Tag Archives: teaching

Misunderstanding Religion; What Is its Purpose?

One thing students realize when they begin their readings for my class, is the lack of anything resembling unified agreement, among academics, on what religion is.

Firstly, if you’re looking for agreement among academics, you’re looking in the wrong place.

But in a more analytical vein, every attempt at a common denominator is defeated by a counter example. Even the belief in God, which isn’t embraced in the context of Buddhism, is frustrated. In short, we are hard-pressed to find one feature common to all religions of the world. So, rather than one solitary feature, scholars have taken to describing a collection of characteristics – things like community, beliefs and stories –
that are inevitably found, in some combination or another, in the world’s many religions.

One student expressed concern over the problem of interpreting those stories that are part and parcel of the world’s religions. In a disdainful tone, he alluded to the violence that is easily justified by a relativistic interpretation of religious writings.

A common and seemingly justifiable concern, considering the state of the world today.

Nonetheless, I find it lamentable because it stems from a massive misunderstanding of what the whole point of religion is and has always been. Arguing about scripture reduces it to nothing but philosophy—a discipline which is deep, difficult and meaningless, all at the same time. Joking aside, it’s not exactly meaningless, if we understand that its value lies, not in finding answers, but in the very act of asking questions. That is, meaning emerges when we stop misunderstanding its purpose.

Likewise, in the domain of religion, we get hopelessly caught up in the supposed contradictory nature of certain passages, especially where violence is implied. This is common in the context of the Jewish and Christian bibles, and in that of the Koran. But what if we were to consider the very purpose of these holy books differently? What if we were to assume its purpose lay in encouraging us to look upon our own violent ways?

Thus, rather than assume a breach between our virtues and those in the holy stories, we might consider the purpose of those stories. And more pertinently, we might let go of the assumption that these stories contain explicit instructions. In that way, the bible may become purposeful.

But perhaps the most profound problem lies in a different kind of chasm. There is an immense difference between the spiritual state of the reader and the nature of the divine. A holy book is of a different nature than a science book or a philosophy book or a car manual. Dare I say bluntly that its arcane nature will be missed by an unenlightened mind? Its higher truths will not be revealed to eyes that don’t yet see, to a mind that is not ready.

Or even more to the point, to a mind that pushes an agenda.

Anyone can misuse anything when guided by greed, selfishness, lust for power, and vengeance. A person whose mind is clouded by odiousness has eyes that are blind. He will misinterpret, misconstrue and misuse. He’ll abuse the land, other people, scripture, and everything he touches. Put that person in a position of power and watch the world crumble.

Which brings me around to the closure of the circle and to my final point, that of looking to the academics for a definition of something that does not lend itself to definition.

Just as looking for answers misses the point of philosophy—which values itself on the questions it asks, looking for definitions misses the point of religion—which treasures only experience as a means to truth.

No matter the religion, its purpose is to bring the practitioner to an experience of his or her own wholeness. When this underlying essence and purpose goes missing, it quickly and inevitably dissolves into empty rituals. How could it be anything else in the absence of an awakened consciousness? Even the meaning of the word religion betrays its supreme spiritual purpose—to remember your spiritual identity. But without clarity all we have is confusion, without heartfelt practice all we have is mechanized ceremony and without open eyes all that is left is the blind leading the blind.

One Year Ago: The First Teacher-Training Diary

It was this time last year that I made the decision to deepen my practice as a Yoga teacher. It was a long time coming–I heeded the calling of my heart to study directly under my beloved masters of Kundalini Yoga at Yogi Bhajan’s first and only studio, Yoga West.

It had taken six years, and at least two weeks of waffling, to finally commit. I remember the night I called to say Yes; I took my walk as usual, only the pink-stained evening sky was pinker than usual, the drooping golden sun was twice as gold as usual, and the crisp autumn breeze that chilled my just-washed face was the most delightful breeze there ever was.

I knew I would want to chronicle this life-changing journey, and I did. Here is the first of several teacher-training diaries I wrote, that were originally published on Spirit Voyage.

I walked briskly down the street in the rain, carrying an open plate of assorted curries and rice. Zigzagging around two Jewish families, out for Saturday services, I sought a moment of refuge in my car, to absorb the somewhat magical events that had transpired that day.

Still flush from the long group chant, I watched as the raindrops coalesced on my windshield. My voice had melted away into the warm sea of long “Ek Ong Kars.” I had lost the sense of where my own voice ended and the others began. The vibrational frequencies of 58 voices fused into a lush whole and time itself evaporated like dew. It was as if we all dissolved into some invisible swell that had gently washed over us. I took a bite of the creamy raita on the side of my plate and watched one single raindrop trickle down the window, leaving behind a long, clear squiggle for peeking through to the glassy, rain soaked street.

As all the genuine spiritual traditions remind us, it is through the dignity of letting go that wisdom is attained. In subtle paradox, it is by losing that we gain. In chanting, it was not merely our voices that we offered up to the infinite, but our very sense of self. In exalting the sacred mantra through chant, the tangible and the intangible disappeared into unison. At another moment, a white head wrap and an outstretched leg extended in front of my own, while mine lay, in turn, behind another. Together, we all carried on, and for the duration of the kriya, our bellies pumped air as one rhythmic body, like some multifaceted breathing apparatus. We were a woven cloth. For a time, personal space melted away, along with the intangible sense of separateness that keeps us from our own divinity.

In the shadowy world of separateness and duality, bad habits loom. Fear looms. The hum of adversity is often dispatched from the depths of the psyche, still on automatic, like a broken old alarm that sounds for no reason. There was a moment when mine hollered out – victim to the old triggers. But one of the Yogis inspirited my heart and knocked all sense out of me. I thanked him. And with a gentle word he sent me off to sharpen my tools. We are empowering ourselves to glide above those old patterns, to fly, wholly powered by spirit.

We have been gifted with invaluable tools of Kundalini Yoga, and we are learning how to use them. Through the timeless wisdom and functionality of these kriyas, we are learning how to scrap the unconscious negative reflexes and oust the heavy blocks that prevent the wholeness of mind and radiance we seek. Yogi Bhajan was forthright about the efficacy of what he called “the Yoga of awareness,” revealing that by practicing its techniques correctly, “we fry this subconscious mind; we make toast out of it and eat it.” Seeing us falter during a particularly intense kriya, Gurudhan reminded us to “become the nervous system.” “Keep going,” the yogi called out, as we disappeared into the kriya, as we became the kriya. We were mastering our energy rather than the other way around.

In some ways, this process reminds me a bit like getting thrown into the washing machine and then spat out again. And I’m hopeful it’ll be a cleaner, softer, more appealing me than what originally went in. I knew the intense, nine month period wasn’t an arbitrary figure. It’s as Guru Singh explained that first night: Like a birthing, after nine months, we’ll come out of the birth canal pure and new. “First you’re like eager babes,” he mused, as he surveyed the room full of the novice’s enthusiasm. “Then, as you begin to feel comfortable and more at home, you’ll start to relax and you’ll be draping your bodies all over, like you own the place.” But he continued on, explaining that by the end of the training period, we will have come full circle, only not exactly in the same starting place. When we get ready to emerge, as Aquarian teachers of 2011, we will be like eager young babes again. But in a different way.

I still have the teacher training pamphlet from 2005 in my Yoga files. Although it was because of Guru Singh, that I took that flyer five years ago, and because of him, that I finally committed this year, the boon is that through this intense training program, I will also have the benefit of learning from other masters, that I am quickly growing to love. Soon I will look upon them all as my teachers. And I will officially count myself among the third-generation disciples of Yogi Bhajan, himself.

It is a blessing for which I am eternally grateful, but also a tremendous responsibility, for these timeless teachings will be reflected in my own conduct and in the way I bring them forth to others as a teacher. But, it was a calling of the heart. And this is a brave heart that can only become more brave through practice.

An Insightful & Honest 10-Day Meditation Journal

One of my students turned in a 10-day journal, chronicling her first sustained attempt at meditation. It was one of their options for a 50-point feature project. This particular journal was penned by a Japanese girl of about 18 years old. She presents such an amusing, accurate and insightful account—with all her struggles and modest rewards delightfully narrated—that I am reproducing it here without edit, as some of the awkwardly translated phrases only add to its overall charm.

First Day.
Sitting still for ten minutes was the toughest thing in meditation. After five minutes, my legs started to feel numb and my concentration faded away. Breathing is what humans do without even realizing, but I could not breathe well when I tried to focus on my breathing. Moreover, I felt difficulty to even hear the sound of my breath. Another thing I realized was that something that never bothers me could really bother me during the meditation. Sounds of people talking, noise of my neighbors, things in nature really tick me off during the meditation. The more I tried to focus, the more I became distracted. During the ten minutes of meditation, my hatred towards meditation grew and I even started to blame the existence of meditation itself. After the meditation, it made me realize how immature I am.

Second Day.
As I expected, today’s meditation was as tough as yesterday’s. During the meditation, I was wondering how I can improve my concentration during the meditation. I know that meditation helps to purify my foul mind, but only disturbing thoughts came up during the meditation. I just remembered what professor said, that people are rushing and rushing. I think this is a necessary practice in the life. To shorten the time makes more time that I can do other things. Therefore meditation gives me more relax and steady.

Third Day.
Still meditation is not enjoyable for me but I believed that I could find something through it. Today I meditated while listening to music from Youtube for meditation. I could relax and hold steady mind. I used to understand what meditation is, but it was so irritating to my existence on the first day. I read the text book to feel Buddha’s spirit more deeply. It said bodies and minds are strongly related. I feel like I understand the meaning of this. For example, we say “pain is from the mind,” in Japan. For example, if someone trod on my foot and the person was who I like, probably I would not mind and the pain would go away soon, but in the case of someone who I hate, I would feel pain longer than in the previous case and with hatred. Moreover, I might give the same back to the person. I felt that I have to practice meditation in order to control my devil spirit.

Fourth Day.
I don’t feel pain with sitting anymore, although sometimes I started thinking and can not focus on being empty and my mind moves around. 10 minutes passes more quickly than before. It may just be my imagination, but I feel I’m able to be kinder to others than I was. Because I can rethink how I am after meditation.

Fifth Day.
On the fifth day, my attitude towards meditation finally became positive from negative. I was willing to start to meditate to find out what kind of outcome I will be getting out of this session. Once I started to meditate, I realized how clear my mind was. To be honest, I was not thinking about anything during the meditation. I was not enjoying the moment nor hating the moment. I was neutral. When I opened up my eyes and checked how long I had been meditating, I found out that I was meditating for 20 minutes without any thoughts. My mind was so clear that I felt like my brains were washed out. My breathing was so natural and smooth that I could not even tell if I was really breathing. I was so happy with the effects of meditation that I finally started to look forward to the next mediation session.

Sixth Day.
I had a bad day at school and I felt like I didn’t want to do anything. I was chilling on the bed all day after school because fortunately I didn’t have any homework for tomorrow. Still, since I continue to meditate, I did so before I go to sleep. Then I came to realize that meditation gives me opportunities to face myself when I become deflated or have an anxiety. At times like that, I tend to escape from the matter and try to get them away from my mind; though I have learned the importance of facing my problems, not turning away from them. My feeling has become great, even though I was depressed before meditation.

Seventh Day.
Period of wax and wane of the moon.
Cycle of period.
Period of revolution of the moon.
Period of rotation of the sun.
28 days.
28th is cycle of the time of the universe. After I meditated, I was just muddling about the universe, and I came up with these. If we live the life according to the rhythm of nature, physical and mental would be healthy more and more. Live along with universal providence. It is beautiful.

Eighth Day.
I did meditate on the eighth day. I felt great and refreshed. By listening to the sound and wind of nature, I realized I was part of the universe. Human beings are not the center of the universe. If everyone can realize that, confusion and worry would be diminished in the world because all human beings are connected by a big bond.

Ninth Day.
I assumed happiness was always felt when we achieve some difficult goal, though actually, it was not. Truthfully, happiness is always nearby; in addition, it costs nothing and is fuss-free. I was meditating for 30 minutes today. Meditation makes me comfortable, and I can see myself from the third person. If I can keep this sense, I would be able to act with making transgressions because I believe people make transgressions only when they can not see themselves. There is really a lot to learn about meditation.

Tenth Day.
Today is the final day for meditating for this assignment. Before I started the final session, I was thinking how far I’d come already. I could not even stand the idea of meditation on the first day, but I was already addicted to the idea of meditation on the tenth day. I was surprised at how clear my mind was before the last session started and how good I felt about my achievement. Finally, I started my last meditation. Everything was going well until I realized the strange noise my neighbor was making. At first, I tried to shut it off and concentrate again. Funny, I could not. After I failed to concentrate, I started to get mad at the noise because it is ruining my precious last meditation session. I was surprised at the fact that I got ticked off so easy again, just like the first day. I was satisfied with my mental growth just before this session started, but here I am acting like myself as I was on the first day. After I finished meditating, I was embarrassed and decided to be more humble. Another lesson taught by meditating. I have to be humble. A lesson is something we are taught by others. It is amazing how meditation can create a lesson out of myself. The lesson is coming from the deep part of my mind. I really think that is beautiful. I am fascinated with meditation now and I will practice meditation more and more in my life.

Teaching Kundalini Yoga

I have been grading papers this week. Earlier I came upon a passage written by a student who has also taken my Yoga class. My heart swelled with gladness as I read the description of this girl’s first experience in a Kundalini Yoga class. It touched my heart to know that the class had so touched hers. Here is a portion of the endearing note:

On July 8th, I attended Professor Quesada’s Yoga class at Machatz Self Defense Studio. I am not a morning person, especially when it is not a school day. Thus, I entered the studio rather grumpy. However, the lights were out, so that was a plus. I sat on the mat and we were told to sit with our legs crossed, a diamond-like pose. The tuning-in mantra was “Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo,” meaning, I call on divine consciousness. It calmed me down…We began some deep breathing and gradually sped up the pace…we flexed our bodies…I couldn’t have begun my day better…Professor Quesada had us lie on our backs while she played the gong. This was my first time having this experience. It felt as if my heart was beating along with the sound. As I closed my eyes I felt as if I was in a whole different world, a world of emptiness, a world free of strain and frustration. To conclude the Yoga, we all began to sing Long Time Sun, which I found on Youtube that night and played on my laptop. It just puts a smile on my face, and the fact that we all sang along made it so much more beautiful…

On the Notion of a Perfect Teacher

   I watched a documentary about the American spiritual teacher, Ram Dass. His Be Here Now, has long been one of the staples on my book shelf. Now 80 years old, he talks candidly about the struggles he’s faced after his stroke. He confessed the moment when, on the verge of death, he failed to orient himself toward God. That’s the ultimate test, he explained, and according to him, he flunked it. “I still have a lot of work to do,” he says.

His honesty touched me. It is often assumed that those on a spiritual path don’t slip and fall. But as my Zen teacher has said, it’s not whether you fall or not, it’s how quickly you can get back up. In Yoga, we look at growth as it manifests in degrees and stages, the real measurement of which is entirely internal, and rarely consistent. Progress in anything, including life itself, is never a straight line. But what we do have, as seekers, is an ever keener insight into the difference between what our minds have concocted and reality itself; the tools needed to snap out of our delusion; a willingness to laugh about our own folly, and with time, perhaps, the courage to make things right.

As teachers, we can be hard on ourselves when we do find ourselves splashing around in the dark waters of old habits. At our final Yoga teacher-training weekend, Joey told us he had had an altercation with someone just before arriving. I was listening. I had just exchanged words with a demanding student.

We had both been rocked off center and we shared our feelings with the group. We were disappointed in ourselves. We were about to graduate as teachers of Kundalini Yoga. We both share a feeling of responsibility for maintaining the dignity and excellence of this tradition and part of how we do that is through our own conduct.

What happens, Joey asked, when this sort of thing happens and we’ve got to teach a class? Do you cancel? Of course not—what an idea! You go and you teach, our teacher said. And in this tradition, what that means, is that first, we “tune in.” You never know who will be there and what they will take away from the class. There might be someone in your class that day who will decide to become a teacher herself, or who will be so moved as to make some positive life-change. And chances are, you too, will forget all about whatever it was you left outside the door before you took your place on the teacher’s bench. And you did leave it outside the door!

Tuning in means going beyond ourselves to align with the greater wisdom we deliver as teachers. In this way, the teacher is more like a messenger than an originator. The teachings come through us, rather than from us, and have nothing to do with our individual personality or quirks. They go beyond the words that are spoken and are communicated subtly through our own presence.

The conventional, or western, or academic, notion of a teacher is of one that dispenses information and data. From our perspective as Yoga teachers, this reduces teaching to nothing more than a “professional trade.” As our own founding teacher, Yogi Bhajan, quipped, if we look upon teaching in such a shallow way, as merely a profession, “we will train many preachers, but no teachers.”

Our focus should be on getting out of our own way and on uplifting and guiding others, rather than on our own success or failure. Our obsession on perfection is just another ego trip. And that doesn’t mean we stop striving toward excellence—our very ability to develop excellence is directly proportional to our ability to stop striving. At least where that striving is tied up with our ideas and notions of who we should be. We had better simply let go of ourselves.

When we begin to do this, we begin to manifest a certain grace when we teach. Ironically, the very shift in the way we understand our duty as teachers, from one in which we recite information, to one in which we serve, is the first step toward inner transformation. But it takes faith and trust to relax into this role as a conduit of truth. To be entrusted with the task of serving, of being a source of light, makes it, most surely, a noble profession. As such, “to be a teacher is the ultimate human end,” Yogi Bhajan concludes.

Anyone who teaches to be a teacher rather than to serve, will fall. ~Yogi Bhajan

An Interview!

Interview with Donna Quesada
Author of Buddha in the Classroom; Zen Wisdom to Inspire Teachers

AJ: So take us through the process of this book. When did you first conceptualize the whole idea and how did it flow from there?

DQ: It was the fall semester of 2008. My spirit was declining and I was dragging myself to class each day. I started envisioning a series of vignettes in which I would consider burnout from the point of view of Zen. Little did I know, the coming semester would be the worst yet! It was almost serendipitous, though, because I had just bought a voice recorder, so I started recording myself on the way back to my car each day after class, and the stories just kept coming. Through them, my vision started to transform and as my vision transformed, so did my frustrations. In this book I share what turned out to be a collection of entertaining anecdotes—of the “clicky” girls that never stop talking, the angry guy, the iPod guy, etc., all of which are followed by the treasured eastern wisdom that inspired and lifted me out of my burnout.

AJ: It seems to me that you use the stories as a vehicle through which to intimate these zen lessons. Was that how you saw the book coming together?

DQ: Exactly! I don’t think I could have written it any other way because my spiritual practice is such a huge part of who I am and how I look at problems. Even the very notion of a “problem” makes me think of a famous quote by a Zen master: “Of course I have troubles—it’s just no problem!”

AJ: Can you go into a bit of detail about your background as a Zen Buddhist?

DQ: It was an instant love-affair. It started when I spied the cover of an Alan Watts book, sitting on a friend’s kitchen counter. It was The Wisdom of Insecurity, which at that time, had a groovy green and purple cover which caught my eye, while the title captured my imagination. I was intrigued by its ironic and surprising promise. I started temple-hopping and then got lucky enough to land myself in the classroom of a Japanese professor who taught zazen. The nine of us in the class actually got credit for staring at the wall for nearly an hour each day. But then again, it’s more challenging than the typical academic work my friends were doing in other classes. Years later, I would find my way to The Hazy Moon and to the last disciple of Taizan Maezumi Roshi, in a charming little zendo in Los Angeles, where I finally took my Zen vows. My Yoga practice was deepening alongside my Zen practice all the while—the two are an interwoven and integral part of my life today.

AJ: I was particularly struck with the non-religious feel of the book. It felt more like you and I were having a conversation over coffee, sharing fun stories here and there. Can you speak to that feel of the book for a bit?

DQ: I’m happy it feels that way to the reader! And I’m glad you mentioned the non-religious feel. It’s as I say in the preface, the wisdom is for everyone! Zen expects nothing and insists on no beliefs at all, so it doesn’t matter what the reader’s religious background (or lack thereof) is. That’s one of the interesting things about Zen temples—you walk in and find Christians practicing next to Jews! What Zen asks of you is that you be present for your life, and any discipline that helps us do that is doing us a great service.

AJ: Did you have a particular reader in mind as you were writing the book?

DQ: It’s funny. Everyone, but me, seemed to peg this book right away, as a book for teachers. But, I never thought of myself as someone who had a right to write a book for teachers. I never thought of myself—and still don’t—as an education expert. I only wanted to share these special, golden-nuggets of Zen and Yogic wisdom, alongside entertaining stories. I thought Zen enthusiasts would appreciate the elements that have only been heard in Dharma talks. But it is being marketed as a gift for teachers, and I now see that it can be of great service to teachers that are feeling the same way I felt. My hope now is that it inspires many!

AJ: What would you say is the “take home message” of your book?

DQ: To remember that we’re here to uplift others and that goes beyond the words and the whiteboard and even the grades. And we do that by shifting our perspective and by doing the opposite of what we’ve always been told to do in the west—by getting out of our heads and out of our own way! Our presence itself is a great teacher.

Interview with Amy Jacobowitz
freelance marketing

Tibet; They Never Invaded Anyone!

It was half time during the Barça-Real Madrid game. I told my husband I had showed the Tibet video in class. “Which one?” he asked. There are many such documentaries—such as, The Yogis of Tibet, Tibetan Refugee, and of course, movies like Kundun—that chronicle the Chinese invasion of Tibet under the Maoist regime, beginning in 1949. The one I showed today focussed on an interview with the Dalai Lama, hence the title, 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama.

Despite the star power behind the issue, many of my students bravely and humbly admitted to never having heard of this critical situation. Yet, the average person surely knows what kind of dress Kate Middleton wore at the Royal Wedding, I wryly joked.

The problem of media coverage comes in to play when you consider that in order to care about any injustice, you’ve got to first be aware that the injustice even exists.

Despite the lively discussion the video engendered, and the gratitude most students expressed to me after class for having showed the video, I mentioned to my husband that one student had called the video one-sided.

The game was back and Messi had the ball, so my husband went straight to the heart of it: Tibet never invaded anyone. The suggestion of bias makes it sound as if somehow, one could justify the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans, the destruction of over 6,000 monasteries, nunneries and temples, and the imprisonment and torture of thousands of other Tibetans.

I don’t see any more justification for this than I do the murder of 6 million Jews, nor nearly 1 million Armenians by the Turks, nor any of the other cultural genocides that darken the pages of our history books.

Someone wondered whether the film had an anti-communist tone. Whether it did or didn’t isn’t really the point. And the fact that Mao was one isn’t really the point (besides giving Mao an extra dash of bitterness toward the Tibetans just for being religious). The point is tyranny and injustice and communists lay no claim to either—oppressors come in all shapes, sizes and political affiliation.

I thought of something my favorite journalist—the Persian reporter, Christiane Amanour—asked once: Why can’t we just call a spade a spade? She knew full well why.

In this case, as the BBC points out, China has become a major player in the world market and its businesses have such a strong lobby that officials are reluctant to take substantive measures against its crimes toward Tibet.

In November 2008, the U.N. agreed with Free Tibet’s report on torture, clarifying that it believes that torture is ‘widespread and routine’ in Tibet.

Lest we forget to mention that from China’s perspective, Tibet has always been part of the Republic, let us state simultaneously, that prior to 1950, Tibet was a nation with an established sovereign government, a currency, a postal system, a language, a legal system, and a culture.

The history is complex, but the moral point is simple: There is never an excuse for imperialist aggression.

And lest we falsely assume that for all Chinese authorities, mum’s the word, let’s not forget Hu Yao Bang, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, who visited Tibet in 1980—the first senior official to do so since the invasion. He was so alarmed by the destruction he saw there, he called for immediate reform.

He was forced to resign.

The situation has continued to languish. And other officials dared not come forth. Some, such as Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, simply deny reports of tensions, calling on the US to stop making “irresponsible remarks.”

All foreigners have been banned from Tibet and from the surrounding provinces in order to close the region to outside eyes.

In 1981, Russian writer Alexander Solzhenytsin described the situation as “more brutal and inhumane than any other communist regime in the world.” And this, by the pen of a Russian novelist!

And lest we falsely lay blame on our friends, the common Chinese people, who have themselves, suffered by the hands of the same regime, I am reprinting part of an article I previously wrote:

The Emptiness of Anger

While working my way through a thick stack of homework papers recently, I came across one, written by a Chinese student who spoke of his hatred toward the Japanese because of the Japanese invasions into China during the 1930s. 

I wondered, if he even knew who he was angry with, and whether the feeling is directed toward today’s generation of Japanese. I even wonder if it is a feeling at all. It is perhaps more like a cultural habit. 

Nonetheless, if the cynicism is directed toward today’s generation, then I wonder whether these young Japanese are even familiar with the history of WWII. If they’re like most young people, it’s just an anecdote in their history books. They are a good three generations removed, with very different cultural concerns, and on a personal level, they’re worried about transferring to a good university, when their boyfriend will call, and whether they’ve used too many minutes on their cell phones. We are all very similar. In this light, it is clearly pointless to be angry at these people.

So, then what about the older generation, those who were in their prime during WWII—The “culprits?” Similarly, my guess is that the average Japanese person back then was waiting for news of the war, like the rest of the world, concerned most immediately, about the safety of her family, and just hoping for things to return to normal. They weren’t personally involved in acts of destruction at all, and chances are, didn’t wish for it, either. So, who should the culprit be? Perhaps the government…

…but that particular assemblage is now nonexistent!

The Chinese aren’t horrible for persisting in their anger toward the Japanese. If they are, then we all are equally horrible. We all do the same thing. The Buddhists call it ignorance.

We condemn the Germans as a whole for the holocaust. But all it takes is remembrance of the many Germans who tried, themselves, to bring down Hitler, and the many others who took in Jews, at their own personal risk.

Ironically, it would be all too easy to direct the same bitterness toward the Chinese, due to their violent seizure of Tibet, but the ordinary Chinese people of today have not seized Tibet, and weren’t even around when the whole thing started. They are getting along like the rest of us, doing the things the rest of us do everyday, and probably don’t know much about it, aside from what their Government, through heavy censure, has allowed them to know.

The point is, with deeper consideration, it becomes increasingly difficult to find a target, and to hold onto anger.

What’s New?

I am currently writing a follow-up to the article I recently wrote for Elephant Journal. Like the first article, it takes the reader into my classroom, where together, we explore important questions arising from Buddhist philosophy, like how on earth I’m supposed to be happy when the world is falling apart.

Yesterday, my lecture on Emptiness was filmed. We’ll see how it turns out – hopefully it’ll be uploaded to Youtube within the next week or two.

And although I haven’t added a blog post lately, I have added a POETRY page (see the horizontal index on top), which will allow me to house some of the poetry I’ve written over the years. I have so much, that it will be a project in itself to upload a fair portion of it in some sort of organized way, but that’s next in line, after the Elephant Journal article.

But most exciting of all, is that my publisher just gave me word that my book is expected in their warehouse TODAY! The release date is May 11th, but I should have a copy in hand before that – can’t wait!

Close Your Books! Teaching Meditation in a Community College Classroom

I’m thrilled to be a part of elephant journal!

Following is an excerpt from my article, Close Your Books and Forget the Thinking: Teaching Meditation in a Community College Lecture Hall:

In the East, knowledge is all tangled up with the religious and so it is that the western categories of philosophy and religion don’t quite fit. Knowledge comes via direct experience, rather than cogent arguments. Truth is found in the stillness of the quiet mind, rather than on the pages of competing theories and the very pursuit is to drop the pursuit. We rediscover, rather, what we already know, uncover what was already there—what Zen calls your original face, what Hinduism calls your true self. But we have to get real still, so that we can see without looking and hear without listening.

I explained all of this. Then, I dimmed the lights.

“With your attention only on your breath, jot down, in your project books, each thought you become aware of. But don’t write me a composition! And, as strange as it sounds, don’t try to write stuff—because that means you’re following your thoughts. Just scratch out any key word and come back.”

I tiptoed around and stole glances over their shoulders. Some had no more than five words, even though five minutes had passed, even though we’ve got thousands of thoughts streaming by in the blink of an eye.

I interrupted the silence with two hits of my handheld meditation bell.

“Anybody care to share?” I asked. “Was there some thought you kept coming back to?”

“Yeah, that I can’t wait to eat, after class!” one said.

“Me too–I couldn’t get lunch out of my head,” a girl in the back added.

“Sounds like what we used to call ‘sick dreams’, as kids,” I laughed.

“So, we’ve got burritos on the brain. What kind of thought is that?” I asked.

“A future thought,” offered one quick student in the front.

“Exactly!” I said.

“So, here’s part two of our experiment: Next to each word, write a ‘P’ next to the past thoughts and an ‘F,’ next to the future ones.”

Read the whole article here!

Reincarnation and Presence: A Contradiction?

We talked in class, about the importance of presence, and the role of meditation in bringing us back to the only moment that has ever, and that will ever, exist—Now. And then a student asked a question:

“But Hindus believe in reincarnation—isn’t that a future-worry?”

At the heart of meditation, in Hinduism, and in all the Dharmic traditions, including Buddha Dharma and Sikh Dharma, is the importance placed on nurturing our power of focused awareness. It strengthens the mind’s ability to consciously choose, in anew in each moment, where to focus its attention. As it happens, the best thing to focus on is now, and although there are countless reasons why, these are the three most important ones:

  1. Now is the most incredible and momentous event of our lives.
  2. Now is the only time and place joy lives
  3. Now is the only time and place we can discover how the mind really works, and thus, get it to work better.

Now starts with the simple sensation of our own breath flowing in through our noses, and down into our lungs. Watching this is where presence begins and where true meditation begins.

I can appreciate my student’s concern about reincarnation, and the idea that if it happens at a future time, then thinking about it would seem to constitute future thinking—a direct contradiction to the enterprise of staying present.

However—and this is at the heart of my response—Just because you know the rest of the staircase is there, doesn’t mean you ever walk more than one step at a time!

The subtler nuances of my response concern the idea of reincarnation itself, which may be conceived of in myriad ways.

Ask a Zen Buddhist what she thinks of reincarnation and get one answer. Ask 10 others and get 10 more. Ask a Hindu, get another one still. Life and death happens every moment. It happens because you change every moment. In each and every moment, the forces of creation, preservation and destruction happen within you and without you, on every level of your physical, spiritual and mental existence. On the cellular level there is a war going on, and in the world of our minds, as meditation clearly shows us, we are forever duking it out.

But we only notice the aftermath and inevitable changes that follow, when something moves us and shakes us to such a degree that we’re thrown into shock—when we’re sure nothing will ever be the same again. We must remember though, that at any moment, we may proclaim with absolute certainty, that nothing will ever be the same again. We always notice only later, when, seen through the bittersweet palette of our mind’s eye, we gaze nostalgically back upon the events of our lives.

Reincarnation, conceived of in the most brute sense, as the soul taking up residence in a new physical vessel, after the complete physical death of the prior, is still just an extension of the way life is already—you know there’s a tomorrow, but you don’t live there. You know you’ll die, but you choose to live, while you’re alive.

In this unrefined interpretation of reincarnation, the soul’s rebirth is determined by the karmic balance left after our physical existence is done. But in the meantime, and in realtime, through meditation, we can redeem our innumerable debts. When we say we choose to live, we can really do it, by waking up now. The Hindus call it Moksha. We can all call it liberation.

As written for Spirit Voyage.