Piety

I’ve been thinking about the concept of “piety” lately. What is piety, and what is it to me?

I don’t think of myself as a pious Christian. That is because I don’t do many of the things that I imagine most pious Christians do. Piety is, I think, a concept familiar to those of us who are “People of the Book” (that is, Jews, Christians, and Muslims) than those (of us) who are Buddhist.

And also, I thought of piety as empty – an attention to ritual or observance that lead to a “holier than thou” sort of perspective, but was empty of meaning.

Then I started to read Abraham Joshua Heschel:

Piety gives rise to reverence, which sees the “dignity of every human being” and “the spiritual value which even inanimate things inalienably possess.” Exploitation and domination are utterly foreign to genuine piety, and possession of things leads only to loneliness.

He speaks so eloquently of the deepness of a genuinely pious life. The ways in which it opens us to the divine, shapes us, and helps us tap into meaning. And I began to re-arrange my concept of piety, to open it up to be more expansive.

Is piety simply a way of living where we are really just paying attention? I’ve often translated the concept from 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray without ceasing”, to mean that I pay attention to the present moment, and listen for God’s voice in it. Is being pious, which for some mean very specific observances, just that? And how do I bring that to my life, as someone who does not have that framework of observance?

At least, for now, perhaps I’ll be reframing my ideas about piety, thanks to Heschel. I’ll probably have more to say about what I’ve learned from him in later posts.

 

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Interlude

The great Way is not difficult for those who are have no preferences.
Let go of wanting and avoiding, and everything will be perfectly clear.
But make the slightest distinction and heaven and earth are set infintely apart.

If you want truth, don’t be for or against anything.
The idea of good and evil is the primary disease of the mind.
If you don’t grasp the deeper meaning, you trouble your minds complacency.
The infinite is perfect and lacks nothing.
But because you select and reject, you can’t perceive the true nature of existence.

5th Zen Patriarch

I am an opinionated sort, as you’ve probably noticed. But an interesting thing is happening to me. I’m getting tired of talking about why things or people, or situations, are wrong. I’m becoming weary of my preferences. My own opinions ring hollow to myself right now. Not that I think I’m wrong, but just that I’m ready to let go of the need to be right.

I do know that being attached to being right is a dangerous thing. It can be like being a bull in a china shop – things might get broken. I’ve been attached to being right for most of my life – certainly all of my adult life, so some things have certainly gotten broken. Whether it be about how long to boil an egg, or how to build a website, or about what we should do about climate change, I have opinions on everything, and I have been very attached to the rightness of those opinions. Letting go of that attachment feels really scary. Will I stop caring about injustice? Will I be unable to make decisions? I somehow deeply know that neither of those things will happen. But the fear is there anyway.

I know that for the relief of my own suffering, and how I live in the world, it is right for me to begin to walk down the path of “no preference” that seems to be set before me. I don’t quite know what’s on the other side, but I’ll keep you posted.

 

 

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The Michigan Mishegoss

Music Festival
Photo by zenia: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zenia/

I went to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Twice, even. Once in 1987, and again in 1990. I had a great time. That’s where I learned to almost like Tofu scramble. I went with friends, and had a lot of fun, both at the festival, and on the road trips there. And it was pretty special – a place where one got to just be the “womyn”-loving person you were, bare-breasted and all. Oh, and the music was really great.

The festival was formed in the cauldron of the lesbian separatist movement, and retains one of that movement’s more problematic features: the policy of only allowing “womyn-born-womyn” to attend. What exactly does that phrase mean, anyway? Well, is quite exclusionary. For one, it excludes transwomen. It also excludes anyone who is born a woman, but might identify as anything except a woman. It also excludes anyone who is intersex.

I was too young to be deeply involved in the lesbian separatist movement – it was reaching its conclusion in the Lesbian Sex Wars of the early 80s about when I was coming out. But one of the hallmarks of that movement was, frankly, transphobia. One of the seminal books of the time was Jan Raymond’s “The Transsexual Empire“. It might have a few interesting nuggets to think about, but largely it is a transphobic screed, and is considered by some to be hate speech. (I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but it is extremely hard to argue that it is not quite transphobic.)

Now, you know that I have a somewhat complex relationship with this issue. But not complex enough to not know clear transphobia when I see it. And Michigan’s continued refusal to change their policy around who can attend is transphobic, plain and simple.

This is not a new issue, in case some of you young ‘uns think it is. The last time I went, back in 1990, there were conversations, and someone flew a plane over the festival and dropped flyers about transwomen not being allowed in.  In 1991, someone was asked to leave the festival when it became known that she was trans. There have been protests outside the festival entrance for many years now. There have been recent statements by well-known musicians suggesting changes, but the organizers are pretty clear in their intentions to keep this a space for “womyn born womyn.”

In some sense, it is their prerogative, since it is a private event. But the problem is that it has become much more than that in the more than 25 years of its existence. It has become an iconic community event of lesbian culture. And as such, in my opinion, there is responsibility to be truly inclusive.

But, from the continued insistence of the organizers, that’s not going to happen. So perhaps, unfortunately, Michigan will just fade away into irrelevance, as more and more people find their transphobia too much to jump over in order to attend or perform. Besides, who spells women with a “y” anymore?

 

 

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Right Speech, Prophetic Speech, Political Speech

One of the really cool things about refusing to cede priority to either Christianity or Buddhism in my heart is that I get to draw from both equally deeply. They are, of course, completely different in so many ways, but they do have interesting similarities. For me, though, what’s of a lot of interest is how they both inform how my life takes shape. I’m thinking a lot right now about the Buddhist concept of “Right Speech” and the Judeo-christian prophetic tradition.

“Right Speech” is part of the Buddha’s 8-fold path as the way to end suffering. Right Speech is alongside Right Action, and Right Livelihood, as guidance for ethical behavior. Right Speech means to speak with kindness, and when it is necessary. To refrain from falsehood and deceitful speech, refrain from slanderous and malicious speech, refrain from harsh and offending speech, and refrain from idle chatter, or gossip.

The Prophetic tradition, is that tradition, embodied in prophets like Isaiah and Amos, to Jesus and the disciples, on up to modern-day prophets like Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Those that speak truth to power. Here’s Isaiah 1:21-23:

21 How the faithful city
has become a whore!
She that was full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her—
but now murderers!
22 Your silver has become dross,
your wine is mixed with water.
23 Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not come before them.

You might say that’s harsh. And it is. But I would still argue that it is Right Speech. It is necessary. Saying the real truth when fighting for justice requires some bite, sometimes.

Fast forward to the present time. People on all sides of many issues either completely toss right speech out the door, or act as if their false, malicious speech, is alright, or even prophetic. And, by the way, this is not just done by conservatives when talking about liberals or progressives–progressives do it too.

Do we need prophetic speech? True, real, honest prophetic speech? Yes. But we also need to be careful, and know when the time and setting is right for it. And when the time and setting is not right, we must ask ourselves when speaking: is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?

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Because We Can

Three interesting news items have arisen in the past couple of weeks or so, and they all sparked the same reaction in me. They are each different, but each raise some of the same issues.

A scientist suggests that exploiting the oil reserves present in tar sands will make climate change unsolvable. Because we already have created a dangerous situation with climate using the oil and natural gas reserves, adding oil from tar sands increases the amount of carbon tremendously, possibly leading to irreversible climate change.

Then, there was the 3D printed pistol. For those of you not glued to your newsfeeds, basically, someone was able to use a 3D printer (still expensive, but remember when laser printers were expensive?) to create a single-shot weapon (called “The Liberator.” Sigh.) Of course, it’s not such a good gun, but it is the first. And, well, you know how technology goes.

The last is that scientists were, for the first time, able to create human stem cells from skin cells using cloning. It’s a big breakthrough, and may well lead to really important treatments. But it also paves the way for actual human cloning.

Both of these last two things are, at the moment, in questionable legal territory. There are state laws (in 13 states) that ban reproductive cloning, but no national law, except to ban funding for it. The 3D printed gun has all sorts of legal implications, and the plans were taken down, but of course, you know how how useful that is. I found at least 10 torrents with the files (that is a link to the concept of torrents, for those of you who don’t know what that word means, not the files, I won’t do that.) They are out there forever.

What’s so different now, is that all of this is inevitable. You can see it coming down the pike. And given the fact that this world is now one really small village, where we are all affected by what happens everywhere, and information moves almost instantaneously all over the globe, but at the same time, different countries have different laws, and different willingness to deal with things, we are headed for danger.

Scenario: As standard oil reserves start running out, oil will get so in demand, and so expensive, that it will be inevitable that someone will exploit them.

Scenario: Government cracks down on people distributing plans for 3D printed guns, but between 3D printers getting better, and people experimenting and getting better, making a gun that can do serious damage becomes a project someone can do in an hour in their basement. That also means that someone can create an underground business making many weapons that can’t be tracked.

Scenario: The US bans reproductive cloning, but, say, the Cayman Islands thinks it’s a great cash cow, and companies start making clones, first surreptitiously, but then out in the open. Want a child? Have a clone. (There are about a gazillion science fiction stories and novels that have this premise.)

And the quip, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” is true, and useless at the same time. You might not, but someone will. And it’s going to get worse. These are just three examples. (The robots are coming.)

So what are we to do about this? Shrug our shoulders and hope for the best? Shrug our shoulders and just wait for dystopia to catch up with us? I don’t have a good answer, but we’ve got to find a way to collectively go deep, make good decisions about where we are going as a species.

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Life as Practice #4: Past, Present and Future

Most Buddhist traditions focus a lot on training you to pay attention to what’s happening at this present moment. It’s a really important practice. Being able to be present in each moment to whatever is happening, whether it is your breath sitting, or being with a loved one, or working, or whatever it is, is the beginning of being able to be equanimous with whatever is–whether it is joyful or difficult.

And, of course, we all know that now is all there really is. The past is past, the future is yet to come, and living in them, dwelling in them, keeps us from the present moment.

The problem is, that in order to live our daily lives, we need to attend to both past and future. What do I need to accomplish today? Where did I leave my keys? We need to dip into both past and present with some regularity. So how do we do this without losing the present?

Part of the question is: are you clear, and in the present when you are attending to the future or past, or are you lost in the future or past? Are you constricted when you consider, for example, what you have to do tomorrow, or what happened yesterday? Are you dwelling on it, perseverating, feeling stressed about either the past or the future? Being present to those feelings is key.

I have two examples of practices I use that help me in this regard. First, is cooking practice. I love to cook, particularly for other people. And I love cooking for retreats – it’s a kind of container that helps me with this practice.

Cooking requires thought about present and future, particularly. You want everything to be cooked approximately at the same time, and, especially if you are cooking for 30 or more (yes, I’ve done that) it requires a lot of coordination. What I find really interesting is how I deal with the stress of trying to make sure that everything worked well, was seasoned correctly, is cooked, and arrives basically together, on time, when people are ready to eat. In a sense, it’s attending to both the future (how everything is going to come together) and the present (how am I feeling about it all.)

Christians contemplatives have some great practices to look at the past. My favorite is the Prayer of Examen (I mentioned it in a past post.) This prayer has its origin in Ignatian spirituality – the spirituality of the Jesuits. The basic idea of the prayer is to look back on your day with mindfulness, and notice what happened during the day, with an openness to the presence of God.

I came up with a version that is kind of a mix of traditions, and I think it is one that someone who doesn’t identify as Christian can use.

First, sit and be present to how you are feeling in this moment about the day. Is there anxiety about what happened, joy, pain, and/or anger? Be open to those feelings, and have compassion for yourself. If you wish, be open to the presence of the Divine, however you define it.

Be willing to look at the days events with gentleness for yourself and others. And if you find yourself unwilling, notice that, and let yourself admit that you don’t have that willingness. It’s all OK.

Then, look at the events of the day, one by one. Notice what feelings come up when a particular event occurred. Notice when there is sadness, or anger, or joy, or pain. Let gentleness and compassion wash over those feelings, if they are difficult for you. Notice what you might have done differently, or said differently, and forgive yourself if you feel shame or anger at yourself. Let the grace that is present in the Universe bathe you with love.

Notice if you can’t remember much of the day. Notice what might have allowed you to be more present in the day. Think about what you might do tomorrow to be more present for the day.

End the Examen with gratefulness for your efforts during the day to stay present, and gratefulness for whatever the day has brought to your practice.

 

 

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