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.