Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Dhammapada Houstoniana: VERSE 51

The Dhammapada Houstoniana is an image macro project in which excerpts from the classic Buddhist scripture are contemplated within the context of life on the upper Texas coast. Individual verses will be published from time to time in blog entries, and if you would like a complete PDF copy of the project, please email me. For a more complete explanation of The Dhammapada, please see this introductory post. Click on each verse JPG below to enlarge and improve image resolution.

Monday, November 19, 2012

H.E. Ayang Rinpoche teaching in Houston

H.E. Ayang Rinpoche (homepage here), a Tibetan master of the practice of Phowa who teaches world-wide, is scheduled to deliver a program in Houston during the period December 17 through 21, 2012.
Photo screengrabbed from this site.
The program is titled "Ten Levels Buddha Amitabha Meditation Teachings" and will reportedly be presented in both English and Vietnamese. 
Screengrab of the program as it was published at this site
The Dharma Institute website indicates that the Viet Civic Center (Nha Viet) will be the venue for this event. 
The Viet Civic Center is located at 11360 Bellaire Blvd. Houston TX  77072, between BW-8 west and South Kirkwood. 
According to Ayang Rinpoche's website, further information about this program can be obtained by contacting 

Monday, November 12, 2012

New data on Buddhism's local prevalence

HuffPost has published this synthesis with a slideshow that details the prevalence of Buddhist adherents across a variety of major American cities, including Houston, Austin, and San Antonio.
According to the way "Buddhist adherents" were measured, greater Houston ranks about mid-way down the list, with 343 Buddhist adherents per 100,000 population. 
Screengrabbed from this source
HuffPost's digest, in turn, is based on this statistical compilation, which was reportedly done nation-wide based on data gathered during the 2010 American national census.
Low resolution screengrab from that source, which advertises their extensive full statistical work as being available for a fee. 
Measurements are presented on a county-by-county basis, with greater Houston being presented thusly:

Same source, again, low resolution presentation with sensitivity toward Fair Use copyright issues

Screengrab of much the same County array as depicted in the low-resolution excerpt above, in which the following Buddhist percentages can be extracted. 
Greater Houston:
Harris County: 0.1-0.49%
Galveston County: 0.1-0.49%
Fort Bend County: 0.5-0.99%
Montgomery County: less than 0.1%
Waller County: 1.0-4.99%
San Jacinto County:  1.0-4.99%

Jefferson County: 0.1-0.49%
Newton County:  1.0-4.99%

County base map supplied by the Governor's office.
These new data can be used to augment this blog's July post titled "How many Buddhists in greater Houston?" in which it was roughly estimated that the number was perhaps around 70,000.  But if we take at face value this new study's measurement of 0.343%  for the area and factor that into the general population estimate of 6 million, we instead end up with 20,580, which is significantly lower. 

The differences may be arising in part because of the way that "adherent" is defined and measured in this study with its emphasis on "congregational participation", which is perhaps a more relevant metric for mainstream American faith groups (e.g., Christian lineages) than it is for Buddhism.  There are a great many individuals who may deem themselves to be either Buddhist or Unlabeled without declaring a specific institutional affiliation.  Other measurement sources have clearly indicated that Houston's Vietnamese contribution alone should well surpass this relatively low estimate of overall Buddhism prevalence. 

At any rate, it's good to have more reference data points, and this study also raises some new questions.  In particular, why are higher participation rates measured outside of the greater Houston urbanized core?  Specifically, in Waller, San Jacinto, and (of all places) Newton County, which is located in culturally-distinct deep East Texas.  These are intriguing questions, perhaps for future blog posts.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Tibetan Lama coming to Houston

Tibetan Lama Garchen Rinpoche (affiliated institute) is scheduled to present teachings at three Houston-area Temples during the period December 4 through 9, 2012. 
Click to enlarge.  Please excuse the low resolution.  Downsampling was necessary in order to post this flyer as an image. 
Here is a clearer screengrab of just the schedule portion of the announcement. 
This program is being sponsored by the Viet Nalanda Foundation, which is an institution that facilitates cooperation between Vietnamese Vajrayana and Tibetan practitioners, but with a non-sectarian focus. 

A prominent teacher, Garchen Rinpoche was the subject of a recent documentary film titled "For the Benefit of All Beings".   Here is a trailer for that film.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Dhammapada Houstoniana: VERSE 49

The Dhammapada Houstoniana is an image macro project in which excerpts from the classic Buddhist scripture are contemplated within the context of life on the upper Texas coast. Individual verses will be published from time to time in blog entries, and if you would like a complete PDF copy of the project, please email me. For a more complete explanation of The Dhammapada, please see this introductory post. Click on each verse JPG below to enlarge and improve image resolution.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Gardening in a Buddhist context

Earlier this week, Tricycle profiled a new book titled "Mindfulness in the Garden:  Zen Tools for Digging in the Dirt".  I haven't read it yet, but reportedly, it contains many gathas (verses) intended to help connect readers to the in-the-moment experience of working in their gardens (or at least being present in them). 

With or without gathas, Buddhism places tremendous emphasis on nonverbal comprehension and direct experience.  The perceptual basis for the belief system is predicated on an intimate awareness of the interconnectedness of all things and the endless cyclical arising and ceasing that characterizes every facet of the universe. 

Additionally, as interpreted through certain versions of the Precepts and other historical sources, there is an emphasis on vegetarianism.  In the face of America's growing obesity crisis, "mindful eating" is a current buzz-term of growing popularity, with numerous authorities publishing wisdom tomes on this subject (e.g., here and here).

All of these themes converge and distill through direct experience with a garden, especially if that garden is managed by the individual seeking to cultivate (pun intended) a deepening awareness of the moment, and especially if that garden is used to grow vegetables for personal consumption.

The greater Houston area offers a particularly good opportunity to engage in vegetable gardening because, with its subtropical climate, food can be grown year-round here.   There's no need to interrupt the flow of the practice in order to wait for winter to pass. 

A detailed explanation of what it takes to establish a small personal vegetable garden is beyond the scope of this blog post, but if any readers are interested in pursuing that information, please email me and I can help get you pointed in the right direction (or perhaps I could do a follow-up post). 

In the meantime, here is a small photo tour of some of my own gardening activities over the past year and a half.  I can't tell you how vegetable gardening might affect your life or your perception, but I can relate my own experiences.  I found that, until I started actually bringing my own micro-crops to my family's own table, my personal comprehension of larger systemic food issues (such as those articulated by mindful eating proponents) was simply not well-aligned with reality.  Books were helpful in providing some logistical information on the superficial mechanics of gardening, but in the end, for me, the only true wisdom derived from the absolute wordlessness of the direct experience itself. 

Enjoy the show.  

I started small:
Here is a bowl-sized bunch of lettuce that I planted as a hands-on exercise during a 6-hour "Vegetable Gardening for Beginners" course that I took from the Harris County Master GardenersGalveston County Master Gardeners group also sponsors lectures and workshops.  And Urban Harvest is a great resource for those on the learning curve, particularly if they wish to learn organic and sustainable gardening methods. 

Nothing ever appears or disappears - it simply changes form.  Here is my bowl-grown lettuce changed into the form of a lunch salad.

From humble bowl beginnings, I grew to something just as round but definitely larger:
Because our back yard is so small, I converted a number of livestock watering tanks into raised garden beds (we had no space for an in-ground garden and besides, stock tanks look really cool as landscape design elements).  This particular tank is six feet in diameter and, at the time of this pic, contained broccoli and Swiss chard. 

The large container gardening option has several advantages:
-- It's easy to maintain hyper-fertile soils so that the small space can be made to yield the largest possible volume of food.
-- It minimizes the intrusion of weeds and pests such that it's easier to maintain organic growing conditions (no synthetic chemicals).
-- It prevents pets from messing with the vegetables. 
-- It raises the gardening surface to an accessible height. 

Broccoli leaf with dew at dawn. 
A vegetable garden is not just for eatin' - it's for enjoyin' as well.
One of the harvested broccoli crowns, organically-grown.
Steamed broccoli with a touch of organic butter.  Do you notice how intense the color is?  A carefully-grown crop will look and taste very different from food that is mass-produced using industrial agricultural methods.  This stuff tasted GREAT.  Even if you don't typically like the taste of most vegetables, you may find that you really enjoy the ones you grow yourself because they simply taste so much better.
I tend to be very pragmatic, so one of my biggest winter crops is onions, because they form the basis of so many prepared dishes (everything starts with chopping and frying up some onions).  These are organic Texas 1015 onions in another of our stock tanks, shown near maximum growth size a few days prior to harvest.  After harvesting, they will sit without spoiling on a shelf for about three months.  Onions give great bang for the buck and they are also Texas' largest vegetable crop, so I feel that growing them pays homage to our local geography as well. 
Cherry tomatoes on the vine.
Cherry tomatoes, onions, fresh basil, and fresh oregano, all organic and all harvested from our stock tanks.  This stuff went into some awesome spaghetti sauce.  I make it in massive batches, and then freeze it for future use.
Those crops shown in the first series of photos are cooler-weather crops (fall, winter and spring).  Cantaloupe is a hot-weather crop (only certain fruits and vegetables can thrive in Houston's killer summer heat). 
Cantaloupe diced and ready to be served.
Let's watch okra evolve its form in four easy steps:
Okra plants complementing an integrated landscape design.  This is yet another stock tank planting option - using an oblong tank for a restricted space, rather than round ones. 
Okra harvested from the plants and brought to the kitchen.
Southern-style deep-fried okra. 
Snacking doesn't get much better than this!
All garden scraps and exhausted vegetable plants get composted, so that their transformed remains can be returned to the stock tanks to nourish the next crop. 
Sweet potatoes are also a hot-weather crop that thrives in greater Houston's torrid summers:
Sweet potato plants produce rich broad leaves and a profusion of purple flowers.
Bunch of harvested sweet potatoes.
From tank to table:
Mashed sweet potatoes with a hint of cinnamon, nutmeg, and honey.
I hope you've enjoyed this colorful tour-de-tank.  If you have any questions, email me via SouthHoustonSangha (gmail). 

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Dhammapada Houstoniana: VERSE 46

The Dhammapada Houstoniana is an image macro project in which excerpts from the classic Buddhist scripture are contemplated within the context of life on the upper Texas coast. Individual verses will be published from time to time in blog entries, and if you would like a complete PDF copy of the project, please email me. For a more complete explanation of The Dhammapada, please see this introductory post. Click on each verse JPG below to enlarge and improve image resolution.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Houston Secular Buddhists / Secular Buddhist Association (SBA)

This is one in a series of "Profile" posts in which different local Buddhist groups and Temples will be described so that seekers will understand fully in advance what to expect should they decide to visit.

Secular Buddhism is an emerging form of Buddhism that discards the religious, cultural, and temporal overprints that largely define many Asian Buddhism lineages.  Secular forms of Buddhism are predicated largely on humanist and agnostic values.  As further described in Wikipedia,
  • "Secular Buddhism proposes that we leave behind the metaphysical beliefs and soteriology endemic to ancient Indian religious culture. This culture saw human life as an irredeemable realm of suffering, from which one should seek transcendence in an enduring beyond-human condition – a stance that virtually all Buddhist schools, as well as Hinduism and Jainism, perpetuate. Secular Buddhism, on the other hand, seeks to deploy the Buddha’s teaching as a guide to full human flourishing in this life and this world. In adopting this post-metaphysical position, it parts company with existing religious forms of Buddhist orthodoxy, which have evolved since the Buddha’s death. Instead, it aligns itself with today’s post-metaphysical philosophy, not least phenomenology, so finding itself on a convergent path with similar movements in Christian thought, as exemplified by the work of thinkers such as Don Cupitt and Gianni Vattimo."
The Secular Buddhist Association (SBA) has created an umbrella website that provides content consistent with the secular movement, as well as networking opportunities for practitioners and seeding resources for new groups.

The Secular Buddhist Association banner as of the date of this post.  The logo graphic symbolizes the practical, minimalist focus of the group by superimposing a photograph of the Earth on a stylized Dharma wheel.   The terminal ends of the wheel spokes are reminiscent of jigsaw puzzle joinery, suggesting that its organizational model has the potential to snap neatly into the lives of practitioners.   
A recent article hosted on the site and titled "What is a Secular Buddhist, and What Do They Believe?" provides a particularly concise summary of the boundaries of the belief structure.

Wikipedia currently links to ten different SBA entities (nine local groups plus the parent website):
However, the SBA site iself lists "like-minded" practice centers as well as those groups that have initiated under the SBA umbrella.
One of those listed is the Houston group.
At the present time, Houston Secular Buddhists networks its approximately three dozen members using its open-access Facebook page. 
The Houston Secular Buddhists page banner.
Users should note that there is also an older group page that has been migrated to that which currently has this header.
Houston Secular Buddhists arranges group meetings for its members, usually at an inner-loop location, although not yet with an established frequency due to the relative newness of the group and the lack of a well-established local meeting venue.

Moderator's Viewpoints.  Every organizational variant on the Buddhism or meditation group model is characterized by features that individual seekers may regard as positive or negative depending on their own personal circumstances and group involvement goals.

Houston Secular Buddhists and its de facto parent organization have the obvious drawback of being largely virtual (i.e., confined to the internet) out of necessity at this early point in their evolution.  That being said, the paradox represented by social media such as Facebook is such that, even though there may be less "human contact", there's actually more potential for awareness connectivity with a group like this than there is with most in-person groups where members may only get to see each other for relatively short periods once or twice a week.  Frequent member updates and posting of articles of interest on the internet help to keep groups like this in touch and can supply enjoyable and informative content within contexts that may not be attainable via individual effort alone (i.e., a crowdsourcing style effect). 

(And that daily posted content often includes cartoons!  Pardon my rampant attachment, but I love the Buddhism-themed cartoons!  Keep 'em coming!!)

Secular Buddhism also provides what some practitioners will see as freedom from those features of traditional Asian Buddhism that entail cultural ornamentation, multi-language comprehensional barriers, dogma, and proscriptions of undemonstrated merit.   Many western convert Buddhists as well as non-denominational meditators and mindfulness learners are explicitly seeking routes to involvement that do not resemble the hierarchical models presented by institutional religion-of-faith formats (e.g., Christianity; Islam).  As such, a secular approach will be perceived by some as a welcome relief from the undesirable impositions presented by other forms of Buddhism.

The Secular Buddhist Association website also furnishes a valuable resource for those who wish to form their own groups: a set-up and administration template that includes instructions on using the Meetup platform.   This is one of the only cohesive, centralized lay group seeding resources available in the western Buddhism / meditation landscape today. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Dhammapada Houstoniana: VERSE 41

The Dhammapada Houstoniana is an image macro project in which excerpts from the classic Buddhist scripture are contemplated within the context of life on the upper Texas coast. Individual verses will be published from time to time in blog entries, and if you would like a complete PDF copy of the project, please email me. For a more complete explanation of The Dhammapada, please see this introductory post. Click on each verse JPG below to enlarge and improve image resolution.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Shuttle Endeavour's great lesson in mindfulness

The events of yesterday provided a particularly stark opportunity to illustrate the core of the Buddhist belief system, and what can result when that wisdom is not heeded. 

Specifically, Buddhism places tremendous emphasis on the moment.  Buddhism argues that, in the absence of intentional mindful effort to the contrary, we humans tend to live in deluded imaginary self-made worlds characterized by ignorance, of which craving and aversion are the dominant manifestations.  This selective "way of being" separates us from ultimate truth, which is found only within the raw contents of the moment, rather than within our constantly-flowing and imaginatively-stunted ideas of what each moment should contain based on our past experiences and/or future expectations. 

Houston, the original "Eagle has landed" space city, was not granted a retired space shuttle for museum display.  Public reactions to that original decision understandably ranged from sorrow to horror, and Endeavour's scheduled stop-over in Houston yesterday re-opened those old wounds for many local people.  The common expressions in the mainstream news media furnished succinct examples of moment-ignorance (paraphrased here):
  • "We must have a shuttle!" (= craving). 
  • "We can't possibly accept the decision not to grant us a shuttle!" (= aversion)
But while all that hand-wringing and gnashing-of-teeth was going on, we collectively transitioned through some moments that were truly spectacular, as all moments are in their own individual ways.
Shuttle Endeavour, piggybacked on its carrier aircraft and flying very, very low over the south side of Houston yesterday morning, in a spectacular salute to the NASA workers and their families who have devoted so much of themselves to the support of the American space program over the past 34 years of shuttle operational history. 
Those people who appeared preoccupied with shuttle-related judgmental craving and aversion:  did they SEE what actually happened in those moments?! 
Endeavour with her chase plane.
Because of security concerns, fly-over details were not released to the public ahead of this event.  Nobody knew in advance what was going to happen.  In this respect, Endeavour's fly-over was a parable of life itself. 
Were those people present?  Did they hear the local children screaming and clapping at the sight of this?  Did they feel the type of compassion and wonder that can only come from experiencing the world with child-like perception?  Did they realize that they were standing in one of the most remarkable moments in human history?  Or were they largely absent from that moment, dwelling in their own minds instead of in the remarkable reality that was unfolding, fretting abstractedly about what we as a city received or did not receive?

I don't think many of those people were there in those moments.  I think they largely missed them, to their profound detriment. 

Houston may not have gotten a shuttle, and perhaps something should eventually be done in mindful response to that fact.  But in those specific moments yesterday, what we did get was one hell of a "Thank you". And in those moments, that was much more than enough. 
St. Bernadette's got it right.  No hand-wringing, no political overtones - just a reverent projection of good will.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Finding Buddhist jewelry and other supplies

About a year ago, I acquired a unique Sterling silver Dharma wheel pendant that I often wear on a chain around my neck.  Since that time, I've received many comments and inquiries regarding the source of this item, including two new inquiries just yesterday.  Because of this persistent interest, I thought the topic deserved a blog post. 
It's very striking, and it looks like this.
Image and design courtesy of (and copyright by) Mark Defrates,
I'm one of those people who weighs the wider socioeconomic impacts of every dollar I spend.  I don't buy a can of beans without first evaluating the corporation that produced them.  I believe that we can influence the world to bring about the types of beneficial changes we want to see, but it's not going to happen via the tired old activist route of marching around waving protest signs.  Our entire American socioeconomic profile is little more than a reflection of our cumulative spending habits.  Those institutions upon which people spend money will thrive; those that are denied revenues will fail.  For this reason, the simple, often barely-conscious act of opening our wallets probably has the single most profound long-range impact on our world. 

So for this reason of economic due diligence, prior to my purchase of this pendant, I did extensive internet research trying to find a nonprofit organization or other craftsman-type outfit that was engaging in "fair trade" style of production of Buddhist symbols and meditation supplies.  I was particularly interested in finding the type of micro-business that (for example) was helping to develop revenue-generating skill sets for Tibetans living in exile.  Or some other group of disadvantaged people who needed income from their self-sufficiency work. 

I was not successful in my search.  Apparently Buddhist homelanders have not yet realized their own potential to tap into the vast ocean of American disposable income.  All I found were a few websites that were offering for sale the types of mass-produced merchandise that one would find at a roadside trinket stand.  Occasionally there would be a group that appeared to be selling trinkets to raise money for a legitimate cause, but it looked like re-purchased "Made in China" type stuff that they were simply marking up by some extraordinary amount.  This was not the value-added, self-empowering production model that I had in mind as being the type of micro-business that I aimed to support with my patronage. 

The Buddhist prohibition on jewelry and immodest self-adornment may have something to do with this gaping market supply hole.   But a Dharma wheel is the type of item that people wear not for the purposes of cosmetic self-enhancement, but as a statement of beliefs, analogous to a Crucifix.  I don't label myself as a religious Buddhist, but I am in strong agreement with Buddhism's secular tenets.  Plus, I find it absolutely fascinating to be in some public place such as a crowded airport and to be identified visually at a distance by a like-minded individual who actually understands the meaning of the symbol.  Most Americans spot this pendant and instead assume that it's a ship's wheel and therefore I must be a sailing enthusiast.
It's not one of these.  Really.
Screengrab from Wikipedia.
So every once in a while, I'll have this delightful experience of weaving my way through a crowded airport, only to be spotted at a distance by some corporate executive in a thousand-dollar business suit, who stares at me half in shock and half in elation with the question, "You, too?!" written across his face.  It's an absolutely fascinating variant on the people-watching theme - that experience alone is well worth the admission price represented by the pendant. 

But back to my story.  The fair-trade, Buddhist-homeland-based purchasing intention having been a complete failure, I then pursued what I consider to be the next best thing: an American micro-business owner supporting himself or herself via good old-fashioned hard work and creativity.  Mark Defrates in Florida appeared to be such an individual and his collection of Buddhist symbols I found to be some of the best quality work on the internet. 

So there you have both the source and the story behind that curious item I am often seen wearing around my neck.  If anyone in the ethernet stumbles across this post and happens to be fostering the type of indigent self-sufficiency I've referenced above, please either comment below or contact me by email.  I would love to develop a roster of genuine, vetted fair-trade-style purchasing options for Westerners who are searching for products such as Buddhist jewelry. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

How to find a teacher of Buddhism or meditation, Part 1

The other day, a blog commenter asked a question about how to find a teacher of Buddhism or meditation (the question was unqualified). 

This, of course, was a subject I had been intending to address via a series of posts, but it's simultaneously the simplest question and the toughest answer, which is why I hadn't gotten to it yet.

Finding a teacher may feel like navigating one's way through a foreign maze of complex ancient history. 

View looking through the 13th century cloister at the Buddhist temple known as Banteay Kdei in Cambodia.  Pic courtesy of this Photo Dharma site / Creative Commons. 
The problem is that there's a major Catch-22 involved: Buddhism is neither homogeneous nor hierarchical (in a familiar expected way, such as how the Catholic church is structured, for example).  In order to identify a teacher who is a good fit to the student's needs, the student first has to know something of "what's out there" in the way of groups, schools, and their associated teachers.  But the "what's out there" is so complicated that it's very difficult for students to learn about it without first finding a teacher!

I could spend the next six weeks expounding on the background of that complexity, but I'm not sure what value that would add.  Instead, let me simply embrace that difficult situation on its face and offer a few purely-practical steps that you can consider taking as you fumble your way toward identifying the situation that best fits your needs:

(1) Read books.  No matter which way you go with Buddhism and/or meditation, you are going to be facing a learning curve that needs to be climbed, and that curve is going to be steep in places.  This is just the reality of it, so jump in and start reading.  This post summarizes a collection of "Buddhism 101" books, none of which I'm very pleased with as introductory texts, but it's the best we've got to work with right now.  Don't worry if you don't "get" stuff right away.  Comprehension starts out as being rudimentary and then deepens with time and experience. 

(2)  Research temples and groups.  This, obviously, is the part of the equation that South Houston Sangha News is trying to help streamline and make more manageable - this process of basic research which otherwise is so daunting to people that it is almost insurmountable, as challenges go.  On the left sidebar to this blog you will find the current line-up of greater Houston's temples and groups, ordered alphabetically and by geographic location.  Note that the list is a work in progress at the moment because I haven't yet had the time to research all of the approximately forty Buddhism and meditation facilities and groups located in our area.  Additionally, of those facilities that are linked at left, some of them are raw links to the facilities' own websites, but others are meta-links to Temple Profiles, where I have managed to pull together information not only from the facilities' own webpages (if they have internet presences), but also from third-party commentary, vetting, and research as well.  Eventually I will get them all properly profiled - it's mostly a matter of time. 

(3) Show up.  You'll never know until you try.  You'll never get a feeling about a particular meditation group or temple until you actually attend a few times.  And as soon as you show up (or maybe even before), proceed straight into this next step below. 

(4)  Ask questions.  Many newcomers visit meditation groups and introduce themselves literally by saying, "Hi, I'm So-and-So, and I'm completely clueless about Buddhism and this group."  Group members and teachers will expect to be greeted that way, so don't feel self-conscious if you fit this description.  Questions can (and should) be directed without reservation to any and all of the following:
  • Individual members of different groups.  They all understand perfectly what it's like to be a newcomer and will welcome you warmly.
  • Teachers and temple leaders.  Despite Buddhism's complexity, good teachers and monastics are much like western priests and ministers in that they make themselves available to people who wish to ask questions.  If you would like to speak with a particular teacher, it is a good idea to first ask them what their procedure is for one-on-one consultation.  This is particularly true for Asian monastics who may maintain strict personal schedules. 
  • This blogger.  Some people decide that maybe they want to visit this temple or that temple, but they are still not sure if they should.  So some of them contact me by email (SouthHoustonSangha - gmail) and ask me questions in private before they make their first public appearance at any facility.  I consider it an honor if people seek my input on things that are obviously so personally important to them.  If I don't have the answer to any given question, I can usually track down someone who does. 
(5)  Trust your gut.  If you investigate multiple groups in succession, which most seekers do, by the way, you will inevitably encounter specific individuals who are enthusiastic about their particular lineage or practice, and who maybe will even tell you that theirs is "the best".  It is useful to note for reference the degree of satisfaction exhibited by such folks, but their experience is not your experience.  Don't succumb to covert or ouvert pressure to join any particular group.  This is your life, and spirituality is one of the most personal facets of anyone's life.  You need to find what works for you, not what is most enthusiastically endorsed or most popular. 

(6)  If at first you do not succeed...  Try, try again.  Remember that blog entry I made about the English speaker who showed up multiple times at a local temple without ever finding anyone there who spoke English.  That person proceeded to realize their goals at subsequent facilities, and their experiences at the non-English-speaking facility were extremely helpful to me as I was researching it.  Persistence not only pays off - it's also highly useful to others.  And being useful to others is a huge part of what Buddhism is all about.

This summary is quick 'n' dirty and doesn't nearly do the kind of justice that this teacher topic demands.  But hopefully this can serve the purpose as a triage-style start.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Houston Chronicle's Dawn Mountain coverage

Last Thursday, Houston Chronicle published this article about Houston's Dawn Mountain temple. 

The article provided unusually prominent exposure of a local Buddhist institution, especially given that it floated on the front page of Chron for several hours that day and thus was immediately accessible to the browsing masses. 

Chron does have a religion blogging section called Houston Belief, but many "skimmer" type newspaper readers probably don't encounter it very often, given that its contents are buried within Chron's many layers of web pages, such that navigation to it is difficult unless you already know where you're going.

So that's the good news, in a sense - some front-page exposure of a facet of our local Buddhist community did occur last week. 

The bad news is that the coverage wasn't necessarily of the flavor that was in the best interests of that community.  There's a substantive description as to why in the Comments section below the Dawn Mountain article.  For brevity, I won't repeat those observations and logic chains here, but basically, readers who knew nothing about local Buddhism probably came away from that article with the impression that Buddhism was (a) rare in Houston, (b) the dominion of mature western academics, and (c) rightfully restricted to Montrose, which is largely defined by its counterculturalism (and which has been called "the strangest neighborhood east of the Pecos"). 

Houston's 70,000+ largely conservative, largely non-countercultural Buddhists distributed among about forty local thriving temples would probably disagree with such impressions. 

I'm not quite sure what else we might contribute at this point to help improve such perceptions and presentations.  I have previously reached out to most of our local academic faculty members who teach in the realm of religion, and I have reached out to commercial news journalists, just to let them know that there's a network being built here through which they can access people, facts, and perspective within the Buddhist community as a whole, if they have a need for that kind of information. 

Beyond that, it may just be a matter of accruing additional authenticity through continued building of our local Buddhism database and content.  I'm gradually chipping away at that, but it's a huge task.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Dhammapada Houstoniana: VERSE 40

The Dhammapada Houstoniana is an image macro project in which excerpts from the classic Buddhist scripture are contemplated within the context of life on the upper Texas coast. Individual verses will be published from time to time in blog entries, and if you would like a complete PDF copy of the project, please email me. For a more complete explanation of The Dhammapada, please see this introductory post. Click on each verse JPG below to enlarge and improve image resolution.

Friday, August 31, 2012

New Buddha statue is rock solid

Our main local commercial newspaper Houston Chronicle featured the story of the new Chua Phap Nguyen (Dharma Spring Temple) Buddha statue yesterday.  That wonderful piece of news reporting focused on the development and positioning of the statue from existential and cultural perspectives.

The series of photographs accompanying the Chron article hinted at the extraordinary amount of work involved just in the delivery of the statue to this Pearland temple (never mind its initial skilled production and pending assembly).  This statue is fundamentally different from most western Buddha statues (and most religious statues in general) in one key respect: it was carved from solid granite.  Many modern-day American statues are instead fabricated from fiberglass (examples here and here) and thus are much easier to create, and far less costly to transport and erect because of the resulting lower weights and reduced labor requirements. 

This series of photographs below shows in additional detail just how much manpower and equipment were required simply to unload the statue segments from the intermodal containers in which they were shipped from Asia (all photos courtesy of Chua Phap Nguyen/A. Dunn). 
Initial staging of the delivery containers on the Chua Phap Nguyen property.
Close-up of a few "boxes".  When dealing with dense substances such as granite and other stone materials, the transportation-limiting factor becomes the mass of the resulting pieces rather than their volumes.  These half-empty-appearing boxes could not have been packed with additional materials because they would have become too heavy to be hauled over public roads. 
The general procedure for larger pieces was to align a flat-bed truck with the opening of each container and first pull the statue sections onto the flatbed using heavy equipment.
Some sections of the statue could then be craned directly off the flatbed and placed on the ground.
Other sections proved to be just too heavy for the crane...
...and instead had to be coaxed onto the ground using the assistance of gravity.
Even many of the smallest peripheral pieces required heavy equipment to move.
We look forward to the final assembly and unveiling of this extraordinary one-of-a-kind statue on the Phap Nguyen site.  The installation of the statue is expected to be complete within the next few months. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Buddhism and meditation outreach

The purpose of this post is to leave a "scent marker" that will be of use to anyone considering the creation of a Buddhism and/or meditation outreach site in their own geographic area.  South Houston Sangha News is only a few months old now, but I've learned a few important and surprising lessons about running this kind of blogsite, and those lessons are worth sharing at this point.
Blogs are inherently non-local phenomena.  Even though South Houston Sangha News targets the upper Texas coast and, with its newness, has not yet established a robust traffic pattern, it receives visitors from all over the world.  This is a partial list of countries with visitors arriving within the past several weeks.
Surprising Lesson #1Almost nobody else is creating this kind of outreach resource at the present time.  I've already talked about the lack of a comparable resource in the greater Houston area, which probably has one of the largest established Buddhist populations in the United States.  But the same has proven to be true all over.  In order to research this issue, I've relied on open internet searches and also on the meta-site called Blogisattva, which developed a highly-respected award system for excellence in Buddhist blogging a few years ago.  Unfortunately, I can't supply a reference URL for Blogisattva because, for unknown reasons, the entire site was pulled down just a few weeks after I retrieved their site database (if anyone wants a copy of that, please email me).  To date, I've reviewed 315 of the 458 Buddhist blogs and websites listed in their database, and I've identified only two (!!) that supply any discernable geographic outreach benefit, as follows:
  • Michigan Buddhist.  This is a true "one-stop" outreach meta-site, and is fabulously constructed both in terms of esthetic design and technical sophistication.  As the "About" section conveys succinctly, "Michigan Buddhist collects and distributes Dharma-related information of particular interest to Michigan practitioners. We publicize speakers, retreats and happenings, and maintain a listing of temples, sangha, meditation centers, and discussion groups throughout Michigan. We provide a list of relevant links for those looking to learn about Buddhism and inform their practice, and a calendar of upcoming events."
  • The Sumeru Guide to Canadian Buddhism.  This site does not investigate the groups and Temples that it tabulates, nor does it appear to track and publicize events or collate news content, but it is a very thorough, well-designed, and frequently-updated directory of basic resources.
Why are there so few true Buddhist outreach sites?  I don't want to get too deeply into speculation, but I suspect that it's because this kind of "grunt work" is less attractive to people as a blogging focus.  It's exciting and sexy to publish personal reflections that others actually read, and it's exciting and sexy "be a benefit" to Tibetans, to homeless people, to displaced peoples, and to incarcerated people.  Believe me, it's not very exciting and sexy to slog through hundreds and hundreds of narrowly-focused "personal reflection" blogs searching for those rare gems that might actually be a benefit to ordinary middle-class non-newsmaking American people who are facing monumental challenges in their lives.  Which brings me to my second point -

Non-Surprising Lesson #2:  Geographically-based Buddhism and meditation outreach is sorely needed.  There seems to be a tacit assumption that those ordinary middle-class non-newsmaking American people are not high priorities for outreach.  After all, do most of them not have comfortable lifestyles, especially compared to most of the world's peoples?  Don't most of them have gainful employment?  Access to education?  Why should they be a focus?  By the very fact that they are lucky enough to be in America, are they not already equipped to identify and procure spiritual resources under their own power?

Such a perspective is not a very compassionate view.  American residency is no guarantee that life will be even remotely free of suffering.  Even in my very limited spiritual travels, I've met people who have debilitating health problems that inflict chronic pain upon them, who have experienced the tragic deaths of their closest loved ones, who have been the victims of violent crime, whose families have abandoned them, who are ensnared in addiction, and who have been systematically violated by institutional Christianity.  Very often when people are actively searching for new spiritual resources such as meditation groups, it is in response to some acute crisis unfolding in their lives.  I've heard stories of pure despair from people trying to cope with a complete lack of informational resources and outreach as they conduct their searches, an unfortunate reality that imparts unnecessary insult to their existing life injuries.  Rest assured, if you decide to initiate a true meditation and Buddhism outreach site in your geographic area, you will be supplying an immediate benefit to people who warrant compassion.

Surprising Lesson #3:  Many "Buddhism outreach" search engine hits actually refer to missionary sites that seek to convert Buddhists to Christianity, rather than to sites that supply meditation and associated resource information.  Examples here ("ministering to people influenced by Buddhist worldviews") and here ("Christ's Great Commission gives Christians a mandate to take the gospel to every person, including the large number of Buddhist peoples. Since we understand that Buddhists are seeking truth, and because Jesus Christ is "the Truth," we are doubly bound to declare the gospel to them").  These sites are not helpful to people who are searching for true Buddhism and meditation outreach, and thus it is useful to counterbalance those viewpoints by supplying actual resources.  It's important to recognize that I'm not talking about prosetylizing here.  I'm just talking about making specific information readily available to those people who are actively searching for it. 

I've added a link category called "OTHER REGIONAL OUTREACH SITES" in the left-hand column of this blog layout where I will list any additional useful resources that I encounter in my web travels.  If you are considering the creation of a Buddhism and/or meditation outreach site in your local area, please refer to that section for additional good examples and ideas, and feel free to contact me via southhoustonsangha - gmail if you need advice or assistance.  Thanks!!