In her article on the First Hindrance [“On Practice,” Spring 2004], Geri Larkin offers advice to a reader who feels guilty about desiring someone other than her/his partner. In her response she quotes the Dhammapadaon the misfortunes arising from adultery. Prohibition of adultery is certainly central to Buddhist teachings on lay morality; however, Larkin goes on to conflate adultery with what conservative Christians call “fornication,” or sexual relations with anyone who is not one’s spouse. She counsels “cherishing our mate” as a weapon against “falling into a relationship with the wrong person (yes, that is anyone who is not our mate).” This injunction to sexual exclusivity for layfolk has no basis in any Buddhist tradition or culture: Buddhist kings, aristocrats, as well as wealthy merchants and landowners had as many sexual partners as they could afford. As long as they didn’t poach others’ wives, they were not seen as violating Buddhist morality. Sexual dalliances of all kinds were quite lightly regarded in precolonial Asian Buddhist cultures. There seems to be little basis in Buddhism to support sexual exclusivity; indeed, letting go of the selfishness that leads us to bind ourselves to one person exclusively would seem more in consonance with the key Buddhist value of nonattachment, as well as to an acceptance of change and impermanence. In our attempt to adapt Buddhism to American life, it would be a shame, in my opinion, to try to impose as Buddhist morality the American middle-class, heterosexual norms that appear to have failed so miserably and led to so much suffering for millions of people. Let us remember that “energy is eternal delight,” and let us find bliss in our loving sexual encounters, following our polymorphously perverse primate natures, while cultivating compassion and wisdom.
—Michael Sweet, Madison, Wisconsin
A Feeling of Freedom
Thank you for bringing attention to prison dharma with the article about my mentor and teacher, Aryadaka [“Ministry in the Hell Realm,” Spring 2004]. In November of 2001, through his gentle persuasion and patience, I joined Aryadaka in the work he called “Prison Dharma,” and became a volunteer Buddhist chaplain with the Washington State Department of Corrections. Aryadaka would tell me, “Just before you lead the men into meditation, tell them that now is the time to free yourself from the bonds of samsara.” After our meditations, men in our prison sangha would tell me that “there is a feeling of freedom.” Aryadaka also taught me that when I step into the prison, I step outside myself. It is because of these lessons, of seeking “moments” of freedom, that I will be forever grateful to this wonderful bodhisattva.
—Chuck Van Hall, Volunteer Buddhist Chaplain, Cedar Creek Correctional Facility, Little Rock, Washington
A BEE IN HER BONNET
Over the years, each season, I have gratefully and happily received a new copy of Tricycle. I carefully select times of silence and solitude to open the pages and begin reading, slowly, day after day, front cover to back cover. Each turn of the page brings forth a new treasure, an article worthy of reading. As of late, however, I continue to be disturbed and offended by “Buddha Buzz,” by Jeff Wilson. I don’t understand why such trivia is contained in a publication that appears to try to transcend the “mindless” clutter that already infiltrates our busy minds. I (and perhaps others) would prefer writings worthy of contemplation and inquiry.
—Stephanie Speer Kingston, New York
Jeff Wilson Responds
I agree that the material in “Buddha Buzz” is occasionally disturbing, perhaps even offensive. Who wants to read about a Buddhist memorial service for dead cockroaches or, for that matter, the mail-fraud schemes of a few delinquent Australian monks? Well, perhaps some of us do. The column does aim for levity: check out this issue’s mention of meditation as in-flight entertainment. Among the 120-odd pages of excellent material in Tricycle, I think there’s room for a page of inanity. After all, this is samsara we’re living in, and such oddities as Valentine’s Day-hating monks and video-game pilgrimages are a part of the living tradition of Buddhism (whether we’re happy about it or not).
I had the good fortune to see in your Spring 2004 issue Steve McCurry’s photo essay on Sera, the Tibetan monastery near Mysore, India. In January my travels took me to Bangalore, just a few hours from Mysore, and the opportunity to visit Sera was too tempting to pass up. Surprisingly, the monastery is not very well known, even in Mysore. However, we found a driver who knew where it was, and he drove us there. Passing through the deeply rural surrounding areas, we were not at all prepared for what we saw. Taking a turn off the main road, we came over a rise to see hundreds and hundreds of prayer flags blowing in the wind, surrounding an enormous temple glistening in the sunlight. It was like making a turn into a different universe. After an afternoon spent at the monastery, among the young monks and the local Tibetan community, we were deeply impressed at how much had been accomplished in the forty years since its founding. Not only did the few monks arriving here in the early 1960s have to figure out how to live, but they also needed to transport and preserve an entire culture. It appears that the community is thriving in all ways, and we were delighted to spend a day there. Thanks so much for publishing the photos.
—David Feldma, Ipswich, Massachusetts
I was very happy to see Osamu Tezuka’s drawing of the Buddha on your [Spring 2004] cover, because watching his Astro Boy on TV when I was seven awakened in me an interest in Japan, then Asia, then Buddhism. So it seemed to come full circle for me.
—Paul A. Johnson, E-mail
I found Michael Soulé’s response to his critics, which was printed in your Spring 2004 issue, rather lacking. Mr. Soulé’s argument in defense of hunting amounted to no more than simple apologetics. He is, of course, correct when he points out that our civilization harms many life forms and damages the environment. He is also correct to point out that our agricultural practices threaten the lives of many animal species. But to use these facts to justify the violence and cruelty of hunting is not reasonable. It seems to me that the most compassionate and humane response to our destructive practices is not to kill animals but to find ways in which to live in greater harmony with the natural world. I am fairly certain that the Buddha’s response to our environmental and agricultural practices would not be to pick up a high-powered rifle, run into the woods, and shoot the first mammal that went running by. There is no doubt that as a species and as individuals we do many things that indirectly harm others and the environment. Even if we were all pacifists, this would perhaps always be true to a certain degree. But dowe not simply compound our negative impact if we use this fact to condone violence? Even the greatest pacifists, like Gandhi, would acknowledge that we can never be truly harmless. But to justify violence with this is sophistry rather than Buddhism.
—Kirby Evans, Manotick, Ontario
Follow the Yellow Springs Road
The author of “Zen Cowboys: Teacherless Sanghas in Middle America” [Spring 2004] seems to suggest that the issue of choosing a teacher for a dharma center may only be a problem in the Midwest, but this is an important concern for dharma centers everywhere. Furthermore, the author gave the impression that all the members of the Yellow Springs Dharma Center, in Ohio, practice Zen; however, the center (of which we are members) is actually composed of practitioners from Vipassana and Vajrayana, as well as Zen. Each of these three groups practices according to its respective tradition, and each determines which teachers it will follow. This rather unique organizational model emphasizes the mutual support and cooperation of all three of the practice groups at Yellow Springs. Since its founding, our center has advised sangha members to obtain instruction in meditation from experienced teachers, and we have sponsored residential retreats that were led by teachers from all three traditions. While the Zen group has chosen Daniel Terragno as a guiding teacher, the Vipassana and Vajrayana groups will continue to practice under the guidance of a variety of visiting teachers, as they have done in the past. As a matter of fact, at present we have two Burmese nuns living and teaching in the Theravada tradition at the center.
—Donna Denman and Robert Pryor, E-mail
The White Ghetto
As a white woman involved in diversity issues in predominantly white Buddhist sanghas, I want to contribute to the discussion taking place in “Letters to the Editor” in the Spring 2004 issue, in response to Clark Strand’s Winter 2003 article on Soka Gakkai. To make sanghas more inclusive, we need to ask why many American people of color (including some Asian Americans) who are already interested in Buddhism do not feel comfortable in mostly white sanghas; in northern California, where I live, some Buddhists of color have even formed their own sanghas. We still have a long way to go in this country in terms of true racial equality and harmony. Being a practitioner or even a teacher of Buddhism does not necessarily free us from deep-seated racial conditioning or from our ignorance of white privilege. It can be difficult for white people to realize that being well-intentioned is not enough in terms of race relations. We have to investigate our racial assumptions, acknowledge our privilege, and recognize the exclusiveness of dominant white culture. Case in point: In Paul Volker’s letter to the editor, he implied that recruiting African Americans to Buddhism would be done in the “inner city”—often a code phrase for “ghetto.” Imagine how a middle-class African American might feel about this implication. This is not to single out Mr. Volker, however; many white people unconsciously make the same assumption. This is exactly why, as white Buddhists, we need to “unlearn” our racial conditioning before people of color will feel comfortable in white sanghas.
—Sheridan Adams, Oakland, California
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