Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Someone wrote a book...

I'm a little taken aback when I see stuff in the marketplace like books entitled "Why Buddhism Is True."  It's written by a guy named Robert Wright.

It seems to be a philosophy/science book.  From the link above (NY Times Book review) it seems to say that dissatisfaction - dukkha is programmed into us via natural selection.  Moreover,


Wright’s book is provocative, informative and, in many respects, deeply rewarding. A good example is Wright’s description of his first full entry into the realm of mindfulness. Arriving at this new mental state generated in him an intense emotive response and a memorable feeling that Wright evokes with suggestive but spare prose. It rings true. This scene lets the reader glimpse the power of mindful meditation and be intrigued, even seduced, by the transformative potential of the practice.


 I haven't read the book, I don't know the reviewer, but when I see things like "new mental states" "generated" etc. I am concerned as I say in my day job. 

Again, I'm not sure about the whole thing; if this was in my library I might take it out.  I must admit that 30 years ago Thich Nhat Hanh's "Miracle of Mindfulness" was very helpful to me.  So (obviously) the mindfulness stuff is important - and indeed, I would venture a necessary preceding stop to effecting meaningful change in one's life. 

 But there's something off here; it's not that I don't think Buddhism "is true," although I'm not sure what that means in a sense. There's a lot to Buddhism, and among those things I would posit, especially after spending some time on Twitter, that there's not only chiliocosms full of Buddhas, but also vastly ignorant, hurting people.  Buddhism is a hell of a lot more than meditation, and it sure as hell is not a commodity.

I think, if the NY Times reviewer captured it correctly, the last paragraph of his review damns the book:

I would venture that in most meditative states some subjectivity remains, as representative of the biological interests of the individual. As far as I can imagine, the complete disappearance of a subjective view would result in a “view from nowhere.” But whose view would that be, then? And if not ours, how would we come to know let alone seek such a view, such an emptiness? Mindful meditation is no stranger to the world of paradox. Is there anything stranger than discovering the pleasures of not feeling?


To steal from Richard Feynman, if you can't write an introductory book on Buddhism without a proper and readily grasped notion of emptiness, you have failed at the task of writing an introductory book on Buddhism.  So it's either Mr. Wright or the author of the review.




Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Poisoning the Well

Folks, google "Logical Fallacies."  I came across this post on "spiritual psychedelic drug taking" by Vince Horn, and could not believe...  well I shouldn't say that, because I'm infinitely mistaken.  Let's just say that its presumption that those opposed to the use of psychedelic drugs as "spiritual" practice should not be branded as "puritans."  Just because someone is opposed to the use of such practices on principle does not mean they are in favor of the War on Drugs.  What Mr. Horn did was invoke the logical fallacy of "poisoning the well" to portray opponents of his position in the worst possible light.

Mr. Horn does his position a grave disservice by presenting opponents of "spiritual psychedelic drug taking" this way.  It's dishonest, to boot.

I for one, have taken far more than my share of intoxicants in my lifetime, and in some aspects need to reduce further my intake of such things.  In no way would I consider these practices as "spiritual."

I can't speak for other Buddhist traditions, but I am firmly in the camp that says that "they're not the same thing and don't pretend they are."  And yes, the War on Drugs was a war on people who were not in certain in-groups in America by and large.  But that doesn't mean that Buddhist practices are compatible with taking strong hallucinogens.  

Let's just say if you're too out of it, you can't help yourself or others.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Woke versus Awake

This post is largely, but not entirely a response to the confluence of a few tweets, one a nice tweet by Brad Warner, which can be found around here, but also this thread.  What I'd like to express in this post is:
  • There's massive amounts of ignorance in the universe; it is an unfathomable amount of ignorance.
  • As I wrote somewhere way back when,  regular Buddhist practice results in something, "awakening-wise" something like the way death is mentioned in the movie Beetlejuice:



  • Just because you're highly experienced at whatever doesn't mean you don't have an obligation to learn more, do more etc. In such ugly times as these, not only is beauty true protest, but insouciance can be fatal.  The same applies for anyone who's ever had any kind of realization in practice.
  • Just because you're highly sensitive to marginalized groups - because you may be in a marginalized group - doesn't mean you're not influenced by a massive amount of ignorance, especially since it tends to be the case with all of us.
  • I don't consider myself woke, especially since I respect what a lot of folks are doing to realize their struggle in life is far more treacherous than mine. I won't opine on anyone's awakened state or lack thereof.  What I do know is privileged folks need to be more cognizant of marginalized folks regardless of what they do or know now, and people who are more aware of the issues and struggles of marginalized folks need to cultivate awareness, wisdom, compassion, and generosity.  Everybody anywhere along  the continua ought to try to excel in both ways.

So those are the points I wanted to cover in this post, and if I leave anything out here, well, consider it covered in my bullet points.  But I want to elaborate a little here and there at least:

I found this thread - pointing to this article - about a kid and a kimono, and how some that are derided as "SJWs" picked a target that revealed their ignorance, especially since it was later pointed out that kimono making is a dying industry in Japan, and wearing kimonos, and other Japanese stuff had been disseminated from Japan.  It was, in fact,  another example of what I mentioned in my post about Buddhist "cultural appropriation."  

I found it interesting because the thread I found on Twitter dealt with two people of Chinese ancestry talking about whether a Westerners using Japanese disseminated stuff was cultural appropriation or not. Yes, Virginia, they were Chinese-splaining proper behavior of Japanese towards Japanese culture.  I didn't know whether or not it was appropriate to White-splain Japanese culture to them, but they had unwittingly stepped on an inter-East Asian fault line (they're probably still unwitting, maybe not if they read this).  That fault line of course is that  if group X comprises subgroups A, B, and C, and A is the vast majority of those people in X,  people in B and C don't expect or desire that A is going to be the spokes-group for them.

I regularly work with East Asians, and there's certain protocols that are observed, because people need to get along with people in their work, and because there's laws, they're good laws, and they should be observed.  It is a tribute to the massive ignorance in the universe that laws that make people do the right thing for their business need to exist, but such laws do need to exist.  I try not to speak for any subgroups of people in which I work because of the law and because we have work to do.  Would that this would be the case in society at large, but it's not that way, even amongst those that favor social justice.

Back to Brad Warner.  Of late Brad Warner took a lot of heat (some of it from me) for his post here, which unfortunately sets of a false equivalence/comparison between alt-right buzzwords and the buzzwords of  what some deride as  SJWs.  I don't like the term SJWs,  because it reduces all people who hold certain positions to a caricature. (Such positions include some of my positions,  e.g.,  "Black Lives Matter" was a clever way to call attention to the fact that Black lives weren't being treated like White lives; it was a kind of koan: How are Black lives different than non-Black lives? That some liberals like Hilary would say "All lives matter" was precisely the point of Black Lives Matter. ) I also don't like the term "allies" either and that whole nomenclature that goes along with some of what those who (often mis)use critical theory use in advancing yes, justice and equality.  That was what Brad was decrying - the reduction of everything to shibboleths.  But, as I replied here and there to him, on one side, there's people trying to fight for people getting screwed by prejudice and bigotry, and on the other side there's racists and bigots who might be little guys screwed and exploited by others, but still racists.

The social justice folks, being human, are as capable of ignorance, violence, and hatred as anyone else, and, as Brad might point out, some of the people feeding into and exploiting bigotry and racism might make a mean apple pie and make you feel welcome in their home.  Maybe. But the current objectives of one group is not the moral equivalent of the other. It just isn't, regardless of who's in anyone's family.  And you know what? A million billion social  and cultural faux pas by a myriad number of social justice folk is not the same thing as a white person complaining that they are socially sanctioned for calling minority groups with derogatory names! There are however exact analogues for other groups in the world  because racism and bigotry are pretty widespread in the world.

There was something in one of Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, that pointed to one's own self, one's own practice, one's own awareness as the locus of where any meaningful action should be initiated.   "Culture grows out of you," I think he wrote (and I don't know where my copy of the book is, so I'll rely on my memory here.)  Culture and you and/or culture and I are not separate. Cultural dissemination and cultural appropriation can't be completely separate either; and when something is disseminated the disseminated thing may not be bound to the social structures in which the thing existed prior to dissemination.  Bill may have to be killed because he used the skills disseminated to him for evil ends.  Or not.

Culture, social action, and any such related things can be used for good or bad ends; we have to have some degree of ethical principles to use them towards good ends, and we have to be aware of them to use them effectively towards good ends. 

So it's not enough to be "woke," you have to work towards being awake.  And what good is being awake if it's not helping yourself and others?  To the agree that we're awake, we're awake but we became awakened/died each in our own way, each with our own baggage. We still have an obligation to deal with the baggage.




Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Buddhism, Martial Arts, 書道/書法 and Cultural Appropriation

I could have sworn I'd written about this already but recent stuff I've been reading on social media leads me to believe that Certain Things Need to Be Written Down.  I know I commented on this elsewhere because there was a spate of "cultural appropriation in yoga" stuff a while back.  What motivates me today is not yoga critics but  recent critiques of cultural appropriation such as this.  Now the originator of that Twitter bit often has content worth one's attention, and is often rather witty.  But Certain Things Need to Be Written Down.

And with that a few words about "yoga appropriation" ought to be said first. I thought yoga appropriation as cultural appropriation rather absurd, as yoga as New Agey Thing has been a thing for a lot longer than the last decade and a half or so when it really took off.  And I thought if people didn't get peeved at New Agey yoga appropriation, what's the deal with cultural appropration?

And the trajectory by which the yoga meme (the Dawkins meaning,  folks) went from Indian thing to New Agey Thing to commercial thing to appropriated thing to alleged intellectual property is interesting because in some ways it mirrors the martial arts memes (without the New Agey step more or less), and in my view, despite the capitalist appropriation of yoga and martial arts, really damns the view of cultural appropriation of these disciplines i.e., the outcome of colonization and oppression of people of color by dominant white culture. NB: my examples here do not mean there is no such thing as cultural appropriation. Of course there is.  Yeah, Elvis Presley, white idiots who dress up like Native Americans and so forth.  But my point is not all instances of white people - or any other people - taking up a discipline "outside" their culture is stealing, is cultural appropriation or is wrong. And these "not all instances" are not "corner cases" - isolated instances which prove the general rule. They are, in my view vital for the survival of humanity in fact, at least when it comes to Buddhism.  They can be vital to the survival of the disciplines, too!

In a nut, the processes by which white people were introduced to yoga and martial arts  wasn't cultural appropriation at all.  It was cultural dissemination.  Yes, that's what it was. The same is even more true (and more important) for Buddhism, as I'll show. And it's also true for 書道/書法. I will readily and quickly grant that there is capitalist appropriation of yoga and martial arts just as there is capitalist appropriation of mindfulness.   But it was cultural dissemination to be sure.

Somewhere in my house I have this book. This lady trained for many years with B.K.S. Iyengar.  She didn't take it from him; he willingly taught it to her.  So it was with the Catholic nun who wrote the first book on yoga I ever read 46 or so years ago (though there were bits in there about being careful when you meditate, because Satan or something, if I recall correctly.) Point is, they learned it from those willing to teach it, and those willing to teach it thought it important to teach it to white people.

So it is with martial arts.  My Sifu, at his age (75 or thereabouts) wants me (60) to learn Wing Chun well enough so that I can teach others, and also so his lineage doesn't die out! Now, thankfully for Sifu, there's students in the class much younger and better than I! On the other hand, there's Tae Kwon Do, which is in several ways cultural appropriation of kung fu albeit as a  white and Korean cultural appropriation, but that's a whole other tangent. Here I should make the obligatory point that it is said that at least some of Ip Man's students had some resistance to Bruce Lee's studying of Wing Chun because of his mixed race background.  But I think I just made my point again.  I will make the point again shortly!

The difference between appropriation and dissemination is an order of magnitude more salient when it comes to Buddhism, especially in the Zen school.  Now I have heard some advocates for people of color make some ridiculously ignorant complaints about Western Convert Buddhists, which is used often as a signifier for white Western Convert Buddhists.  (NB: Read Arunlikhati's Angry Asian Buddhist blog for legitimate critiques of white Western Convert Buddhists.  Arunlikhati is a saint in my book.)   These ignorant complaints about white Western Buddhists often, but not always, come from Asian Americans with a Christian background.   So let me dispel a few myths that I've seen straightaway:


  • YES, we know it's "awakening" and "understanding" and seeing into one's nature and not "enlightenment."  And some of us, unlike some of you, can read Chinese and Japanese.
  • YES, we know it's asinine to go to places like Thailand sporting Buddha tattoos.  At least most of us do.
  • YES, we know there are mistranslations of some texts.
  • Many Buddhist texts were written in an Indo-European language before they were written in Sino-Tibetan languages.
  • No, we don't all revere the Dalai Lama.
  • YES there are quite a few frauds and hucksters and degenerates (white and Asian) in the White Western Buddhist Convert area, and YES, we've worked hard to try to deal with that issue. And YES, similar stuff goes on in Asia.
  • NO, we're not all vegan/vegetarian.
  • We're not all liberals. Heck, I'm not a liberal.


Anybody who's read about Bodhidharma knows that Zen was transmitted by cultural dissemination; this is emphasized in  the Platform Sutra.  And anyone who's read the Lotus Sutra knows that Buddhism is supposed to be universal.

But more importantly, one practices Buddhism to try to grok suffering, disillusionment, dukkha. This is about freakin' living one's life to deal with the fundamental human condition, and to help others to do so! If someone's going to call me out for "cultural appropriation," so be it!  But I would hope that such a person develops enough skill to be able to be a better practitioner than me.

Ditto for martial arts, at least in so far as they are taught to develop authentic 功夫.  I would wish that everyone be disciplined and accomplished.  This strictly speaking can't even be culturally appropriated for the same reason that Kierkegaard railed against the notion of "Christian nations." 功夫 happens at the individual level.

I could write a book on this. Perhaps I should.  One point I should make before I close is the same is true for 書道/書法; the author of the Twitter stream I referenced earlier took umbrage at a font.  I imagine he may not be happy at my practice of 書道/書法, but that may be again, like Asian Americans with a Christian background complaining about white Western Buddhists, due to a lack of familiarity with what 書道/書法 even is.  I hope not, but suffice it to say, 書道/書法, like 功夫 happens at the individual level.  When you see a work of  書道/書法, you are in fact seeing someone's mind.  How could anyone culturally appropriate that?




Sunday, June 18, 2017

What *do* other Buddhists think of Falun Da Fa? And is it harming the reputation of predominantly white Buddhist Communities?



You don't have to look very far on my blog to know that I have been highly critical of the Portland Buddhist Peace Fellowship in recent years because of their unfortunate embrace of Falun Da Fa, aka Falun Gong at the Portland Buddhist Festival.

I'm not going to rehash all the reasons that I feel Falun Da Fa has no place at a meeting of Buddhists - or rather, they have as much a right to a place at a meeting of Buddhists as Evangelicals, Taoists, Muslims, and maybe Sam Harris. 

Falun Gong simply does not represent any kind of Buddhism within established traditions.  While it claims to be of "the Buddha School," it as as "Buddhist" as Frederick Lenz's "American Buddhism."

So I've said this for several years now.   Groups like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and other white liberal groups have tended to be reflexively anti-China.  China is a far from perfect country,  and has done things that I cannot condone, but the white liberal narrative of Buddhist politics and China is ridiculously over-simplified, and I cannot condone that either. 

But I'm curious as to how other Buddhist groups think about the presence of Falun Da Fa at these meetings - not simply Western-based sanghas, but also Asian Sanghas.   We in the Portland area have an abundance of temples nearby; - and we have temples in Vancouver WA as well.  There's also on-line Buddhists, representing Asian viewpoints as well as yes, white convert Buddhists.  I should also point out something about the Portland Buddhist Festival: It seems to have gotten whiter over the years.


I intend to ask members of the local Buddhist communities about Falun Da Fa. So, if you happen to be one of the people or temples I ask about this, I would deeply appreciate a response; but I would also deeply appreciate a thoughtful response. My question will be: How do you feel about Falun Da Fa represented as Buddhist given what is written in general in the Zhuan Falun, and especially the chapter on Falun Da Fa and Buddhism?

I'll publish whatever I wind up with. Hopefully together - including the Buddhist Peace Fellowship - we can come to some kind of closure as to what to do about Falun Da Fa in our Buddhist communities.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Why the Heart Sutra?

Christians have, at times, touted the Lord's Prayer as the "perfect" prayer; it contains evidently all the stuff that monotheists want in a prayer.

The Heart Sutra, in my view, is substantially more profound than the Lord's Prayer, and, at the same time, is not a prayer.  It's more-or-less a sutra.

"Sutra" as Wikipedia helpfully explains, is a Sanskrit word that means string or thread; yes, it is equivalent to the English word "suture," which is what surgeons put in you when they stitch you up after surgery.  Yeah, humanity is that close that a sring or thread in Sanskrit is a string or thread for surgery in English.   Did I mention that the words "Zen" and "thank" also have a common origin?

The Lord's Prayer is a prayer directed to the Christian deity written in the second person. The Heart Sutra on the other hand, is said to be the words of the Buddha to his disciple Sariputra; thus, it is not meant to be addressed to anyone,  rather, it is the quote of the Buddha taken as a statement of fact.

The main point of the short sutra - with is the main point of the "wisdom" sutras in general - is that experiential phenomena - our apprehensions of the five "aggregates" of  form, feeling, volition, conciousness have no inherent essence; thus all is but a temporary co-existence of these aggregates.

This statement of fact by the Buddha includes that when the Bodhisattva of Compassion deeply saw the reality of the emptiness of the five aggregates that they obtained complete awakening. 

How can this be, or why is this so?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra is a fundamental text of Mahayana Buddhism.   As most of my readers who have read my blog are Buddhist, they know about the Heart Sutra.  But I have never written much on it myself.  So I think I'll write a few blog posts on it, as I have the Lotus Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra.   The Heart Sutra posts should be shorter though.

If you're Buddhist and are reading these posts, I hope my thoughts on the Heart Sutra will be of use to you.  If you're not Buddhist and are reading these posts,  I hope you will come to appreciate what the Heart Sutra captures.

The Heart Sutra,  is the "heart" of the "Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines" or "Perfection of Wisdom" Sutra.  One version is here: http://huntingtonarchive.org/resources/downloads/sutras/02Prajnaparamita/Astasahasrika.pdf.

I hope in coming days to delve into Heart Sutra in depth and its import. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Identity Politics and Zen Buddhism

I'm using almost the exact same title of this post as one by Brad Warner, because a) it's roughly about the same topic, b) there isn't one single viewpoint on this, as you might expect, and c) Ven. Warner has of late posted a couple of rather strange things  (e.g., reposting this bit of creationist claptrap), that, in my view,  merit a response.  Regarding the creationist stuff, see my response to Ven. Warner on the comments section there.  This post, and Ven. Warner's post on identity politics,  should be read in light of the comments on Brad Warner's posting of a video of Jordan Peterson, who, with flimsy arguments, denies the existence of trans and intersex people in his refusal not to use non-traditional  3rd person singular pronouns.

I have written quite a bit on this site about identity politics before, and privilege.   Whatever I've written in the past few years, I generally still affirm as my views, although I freely admit that those posts probably adheres to Mumon's rule: In 20 years, posts about race, gender, sexuality, privilege and class will likely be cringe-worthy demonstrating some kind of form of disrespect. 

I've also written quite a few posts on this site indicating that I agree with Ven. Warner on a number of issues, and I do, and continue to do so, but here a critical response is merited. 

Ven Warner writes:

But what is identity anyhow? Lately a certain faction has emerged who believe that society has an obligation to accept and affirm whatever identity an individual has chosen for him / her / them / zem / em / hum / pehm / per / thon / ver / xem / yo / hir / mer / zhim-self (ref: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third-person_pronoun). But is that how identity actually works? 
For example, is Brad Warner an Enlightened Zen Master? Or is he a transphobic piece of shit who never should have been given a set of Buddhist robes? Or is he the bassist for Zero Defex (his preferred definition)? Is he white as most people assume? Or is he of mixed race, which he knows to be true given his family history? Is he an angry rebellious punk, like in his books? Or is he kind of a goofball, as he often comes across when you see him in person?


My first response is that while written language has evolved to where gender is expressed pretty much universally, it isn't uniformly so with spoken forms of the language; e.g., in Chinese, "He" is rendered  "他"  and "she" is rendered "她," and both are pronounced, in Pinyin encoding, "Tā."  For this reason native Chinese speakers speaking English often mix up "she" and "he." (The hànzì BTW, are a little sexist there, as happens in several hànzì/kanji but I digress.)  Chinese speakers mean no disrespect when they do this; they have to consciously remember to assign the right word to the right gender.  However, it's one thing to make a language error of this kind; it's another thing to be in-your-face about not calling someone as they wish to be called, because you fundamentally deny who they are as people "in the relative sense," in their flesh-and-blood quotidian existences.  I'll come back to that point.

Ven. Warner also writes:

What I think I am is often at odds with what other people think I am. Who is right? Is it useful to try to make everyone I encounter agree with the identity I have chosen for myself? Should there be a law requiring them to see me the way I see me? Or is that just a lot of wasted effort?

Ven. Warner, despite being Sōtō and all that, ought to be familiar with Bodhidharma's famous reply to Emperor Wu when he asked Bodhidharma who he was:  不識  - No knowing, often rendered in English as "I don't know."  Of course he's familiar with what Suzuki-roshi said: When you become you Zen becomes Zen.

Both Bodhidharma's and Suzuki-roshi's responses to "Who are you?" in effect point to the Absolute - Emptiness, as a response to the question, as to "keep the question" "Who are you?" is to affirm and express in a certain sense the Absolute or Emptiness.

But...I agree with these folks more or less.  It is a cop-out, a shirking of responsibility to appeal to the Absolute when there are things that need a response in the Relative world.  It is "banging the law" when one cannot bang the facts.   

I could cite a number of other kōans in this regard, which Ven. Warner must surely be aware.

But let me get to the point,  in particular regarding people who are in-your-face not calling someone as they see themselves, because you fundamentally deny who they are as people "in the relative sense," in their flesh-and-blood quotidian existences.  Ven Warner also writes:

Whenever I was unsuccessful at convincing someone else to see me as I saw myself I felt a terrible need to fix the situation. This often proved impossible and so I was left wondering if maybe I really was whatever they said I was, and if I was, in fact, wrong about myself. For me, the first step toward a more Buddhist sort of understanding of identity was seeing how much of a waste of effort it was to try to convince others to see me the way I saw myself. 

What Ven. Warner is doing is implying the appeal to the Absolute I mentioned earlier, as though the answer to the question  "How do I refer to Brad Warner's gender identity colloquially?" is 不識.  That's bullshit in the Relative sense.

We are being polite when we address people by the conventions of polite language. We are impolite when we refer to someone with profanities instead of by their names.   Ven. Warner or I may like some things a certain pundit might say, but if that pundit uses language to deny the existence of or otherwise denigrate an entire class of people then we fall short in not responding to such denigration,  and we fall even further short if our response is 不識.  

This is not to say that those who engage in identity politics don't make this same error; as noted on this blog, the folks at the Portland Buddhist festival have made the same error with respect to Falun Da Fa.   It's something we as Buddhists have to constantly be aware of: Are we shirking some view or responsibility by conflating Absolute and Relative? 

Sunday, January 08, 2017

The Karma of Spiritual Hucksterism



Sedona has no major churches, no relics, no established holy sites. But what it does have are “vortexes” – a series of unmarked points around Sedona’s various cliffs that locals and visitors alike imbue with new-age significance. 
Where that significance comes from – like the actual number of vortexes in Sedona, which varies from guide to guide – is subject to debate. Locals cite legends about the area’s sanctity to local Native American tribes. However, Sedona didn’t become America’s new age capital until the 1980s, when a US psychic named Page Bryant identified the vortexes after a vision. These vortexes were places where spiritual energy was at its highest point, where you could tap into the frequencies of the universe, where you could, by closing your eyes, start to change your life. Spiritual seekers across the country listened. In 1987, Sedona was host to one of the largest branches of the Harmonic Convergence – a new age synchronised meditation – when 5,000 pilgrims came to get in touch with the universe at the Bell Rock butte, believed by many to be a vortex. 
Now, among the juniper trees, you can find strip-malls full of crystal shops, aura-reading stations and psychics. At ChocolaTree Organic Eatery, shiva lingams – statues normally associated with Hindu temples – stand against the walls; next door, a UFO-themed diner called ET Encounter (formerly the Red Planet) serves Roswell-themed burgers and old Star Trek episodes play on the TV. Every other office along the state route running through town offers a “spiritual tour” of the vortexes. The national forests are full of small cairns people have left as spiritual offerings. These are regularly removed by forest service rangers in order to preserve the site’s ecological integrity. 
Near the centre of town, the McLean Meditation Institute avoids the language of what owner Sarah McLean calls the “woos” – those locals who take their magic and their crystals a bit too seriously – by offering mindfulness and meditation classes that, though influenced by eastern traditions, are geared toward the spiritual and the just-plain-stressed alike.


Now I always get intrigued by stuff like a "McLean Meditation Institute," as I've been doing the practice for about 25 years or so myself.   Mindfulness is a pretty marketable thing these days; it's bigger than Jazzercize was in the 1980s.  So if you haven't already clicked on over to there, let's see just who Sarah McLean is and what's with this "Institute." Her bio page states:



Sarah McLean is a contemporary meditation and mindfulness teacher who has been inspiring people to meditate for over 20 years. With kindness and humor, Sarah shares her secrets to creating a successful meditation practice and how the it can lead to increased self-compassion, clear communication, and a more peaceful life.

Sarah first learned about meditation while training in the U.S. Army as a Behavioral Specialist to help soldiers address Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. After the Army and college, Sarah took a nine-month mountain bike journey from Europe to Asia seeking secrets to peace and fulfillment. When she returned, she began her daily meditation practice and studied mind/body health with Dr. Deepak Chopra. She worked with him as the Program Director for the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in California.

After eight years, Sarah took a sabbatical to seek the origins of meditation. She lived in a traditional ashram in South India for six months, and was a two-year resident at a remote Zen Buddhist monastery for two years. In 2001, she settled in Sedona, Arizona and founded the McLean Meditation Institute, a center which offers meditation and mindfulness classes, weekend meditation retreats, and a 200-hour teacher training program.  The Meditation Teacher Academy® is a licensed, post-secondary educational facility that trains meditation and mindfulness teachers worldwide.

Sarah is a popular facilitator at retreats for the Chopra Center, Esalen Institute, and many world-class destinations. She has been interviewed on national television, featured in a variety of award-winning movies, and her work has been touted in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. Her best-seller, Soul-Centered: Transform Your Life in 8 Weeks with Meditation (Hay House), has inspired study groups worldwide. Her upcoming book, The Power of Attention: Awaken to Love and it’s Unlimited Potential with Meditation  (Hay House) is due out in February 2017.


So evidently Ms. McLean was a "Behavioral Specialist" in the Army, did a nine month bicycle  trip  in order to be "seeking secrets to peace and fulfillment," became "Program Director" for Deepak Chopra, and then did a two year residence at "a remote Zen Buddhist monastery." So many questions...at random:

  • Where is that "remote Zen Buddhist monastery?"  Presumably she must have taken vows, if indeed she attended said monastery. 

  • Why would there be "secrets" to peace and fulfillment?  A secret is something hidden from other people; but secrets in order to be secrets must have been hidden by someone.
  • What's the connection to Deepak Chopra, a wellspring of woo?


It's that last bit that intrigues me.   Chopra's wooishness and spiritual huckestering is well known, and has been well criticized, and deservedly so, over the years.  (Just look at his website!)  As a guy that's done Zen for about 25 years, Chopra's schtick bears as much similarity to my practice as "Professional wrestling" bears similarity to Greco-Roman wrestling.  That is to say, Deepak Chopra is woefully unqualified in the area of expounding on "spirituality" - which I'll take as a "way to live."

What about Sarah McLean?  Well, let's go back to the McLean Meditation Institute site.  I'm immediately put off by the corporate (stock?) photography.  I realize that's an esthetic criticism, but I would submit,  like 茶道,書道, 武士道, 生花 there is probably ウェブ道 - the Way of the Web.  Moreover, the imagery is conveying information: this looks like a white woman thing and the meditation thing looks dodgy.  It's fine that there's practices centered around women of course,  but I suspect it's more exploitive of women then benefitting them.   As for meditation the images do not seem to be practicing it in a way that we Zen folks can relate to, to put it mildly.  The models look fairly blissfully asleep.  That's not what we do.

Moreover,  there is the implicit quid pro quo of having "more peace" and "less stress" as a result of a meditation practice.  And there's the "guided meditations."   Now I know that a couple of Zen folks of reasonable repute (and ill repute) have done "guided meditations,"  but I remonstrate. The whole problem with these two things combined together is that if you're actually ever going to transcend the sufferings of conflict and "stress" you will have to clear your own path, and walk your own path, not some that hinted by some teacher.  A BIG part of Zen practice - and Zen practice, if practiced deeply enough is every damn thing you do - a BIG part of Zen practice is understanding and acting both in the understanding of Mind or Buddha Nature and having to urgently deal with diarrhea (or equivalent) at the same time.  A guided meditation won't do that for you.

Another issue with their "meditations" is the more peace and less stress pitch itself.   While with kōan practice the "point" is eventually to be able to convey an understanding of the relationship between the Absolute and Relative related to the  kōan,  you can't do that unless you're deeply focused on the kōan  itself and only the kōan, without any "gaining idea" as the Sōtō folks say.  You have to deal with the stress and lack of peace yourself.

I have many more things to say about this organization. (E.g., they seem to have swiped Deepak Chopra's swiping of Transcendental Meditation.)   But the main thing I would conclude is that they are probably doing damage to people by making them dependent on either their organization or teaching ineffective techniques and purposes or both.   I bet they are doing well though sucking the teat of the Corporate Mindfulness craze, and that's bad in the short term. 

But, here's what I'd like you to takeaway from all this: You don't need them.  You can do this yourself.  Thich Nhat Hanh's "The Miracle of Mindfulness" is a good start.  Save yourself time and money.  And if you get serious, seek out someone with longstanding credentials in a longstanding organization, which probably does, yes, mean you have to find an explicitly religious group.