Sunday, October 23, 2011

Forest Haiku

On a visit to the International Forest Monastery here in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand, the following words emerged from the quiet of the cool environs. A real haven from the noise of the world, this forested retreat reveals the inner stillness that is our true refuge. It is in this primordial silence of our being that perfect communication emerges, with the emphasis on the communing aspect of language.

Here in the forest
Trees cast a cooling shadow
Cicadas rejoice

Monks are pot-cleaning
An old layman attends them
As do the squirrels

A forest temple
Ants on the pavilion
As they make merit

We sit in the shade
I, in trendy white clobber
He, in forest robes

Sat with aching legs
There is this still silence
But for cicadas

Forest monastery
Sat talking with a bhikkhu
Leaves replace queries

Watching falling leaves
Is observing thoughts disperse
Into emptiness

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review: The Buddha Walks into a Lodro Rinzler

 Reading this book elicits two main responses, one positive and one negative. On the positive side, the book uses language and concepts likely to appeal to (what I've lately started calling) youngsters, but on the negative side of things, it promotes unskilful modes of behavior such as taking intoxicants and promiscuous sex. It may be that in attempting the former, Lodro Rinzler couldn't avoid the latter - both in his own practice as well as in this book - but it is the view of this reviewer that it is possible to retain the essential elements of Buddhist practice, including the moral precepts, alongside a modern, 'hip' approach to the Dharma, as many others have shown.

But, let's be balanced in our assessment of 'The Buddha Walks into a Bar…' and start by looking at the positives. Rinzler has an engaging style of prose that captures and retains his reader's interest - at least this reader's! He writes as an informed practitioner of Shambhala Buddhism in the lineage of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and uses popular cultural icons such as the cartoon heroes of the 1980s TV show Super Friends including Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman to grab our attention:

"In traditional Tibetan Buddhism, we have our own group of Super Friends. These are four mythical and nonmythical animals that represent different aspects of our training in wisdom and compassion. Individually, they are the tiger, the lion, garuda (part bird, part man), and dragon, and together they are known as the four dignitaries of Shambhala." (p.18)

These four dignitaries forms the structural backbone of the book, giving it both logical progression as well as an interesting Tibetan Buddhist focus for the teachings and practices. In the first part of the book, for example, Rinzler describes the qualities of the Tiger as discernment, gentleness and precision. He then uses the character Danny Ocean from the movie 'Ocean's Eleven' to explore the concept of discernment and the mandala as used in Tibetan Buddhism, pointing out that prior to the events in that film, the character probable would have needed to be pretty discerning in his future plans. Gentleness is dealt with in an original manner, also, which is discussed below. As for precision, he tells us that it is in the level of mindfulness in our everyday activities such as shopping, cooking, housework, clothes, and attending to the needs of the body that we use this quality to our advantage, as well as in more formal meditation settings.

"One way to cut through the busyness of your day is to include what are called the four exhilarations. Making sure we attend to these four aspects of our life give us energy to handle whatever comes our way. They are:
1. Eating
2. Sleeping
3. Meditating
4. Exercising
While these four actions are something of a no-brainer, most of us end up skipping meals or shortchanging our sleep, believing all the while that we can get away with it. It's as if we think our bodies won't notice. We keep saying, 'Tomorrow I'll do these things.' After months of this, we realize we are running out of tomorrows. We need to take care of our body today."

Rinzler's talent for fusing Buddhist teachings with modern American culture is exemplified in the chapter entitled 'Being Gentle With Your Incredible Hulk Syndrome.' What a great title! Returning to a favorite of his - and my - childhood, comic book superheroes, he uses the Incredible Hulk as a way to illustrate how destructive emotions such as anger can be, leading us to examine how we can gently work with them, instead of fighting them, which is not the Buddhist way. As an experienced Buddhist teacher, Rinzler shares both traditional meditative instructions like Shamatha with more innovative practices such the 'Writing Exercise for Working with Emotions' given on pp.38-39. In this exercise, we are taught to meditate and then write about any emotions that arise therein, giving us the opportunity to reflect upon them and develop insight.

Later on in the book (pp.100-102) Rinzler gives an excellent guided loving-kindness meditation, a well known traditional Buddhist practice often familiar as metta mediation. (Metta is the Pali word used by Theravada Buddhists and maitri is the Mahayana Buddhist equivalent from the Sanskrit tongue used by Rinzler.) The author takes the reader through the various stages of this exercise in a typically bright and accessible manner, starting by wishing happiness to oneself and ending by doing the same to all beings. This is a practice that many Buddhists (and those that they come into contact with) benefit from greatly, and Rnzler does a good, succinct, job in describing it.

In another chapter called 'How to Apply Discipline Even When Your Head Gets Cut Off' Rinzler writes about the wise application of discipline in relation to virtue. He advises us that discipline should be accompanied with gentleness rather than aggression, something worth noting. As he remarks, virtue that lacks gentleness can result in a discipline being used as a weapon against others. [It can also be self-destructive, also, and not in the positive, Buddhist sense of ego-transcendence.] He quotes the fourteenth century Tibetan meditation master Ngulchu Thogme to this end, emphasizing that virtue combined with compassion is what's really gonna cut the (Buddhist) mustard, so to speak.

"If someone cuts off your head
Even when you have not done the slightest thing wrong,
Through the power of compassion
To take his misdeeds upon yourself
Is the practice of a bodhisattva."


It is, however, on the point of virtue that this reviewer begins to find fault with 'The Buddha Walks into a Bar…' When discussing sex in relation to the third of the five basic precepts of Buddhism, he starts to wriggle in his commitment to what the Buddha (is widely accepted to have) taught. This precepts states that the Buddhist undertakes the commitment to abstain from engaging in sexual misconduct, which traditionally precludes promiscuous sex. But not for Rinzler. He states that he personally believes one night stands are fine if the motivation is seriously considered. (I wonder if he thinks the same about the other four precepts of avoiding killing, stealing, lying, and getting drunk or drugged. Oh, hang on, he does think getting drunk's okay, as we'll explore in a while!)

According to Rinzler, promiscuous sex is okay if "you are interested in having a one-night stand because you are too busy for a relationship, but you appreciate the other person and want to make a sexual connection with them." (p.81) He distinguishes this from thinking, "I'm drunk, I'm horny. They're hot." (Ibid.) Some might see the former as simply a more polite (or politically-correct) way of stating the latter! Rinzler adds that good conduct sexual might mean being very open with your partner or practicing safe sex. It definitely includes both, surely! Whilst agreeing with him that sexual contact with someone should include being "genuine" and "caring," it seems to this reviewer that it involves a whole lot more if we are really going to be wise and compassionate in our sexual behavior. That's why the Buddha gave us the third of the five precepts and why Buddhists have practiced it for the last two-and-half thousand years! A clue to Rinzler's motivations is revealed at the onset of the book, however, and it's worth quoting from the (wind)horse's mouth:

"Buddhism is often perceived as a moralistic religion. When I was in college, I would tell people that I was a Buddhist, and they would balk at the beer in my hand and the hot girl on my arm. They assumed that Buddhists aren't supposed to drink or have sex. But Buddhism is not some super-religion that is more puritanical than other religious traditions. Just as in other spiritual traditions, there are some Buddhists who chose a life of abstinence and others who do not. In fact, many Western Buddhist practitioners are wonderful drinkers and lovers." (p.25)

Does the latter include yourself, Mr. Rinzler, a self-confessed boozing Buddhist with a taste for "hot babes?" (Wink, wink) To deal with this paragraph briefly, let's start with the assumption that he refers to, that Buddhists aren't supposed to drink (alcohol) or have sex. The former is true (fifth precept) and the latter is true for monks and nuns. Buddhists shouldn't be "puritanical," it's true, but is keeping the five precepts necessarily being "puritanical?" As long as we're applying them in a compassionate way and not betting other people with them so as to appear superior, then they are to be applauded not ridiculed or belittled.

Although not an expert on the subject, a (very) small alarm bell rang when the following lines appeared: "There's a Tibetan word for Incredible Hulk syndrome, which is klesha. Klesha can be best translated as "afflictive emotion." (p.34) Now, klesha is a Sanskrit word (related to the Pali word kilesa), and not a Tibetan one. The Tibetan equivalent - a quick search on Google revealed - is nyon-mongs. Now, although this is a rather pedantic point, perhaps, it does raise the question of whether there are more important inaccuracies regarding Tibetan language or Buddhism in the book, which someone not well versed in such subjects would probably miss. Certainly, as presented below, the author doesn't appear to have a very good understanding of Theravada Buddhism.

Another less than praising appraisal of Rinzler's efforts is his apparent Mahayana snobbery when writing about Theravada (or 'Hinayana,' as he derogatorily insists on calling it) Buddhism. As most of us modern Buddhists know by now, Theravada ('Teaching of the Elders') is both the more widely-used title and the one preferred by Theravada Buddhists themselves for their form of Buddhism. (The latter is also the more accurate, as 'Hinayana' refers to many different kinds of early Buddhism, only one of which survived and later became what we now know as Theravada Buddhism.) And, yet, as every smug Mahayanist will gleefully tell you, their branch of Buddhism is the 'Great Vehicle' whereas the other one is the 'Lesser Vehicle.' Boring - and unenlightened - sectarianism!

"Turning your attention away from only taking care of yourself to taking care of others is the subtle distinction between the Hinayana (narrow vehicle) teachings and the Mahayana (greater vehicle) teachings. The distinction lies between the Hinayana view of being concerned only with our own path to awakening, and the Mahayana view of taking others' happiness as that path." (p.61)

As quoted above, Rinzler repeats the usual rubbish spouted by some Mahayanists that Theravada Buddhists are somehow more selfish than he and his Mahayana pals because they are only concerned with their own individual enlightenment and don't care about others'. Living in Thailand (a predominately Theravada Buddhist country) and knowing many people in the international Forest Sangha movement, I can loudly declare that this is not so! Many, many Theravada Buddhists care about and try to help others to their own awakening, just as many, many Mahayana Buddhists do. It's about time this uninformed sectarian bias was 'put to bed,' Mr. Rinzler. All this is all the more surprising since earlier in the book the author declares that we should avoid such negativity and see that "the Hinayana is a process of getting your act together." (p.19)

So, from this reviewer's perspective - one that straddles both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions in a spirit of modernity - 'The Buddha Walks into a Bar…' has some questionable attitudes on display, not just to 'Hinayanists,' but also in the area of Buddhist ethics. As suggested at the top of this article, it may be that Lodro Rinzler in his genuine attempts to be hip and up-to-date in his practice and teaching of Buddhism has lost sight of some of the essential ethical elements in Buddhism. However, this may be a reflection of the type of Buddhism he practices, Shambhala Buddhism, which has Tantric elements to it that might be less than stringent in its application of the Buddhist precepts. This latter point is mere speculation, and is most definitely not some kind of sectarian slandering! It may also be the case that as a Mahayana Buddhist, Rinzler feels a sense of superiority over Theravada (or Hinayana, as he calls it) Buddhism. If this is the case, it is to be regretted, as it will appear petty and sectarian to many readers.

In contrast to the above criticisms, Rinzler has managed to do what he sets out to do at the beginning of the book and present Buddhism in way that is likely to appeal to a younger readership. If this work does help to encourage young people to explore Buddhist teachings and practices, then it can be deemed a success, despite the reservations already expressed. Buddhism needs writers like Lodro Rinzler to promote to new generations of suffering beings in need of enlightenment, and to that end at least, this reviewer is wholeheartedly behind him.

The Buddha Walks into a Bar by Lodro Rinzler is published by Shambhala Publications, and is available from their website at The Buddha Walks into a Bar