I live a short drive away from what was, until recently, known as the sex-change capital of the world: Trinidad, Colorado. As more people explore the option to alter their biology, gender issues have surfaced in so many ways it’s hard to recognize certain facets of culture we used to take for granted. There is no longer a ladies room or a men’s room for that matter in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. My Indian friend was aghast to learn recently that her 18 year old daughter’s dorm at Princeton has co-ed shower rooms, with flimsy shower curtain separating her from the male students in the adjacent stall. At a program I recently taught at a university, I was instructed to refer to one particular student as they, despite appearing as a young woman, they did not identify as either male or female. So they was not a she, as I had assumed.
These cultural changes provide the backdrop for a larger issue coming to light: gender equality and specifically, women’s rights. Is it a coincidence that the gender issue is arising at same time as #metoo? It seems there are two issues: gender fluidity and gender equality. We seem to be asking collectively, what is gender? And how do we implement basic human rights, and authentic gender equality, in the face of its evolving nature?
Gender is a mental construct: From an ultimate perspective, it’s fantastic we are disposing with entrenched labels. From another, I wonder: are we simply creating new trenches? Labels are still mental constructs, even if they do replace worn-out ideas. HH 17th Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Dorje notes:
“The social meaning of our biological differences is created by our ideas about gender that is, what gender means socially is determined by the mind, and not by the body. Masculine and feminine are fabricated identities that societies create, not nature.”
“Although gender constructs are mere concepts, we can see that they can be terribly powerful forces that shape our experiences and affect how we treat others.”
“When a problem is rooted in society’s habitual outlook and habitual thinking, then legislating change will have limited effect. After all, you cannot legislate a change in thinking.”
What does equality look like? It is long overdue for women’s rights, and safety, to be given the respect it deserves. But equal does not mean identical. Equality denotes balance, fairness, a portioning out of things so that everyone ends up with an advantage, no one with an advantage over another. But how can we assure fairness when each has our own karma?
“Women’s rights have to do with respecting the value of human life and freedom. It has to do with acknowledging our shared humanity and the basic human bonds that link us.”
Obviously the biological roles of men and women differ, so it’s never quite made sense to me how we can be equal. What would make more sense is to aspire to treat each and every human being with an equal amount of kindness and respect.
Equality Or Ahimsa? As we evolve into more acceptance of gender fluidity, and more awareness of gender equality, it seems to me that what we need more than a tired concept of equality. The real issue at stake here is ahimsa. Kindness and acceptance, or at least a commitment not to cause harm. Equality has to do with ahimsa.
Gender Fluidity: It’s interesting that the vast majority of sex reassignments are male to female. From a darker perspective, you might take the gender fluidity we now insist upon as another attempt to appropriate the feminine. This darker view might see the patriarchy plotting against women as we stand up and demand justice from oppressors. As if saying: society accepts this shift in consciousness, then let’s attack the very foundation. Let’s deny the paradigm of femininity itself. We’ll kill mother nature at its root – denying the importance of our physiological roles, and so anyone who wants to can simply change their minds and decide to call themselves something different.
So when I hear about gender fluidity, and the pronoun they I have a hard time understanding. It seems pretty clear to me that if you have monthly periods and the ability to bear children, you are a woman. If you don’t have this possibility, then you are a man. Forgive me if this seems to black and white, but manand woman are different than masculine and feminine.
From a Meditation Viewpoint: Mind is neither male and female. All of my teachers have taught that both men and women have an equal opportunity to attain enlightenment. But Padmasambhava is recorded as saying that all other factors being equal, a woman is more likely to achieve enlightenment:
“The basis for realizing enlightenment is a human body. Male or female, there is no great difference. But if she develops the mind bent on enlightenment the woman’s body is better.”
This then begs the question: where are all the women teachers in Tibetan Buddhism? And how do we contextualize – and accept – the sexual escapades of male teachers? Tenzin Palmo asked her teacher Khamtrul Rinpoche why he thought there were not more female incarnations. He replied:
”My sister had more signs at the time of her birth than I did, and when she was arriving everybody said, ‘wow, this must be some really special being coming.’ but as soon as she was born, they said, ‘Oh, we made a mistake!’ You see, if she had been male, they immediately would have tried to find out who this child was, and he would have been given a very special kind of upbringing. Because she was only female, she was not given a chance. She had to marry and so on. This was the problem,that even if you came back as a female it would be very difficult to receive the kind of training and opportunities you could get as a male.”
Karmapa writes in his book, The Heart Is Noble:
“ I think a note of caution is in order here. Although there may be aspects of Buddhist teachings that can help us in thinking more wisely about gender issues, I want to warn you against looking to Buddhist societies to provide ideal examples of healthy gender constructs and practices. You should expect to come across things you do not want to adopt for yourself. Not everything in Buddhist institutions is perfect, and this is certainly the case when it comes to gender discrimination.”
I appreciate the openness and honesty of recent months, but where does this leave us? I have watched over and over the splitting of sanghas due to the misbehaviour of teachers. And yes, #metoo.
#metoo: I was groped by one of my yoga teachers, Pattabhi Jois. I did not speak up. Nor did any of the other many women I knew who he had touched inappropriately. Why did we remain silent? Because our voices had been cut off at an early age: the rule as a young lady is that you don’t cause conflict or confront injustice directly. I hope this movement of sharing can help us show up and educate men and women to be kind and decent human beings, so we can shift the tide to make respecting women and the power of the feminine the norm and not the exception.
“If we continue to devalue what women have to offer, we will continue harming women and continue overlooking and devaluing these virtues that are considered feminine and these are precisely the virtues that the world needs most now.”
Letting go of identity: How do we as practitioners let go of fixation on identities while acknowledging this re-balancing of power. How do we say with a straight face that there is no gender, while supporting a woman’s right for basic human dignity and respect? I understand the value in thinking about ourselves as human, rather than as men or women. But middle path is not neither. Middle path arises when we have 2 distinct polarities that play off of each other. If we lose the polarity, we lose the juice. Karmapa reminds us that gender constructs are nothing more than social fabrications.
Without attention to the details of our worldly experience, the fabric of our society may unravel. As practitioners our greatest contribution is to embody the wisdom of a larger view while embracing compassion as we meet each individual.
Article first appeared in Living and Dying in Peace
A New Translation from the Chinese by Hanh Niêm with Commentary
Prajna Paramita Hridaya – Heart of Perfected Wisdom
The Bodhisattva Avelokiteshvara,
Practicing the perfection of wisdom, going deep within,
Was illuminated and perceived that
All five skandhas are empty of intrinsic existence.
Thus being at one with all things,
Experiencing things directly without the intervention of thought,
All suffering and doubt ceased.
Shariputra, the appearance of form is not separate from emptiness,
Emptiness is not separate from the appearance of form,
The appearance of form is one with emptiness,
Emptiness is one with appearance of form.
The same is true for feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness-ego.
Shariputra, all dharmas – all appearance of phenomena – are mutually empty:
There is neither birth nor death,
Neither defilement nor purity,
Neither gain nor loss. Continue reading
From Fresh Peace: Daily Blossoming of the Soul by Jaiya John
100g/3½oz firm tofu, drained
50g/1¾oz sushi rice
25g/1oz frozen soya beans
low-calorie cooking spray
4 radishes, thinly sliced
¼ small cucumber, halved lengthways, seeds removed, cut into thin matchsticks
¼ small carrot, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks
3 spring onions, thinly shredded
1 tsp toasted sesame seeds
1 tbsp Japanese pickled ginger, drained, to serve
For the dressing
½ lime, finely grated zest and juice
½ level tsp runny honey
½ tbsp tamari or dark soy sauce
½ tsp rice vinegar
dash toasted sesame oil
To make the sushi bowl, wrap the tofu in kitchen paper, sandwich between two plates or chopping boards and weigh down with a few tins from your cupboard. Leave to drain for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring a large saucepan of water to the boil and boil the sushi rice for 8–10 minutes, or until just cooked. Drain, place back in the pan, cover and set aside.
Bring a small saucepan of water to the boil and cook the soya beans for 2 minutes, or until tender. Drain, refresh under cold water and set aside.
To make the dressing, put the lime zest, juice and honey in a small saucepan and simmer for 1 minute. Stir in the tamari, vinegar and sesame oil and set aside.
Cut the tofu into 1.5cm/½in cubes. Spray a large frying pan with a little low-calorie cooking spray and place over a medium-high heat. Add the tofu and cook for 1 minute on each side until crisp and golden brown.
Place the rice in a bowl or lunchbox and stir in the dressing. Top with the soya beans, radishes, cucumber, carrot and two-thirds of the spring onions. Sprinkle over the tofu, remaining spring onions and sesame seeds and serve with the pickled ginger or place in the fridge until ready to eat.
‘Live and let die’, a reflection on the summer camp
Jay Rao is a member of the Bodhicharya London sangha, and lives in Watford, UK. He started meditating sporadically to improve his well being, and stumbled upon the London sangha after work one day, who helped him to improve his practice. Jay was born in Pondicherry, India, a multi-cultural and spiritual town with a blend of Tamil and French heritage. He moved to Lancashire at the age of four and his family settled in Sale, Cheshire at the age of ten. He is interested in world history, economic development and Buddhism and manages urban regeneration projects for Watford Council.
In Jewish and Buddhist circles, there is the story of the Jewish woman who schleps to the Himalayas in search of a famous guru. She travels by plane, train and rickshaw to reach a Buddhist monastery in Nepal. When she gets there she’s shvitzing and exhausted but she is committed, and thankfully she is wearing sensible shoes. An old lama in a maroon and saffron robe opens the door, and the woman promptly requests a meeting with the guru. The lama explains that this is impossible because the guru is in silent retreat, meditating in a cave high on a mountaintop. Not willing to take no for an answer, she insists that she absolutely must see this guru. Finally the lama acquiesces while insisting on the following rules: The meeting must be brief, she must bow when addressing the guru, and she can say no more than eight words to him. The woman agrees and says a silent prayer that her years with a personal trainer will pay off and somehow get her up the mountain. After hiring a Sherpa and a yak, she sets off for the grueling trek. With hardly an ounce of energy left, her spiritual search brings her to the opening of the cave high on the mountain. Keeping within the eight word limit in addressing the guru she breathes in deeply, sticks her head in the opening of the cave, bows and says, “Sheldon, it’s your mother. Enough already, come home!”
A JuBu refers to someone with a Jewish background who practices some form of Buddhism. It has been estimated that 30 percent of all Western Buddhists are of Jewish heritage, and many of the prominent Western Buddhist teachers were born Jews. Here are five reasons why Jews are attracted to a Buddhist path:
Many Jewish seekers find that the Judaism they grew up in lacked a spiritual component with which they could connect. While many Jews today can identify with the cultural, social and historical aspects of Judaism, the spiritual dimension for many is significantly lacking. Today, increasing numbers of rabbis are acknowledging this problem. They maintain that there is a deep spiritual Jewish practice (through mystical Judaism and study of the Kabbalah) but that it has been inaccessible to the majority of Jews based on the way that Judaism is practiced in most synagogues across the country. Jews seeking a spiritual connection often find it in Buddhist philosophy where practices such as meditation and mindfulness are both central and accessible.
Because Buddhism in non-theistic in nature, Jewish believers in God, as well as Jewish atheists and agnostics, can find a home in Buddhist practice without having to compromise or struggle against opposing belief systems.
Jews and Buddhists have no baggage with one another, making exploration of this spiritual path much easier and more acceptable that joining a religious tradition where there is a history of conflict.
In contrast to other religions, it is unnecessary to formally convert to Buddhism in order to follow this spiritual path. There is room for the decision to practice and identify as a Jew while embracing a Buddhist belief system and Buddhist practices.
Both Jews and Buddhists share a deep understanding about the nature of suffering.Buddha’s Four Noble Truths explores this concept in depth, offering a way to understand both the causes of suffering and a path to end suffering. These ideas resonate with Jews who have struggled with a history of persecution that culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust. Applying a Buddhist perspective to such atrocities can offer many a path of healing.
As Jews continue to explore Buddhism and its practices, more JuBus will be able to discover the “OM in ShalOM,” creating a rich and fruitful spiritual path. Both traditions have much to offer and boast a rich legacy of dialogue and thought provoking debate to cultivate both wisdom and compassion and a whole lot of JuBulation
Reprinted with the kind permission of Ellen Frankel
Articles in her Blog by Ellen Frankel
An excerpt from Dr. Jaiya John’s book Reflection Pond: Nurturing Wholeness in Displaced Children. A compassionate guide for professionals and caregivers.
EACH OF US is born with an essence–a distinctive nature or character. An inclination peculiar to us alone pulls us toward some things and away from others. While we commonly understand this as personality, this truth has been honored in world cultures for centuries in a more textured sense.
Many African communities have long held that each spirit born into the world carries its own unique song. This song represents the rhythm, frequency, and flavor of life that strikes the chords of the child’s spirit with the greatest degree of harmony. It is her way of being. Her nature. Her song is her reason for having been brought into the world. She carries a package she must deliver, an insight to join into the collective awareness of her people.
When a woman in such a community becomes pregnant, a tradition occurs, varying according to the particular tribal culture. Here is a general depiction: The expecting woman gathers her female family members and friends. They venture out away from the compound, away from the children and men and the daily noise of society. Surrounded by listening trees and sitting close to Earth, the women form a circle.
They have a singular purpose in being here: to recognize the song of this new life on its way. They spend many moments in silence, so that they can hear what nature speaks to them. Back in the compound, commotion would drown out these voices.
Protected by shade clouds from the determined sun, they laugh together and tell stories. Laughing and storytelling create good vibrations that loosen clumps of dirt blocking the unseen rivers they wear like a skirt. Inspiration begins to flow.
At times they join hands, the two closest to the waiting mother cradling her affectionately like a small child. Waiting mother massages her belly. She is not just soothing her baby, she is receiving what that precious life is already voicing. This may seem like folly to us who inhabit a reality of the tangible and who often scorn what cannot be seen. But what is the nature of all things but energy? And how does energy exist but through vibration? How are we to notice and understand a vibration except by letting it dance into us?
Night emerges to greet the circle of women. Truthfully, some of them are impatient. They want the song to come so they can get back to their lives. But this ritual is sewn into the fabric of their lives. It is what their heritage has delivered them. They have the context in which to understand this ritual’s value.
Some children sing louder from their mother’s belly in the night. Some become brazen in the morning. Note by note, the song emerges. The song is a love song to the world: Prepare yourselves. I am come. Beat the drum.
The women begin to share with each other what they are intuiting about this new child. Intuition is all we have in this world. Many of us do not believe in our intuition so it becomes a rusted tool left on the floor of our despair. These women cannot imagine not believing in a gift such as this. When they intuit, they speak what they have received to each other without self-consciousness or worrying about what the others will think.
To lie about what one intuits of a child, or to cloak that intuition in the clothes of what we desire of that child-these are bad tidings. They bring harm to the child, to the family, and to the community. Because all relationships based upon a false or disguised intuition about the child wreak havoc.
It is like being sold a bag of what we are told are melon seeds when in fact the bag contains flower seeds. Then we go about happily planting our seeds, congratulating ourselves; salivating at our expected harvest. When the harvest we expect does not come, we curse the seeds. But the seeds have done nothing wrong. They were flowers all along.
Our faulty understanding of the seeds’ nature is behind our disappointment and frustration. What’s more, conflicted about our failed expectations for the seeds, we fail to realize that we have been blessed by flowers. Their beauty escapes us because our limited understanding demands that they be something else.
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In my book, Scratching the Itch: Getting to the Root of Our Suffering, I hypothesized the reason for there being so many instantaneous enlightenments reported when reading about the life of the Buddha or of Zen Master Benkei. I said that people back then were more open to blind faith, to the promise of religion. Whereas today, people are suspect of blind faith and rely more on reason. I think, therefore I am. Also, the ego-mind is much more developed now than in those days.
Recently, in reading Montaigne, The Complete Works, he notes that if faith does not come from some mysterious inner source but instead is founded on reason, then that faith is subject to being constantly beaten down by competing reason. Whereas faith founded on some mysterious inner source is inviolate, not susceptible to being pierced by the ego-mind. Reason can be used to support faith, but not to give it birth. Continue reading
You see, in my work with animals and Reiki over the years, I began to notice something interesting; when I would meditate and my animals would happen to be with me, I found myself able to quiet my mind and be present with an open heart much more easily. I realized that perhaps I should rethink the way I approached my own meditation practice. Meditating alone is all well and good, offering many benefits that have been backed by science. But when I began to meditate with the animals and follow their lead, all of the benefits of meditation I had always experienced began to improve. Here are three ways animals helped me become a better meditator:
1. It’s easier to stay present and peaceful in the moment with our animals. If we are trying to meditate but our intellectual minds keep analyzing, judging and interpreting everything (which is just natural for us, really), the animals will often mirror this agitation. The more we feel ourselves shift into a state of quiet, and the more we can just “be,” the more we can see the animals relax. I can always tell what state I am in by how the animals around me are responding to my presence. A peaceful mind and peaceful heart means peaceful animals. In addition, animals have a natural calming presence. So when we have trouble letting go, and we’re stuck inside past problems or future fears, simply sitting with our animals can help to calm our energy, quiet our thoughts and take us to this moment right now.
2. Animals help our hearts to open, so that we can more easily radiate our inner compassion. According to a 2013 study by Northeastern University, those who practice mindfulness meditation feel more compassion for others. But sometimes, compassion can be a difficult feeling to tap into. That’s where the animal factor comes in: Animals show so much unconditional love for us, we just can’t help but open our hearts when we are with them. If we are with our animals during our meditation practice, our inner compassion arises effortlessly because we are already opening our hearts to our animals at that moment. This compassion will radiate out to all animals … and even ultimately to the world.
3. Animals remind me that the true purpose of meditation is to bring peaceful presence out into the world. Some people think, “Oh, I have to light a candle and sit on this cushion to meditate.” And that sometimes works well, but it’s also very limiting. Meditation isn’t about escaping the world, shutting our eyes and sitting in a stiff position. The most important purpose of meditation is to bring compassion to our lives, and the truth is we have to learn to take our practice off of the cushion, bringing this compassion with us into the world. What the animals teach us by their compassionate presence is very freeing: That truly any moment in our lives can be a meditation. We can practice peaceful presence while sitting, walking or standing—cuddling our cat, walking the dog or standing in a pasture with our horse. You see, this is how our animals live already, and they can show us how to live this way too.
Meditation is about bringing all of our energy here to this present moment, and opening our hearts to the peaceful power that exists in the now. Animals are always present, they don’t judge like we do, and they live life with an open heart. They are my best meditation partners: mirrors, reflecting to me how I should be, and lights, guiding me along the path of inner healing.
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