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Jun 2012 12

by Brad Warner

Yesterday someone sent me a link to a story in the New York Times about a guy who had died when he and his wife were expelled from a Buddhist retreat.

There is so much I could comment on this story that it’s hard to know where to begin. So I’ll begin with the title. If you look at the URL for the story it’s clear that the New York Times originally titled it “Mysterious Yoga Retreat Ends in Grisly Death” and then later changed it to “Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in Grisly Death.” Which goes to show you just how much the mainstream media, and by extension the mainstream public, knows about Eastern religions. You fine folks who read my posts and follow the Buddhist magazines and websites and what-not know the difference. But like nerds of all kinds, we Eastern religion nerds often forget that there’s a whole wide world of people out there for whom Yoga and Buddhism and Hare Krishna and Zorastrianism and Sufiism and all the rest appear to be just one big very weird thing. It’s really important to keep in mind that those of us who do know the differences are a tiny, itty-bitty, teeny-weenie minority. To the rest of the world our pointing out that yoga and Buddhism are two different things seems about as relevant as the Godzilla geeks I used to know arguing about whether Godzilla is actually green or not (he’s not, by the way, except that recently sometimes he is).

This is important because it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone who participated in this retreat actually knew anything about Buddhism at all beyond what they heard from its leader, one Michael Roach Geshe. I would think that even a very cursory glance at some of the beginner’s level books about Buddhism would have alerted them to the fact that something rather odd was going on here.

For starters, the retreat these folks got expelled from was supposed to last three years, three months, and three days. That’s just too gosh darned long! The early Buddhists did three month retreats during the Indian rainy season when there wasn’t much else anyone could do. This tradition is carried on in many places in the form of what Japanese Buddhists call an ango, a retreat lasting around 90 days that typically occurs in the Summer (though spring, winter and fall angos are common these days too). Three months is pretty intense and there’s a good reason Buddha never recommended doing retreats any longer than that.

While reading the story I found myself wondering just how Mr. Roach Geshe justified such an excessively long retreat. A clue can be found on their website which says, “The word ‘enlightenment’ sounds vague and mystical, but the Buddha taught that it is quite achievable by deliberately following a series of steps. The three-year retreatants have been studying and practicing the steps very seriously for the last six or more years, and by going into the laboratory of solitary retreat they hope (to) realize the final goal taught by Lord Buddha.”

So they figured that if they went at it really hard for three years they’d get enlightened. Just like Lord Buddha. Lord Buddha? I’ve run across that designation for Gautama Buddha before and it always seems like a signal that something strange is afoot. I suppose whoever made it up thought that the designation Buddha (the Awakened One) wasn’t quite grand enough and chose to borrow the word “Lord” from Christianity in order to make Gautama seem more supernatural. Whenever I come across someone who talks about “Lord Buddha” I assume they want to make the point that Gautama Buddha is, to them, a kind of god.

Again, this flies in the face of what any introductory text will tell you about Buddha. It’s another clue that the folks who participated in this retreat were the same kinds of people who don’t know any more than the New York Times does about the differences between Buddhism and yoga and whatever else falls under the umbrella heading of Eastern spirituality.

I spend a lot of time on the internets shaking sock monkeys around and poking fun at people who advance all sorts of incredibly obvious hookum as “Buddhism.” This story drives home the point that this stuff isn’t always funny. In fact it can be very serious and very, very sad.

Apparently Mr. Roach Geshe was one of a growing number of people trying to link Buddhism with so-called “prosperity theology.” This is something that first appeared in American Protestant Christianity in the 1950s and claims that the real teaching of Christ was that if you followed him you could get rich. Which flies in the face of pretty much everything Jesus is reported to have said in the Bible. But the folks who follow prosperity Christianity seem to know as little about what’s in the Bible as the people who follow prosperity Buddhism know about what Buddha taught.

I can see the appeal of prosperity theology. Look, I’m going to move to Los Angeles in a week. You best believe that if I thought I could pray my way to a higher income I’d be praying all the time! But I’m extremely skeptical of words like “prosperity” and “abundance” as they are used by middle class Westerners of the early 21st century. Compared to most of the rest of the world, we already start out with way more than we really need. Yet we still want more because our economically driven society continuously emphasizes the need to consume. If we can find some religious justification for greed we’ll grab it. It’s very attractive. I don’t think any of us are completely immune its charm. I certainly am not.

But, again, even a quick look through the most basic books about Buddhism — or, for that matter, a scan through any of the gospels — will tell you that Buddhism is definitely not compatible with prosperity theology — and neither is Christianity. Yet if these things are advanced by people who appear to be authorities, who wear the right robes and speak in the correct way, a lot of folks who really ought to know better will swallow them whole.

I’m not sure if it’s easier to dupe people into thinking any old spiritual sounding nonsense you make up is Buddhism than it is to dupe people about our more familiar religions. If people want to believe this kind of stuff they’re going to. But I feel like I’m going to have to keep pointing out that not everything that calls itself “Buddhism” has anything at all to do with Buddhism for quite a while.

Mr. Roach Geshe has posted a very long open letter on his website describing his take on what happened. Amidst a lot of ass-covering language there emerges a description of a retreat that was really far too intense for any of its members. Silent retreats with small groups of people often cause those among the group who may already have psychological difficulties to experience those difficulties even more intensely than they might experience them in a more “normal” setting. Of course people go off in the midst of straight society all the time. But there’s nothing like an intense spiritual retreat to really bring these things to the surface. The more intense the practice, the more likely it’s going to cause someone’s psyche to crash and burn.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when you’re getting into meditation practice you’re dealing with some serious mojo, this is not to be taken lightly. And if you think you need a more intense or extreme practice to get you into the deeper stuff faster…you most assuredly do not. It’s absolutely crucial to take this stuff slowly. If you try to rush it, bad things will happen. We’re all full of lots of bad stuff. If you think you can push right through into the great enlightenment of Lord Buddha without first dealing with your own accumulated negative shit, you’re dead wrong.

***

Brad Warner is the author of Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between as well as Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains a blog about Buddhist stuff that you can click here to see. You can also buy T-shirts and hoodies based on his books, and the new CD by his band Zero Defex now!
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Mar 2012 09

by Blogbot

Yes, Mistress: Exploring Sexual Rebellion And Power With Snow Mercy, Koko and Brad Warner…This Sunday (March 11) on SuicideGirls Radio we’ll have our whips and chains handy as we head down into our dungeon to explore BDSM. Professionally curious co-hosts, Nicole Powers (SG’s Managing Editor) and Darrah de jour (SG’s Red, White and Femme columnist and resident sensuality expert), will be joined by dominatrix Snow Mercy and submissive Koko Kitten. SG’s Hardcore Zen columnist Brad Warner will also be on hand to join in the spanking good fun and offer a spiritual perspective on this taboo topic. We’ll cover everything from rope-play to role-play, forced feminization to tease and withhold, and light-pain to something a little more hardcore.

Tune in to the world’s leading naked radio show for two hours of totally awesome tunes and extreme conversation – and don’t let yo momma listen in!

Listen to SG Radio live Sunday night from 10 PM til Midnight on suicidegirlsradio.indie1031.com/

Images: Nena Suicide in Fetish Kitty.

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Mar 2012 08

by Brad Warner

I follow Thich Nhat Hanh on Twitter. But, whereas I write my own Twitter posts, I doubt that Mr. Hanh sits in front of his Macbook and types his out for the world to see. My guess is that some minion of his scans his books for pithy statements that fit the Twitter mold and then uploads them. The Thichster probably never even sees them. I rarely see them either. But yesterday this one popped up:

“When you contemplate the big, full sunrise, the more mindful & concentrated you are, the more the beauty of the sunrise is revealed to you.”

So I Tweeted the following back at him:

“@thichnhathanh Sounds to me like mindfulness would get in the way of the sunrise.”

I’ve said here a few times how much I hate the word “mindfulness.” This quote seems to embody everything I don’t like about that word.

To be fair to Mr. Hanh, there are many ways to take this statement. There are a lot of things he might have meant by it. For example, he might have meant it as a sort of advertising for meditation. Yardley Aftershave Lotion might tell you, “You’ll get lots of chicks if you douse yourself with Yardley” as an incentive to get you to buy more Yardley Aftershave Lotion. Perhaps Mr. Hanh wants you to know that you’ll appreciate the sunrise lots more if you do meditation practice. Which is fine, I guess.

But there’s another way to take this statement. And I honestly believe it’s the way most people would take it. They’d look at it and say, “Gosh. I’m not mindful enough. I’m not concentrated enough. Because when I look at a sunrise, I just shade my eyes so that I can get through this traffic jam on West Market Street without running over any of the kids from Our Lady of the Elms. Sunrises kind of annoy me. They give me a headache. I better get more concentrated and more mindful so that I can be more like Thich Nhat Hanh and let the beauty of the sunrise be revealed to me.”

In other words, the concept of “mindfulness” gets in the way of the sunrise. It becomes a big obstacle between what we think of as our self and what we think of as the sunrise. And we make our efforts to try to overcome the obstacle we’ve placed in our own way. Most of the time I hear or read the word “mindfulness” it sounds to me like an obstacle.

Pretty much all of our religions and our various self-help practices are based on the idea that what we are right now is not good enough. We then envision what “good enough” must be like and we make efforts to transform what we are right now into this image of ourselves as “good enough.” We invent in our minds an imaginary “mindful me” and then try to make ourselves into that.

The problem with this kind of effort is right at its very root. We are setting up a habit of always judging ourselves as being not whatever it is we want to be. Whether you’re poor and want to be rich or whether you’re dull and want to be mindful, it’s pretty much the same thing. Of course we’d probably have a better world if more people were ambitious to be mindful than were ambitious to be rich. Probably. But maybe not. Because the effort to be something you’re not always seems to go wrong no matter what it is you want to be — even if you want to be super terrifically nice.

People who are working on fulfilling some image they have of a “nice person” are usually a pain in the ass. Their efforts to be like the “nice person” they’ve invented in their heads almost always get in the way of actually doing what needs to be done. Most of the time I’d rather be around someone who is honestly selfish than someone who is forever trying to be helpful. That kind of forced helpfulness is almost never helpful at all. It’s annoying. Sometimes it’s even harmful.

But those of us who realize that we actually aren’t as good as we could be have a real dilemma. What do you do when you recognize that you really are greedy, envious, jealous, angry, pessimistic and so on and on and on?

To me, it seems like the recognition of such things is itself good enough. It’s not necessary to envision a better you and try to remake yourself in that image. Just notice yourself being greedy and very simply stop being greedy. Not for all time in all cases. Just in whatever instance you discover yourself being greedy. If you’re greedy on Tuesday for more ice cream, don’t envision a better you somewhere down the line who is never greedy for more ice cream. Just forgo that last scoop of ice cream right now. See how much better you feel. This kind of action, when repeated enough, becomes a new habit. Problem solved.

As far as mindfulness and concentration are concerned, it works the same way. At the moment you notice yourself drifting off, come back. You might start drifting off again a nanosecond later. But that’s OK. When you notice it again, come back again. Repeat as necessary.

Trying to be more mindful and concentrated is just gonna put you right to where you were drifting away from the sunrise in the first place.

***

Brad Warner is the author of Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between as well as Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains a blog about Buddhist stuff that you can click here to see.

Brad Warner will be speaking in Los Angeles soon.

March 10, 2012
10 AM – 3:30 PM
Hill Street Center
237 Hill St.
Santa Monica, CA 90405

March 15, 2012
7:30 PM – 9:00 PM
Against the Stream
4300 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90029

You can also buy T-shirts and hoodies based on his books, and the new CD by his band Zero Defex now!

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Feb 2012 24

by Brad Warner

A guy called Mister C asked the following question via Twitter: “Doesn’t Buddhism count homosexuals as sexual deviants?” I’ve already addressed this issue at length in my most recent book Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between and even right here on SuicideGirls. But I’ll address it again, because clearly there is a need to since the idea persists that Buddhism believes gays are deviants.

There is no Buddhist Bible somewhere out there in which it is written that a man shall not lie with another man as with a woman or anything like that. That’s the short answer. And now the long one.

The main reason so many people believe that Buddhists consider homosexuality to be deviant is because of statements made by the 14th Dalai Lama. In 1997 in an interview with Dennis Conkin of the Bay Area Reporter, the Dalai Lama is reported to have said, “Buddhist sexual proscriptions ban homosexual activity and heterosexual sex through orifices other than the vagina, including masturbation or other sexual activity with the hand. From a Buddhist point of view, lesbian and gay sex is generally considered sexual misconduct.”

One thing that needs to be clarified right from the outset is that the Dalai Lama is not the Pope of Buddhism whose decries form the official position that Buddhists everywhere must follow. He is, in fact, merely the head of one particular sect of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelungpa lineage. So he’s not even the Pope of Tibetan Buddhism, let alone all of Buddhism. Other Buddhist lineages like Zen, Theravada, Pure Land, Nichiren and so on don’t recognize him as their spokesman or leader. I, personally, rarely pay him much attention.

I’m guessing that the “Buddhist sexual proscriptions” he refers to are the ancient rules for monks (both male and female). The first Buddhist monastic order was expected to practice celibacy. Apparently some of Buddha’s monks thought this meant only that men were forbidden to have sex with women. They figured it was permissible for men to have sex with each other and that hot girl-on-girl action was also fine and dandy. So Buddha had to educate them by specifying that “no sex” meant no sex at all by clearly stipulating homosexual acts as also being no-no’s for monks.

But that was meant only for monks. As far as laypeople were concerned there were only four types of sexual acts that were specified as wrong. In an ancient sutra about Right Action the Buddha is quoted as saying that a Buddhist, “avoids unlawful sexual intercourse, abstains from it. He has no intercourse with girls who are still under the protection of father or mother, brother, sister, or relative; nor with married women, nor female convicts; nor lastly with betrothed girls.” Although this statement is made from the male perspective, it is understood the same applies to Buddhist laywomen.

As for lesbian and gay sex being “generally considered sexual misconduct” by Buddhists, that really depends on who you ask. For example, the San Francisco Zen Center, one of America’s largest contemporary Buddhist organizations, is extremely gay friendly. They run a lot of workshops and retreats specifically geared toward the LGBT community. Many other Buddhist communities both in the West and in Asia are similarly open-minded.

There are ancient scriptures that do specify certain acts we consider to be homosexual as being misconduct for monks. And I think this is what the Dalai Lama was referring to.

But when looking back at ancient scriptures, one has to be careful not to read contemporary definitions into them. The word “homosexual” is of very recent origin. Its first known appearance in print occurred in 1869. It wasn’t clearly defined until about a decade later. See here for further details. The Indian, Chinese, Japanese and even Tibetan Buddhists of pre-modern times had no concept of homosexuals or homosexuality as we understand those terms today. Neither did Biblical era Jews or Christians for that matter. But we’ll leave that aside.

For Buddhists, sexual behavior was not really an issue in and of itself. It only became an issue when it interfered with Buddhist practice. Thus, monks both male and female were forbidden to have sex not because sex was considered evil or wrong, but because it interfered with the single-minded pursuit of Buddhist meditation to which they had committed their lives. They were also forbidden to eat after noon, to sleep in luxurious beds, to listen to music, to go dancing and so on for the same reason.

These days the rules are usually far less strict. In Japan, monks are even allowed to get married. The more severe rules are observed during training periods and then dropped when monks leave to go to their own temples. When it comes to lay people there really are no rules at all.

However, there is a set of precepts that all Buddhists adhere to across the board. And the third of these is generally given as, “Do not misuse sexuality.” But there are many interpretations as to what constitutes misuse of sexuality. It is generally left up to the individual to determine for himself or herself what is and what is not a misuse of sexuality. Even the Dalai Lama seems to agree with this. In a 1994 interview with OUT magazine he is quoted as saying, “If someone comes to me and asks whether homosexuality is okay or not, I will ask ‘What is your companion’s opinion?’. If you both agree, then I think I would say ‘if two males or two females voluntarily agree to have mutual satisfaction without further implication of harming others, then it is okay.'”

When Buddhists live communally it is sometimes necessary to agree on a specific definition of sexual misconduct. Some Buddhist communities opt for strict celibacy. Others do not. The San Francisco Zen Center, for example, encourages its residents to engage only in committed monogamous sexual relationships. You can get kicked out of their residential communities for violating this rule. But you won’t get kicked out for being gay. That’s for certain. Though you might get the boot for being too slutty in your gay-ness.

So, no, Mister C, Buddhism does not count homosexuals as sexual deviants. Though certain prominent Buddhists, like the 14th Dalai Lama, do.

***

Brad Warner is the author of Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between as well as Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains a blog about Buddhist stuff that you can click here to see.

Brad Warner will be speaking in Los Angeles soon.

March 10, 2012
10 AM – 3:30 PM
Hill Street Center
237 Hill St.
Santa Monica, CA 90405

March 15, 2012
7:30 PM – 9:00 PM
Against the Stream
4300 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90029

You can also buy T-shirts and hoodies based on his books, and the new CD by his band Zero Defex now!

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Dec 2011 05

by Brad Warner

Crazy Wisdom Trailer from Kate Trumbull on Vimeo.

Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche was a lot of things. When he was just 18 months old he was recognized as the reincarnation of a high Tibetan lama. He escaped Tibet’s Chinese rulers when he was 20 years old, fleeing through the icy mountains on foot with a group of 300, only 13 of whom made it across the border to India. He went to England and started the first Tibetan Buddhist center in the Western world. A short while later he came to America where he set up the Shambhala foundation. Then he proceeded to fuck dozens of his students before drinking himself to death at age 48.

Now someone’s made a movie about Trungpa, called Crazy Wisdom. It’s pretty good.

I never met Trungpa myself. But my first Zen teacher worked for him for a while as an instructor at Naropa Institute, the Buddhist university Trungpa founded in Boulder, Colorado. It was the first Buddhist university in the West. He used to tell me wild stories about Trungpa’s excesses. One time Trungpa threatened my teacher saying that demons would fly through his window at night and tear him to bits. One guy I talked to watched Trungpa down two 40 ouncers of beer during a public dharma talk. Then there’s the story I’ve heard from about half a dozen people about the time Trungpa forced a couple to participate in an orgy by ordering his uniformed guards to strip them naked against their will.

And yet for all his scandalous activities, Chogyam Trungpa is still revered 24 years after his death as one of the great Buddhist masters. Johanna Demetrakas’ new film Crazy Wisdom seeks to understand this contradictory figure. Was he merely a madman who conned thousands into thinking he was a guru? Or was his crazy wisdom really more wise than crazy after all?

I’ve never been quite sure just what to make of Trungpa. His book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is still one of my favorites on the subject of pursuing the dharma authentically. And yet he was a drunk and a sex fiend. Even his closest students admit that. He never hid any of this, though. And that’s what made him different. While poor old Richard Baker Roshi, head of the San Francsico Zen Center was getting flayed alive for having a brief affair with one student, Trungpa was out there screwing his followers like there was no tomorrow. And nobody seemed too fussed about it.

It turns out that perhaps sex isn’t the real problem. The real problem may be spiritual teachers who present themselves as one thing and then act completely contrary to that image. This is something Chogyam Trungpa never did.

Crazy Wisdom is a wonderfully entertaining film about this amazing contradictory man. Although the filmmakers are followers of Trungpa and naturally seek to present him in a positive light, they don’t gloss over his faults either. Trungpa never attempted to define himself according to the categories others created. Neither do the filmmakers attempt to do so. It’s left to the viewer to decide if Trungpa was insane or saintly.

Documentaries about spiritual masters aren’t usually my thing. They tend to be dry, boring and exceedingly reverent. But Crazy Wisdom isn’t your run of the mill fluff piece put together by people who want to show you why their guru is better than yours. It’s a serious film, but it has some truly laugh out loud moments. The cast is a who’s who of luminaries associated with Eastern spirituality in the West including Allan Ginsberg, Ram Dass, Stephen Batchelor, and Trungpa’s student Pema Chodron.

My only complaint is that the filmmakers chose to ignore the darker side of Trungpa’s legacy, his followers who understood their teacher’s crazy wisdom as a license to do anything at all regardless of the potential consequences. In particular I’m thinking of the story of Osel Tendzin. Tendzin was Trungpa’s successor who liked to suck and fuck just as much as his teacher. The problem was that when Tendzin was diagnosed with HIV he continued having unprotected sex without informing his partners of his condition. Stephen Butterfield, a former student, said (though this is not in the film), “In response to close questioning by students, he first swore us to secrecy and then said that Trungpa had requested him to be tested for HIV in the early 1980s and told him to keep quiet about the positive result. Tendzin had asked Trungpa what he should do if students wanted to have sex with him, and Trungpa’s reply was that as long as he did his Vajrayana purification practices, it did not matter, because they would not get the disease. Tendzin’s answer, in short, was that he had obeyed the guru.” Trungpa was wrong.

I’ll grant you that even addressing this subject at all may have pulled the film in a whole different direction. It’s a movie about Trungpa, not Tendzin. Still, to completely ignore this very significant effect of Trungpa’s teaching style seems a little like keeping something hidden. And Trungpa never hid anything.

In spite of this shortcoming I still highly recommend the film. It isn’t the kind of snore fest these sorts of documentaries usually are. In fact it’s highly engaging and entertaining as well as informative. It presents a (mostly) honest portrait of a Buddhist master who doesn’t fit the stereotypical mold.

***

Brad is on tour right now and may be in your area. To see where Brad will be speaking next take a look here.

Brad Warner is the author of Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between as well as Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains a blog about Buddhist stuff that you can click here to see.

You can also buy T-shirts and hoodies based on his books, and the new CD by his band Zero Defex now!

***

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Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: Win A Date With Brad Warner!!!
Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: The End of the World As We Know It
Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: Meditation, Depression and the Sense of Self
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