May 25, 2012

Buddha Buzz: The Passing of a Beloved Zen Master

My thanks to everyone and anyone who has been reading Buddha Buzz these past few weeks. Because, as we all know, it's been a bit depressing. Murder, rape, theft, deception—a smorgasbord of horrible activities seems to have hit the Buddhist international community as of late, and I feel somewhat responsible for relaying the information onward to you.

I'm making amends this week. So if you can get through the first story about the perversion of Buddhist teachings and the second story about the passing of a beloved South Korean teacher, I promise you'll be rewarded with some lovely (and pertinent) photos of puppies.

Here at the Tricycle office we sometimes argue about whether a steady meditation practice naturally brings compassion and ethics. I suppose, though, for our all arguing, that in the end it depends on how you're practicing meditation. (On a side note, our discourse regarding this issue really suffers from the fact that we generally use the same word—"meditation"—to refer to many different techniques.) As Vishvapani Blomfield writes in a Guardian article this week about how Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian responsible for the mass shooting last year at a youth politics camp, used meditation to kill effectively, "the effect of any practice depends on our values." Blomfield continues,

Meditation makes you calmer and clearer and encourages empathy and kindness … right? Not if you are Anders Behring Breivik who has told psychiatrists that he used meditation to 'numb the full spectrum of human emotion—happiness to sorrow, despair, hopelessness, and fear.' He still practises it behind bars to deaden the impact of his actions.

Breivik uses meditation as a form of mind control—a way to focus the mind and exclude responses that get in his way. You could argue that he is meditating wrongly, but I think his testimony shows that the effect of any practice, meditation included, depends on the ends to which it is recruited. Breivik's aims were determined by his racist beliefs and meditation didn't challenge them.

Stories like this one are sobering, to say the least. But it's good to remember sometimes that meditation—and Buddhism, for that matter—is no magic solution.

I was emailed earlier this week about the passing of Daehaeng Kun Sunim, a female Zen master from South Korea who, at the time of her death at 85 years old, had been ordained for 63 years. Chong Go Sunim has written a lovely tribute to her on his blog "Wake Up and Laugh." He writes,

She made laypeople a particular focus of her efforts, and broke out of traditional models of spiritual practice to teach in such a way that anyone could practice and awaken. At the same time, she was a major force for the advancement of Bhikkunis (nuns), heavily supporting traditional nuns’ colleges, as well as the modern Bhikkuni council of Korea.

Born in Seoul, Korea, in 1927, she awakened when she was around 7 years old, and spent the years afterwards learning to put her understanding into practice. She would wander the mountains of Korea, wearing a ragged set of clothes and eating only what was at hand. Years later, she said that she wasn’t pursuing some type of asceticism; rather she was just completely absorbed in returning everything to her fundamental Buddha essence, and seeing how that affected what she entrusted.

Our deepest condolences to the students of Venerable Daehaeng. She is the kind of teacher who is so wonderful to hear about—dedicated to Buddhist teachings, exemplary in her behavior, and an inspiration to the people around her.

Now, as promised, the puppies. On Wednesday Tibetan monk Geshe Phelgye gave a pet blessings ceremony at a park in Washington. And the resulting photos were enough to melt even my cynical Buddhist heart. (See all of the photos here.)

Image 1: Venerable Daehaeng, from "Wake Up and Laugh."

Image 2, 3, 4: From the Redmond Reporter.

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zendo's picture

The use of meditation to blunt affect or to otherwise maintain distance from the messy and uncomfortable parts of personality is not that uncommon. Many of us, myself included, were unconsciously drawn to meditation when we were very young, in part, as a way to escape (read: transcend) unformed and/or damaged aspects of self. I think that this tendency is true today for people just starting out on the path. However, what Mr Breivik did not include in his practice was the dharma and sangha, not to mention the relationship with a teacher to guide him and point out, implicitly and explicitly, the problematic nature of his use of meditation. Moreover, had Mr. Breivik been part of a sangha and had he been with a bonafide teacher, he might have developed relationships with other practitioners (it is not by accident that people who murder others in this way are almost always described as loners) and he may have even been encouraged to include psychotherapy and medications with his practice of meditation.

The real concern, I think, is the abuse of power, as reported on this website and others, by teachers such as Genpo Roshi and Eido Shimano Roshi (spelling?). Here are two seasoned meditation teachers, both dharma heirs, who not only seemed to be repeat offenders, they do not seem to have been capable of remorse and the complete taking of responsibility for their mistakes. According to the research on self esteem versus self acceptance (see the literature on positive psychology), this would indicate that their practice may have have focused on discipline and effort while downplaying or ignoring the basic affective quality of self acceptance or self compassion, a quality valued in both the Zen and Vipassana traditions. As I understand it, research suggests that unlike people with high self esteem, people with elevated levels of self compassion have greater resilience, lower levels of narcissism (a key issue), and they are more likely to take responsibility (and to made amends) for mistakes. Also, self compassion is usually synonymous with empathy for self and others, a quality that diminishes the likelihood of treating others badly. Of course, the abuse of power by spiritual teachers is a complex issue and one that has many causes and conditions. I think Freud famously said that all behavior is over-determined (caused by many things).

Dominic Gomez's picture

Perhaps it's time to wean ourselves away from the word "meditate" in light of its use in "premeditated" muder, et al. "Pray" may be more accurate for what Buddhists actually do.

paul6316's picture

...or "contemplation," perhaps? Stephen Batchelor pointed out that the words "meditate" and "contemplate" have reversed meanings.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Contemplate: look at thoughtfully, think about. Meditate: think deeply or carefully (about something). What is reverse about their definitions?

wtompepper's picture

I think the point is that contemplate used to mean to look at something somewhat passively, just to have it in sight, like looking at a sunset; meditation used to mean, as you say, to THINK deeply and formally about something with concentration. Now, in common use, when people say meditation they generally mean NOT thinking, just passively observing (usually their own mind), while contemplate has come to mean thinking. Prayer, in English, has historically always been transitive--it requires a listening God--and does not require any thought--it is quite often formulaic specifically to avoid thought; this may be why it is not such a popular term for those who think meditation involves thinking deeply and with intent.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Unless said meditator is thinking deeply about his or her prayer as a means to overcome suffering, resolve an issue, become happy. Then prayer is pro-active rather than transitive and requires one's own efforts more than "a listening god". As in "(fill in the blank) helps those who help themselves.

Tharpa Pema's picture

I would not deny an incarcerated Anders Breivik the mindfulness to reduce his suffering, not unless his suffering were necessary to prevent him--or someone modelling themselves after him in the future--from again harming others.

I am not convinced that this is the case. It seems just as possible that he will be less rather than more dangerous in the future if he has nonviolent, inward means to cope with suffering. It is tragic that he was not able to use his meditation skills to redirect his homicidal energies when he was free.

Whether the example of his suffering in prison will deter others so inclined--I do not know. Maybe some will be deterred while others will be inflamed.

I do know that I am unhappy with myself whenever I justify or rejoice in anyone else's suffering, whatever they have done.

I'm not saying, Emma, that you or anyone else is rejoicing. Rather I am hearing in my head the voices of people in my past--including myself--whose violent anger at some self-appointed perpetrator/punisher so resembles that of the perpetrator/punisher himself.

May we all nurture our compassion rather than nurse our anger.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Hi Tharpa Pema, thanks for your thoughts and insights. I hope I wasn't unclear in the post, but I was not trying to insinuate that Anders Breivik should be denied mindfulness. (And in any case, I'm not sure how one would be denied of practicing mindfulness.) I think the problem here, and what Guardian writer Vishvapani Blomfield wrote about, is that Breivik used mindfulness/some sort of meditation practice to better equip himself to kill people, not to reduce his suffering. Surely I don't agree that anyone should be rejoicing about Breivik's suffering, and I don't think violent anger towards him, as you wrote, would be of any benefit. (On a side note, the fact that the Norwegian prison system's maximum jail sentence is 21 years is interesting here.) But using meditation to more effectively massacre people is something that I can't sit comfortably with.

Tharpa Pema's picture

You weren't unclear, Emma.

In my particular culture/social environment (Deep South suburbia) the normal response to news that a convicted killer has found some form of release from suffering is explosive anger and contempt for the justice system in question.

Someone will usually say he deserves to "roast in hell for eternity, that's why he's in prison " or some such thing.

I was hearing that typical response to the news, not yours.

Peace and Kindness, Tharpa

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Ah, I see what you were saying now. That sounds like a harsh viewpoint to be around, and I'm relieved to hear that it didn't sound like I was saying that. Everyone needs peace and compassion.

ANDREWCOOPER24's picture

Oh, puppies! thank you, Emma.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

You're welcome, Andy! I'm glad you like them.