Sunday, July 5, 2009
When I found out that the park was a farm/ashram of the the group popularly known as the "hare krishnas", one of the most targeted groups of anti-cult activity, I knew that I could play along enough to learn from the experience without getting too wrapped up in it. Some dogmatic thinking at the farm certainly alarmed me, but I used the experience as a chance to simultaneously immerse myself as fully as possible in a culture that was radically different from my upbringing while also never flinching for a second regarding my ownership over my individuality, decisions and actions. In any case, I have got to hand it to people who go out in the streets looking like complete weirdos and have a good time singing and dancing. All without alcohol.
A well-rounded holistic lifestyle
With the HK's, I learned another yoga to compliment the physical asanas I had been doing in studios for years. The primary practice of the HK's (and some other Hindus) is Bahkti yoga, or devotion, which they practice by chanting mantras that recite the names of God (their nickname derives from their favorite mantra which includes the words "Hare Krishna".)
The concept that physical fitness, "spiritual practice" such as meditation or prayer, community and interpersonal relations are not separate spheres, but integrated parts of a well-balanced life continues to shape my work with Zen Peacemakers and Haley House today. Eco Truly Park was my first experience living in “intentional community” and I still find that lifestyle rewarding. Many Buddhists use the framework of the 5 Buddha Families or mandala to develop awareness of the different elements of a well-rounded life.
The holistic approach influenced how I see practice. The ashram schedule is strict. At Eco Truly Park, we woke up at 4am, retrieved buckets of cold water from the well and used them to cleanse ourselves before entering the temple for three hours of chanting, singing, study and discussion. The rest of the day consists of delicious communal vegetarian meals and physical labor (including farming). After dinner, we reconvene for another three hours of devotion in the temple. Ashram (or monastic) life is like training in a music conservatory or military boot camp. Residential training with the support of mentors and other focused students facilitates advances in development in ways that showing up in a studio simply doesn’t achieve.
Rules & Structure
Another primary element of HK practice is their adherence to strict rules. Drinking, gambling, eating meat and sex that isn’t intended for procreation are all considered prohibited sins. For this reason, I can see how an HK community could be a good fit for people in recovery who struggle with moderation. Sometimes, all or nothing is the only way to go.
I observed the effects of this lifestyle on my mind, especially when I left for Lima and then returned to the farm. While on the farm, I followed all the rules, including practicing different relationships to crushes on women at the farm. As a way of constantly maintaining an elevated conscious, the HK’s suggest repeating their favorite mantra in your head throughout the day. I found that the mantra did get stuck in my head and that increased my general mindfulness… until I returned to Lima, tried its famous ceviche and enjoyed an Argentine-style asado, violating the restriction against eating animals.
Guilt emerged as the mantra faded from my consciousness. I cast aside the mantra and the rules and reveled in my game of hopscotch between two very different worlds.
I also really got a kick out of the debates about rules between moderate and fanatical people within the community. I sat back and listened with a smirk, observing and taking notes, asking questions every chance I could get. Different community members took turns leading the study and discussion in the temple, reviewing a particular passage from the Baghavad Gita and applying it to life in the community.
One heated debate regarded the man who had become my closest friend in the community. Another community member interpreted a passage of scripture to argue that men and women shouldn’t spend time alone together without the permission of the guru, as my friend was doing. Months later, he informed me on MSN messenger that he jumped through the necessary hoops after getting relocated to another center, eventually marrying the woman and staying within the HK community. I learned a lot about what religion and community gives people and how people both crave and rebel against rules. I explored what type of rules work and don’t work for me.
Facebook message: "Hey Ari, It was nice to meet you the other day! thanks for sending me these links. i like that picture on the other link of you at what looks like a salt plain. Is that Uyuni? I want to go there-- it looks so awesome. Would you recommend it?"
My response: The picture of me looking into a vast white field was indeed taken at the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. You asked if I would recommend that site and I can’t give you a simple answer. I had a great time at Uyuni, but there is no site that I would recommend or not recommend because to me travel was precisely about getting in touch with doing the right thing for the particular moment. This approach ultimately developed into an affinity for Zen, though you can find it in numerous other sources, both religious and otherwise.
I love the title of the recent popular travel memoir “Eat, Pray, Love”. What a romantic image of life on the road! I also love the spoof published in response “Drink, Play, F*ck”. Couldn't someone mix and match any combination of those six options? I loved traveling for its power to illuminate new options. Through travel, I practiced disrupting existing orientations and adding new ones to my easel. My previous orientation included: being certain about a career path (the "small schools movement"), putting up barriers and a generally intellectual approach to life.
The book "Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel" by Rolf Potts helped me a lot in boiling down the Kerouac spirit into practical advice. He recommends that we neither depend entirely on the "beaten path" nor take on a pretentious holier-than-though attitude towards it.
So, I had rich experiences both with American, European and Latino tourists and alone at several "must see" places (Cusco, Uyuni, Canyon de Colca, Mendoza vineyards) but there were also many of "must see" sites that I passed nearby and skipped (Valle de Luna en Atacama, Chile, jungles in Peru and Bolivia, plane trip over Nasca lines) because I either wanted to preserve cash or just hang out with some people around me. I'm not the first person to suggest that travel is precisely a wonderful opportunity to practice letting go of the idea that we "must see" or "must do" anything and getting in touch with doing the right thing for any particular moment. Nonetheless, those "must see" lists in the guidebooks are great indications of options!
My memories of Uyuni are: an American tourist in our tour group who complained non-stop, bonding about indie rock with an American who was volunteering in Cocha , getting accustomed to tough elements and living from a backpack, chewing coca leaves with a bloody nose... oh yeah and some really unique and amazingly beautiful sites. The fact that it was really early in my trip shaped my experience at Uyuni, too. During the first 4 or 5 months of traveling, I did all my "on the road" time with others and I spent most of my time staying in places where I knew people (Cocha for 1 month, Buenos Aires for 2 months and Merlo, San Luis, Argentina for 1 month).
After that, I didn't stay put and I was on my own, except for fleeting hours, days or weeks when I met up with some person or group only to part again. I would agree with Potts that traveling with others is good practice, but only once you are really slapped in the face with the gorgeous burden of having to decide for yourself every minute what you want to do or don't want to do without having to consult anyone else or worry about what others will think, does the real transformation take place. Being alone also makes it much easier to meet locals, too.
Monday, June 8, 2009
I just listened to an interview with Joshua Dubois, the head of the retooled White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood partnerships. In general, I liked what he had to say and it made me feel some tentative and hesitant hope about our future, perhaps somewhat tempered from the more emotional faith in change that I experienced during the campaign. I found Dubois to be an uninspiring politician who gushes over Obama and sticks to a script, but maybe I’m just jealous because I’ve finally reached a point in life where powerful public figures can be younger than I am (he is only 26).
According to a White House press release, the Office will focus on four goals:
- “The Office’s top priority will be making community groups an integral part of our economic recovery and poverty a burden fewer have to bear when recovery is complete.
- It will be one voice among several in the administration that will look at how we support women and children, address teenage pregnancy, and reduce the need for abortion.
- The Office will strive to support fathers who stand by their families, which involves working to get young men off the streets and into well-paying jobs, and encouraging responsible fatherhood.
- Finally, beyond American shores this Office will work with the National Security Council to foster interfaith dialogue with leaders and scholars around the world.”
The first goal in particular seems very in line with my goals in Zen ministry and my work at Haley House.The emphasis on partnering with secular organizations and working towards interfaith cooperation is also certainly in line with Zen Peacemaker’s style, but I wonder why the stated goal includes international dialogue and not domestic. The reason that the first goal resonates with my experience is because what came to be known as social enterprise was key in Roshi Bernie’s transition from a simply meditation-focused Zen teacher to becoming an innovative leader in the social sphere when he created the Greyston Bakery and then the Greyston Foundation. The Haley House Bakery Café is also a unique aspect of Haley House, created about three years ago and departing from the organization’s traditional focus as a provider of direct services.
The phrasing of the goals to “reduce the need for abortion” and the goal to “support fathers who stand by their families” have the potential to transcend stale culture war conflict and address pressing needs of low-income communities. One can only hope.
I remember the moment in which I was converted to Obama from Hillary, sitting in a cyber café in
I also noticed that Dubois mentioned Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus and didn't mention Buddhists. I remember sitting in Roshi Bernie’s house watching Obama’s inauguration, in which he mentioned Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and non-believers. “Are we non-believers?” I asked. Why don’t Obama or Dubois mention Buddhists, when according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey, there are more Buddhists in the
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
*The Haley House Soup Kitchen in the South End of Boston is managed by a live-in intentional community housed in the same building. Along with his housemates, Ari takes turns serving as shift head, planning the meal and coordinating volunteers in the soup kitchen. The purpose of serving food is to develop relationships and build community and every shift includes eating and chatting with guests and volunteers.
*The Live-in Community is strengthened by several weekly activities that deepen the practices of intimacy, communication and collective learning. Ari experiences how this creates a family feel that then permeates the broader soup kitchen community. Ari shares mindfulness methods, such as the Work of Byron Katie, during the weekly Faith Sharing night in which house members volunteer to lead activities.
*Meditation and Council are now facilitated by Ari twice a week, who is taking over the job after aiding Rev. Cynthia Seiho Brighton. Participants have included: a soup kitchen guest, the manager of a Haley House affordable housing unit and a live-in community member, among others. [Note: Meditation cushions are limited and the Zen Peacemakers at Haley House would gladly accept donations]
*Pathmaking is the practice of using Buddhist principles to support people in moving forward in achieving their goals. Ari intends to explore using pathmaking principles to support community members in finding employment and housing.
*The Haley House Bakery Café is located in Roxbury, one mile away from the South End. It is a model social enterprise with similarities to the Greyston Bakery. Ari is now co-managing the Haley House Corner Shop that sells goods from the Bakery Café in the South End building. Ari has attended and assisted with healthy cooking classes for low-income youth offered at the Bakery Café. He also attends the Art is Life itself (AiLi) open mic there, where he has shared ideas exploring socially engaged Buddhism. Ari aids Nina LaNegra, the leader of AiLi, (who is also part of the live-in community and a fellow Buddhist) in publicizing it.
*In addition to all these formalized programs, Ari enjoys taking full advantage of the urban environment. He is branching out to other communities for the purpose of bearing witness and finding potential allies. He frequents events related to groups including a neighboring Christian group that ministers to the homeless, Soka Gakai International, an activist bookstore and a yoga studio.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Roshi Bernie told me I was going about it all wrong. The five-page proposal I wrote for a Zen House in a new location was out of touch. First I had to spend time in the neighborhood, meet with community members and leaders and bear witness to their needs. Zen Peacemakers and Greyston Foundation founder Roshi Bernie Glassman was reminding me that I was ignoring the first tenet of the organization: not-knowing.
Saul Alinsky, the “founder” of community organizing and an influence on President Barack Obama, might have given the same advice. His principles, as expressed in his 1971 guide Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, provide one valuable lens for manifesting the second and third tenets of the Zen Peacemakers: bearing witness and loving actions. While Roshi Bernie’s Zen training and personality make Alinsky’s confrontational style inappropriate for him, taken together, the three tenets of the Zen Peacemakers and Alinsky’s rules provide valuable lessons to aspiring agents of change, both Buddhist and otherwise.
Roshi Bernie’s daughter, Alisa Glassman, is now a leader in an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (AIF), founded by Saul Alinsky. She spent two days with us, giving us four intimate classes and guiding discussions on community organizing, with her father participating.
TENET ONE: Not-knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe
Alinsky disdained religious certainty, political doctrine, moralistic judgments and inflexible commitment to particular tactics. He writes:
“I detest and fear dogma…The human spirit glows from that small inner light of doubt whether we are right, while those who believe with complete certainty that they possess the right are dark inside and darken the world outside with cruelty, pain and injustice.” (4)Religion
Today, the AIF website explains that they are “non-ideological and strictly non-partisan.” Instead, Alinsky explains that social change is inspired by broad “spiritual principles” that form the “basic morals of all organized religions” (22, 46). In the quest for human welfare, he argues that individuals are best equipped to judge their own interests for themselves as long as they do not interfere with the rights of others (11).
About tactics, Alinsky says:
“Tactics are not the product of careful cold reason…they do not follow a table of organization or plan of attack. Accident, unpredictable reactions to your own actions, necessity, and improvisation dictate the direction and nature of tactics. Then analytical logic is required to appraise where you are, what you can do next, the risks and hopes that you can look forward to....The tactic itself comes out of the free flow of action and reaction, and requires on the part of the organizer an easy acceptance of apparent disorganization. The organizer goes with the action.”(165)Similar to a good Buddhist, Alisky’s sense of not-knowing is based in a deep sense of impermanence. He says that “the free-society organizer is loose, resilient, fluid, and on the move in a society which is itself in a state of constant change” (11).
TENET TWO: Bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world
Both Alinsky and Roshi Bernie identify the core motivation of a social servant as a deep sense of the oneness and interconnectedness of all life. Alinsky predicted that “a major revolution to be won in the immediate future is the dissipation of man’s illusion that his own welfare can be separate from that of all others” (23). He also said:
“There was a time when I believed that the basic quality that an organizer needed was a deep sense of anger against injustice and that this was the prime motivation that kept him going. I now know that it is something else: this abnormal imagination that sweeps him into a close identification with mankind and projects him into its plight. He suffers with them.” (74)Anger, Agitation and Duality
Putting aside fixed political and religious abstractions and discarding narrow tactical recipes, the organizer bears witness to the joy and suffering of the community and pushes the community to bear witness as well. In a state in which the community refrains from taking action for its improvement because of lack of belief in their own power and techniques for utilizing it, community members are alienated from their own lives. Alinsky explains that “if people feel they don’t have the power to change a bad situation, then they do not think about it” and that “they may have accepted anonymity and resigned in apathy… call it organized apathy or organized nonparticipation, but that is their community pattern” (105, 116).
In class, Alisa taught us that the organizer must be relational with the community member and also be agitational. That is to say, if a citizen is unhappy but resigned to it, the organizer should agitate them into a state of anger. She explained that controlled anger that motivates action lies on a spectrum between apathy and rage. At this point, Roshi Bernie interjected because anger is a term that seems incompatible with Buddhism. Bernie commented that while anger is one of the “three poisons” in Buddhsim that are the primary causes of our suffering, anger without ego can be transformed to the 8th Perfection (Paramita): Determination (Praṇidhāna), promoted by the Buddha in the Sutra of the Ten Stages, along with nine other qualities one should cultivate in order to follow the enlightened Way.
While both Alinsky and Roshi Bernie promote striving to maximize inclusion and get beyond narrow understandings of Self and Other, Alinsky also maintains a distinction between what he calls the Haves and the Have-nots. Alinsky said that “everything about us must be seen as the indivisible partner of its converse” and that the “grasp of the duality of all phenomena is vital in our understanding of politics” (15, 17). Thus, on the one hand, Alinsky chided hippies for deriding middle class “squares” and he said that we must also see ourselves as one with the “enemy” in order to foresee their tactics (185, 74). On a fundamental level, however, he still maintains the enemy as Other and this shapes his tactics, which include insult and ridicule.
While it is common to see Roshi Bernie put a clown nose on himself, it is hard to imagine him making fun of another person. He writes:
“When we vow to be oneness, we vow to see everything as the Buddha, as Christ, as the Way. Because the Way is everything…I have met many social activists who believe that everyone is the Way except rich people. They’re comfortable going into shelters and food panties, they mingle easily with people on the streets of our inner cities, but they can’t say hello to someone with lots of money. In their case it’s not the poor and dispossessed who are the Other, it’s the rich. When peacemakers vow to be oneness, there is no Other” (49).From Alinsky’s perspective, Roshi Bernie’s talk of oneness may be focusing on the world as it should be at the expense of dealing with the world as it is. Roshi Bernie found effective ways to utilize his perspective by initiating social enterprise and also by channeling large sums of money towards the non-profits through grants and donations from the wealthy.
TENET THREE: Loving actions towards ourselves and others
IAF: Power and Confrontation
In Alinsky’s view, after the community bears witness, it creates power. Power is another concept that can make Buddhists quiver. Alinsky says that:
“power is the very essence, the dynamo of life…It is the power of active citizen participation pulsing upward, providing a unified strength for a common purpose. Power is an essential life force always in operation, either changing the world or opposing change” (51).In the victories of both Greyston and the AIF, it is the power of providing the opportunity for homeless people to train and work in a dignified profession, of caring for children and engaging young adults after school, offering medical services, creating low-income housing and reclaiming public space for community gardening. Bearing witness to the concerns of the urban poor, both Alinsky and Roshi Bernie led communities to address issues of basic human welfare.
Based on his dualistic understanding of society, Alinsky encourages the organizer to “pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it” and also to execute an “intensive campaign of ridicule, insults, and taunting defiance” because “it is only when the other party is concerned or feels threatened that he will listen” (130, 154, 89). The idea is to use an organization to create power and use that power to pressure the Haves into making a concession that improves the lives of the Have-nots.
Alinsky mentions forms of protest common during the 1960’s such as sit-ins, strikes, boycotting, mass demonstration and marches and he also encourages organizers to use the power of numbers in other creative and controversial ways. Today, IAF is known for using tactics such as door-knocking, one-on-one meetings and house meetings. As it says on their website: “IAF does indeed use a radical tactic: the face-to-face, one-to-one individual meeting whose purpose is to initiate a public relationship and to re-knit the frayed social fabric.”
Though some of the more outlandish aspects of Alinky’s confrontational style may have more to do with his personality and historical context then with his legacy, the AIF today counts among its successes concessions from corporations and legislation fought for and won through threats, litigation and confrontation. Its website says that they use power to “compete at times, to confront at times, and to cooperate at times with leaders in the public and private sectors.”
While the successes of the organizations that constitute Greyston attest to effective organizing, there are instances in which Greyston and the Zen Peacemakers may have benefited from more effectively wielding the power of coalescing community members around an issue and confronting the powers that be. For example, Greyston had to give up the battle to win rights to make use of School 6, an abandoned building that remains unused until this day. As Roshi Bernie describes,
“at various times our block association and local church ministers complained about School 6. Over the years other organizations tried to acquire it with various plans, but School 6 had become a political football. So people walked away from it…School 6 has become a symbol of inner-city decay, of the disintegration that happens when people don’t work together” (194).Greyston: Social Enterprise and "Love"
At the same time, the social enterprise model of the Greyston Bakery opened doors of which Alinsky would never have dreamed. Greyston did not have to fight the Republican mayor of Yonkers. As Greyston started with a bakery in an impoverished areas, the pro-business politician was happy that they were creating revenue and jobs. While getting involved in business and politics in the 1970’s resulted in corruption and scandal in the San Francisco Zen Center, Greyston avoided those pitfalls by maintaining a clear social mission at the core.
Another difference between the three tenets of the Zen Peacemakers and Alinsky’s rules is that Alinsky would not call his actions “loving”. Nevertheless, while he scoffed at hippies for romanticized ideals of love and boiled life down to cold calculations of power, his successors, like Alisa, express a more nuanced philosophy of working from the delicate tension between love and power, that is to say, between the “world as it is” and the “world as it should be”.
Both initially leaders of middle class youth uninspired by the white picket fence, Alinsky and Roshi Bernie both posited as their goal in low-income neighborhoods as the empowerment of the people there. Greyston does this through a principle they call pathmaking, which according to their website “recognizes that individuals and communities evolve over time, and that the different aspects of the mandala [wholeness]- body, heart, mind, spirit and self - are linked in their development.” IAF's "iron rule of organizing" is "never do for others what they can do for themselves.”
To Alinsky, once the Have-nots build power and confront the Haves, they will be able to more capable of participating in large-scale political change. Alinsky explains that “we organize to get rid of four-legged rats so we can get on to removing two-legged rats” (68). For Roshi Bernie, the route to freedom for the Have-nots is to become the Haves and also to develop more humane models of Having. It is clear to Roshi Bernie that the solution must be systemic:
“The peacemakers we remember and honor most are those who try to heal our society as a whole, not just pieces of it. Instead of donating money to a food pantry, they try to eliminate hunger….During this process they challenge every human being and institution, as well as our very way of life. And they’re often killed for it.” (169)While they put forth broad visions of social betterment, both chose not to define those visions too narrowly in favor of trusting the transformative power of true democratic participation in a free society.
Glassman, Bernie. Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace.
The Industria Areas Foundation Homepage “Who Are We?” About IAF. 16 December 2008. Industrial Areas Foundation <http://www.industrialareasfoundation.org/iafabout/about.htm>.