Tag Archive: Buddhism


America the Addicted

The following article was originally published on The Mindful Word on November 12, 2012.

Uncle Sam Addicted to Oil
Soon after his awakening, the Buddha gave what would prove to be his most popular and enduring teaching, known as The Four Noble Truths. After first establishing suffering or stress as intrinsic to life, the Buddha then posited the root cause of this dis-ease as tanha, meaning “thirst.” More common translations of this ancient Pali word are attachment, craving, clinging, and grasping.

Although each of these interpretations comes close, none of them quite hits the mark. First of all, thirst is generally a healthy desire, especially in our chronically dehydrated culture. (Have you had your eight glasses of water today?) “Attachment” works better, except that there are healthy forms of attachment, such as love between mother and child. Cravings are usually unhealthy, though they may also indicate a nutrient deficiency. And while grasping and clinging definitely cause distress, these tendencies are so common and subtle as to be mostly undetectable.

As I see it, the best diagnosis is “addiction.” If not the most accurate translation, it’s certainly the most applicable to our modern industrial culture in general, and to America in particular, where highly addictive drugs like nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine are perfectly legal and widely available. (Meanwhile, many non-addictive substances, some known to actually cure addictions, carry long prison sentences.) Topping the list of socially sanctioned, addictive drugs are prescription painkillers, which have surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in the US. Our country’s obesity epidemic bespeaks an addiction to unhealthy convenience foods, many of which are engineered to keep us hooked. Our collective addiction to shopping is evident in the fact that the US comprises only 5% of the planet’s population yet consumes about 1/3 of its resources. Our addiction to TV keeps us glued to the set for almost 6 hours a day on average, and the time spent staring dumbly at our smartphones and computers is steadily increasing.

Yet these are just our most obvious addictions, merely symptoms of a problem that goes much deeper. Instead of blaming the victim, we must realize that addiction lies at the very core of American culture. We are, after all, a country predicated on “the pursuit of happiness,” which too often means grasping after fleeting pleasures. This is certainly the message of advertisers, who endeavor to sell us the next trendy gadget designed to fall immediately into obsolescence. Indeed, if consumer culture were to provide us with lasting happiness, it would render itself obsolete.

Is the media to blame? Only partly, for they exist mainly to serve corporations, which in turn exist only to make money, a fact well understood by the CEO who must either remain in the black or be given a pink slip. But the buck doesn’t stop there, because the necessity of profits is dictated by a monetary system based on usury. Due to banks’ ability to charge interest on money created from thin air, there is never enough money in existence to repay debts. This generates the need for GDP to rise exponentially.

Thus at the heart of the system lies a constant demand for more, at any cost. This is the impulse of the addict, who will lie, steal, and even kill in order to obtain the next fix. On the collective scale, the politicians and pundits do the lying, the corporations and banks do the stealing, and the government does the killing—all in the name of maintaining business-as-usual, even in the face of global warming, mass extinction, ocean collapse, continents of plastic, rising cancer rates, decaying social structures, and other crises we are encouraged to ignore.

Addiction is, by definition, unhealthy and destructive. Taken to its extreme, it is suicidal, aligned with what Freud called the death instinct. Apparently, this is part of human nature, but it is not the better part. As members of the Earth community, we are also driven by a strong instinct for life, which includes a desire for growth, healing, and spiritual realization. This is the essence of the Buddha’s third Noble Truth: recovery is possible.

In the realm of addiction, the desire for life often manifests only at death’s door, or at the point of utter despair known as “hitting bottom.” This is where humanity seems to be headed. In some cases, however, the addict is prevented from hitting bottom by an intervention, which on the cultural scale might look like revolution. Unfortunately, interventions and revolutions often meet with limited or temporary success, mainly because the impetus for change originates from an external source and leaves the underlying motivations intact.

In the best instance, the bottom can be raised, as it were, by the addict’s own realization of where his behavior will lead. Not only will it destroy him physically, it will not and cannot bring the emotional security he so desperately seeks. As our spiritual traditions tell us, true and lasting happiness must come from within. Wealth, power, fame, status, good looks, and other externalities that our culture peddles are nothing but fool’s gold—artificial substitutes for the real thing.

Despite what the old ads say, Coke is not the real thing. The real thing, that which we want most and fear most, is intimacy—with others, with our selves, and with our own emotional states, however difficult they can be. Essentially, addiction is a way of avoiding intimacy in all its forms, a turning away from reality. But we have turned away long enough. It’s high time for us to look squarely at our predicament, to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of our culture and our selves, and to take steps toward true freedom.

“My name is Uncle Sam, and I am powerless over my addictions. My life has become unmanageable…”

Precepts of the Order of Interbeing (Engaged Buddhism Pt. 3)

Formulated by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Tiep Hien Order, these precepts are a unique expression of traditional Buddhist morality coming to terms with contemporary issues.

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1. Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. All systems of thought are guiding means: they are not absolute truth.

2. Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice non-attachment from views in order to be open to receive others’ viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.

3. Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness.

4. Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.

5. Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of your life fame, profit, wealth or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time, energy and material resources with those who are in need.

6. Do not maintain anger or hatred. As soon as anger and hatred arise, practice the meditation on compassion in order to deeply understand the persons who have caused anger and hatred. Learn to look at other beings with the eyes of compassion.

7. Do not lose yourself in dispersion and in your surroundings. Learn to practice breathing in order to regain composure of the body and mind, to practice mindfullness and to develop concentration and understanding.

8. Do not utter words which can create discord and cause the community to break. Make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

9. Do not say untrue things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things that you are not sure of. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.

10. Do not use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit, or transform your community into a political party. A religious community, however, should take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.

11. Do not live with a vocation which is harmful to humans and nature. Do not invest in companies that deprive others of their chance to live. Select a vocation which helps realize your ideal of compassion.

12. Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life and to prevent war.

13. Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering or the suffering of other beings.

14. Do not mistreat your body. Learn to handle it with respect. Do not look on your body as only an instrument. Preserve vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of the Way. Sexual expression should not happen without love and commitment. In sexual relationships, be aware of future suffering that may be caused. To preserve the happiness of others, respect the rights and commitments of others. Be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world. Meditate on the world into which you are bringing new beings.

After recently reading a collection of essays about Engaged Buddhism (entitled “Not Turning Away”), I was inspired to dig up my own introductory article on the subject, first published in 2004.

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The term “engaged Buddhism” was first used in the early 1960s by a Vietnamese
monk named Thich Nhat Hanh. Faced with the dilemma of whether to continue to practice
in monastic isolation or to actively confront the suffering wrought by the escalating war,
Hanh and his fellow practitioners decided they must do both. This decision led to the
formation of Tiep Hein (Order of Interbeing). Because of his peaceful political
activities, Hahn was exiled from Vietnam, and has since written over 75 books, been
nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize (by MLK, no less), and has helped forge a global
movement aimed at fostering peace on both a personal and societal level.
While Thich Nhat Hahn is regarded as a founder of the engaged Buddhism
movement, his ideas and ideals are not entirely new. His commitment to nonviolent direct
action is inspired by Mohatma Ghandi, while his ethics are rooted in a religious and
philosophical tradition born in India over 2500 years ago.

Buddhism and Action
A widely-held misconception about Buddhism is that it is inherently passive,
escapist, or nihilistic. This description, however, applies more to Hinduism as practiced at
the time of the historical Buddha, Siddartha Gautama, who rejected such otherworldly
asceticism. After nearly starving to death, the Buddha abandoned the path of self-mortification in
order to help alleviate the suffering of others through his teachings, which outlined the
Middle Way between renunciation of the world and attachment to its elusive treasures and
pleasures.

Another common impression is that the Buddha – with all his talk about suffering –
espoused a cynical, “life sucks” kind of philosophy. This is based partly on a
misunderstanding and mistranslation of the Pali word dukkha, which the Buddha used to
describe all forms of suffering, from physical agony to the kind of subtle anxiety we might
experience even when we feel good, yet are worried that it might not last. Furthermore, the
perception of Buddhism as a bummer philosophy overlooks two of its most important and
positive concepts: that suffering has a cause, and that it can be overcome. Implicit in these
basic tenets is the idea that responsibility lies squarely with the individual, rather than on
some external authority. If we want ourselves and others to suffer less, it’s not enough to
possess good intentions, pray for deliverance, or adopt a particular set of beliefs; we have
to take action.

The Role of Meditation
For most Buddhists, taking action usually means engaging in a formal practice
geared toward freeing the mind from its attachments. This usually involves some form of
meditation.

Of the many types of meditation, the one familiar to most Americans is “sitting”
meditation, in which the practitioner adopts a comfortable but attentive posture for a given
length of time, commonly between 30 and 60 minutes, maybe longer. To a non-practitioner,
this type of meditation certainly appears passive and perhaps escapist. After all, there’s a
person sitting with their eyes closed, not talking or moving a muscle. What’s so active or
“engaged” about that?

Seated meditation emphasizes the importance of both concentration and observation.
Concentration is usually honed by focusing exclusively on one particular thing such as the
breath. This exercise usually leads to a calmness from which the meditator can more clearly
and objectively observe the workings of the mind and body. In general, there is no special
or altered state to strive for; the main point is to devote “bare attention” to everything that
occurs, whether pleasurable or painful, which is quite the opposite of escapism. In an
important sense, the meditator is actively engaged with the present moment, without the
usual distractions offered by cell phones, television, the Internet, drugs and alcohol, etc.

Of course, meditation is just a technique, not the goal itself. The experience and
insight gained on the meditation cushion is meant to carry over to “real life” and all of its
inevitable trials, tribulations and triumphs. While many people do choose to practice or live
in an isolated setting, most of us lead rather hectic, complicated, and stressful lives.

(to be continued)

9-11 and America’s Three Poisons

I remember that Tuesday quite well, not only because it changed the course of history, but because it altered my own trajectory in a very literal way. En route from Chicago to Hartford to visit a recently-relocated, soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, I landed in Detroit for my connecting flight, only to be notified that the second leg of my journey had been violently amputated by terrorists. The word fell repeatedly from the lips of the news anchors on the TV monitors around which many a confused traveler had gathered, staring in dumb disbelief as the planes slammed into the towers, again and again. Everyone else was talking nervously on their cell phones, trying to arrange a way to get back home, or else forge ahead, overland, to their original destination.

In any case, there would be no returning to business as usual. As the twin towers and Pentagon walls crumbled, so too did America’s illusions of safety, security, and separateness. These were the first major attacks on US continental soil, and they introduced an unfamiliar sense of vulnerability and uncertainty to the relatively insulated American psyche. Suddenly the world seemed larger and more mysterious, populated perhaps by shadowy and sinister enemies but also filled with the prayers, support, and shared anguish of millions of allies across the globe. Beneath the grief, or perhaps because of its uniting influence, there arose a brief, hopeful sense of national and international kinship in the days after the tragedy.

Due in part to the overbearing response of the Bush administration, who immediately began speaking in stark absolutes of good vs. evil, the national mood quickly changed into one of fear and indignation. America’s pride had been damaged, and the country needed to reassert its global superiority in a dramatic display of aggression. It would not rely on international courts of law, nor would it politely petition the world community for assistance. Instead its president would demand allegiance to the “war on terror” by threatening, “You’re either with us or against us.” Least of all would America seek to understand the root causes of terrorism or address the complaints of the perpetrators, which were clearly outlined in a number of videotapes that surfaced after 9-11. All of these responses would have required a kind of humility and introspection with which America, the world’s strongest ego structure, is largely unfamiliar.

Colors and Shadows

Indeed the earth-shaking events of nine years ago can best be understood by thinking of the US in terms of its unique psychological makeup, and by distilling the tri-colored essence of the American mindset. Some might point to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as the three beacons that have guided our nation from its inception, and these unalienable rights would hardly be a bad place to start (or end, for that matter). But one the big lessons of 9-11 is that bright lights cast dark shadows – shadows that need be confronted if true healing is to take place.

If we muster the courage to peer behind the veil of Life, we see its grim counterpart in the deadliest arsenal of all time, fed by a national military budget nearly as large as that of all other countries combined. Of course, US weaponry is used less for “defense” than for offensively procuring the so-called resources needed to support the American way of life, which is centered largely around consumption. This conspicuous activity has become virtually synonymous with the Pursuit of Happiness, however noble the intention of Thomas Jefferson in using this enigmatic phrase. Its object remains elusive, as indicated by America’s record rates of violent crime and incarceration, rampant use and abuse of prescription drugs and painkillers, widespread heart disease and other stress-related illnesses, epidemic obesity… As for Liberty, there is a sad irony in the fact that, partly because of their material pursuits, millions of Americans are so figuratively burdened with debt that literal imprisonment looms as a possibility.

This is to say nothing so far of the rest of the Earth community, both human and non-human, that is aversely affected by America’s complexes. With this double entendre I refer not only to the military and industry, but to the media, which empower the other two through advertising and various forms of propaganda. Considering, as an example, defense contractor GE’s ownership of NBC, CNBC, msnbc.com, Telemundo, and Bravo, we can safely speak of the military-industrial-media complex. While each of these on its own is unrivaled in terms of power and influence, together they have enabled the US to become the most dominant, defining force in human, if not geologic, history. One would be hard pressed to find a place on Earth not affected by at least one branch of this mighty American triumvirate.

The Three Poisons

Such sociopolitical analysis, heavy-handed if accurate, can only take us so far. To discern the deeper dimensions of the American psyche and its wounds, we must look through a more powerful, psychospiritual lens at the three main driving forces of the American enterprise. By doing so, we discover what the Buddha called the “three poisons” of greed, hatred, and delusion. Alternatively translated as desire, aversion, and ignorance, these poisons are said to be the root causes of suffering. Although interrelated, primary emphasis is placed on delusion, which gives rise to selfish desire and aversion. In the American model, desire manifests as consumerism and unbridled capitalism, hatred finds expression in militarism and violence, and delusion is represented by the omnipresent media.

In light of all this, it seems hardly coincidental that the attacks of September 2001 were directed at the World Trade Center (symbol of greed) and the Pentagon (symbol of hatred), and that shortly thereafter, deadly anthrax spores were sent to various East Coast media outlets (symbols of delusion). This is certainly not to suggest that such horrific violence could ever be justified, but to bring to conscious awareness what many of us knew intuitively from that first gut-wrenching moment: that the attacks were far less random than would ever be admitted by our leaders, whose primary job, it seems, is to keep the poisons pumping.

Cynical? Perhaps, but surely one of the main lessons driven home by 9-11 is that our government cannot be trusted to keep us informed and protected. The benevolent father figure is dead, a fact that even the most jingoistic American has grasped. Mistakenly, however, forlorn conservatives look backward and cling ever more tightly to our forefathers as paragons of Christian virtue (slave-owning aside) while retreating further into patriotism (“the last refuge of the scoundrel,” as Samuel Johnson called it), instead of finally accepting and fully embracing global citizenship. This is our current calling, and if 9-11 sparked even the briefest and dimmest recognition of humanity’s interdependence, then the escalating ecological crisis may well bring to light an awareness of the shared fate of all forms of life. As we have seen, unspeakable tragedy has an undeniable power to unite.

In this variation on a traditional Tibetan Bhavachakra (Wheel of Life), representations of the three poisons appear in the innermost circle. The entire wheel of cyclic existence is being held by Uncle Samsara. Image by author.


TiVo and Facebook don’t mix. So writes my online friend Drew Dellinger, in response to my calling him a spoiler for posting the results of a World Cup match that I had yet to watch (on my Mac, as I have neither TiVo nor TV). Rather than blame an internationally-recognized poet for being careless with words, however, I will concede that it was my own fault. I should have known that somewhere out there on the procrastination highway I would come across a big, stinking pile of spilled beans. It didn’t prevent me from watching the game, but my heart just wasn’t in it.

Truthfully, my real interest lies not with worldly wordsmiths, the World Cup, or the world’s biggest social media network. It’s the world at large that concerns me, suffering as it is from the worst environmental disaster in decades, the most extreme weather in millennia, and the largest mass extinction event since the die-off of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It doesn’t take an international panel of climatologists to know which way the wind blows, especially when it’s blowing more fiercely than ever, and louder than an international chorus of droning vuvuzelas.

Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy calls it the Great Unraveling: a perfectly horrific storm of interrelated environmental crises threatening to tear apart the very fabric of life. The sobering details, well known to the informed global citizen and presented in my book‘s first chapter, “The Truth of Global Suffering,” need not be reiterated here. Without even considering the possibility of some disastrous turn of the tide in the Gulf, once can safely say that the weather forecast is none too favorable.

The three arenas of the Great Turning

Indeed, the world as we know it is coming to an end. But here’s the good news: the world as we know it is coming to an end. The Great Unraveling finds its counterpart in The Great Turning: a revolution of the global heart-mind, away from its obsession with industrial growth, toward a devotion to a life-sustaining ethos. Macy sees it happening in the three distinct but mutually supportive arenas of activism, changing infrastructures, and shifting paradigms, while author Paul Hawken lectures regularly and optimistically about the hundreds of thousands of ecologically-oriented NGOs that together comprise what he calls the largest movement in history. Hawken likens this massive movement, which lacks centralized leadership, to a planetary immune response system, the efficacy of which depends on its diversity.

In the midst of global gloom, and often because of it, people are waking up in ever-increasing numbers. But as awareness grows, so do the challenges we face, leading to the large and looming question of our unique planetary moment: Will the Great Turning will prevail over the Great Unraveling? Although both breakdown and breakthrough are already well underway, they seem to be engaged in an increasingly tense and dramatic showdown.

On one side of the spectrum are those who insist that the Earth is due for a physical makeover of biblical proportions, as movies like 2012 are wont to depict in computer graphic detail. The planet will be wracked by epic earthquakes and tsunamis, major cities will be reduced to rubble, and millions of Earth’s creatures will perish suddenly and violently. This, or a similar scenario, is inevitable, says the cataclysm camp, whose conviction is often rooted in religious ideology. As powerless pawns in God’s game, the reasoning goes, we mortals can only pray that we be spared smiting and granted a comfy seat aboard the Fathership.

On the other extreme are those who feel equally certain that a sudden, seismic shift is indeed imminent, but that it will be metaphysical rather than physical in nature. In a cosmic flash, humanity will awaken en masse to a New Age of planetary compassion, universal love, and divine unity. This, or a similar scenario, is written in the stars, say the enlightenment crowd, who recommend that everyone just chill out and sit tight, bearing in mind that earthly existence is merely an illusion that will soon dissipate like so much ganja smoke.

Of course these are crude caricatures, meant to describe not distinct groups or individuals as much as psychological tendencies towards either dark-hearted pessimism or blind optimism. Given the precariousness of our situation, it’s natural to vacillate between these two extremes, and dangerous to become captivated by either one. They are the Scylla and Charybdis of the mind, waiting to lull us into complacency and false security, divest us of personal power, and absolve us of responsibility. Although they speak different languages, both tell the same story: the fate of life on Earth will be determined by forces beyond humanity’s control.

This idea strikes me as a very dangerous one, certain to accelerate our collective journey down the road to ruin. What’s more, it doesn’t jive with the powerful and paradigm-shifting insight of 20th century physics that reality is participatory. We are not, as the old guard preaches, feeble and passive observers of a fixed, objective order or cogs in a giant, lifeless machine. Nor are we, as the new guard intones, the all-powerful masters of our own destiny, capable of instantly conjuring anything we want out of pixie dust and wishful thinking. We are co-creative participants in a great cosmic adventure, the outcome of which must always remain unknown.

Uncertainty is not a burden of which we need to rid ourselves. It is a blessing that evokes our creativity, enlivens our spirit, and keeps our hearts in the game.

So please, for the sake of all sentient beings, don’t tell us how it ends.