caught leading lavish lifestyles, punching English teachers on trains, perpetrating pedophilia and sexual abuse, and making amulets out of dead babies, to name but a few of the latest transgressions. But given that monks are human and not inherently good by virtue of being monks (particularly in Thailand, where the majority of Thai males are pressured by their families to enter the monkhood at least once), this is not exactly surprising, or new. The unprecedented amount of media coverage of errant monks, however, is of great benefit to conservative reformers in government and the Sangha.

In March, not long after the not-guilty verdict against Dhammakaya was upheld by the SSC, the junta’s reform council rather suddenly dissolved its panel on Buddhism. “Our work has raised public awareness and the mission is complete,” said NRC member and panel leader Paiboon Nititawan, rather unconvincingly. Of course, should the Bill to Patronize and Protect Buddhism be passed into law, secular oversight would quickly return to the Thai monkhood.

Khuankaew makes little distinction between the tone-deaf leadership of the junta and that of the SSC. She believes that reform is essential, but not the kind that is coming from those in power. As she told me in an interview last year for another story, “The Sangha is failing. There’s no one progressive at the top, no grassroots movements within. Just a lot of old men set in their ways.”

And therein lies the problem: instead of focusing on the real issues of both Buddhism and Thai society, the powers that be are trying to enforce an antiquated and highly patriarchal social order, and doing so under the pretext of preserving a vision of Thai-ness that they themselves have constructed.

Hilary Cadigan, a former managing editor of Chiang Mai Citylife, has written extensively about social issues in Thailand.

Image 1: Thai soldiers (Pittaya Sroilong/Flickr)
Image 2: Wat Phra Dhammakaya, near Bangkok, Thailand (Wikimedia Commons)

The Slow Burn

Bernie Flynn, a longtime student of Chögyam Trungpa, recently told me about the time he and the Rinpoche tried to quit smoking cigarettes. A few days in, he was driving the Rinpoche to a meeting. Antsy and in withdrawal, Bernie couldn’t help but notice his teacher sitting calmly in the passenger seat. Finally, his nerves on edge, Bernie turned to Trungpa and asked how the whole quitting thing was going. “It’s easy,” said Trungpa. “Either you smoke, or you don’t smoke.”

Ah, so simple.

Later that evening, Bernie entered a room to find the Rinpoche gleefully chain smoking.

Oh, not so simple.

The psychoactive effects of drugs, alcohol included, don’t exactly jibe with the goals of Buddhist practice. Sure, some people stumble into the dharma after stumbling through an acid trip, but the fact that LSD can be a gateway to practice doesn’t mean it’s allowed beyond the gate of any respectable dharma institution. And though many Buddhists drink, it’s generally understood that this should occur in moderation and off the zafu. Hence, refraining from intoxicants is one of the five basic Buddhist precepts.

Cigarettes, however, seem to exist in a hazy gray area, both literally and figuratively. Caffeine, a substance that might otherwise find itself in similar ambiguous territory, has a sexy origin story: the Ch’an patriarch Bodhidharma, angry at himself for dozing off during zazen, rips off his eyelids and flings them to the ground, from which sprout the first tea leaves. Thus caffeine has long been accepted by Buddhists the world over as a mild performance enhancing drug, endorsed by legend. Tobacco, lacking such an auspicious beginning, has long been tolerated in Buddhist communities anyway, though the Buddhist stance on smoking is vague at best. 

Thus, the question remains. Either you smoke, or you don’t smoke, yes, but should you smoke? I found the answer, like a good koan, to be both elusive and entirely dependent upon who is answering.

_____

Smoking is not technically prohibited in Buddhism, but then again, neither is juggling chainsaws or playing Russian roulette. It would be tedious if all prohibited actions had to be spelled out (which doesn’t mean people haven't tried. See: the Vinaya). I pointed this out to Dr. Joel Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Skidmore College. “Of course [smoking is not prohibited],” said Smith, “but if you look at the eightfold path and you have any kind of subtle interpretation about right action and right effort, it doesn’t take much to argue that [right action and right effort] should be applied in that kind of way.”

Smith traveled in Japan with John Daido Loori Roshi, longtime abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York, when Daido was receiving his confirmation rituals at Eihei-ji many years ago. He remembered Daido stepping outside the Eihei-ji buildings to smoke in between ceremonies.

“I asked him about it once,” Smith said, “and he responded, ‘Zen is not a health trip.’”

While this may be true, it glosses over the fact that smoking is, at its most basic, a harmful action. Dr. Smith has been teaching Buddhism and Eastern philosophy for decades, and over the years he has brought many students to dharma institutions to hear teachings. A number of them, he said, are turned off by the fact that they see monks smoking. “This is really where the rubber hits the road,” said Smith. “You can talk generally about compassion, but if you can’t apply it to something so basic in one’s personal life, then what the heck is going on?”

Aside from the issue of alienating the dharma-curious, the fact that Buddhists smoke raises a deeper issue for Smith. “If you love life and affirm it and want to do good in the world and be compassionate to other people, then you want to make your body and your mind as much of a vehicle for that as possible for as long as possible.” Smoking cigarettes would seem to undercut that possibility, limiting the amount of time one has to be a vehicle for the dharma. So why do Buddhist teachers continue to allow their addiction to impinge on their responsibilities? Shouldn’t overcoming their addiction be of the utmost importance, both as exemplars of the teachings and as vehicles for them?

I put this question to Dr. Judson Brewer, the director of research at the Center for Mindfulness. Brewer and his team at Yale University have developed the Craving to Quit app, which uses mindfulness to help people kick their addiction. “It’s a great question and I would want to talk to these folks and get their story,” said Brewer. “Is it just a habit that’s so much in the background that you’re not paying attention or is the level of suffering that it causes so minimal that there’s no drive to change the behavior?”

I asked Brewer if Buddhist teachers have a moral imperative not to smoke.

“If I had a gun and I killed myself, that wouldn’t be that helpful if I were a good teacher. And smoking has obviously been linked to increased mortality and morbidity, as well as a number of illnesses, including cancer.”

Indeed, John Daido Loori Roshi died of lung cancer in 2009 (though he did give up smoking later in life). Like shooting yourself with a gun, smoking will ultimately aid in your demise. “It’s not exactly suicide,” said Brewer. “It’s just a slower burn.”

_____

In 2005 I was one of 33 college students who lived in a Burmese monastery in Bodhgaya, India, where we studied Buddhism and lived according to the five basic precepts. Though it may have gone against our youthful inclinations, we refrained from taking intoxicants, sex, stealing, lying, and killing.

Cigarettes, however, were not prohibited, and like many of my fellow students, I took up smoking. We spent countless afternoons on the roof of our dorm, watching our cigarette smoke drift away while ruminating over deep questions like, is killing a malaria-ridden mosquito bad karma or good karma? Since we were suddenly living a life of previously unimaginable austerity, smoking didn’t seem like such a big deal. It gave us something to do, and though we were learning about the emptiness of self, smoking seemed like the last way we could fill ourselves up, albeit with smoke. It gave us something to cling to, the last iceberg in a sea of melting vices.

Maybe the fact that Buddhists smoke is as simple as that. Maybe Buddhists the world over puff because it is one of the few remaining ways they can puff themselves up. For a spiritual tradition so devoted to compassion and helping others, cigarettes may be the final frontier of autonomy. In a spiritual tradition so devoted to the eradication of self, cigarettes might be the last shred of selfishness. Fumo ergo sum.

I smoke, therefore I am.

_____

Google Buddhism and smoking and the resulting hits are not what I would describe as particularly helpful (unless you want lurid details about the monks recently arrested for smoking Crystal Meth in Phnom Penh, Cambodia). However, I did come across an amusing anecdote from the blog of the Scottish-born Buddhist teacher Bodhipaksa:

A young monk strolled into the office of the head monk.

“Say, man. Would it like be okay if I smoke when I meditate?”

The head monk turned pale and began quivering. When he recovered, he gave the young man a stern lecture about the sanctity of meditation. The novice listened thoughtfully and went away.

A few weeks later, he returned with another question.

“I’m concerned about my spiritual development. I notice that I spend a lot of time smoking. I was wondering, do you think it would be okay if when I am smoking, I practice my meditation?”

The older man was overjoyed and of course said yes.

I’m not so sure about the credentials of this pale, quivering head monk (or, for that matter, the novice), but I found the anecdote surprisingly informative. Perhaps the point isn’t what we do, but how we do it. Perhaps, in taking a “thou shalt not” approach, we miss the moment for the creed.

When I emailed the Bodhgaya alumni to ask for help researching this topic, one person responded, “Wouldn’t a Buddhist smoking cigarettes be kind of hypocritical, irresponsible, and ironic?” It is attitudes like this that reveal the gap between what people believe about Buddhists and how Buddhists actually behave. And maybe this is the crux of this issue. Maybe this isn’t about smoking at all but about the ideals we place on our teachers.

In his book Sex, Sin, and Zen, author and Zen teacher Brad Warner writes, “When we project our expectations about what a divine being ought to be onto real people, what else can we hope for besides disappointment?” After all, addiction does not discriminate between enlightened and unenlightened, and perhaps, in smoking, teachers unwillingly demonstrate that addiction is not a roadblock to realization. This notion—that an enlightened person can be an addicted person—might shatter our preconceptions about realization, but to practice Buddhism and believe one’s preconceptions will remain neatly intact seems about as naïve as believing a teacher is a divine being.

Warner’s own teacher, Gudo Nishijima, was himself a heavy smoker. But, said Warner, it wasn’t a problem. “He told me once that he just happened to notice one day that smoking was a bad habit, so he stopped doing it.”

“I tend to think Buddhist teachers are like artisans who take on apprentices,” said Warner. “If we take that viewpoint, it’s not such a big deal whether the teacher smokes or not. But a teacher who smokes should know that their behavior is going to be imitated. If the teacher cares about that, then maybe they should not smoke.”

So should Buddhists be required to refrain from smoking?

“I don’t think Buddhism should be in the business of requiring people to do or not do things. That seems to go against everything Buddhism is about. If you demand people follow the Buddhist rules, that demanding itself is counter to the Buddhist philosophical approach. The precepts are not requirements.”

Randall Ryotan Eiger, sensei at the Village Zendo in Manhattan, who studied with Daido for eight years, was himself a smoker for 20 years, and as a freelance speechwriter in the 80s and 90s worked for a major tobacco company. His Buddhist smoking credentials run deep, so I asked him the same question. Should Buddhists refrain from smoking?

“To be a Buddhist means to take refuge in the three treasures of Buddha, dharma, and sangha,” said Ryotan. “I don’t believe one needs to be a non-smoker, or any particular kind of person, in order to take refuge.”

Indeed, such stringent requirements would create a culture of exclusion, leaving out those with addictions who might otherwise benefit immensely from the dharma. As Dr. Brewer pointed out, his app has exposed many people to the dharma “through their own doorway of suffering, which is smoking.”

As for Buddhist teachers, Ryotan disagreed with the idea that they have a “moral imperative” not to smoke.

“One sign of the moral confusion in our market-driven society is that people have the tendency to elevate consumer and lifestyle choices into matters of high moral drama, leading to overblown talk of ‘moral imperatives.’ Tortuous analysis of one’s thoughts and actions produces a facsimile of moral seriousness that is pleasing to the ego, but it is no substitute for the wisdom and compassion that arise from the awakened heart.”

He continued, “Is smoking inherently unhealthy, unwise, and maybe a little selfish? The answer is ‘yes.’ Are smokers inherently unable to realize their buddhanature and save all beings? The answer is ‘obviously not.’”

_____

Zen is not a health trip. Depending on your view of smoking, this response is either frustratingly reductive or refreshingly concise. For some, like Dr. Smith, smoking remains one of the largest thorns in Buddhism’s side. “Smoking involves in a personal, immediate way the core Buddhist issues of suffering, craving, death, compassion, and awakening,” said Smith. “What matters is how well one deals with those issues concretely, in smoking and other concrete immediate situations. Smoking isn’t the only place where we can engage these issues—they come up elsewhere, obviously—but it’s one of the ways, and we must engage them there.”

For others, the fact that some Buddhists smoke is as mundane as the fact that some Buddhists eat meat. But even Brad Warner understands the reservations one might have about teachers who smoke. “As a learner, I would steer clear of teachers who have such obvious bad habits on the grounds that if they can’t even get it together to stop smoking, how can I believe they can guide me to get past my own bad habits?” And yet, Warner’s own teacher smoked, and perhaps that is why he and other teachers are unwilling to take a stance against cigarettes.

Nirvana means “extinguishing the flame.” When faced with the issue of human suffering, the burning ember of a lit cigarette might not seem like the highest priority. There is a more pressing conflagration at hand. Either you smoke, or you don’t smoke, yes, but in the end, we are all part of the slow burn anyhow. And maybe in the end, to borrow a phrase from the smoker Charles Bukowski, what matters most is not whether or not you smoke, but how well you walk through the fire.

Alex Tzelnic is a Zen practitioner and writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His essays have appeared in Killing the Buddha and The Rumpus.

Sesse Lind/Gallerystock

Nepal Disaster Relief

Saturday’s 7.9 magnitude earthquake in Nepal has caused widespread death and damage in the country that houses some of the world’s most precious Buddhist sites. News sites are reporting that the death toll has now risen above 3,000 and is expected to continue rising sharply

Tricycle has heard directly from people living in Kathmandu that they are spending a third night outdoors in makeshift tents while powerful aftershocks continue to roil the country. There are reports of shortages of tents, food, water, and medical supplies. 

How can you help?

Relief workers have told Tricycle that unless you live locally and can transport donated goods yourself, please send money, not items. They are also advising not to travel to Nepal right now to volunteer; unless you are a medical professional or engineer with a qualified aid organization, wait to fly over until the initial rescue period is over. Nonprofessional volunteer aid will be greatly needed when the news cycle moves on but Nepal and its people still require help.

Here is a list of qualified aid organizations with tried and true histories of disaster relief that are accepting donations for Nepal rescue work:

1. UNICEF Canada

2. UNICEF Australia 

3. Australian Red Cross 

4. UNICEF UK 

5. British Red Cross 

6. New Zealand Red Cross

7. The Salvation Army

8. OXFAM GB 

9. OXFAM America 

10. American Red Cross 

11. CARE 

12. Mercy Corps 

13. Catholic Relief Services 

14. American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

15. Save the Children 

If you are interested in donating money to a Buddhist organization, these Tibetan teachers have posted news and requests for donations:

Ani Choying Dolma 

Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche

Tsoknyi Rinpoche

Kyabgon Phakchok Rinpoche


Photo: Monks from Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling, one of the largest monasteries in Nepal, camp out in tents.

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