Tangled Up in Blue: Zen Practice and Depression (edited version)

Right now I can’t read too good

Don’t send me no more letters, no

Not unless you mail them from

Desolation Row

— from “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan

 It starts with dread.  In a distant city, on top of the covers in a two-star hotel, ceiling fan humming and circling slowly, mosquito net shrouding the bed.  Or driving alone on the late night interstate, rolling by strip malls and chain stores.  Or walking down an everyday street, feeling empty inside. Dread has a physical quality — a dead weight on my chest and shoulders, a gnawing sensation in my stomach. Nausea.  A wish to jump out of my skin.

Within these sensation there is loneliness, despair, and the certainty of ceaseless separation.  The dread is that my life will be like this from now on, and that it always has been like this and I have been so disconnected that I didn’t even notice.  If I am far from home, I fear I might die there, alone. I imagine myself home in bed, watching television, as if that would provide the absent intimacy. I think through the necessary steps that would have me on a homebound flight within hours. I have a plan, and that provides me with the illusion of a way out. The dread can last for three or four days, or months. And even though there is nothing objectively “wrong” with the circumstances of my life — things can actually be going well — I feel as if a curtain had been pulled back on the ugly workings of my life, and it is not worth living another day.  It feels like the end of the line, and the line continues.

Millions of us suffer in this way. We yearn for wholeness and accomplishment.  I have had plenty of that in my life: two wonderful children, a happy marriage, many old friends, respect in the Buddhist world, writing published, music recorded, and so on. Despite repeated admonitions about “gaining mind,” the suffering of depression simultaneously suggests the dream of self-fulfillment and the impossibility of that dream.

I don’t usually talk about my depression.  Nor do most people who suffer this way, whether or not they are Buddhists.  For Buddhist practitioners all those hours and weeks and years of meditation are supposed to lead to happiness and equanimity. Depression feels like a kind of failure.  To admit depression is to suggest that Buddhist practice doesn’t always “work.”  Recently someone in my community said: “You’re the last person I’d think of as depressed.”  I have become skilled at keeping it hidden.

***

 Consider a bright young man in his late twenties, well-educated and physically healthy.  His mother died when he was an infant. For most of his life he had not left his family’s house.  He had all the advantages of a privileged background — good clothes, delicious food, doting servants.  He married a beautiful young woman from a similar background, and became the father of a son.  But all of this seemed empty to him.  He found no happiness. So he left his comfortable home, his wife and son and friends, without any particular goal beyond relieving himself of the fatalistic gloom that settled over him like a cloud. For six years he tried every meditation technology and trendy diet available. At last he sat down under a tree, determined to wake.  There he encountered great sensual temptations. But he gave up, let go, and everything turned out right.

This is the early life of Shakyamuni Buddha. It is an inspiring story, but one can hear it as the description of someone suffering from chronic depression. I am not a prince, there are some parallels with my own life, growing up with privilege in a prosperous suburb.  By all accounts, the Buddha’s suffering fell away when he awakened under the bodhi tree.  Did he really arrive at a place where he was always happy, never anxious?  That is what we are asked to believe, but I wonder?

***

 As for me, after nearly thirty years of meditation, I haven’t seen cosmic light shows or transcendental visions of reality. I don’t claim enlightenment. This is not to say I do not feel changed or even free at times.  Freedom is momentary.  I appreciate it for what it is. I just don’t stay there, and that is okay with me.    That’s a loaded word — “stay.”  In terms of the law of anicca or impermanence, one does not stay anywhere.  But I digress.

What I mean to say is that given my propensity towards depression — biochemical, hereditary, or karmic — the settledness of meditation, the sense of relief in simply sitting down, may be as good as it gets for me.  There is a phrase I love from the 13th century Zen Master Dogen: “When Dharma fills your body and mind, you realize that something is missing.” The very incompleteness of our being, actions, aspirations is a manifestation of Buddhanature itself. Everything is broken.  No regrets.

***

 Over the years I have tried various ways to “deal with” (that means get rid of) depression.  I have done talk therapy and acupuncture.  I’ve sampled organic remedies like St. John’s Wort, SAM-e, homeopathy, and Vitamin D.  I have been on and off a modest dose of Prozac.  Actually Prozac seemed to work for a while.  When I began to take it, twenty years ago — on the advice of my therapist — it was as if a dark cloud that had always circled my head just disappeared.  It was a great relief.  But the relief seemed to be only temporary.

So, I return to what I trust, meditation — and to that other reliable remedy: friendship. Actually, the two are not unrelated.  Meditation is not a cure, but if I can sit down in a quiet space and follow my breath, the weight of depression lifts while I am sitting. If sitting is not possible, I take a long walk. Either way I have bridged the internal disconnect; I am, for this time, friendly towards myself.

The power of friendship multiplies when extended beyond oneself. I recall E. M. Forster’s famous epigraph to Howard’s End: “Only connect…” In the darkest moments, when I feel least able to do so, I know this is necessary and true.  So I leave my room and seek a friend.  In depression, friendship is an alkahest, the alchemist’s universal solvent that brings forth light and energy.  It’s the best remedy.

Depression has its own gift: the ability to identify with people in pain. Their suffering is something I understand. In my life as a Zen priest I talk to people all the time. I can’t count the number of people who have told me about depression and the pain of isolation and loneliness. I am moved by their honesty and their predicament. They suffer as I have suffered; I am like them.

***

 I was about thirteen when I became aware of depression. Fifty years ago. My parents were in the midst of a difficult divorce.  I had just completed my bar mitzvah, a ritual that had been drained of all meaning by five dreadful years of compulsory Hebrew school. Then my mother kept the all the cash from my bar mitzvah gifts to pay for the reception.  Times could be hard even in the suburbs.

I was finishing eight grade at a WASPish private day school where I had no friends. For nearly a year I got out of school early every Friday to attend Hebrew school.  After the bar mitzvah I didn’t tell the private school, and kept leaving early each week.  For some months I didn’t mention this to my mother either.  The school bus dropped me in the center of town, by myself.  I would go to the movies alone, eat well-done French fries, and walk home.  Now it sounds like a teenage adventure, but with each passing week I felt more desolate.  I couldn’t stand the private school, I couldn’t go home, and I dreaded being alone.  So finally I confessed. In a rare moment of mother-son intimacy (at least rare in my experience), my mother calmly explained that I was depressed, and that this was only natural after all the anxiety of divorce, the buildup and letdown of my bar mitzvah, and new vistas of puberty.  She spoke to me gently, conveying a sense that she knew what she was talking about from her own experience.  I am sure she did.

Now I had a name for what I was feeling, even though I had no idea what to do about it.  It would be another thirteen years before I saw my first psychotherapist, and even then depression was framed as a psychological matter — a symptom of unconscious issues, mostly centering on my parents — rather than a condition as much physical or biochemical as psychological.

All these years later I continue to live with this condition and its close companion — anxiety. One of the Buddha’s unique discoveries is the Wheel of Life, or Dependent Origination. The wheel rolls, from birth through death and on to successive lives. Anxiety is its fuel.  But we can also consider rebirth from moment to moment, and do our best to end the ceaseless spinning. Anxiety is linked to the fear (and certainty) of future non-existence, real doubt about my present existence/non-existence, fear of pain, sickness, debility.  Such anxiety leads to a kind of self-fulfilling depression.  How can I break the chain?

 ***

 I have to live with depression as a condition of my particular being.  Current medical research suggests that depression is hardwired in our brains.  In evolutionary terms the sleeplessness and hyper-vigilance of depression may have some survival benefit. So maybe depression is a good thing.  I might consider myself genetically selected to be a survivor…at least if I lived in the jungle.

But Buddhist practice is not directed toward a particular goal, not even survival. It is simply about being awake.   The path of practice leads right through our immediate life circumstances. The pangs of depression, or any pains — physical or mental — are vividly part of that life.  I’m not able to avoid unpleasant circumstances, but the question is: can I turn depression, or will I allow it to turn me? Long ago the Buddha showed us how to do this.  Each event of his awakened life — including illness, injury, temptation, betrayal, loss — was occasion for him to learn, then to share his understanding.  He didn’t try to change or avoid external conditions, and he wasn’t pushed around by circumstances.  He lived in community with his friends and he turned towards suffering.

There is a message in depression. Things in life are roiling. Change is afoot. After years of practice I know this is true even in the hard times. If I can bear it and see through it, depression becomes the harbinger of transformation.  Things are always in a state of change.  Only connect. With that kind of understanding all of life seems to be a fortunate accident. I am alive, so change is always possible, however unlikely it seems… What am I doing here on the planet?  Oh, I remember. I’m setting up shop in the saha realm, the world that must be endured, the land of samsara, which literally means wandering on.

The heart of Buddhist practice may be a matter of faith, in a dark night when faith is hard to find. My friends help me through the night. Night and day, depression and joy — there is really one whole, true life.  Practice gets me to what is true.  That’s where I want to live.

***

 POSTSCRIPT

Early in 2013 I flew to India to visit and teach among Dalit Buddhist friends there.  Since our children have left home for work and college, my wife Laurie and I were able to travel together for the first time in more than twenty years.

As I wrote above, when traveling I usually have to endure several days of depression at the start of a journey.  This seems to be an unavoidable pathway to the present time and place.  I have wondered if this phenomenon was simply a matter of loneliness, since I almost always arrive alone.  But on this trip I was not alone.  Laurie was with me.  And the first five days were as hard as ever. I was not lonely, but in some way I was still alone to wrestle with the darkness.

I was grateful to be able to talk things over with Laurie.  Far from home, among the teeming streets, she was having trouble of her own adjusting to India, quite unlike mine.  The opportunity to talk about my difficulties was valuable perspective, but it did not make them go away. I felt distant from my body and mind, alienated and uncomfortable — what I take to be the meaning of the Buddha’s dukkha. In the morning it was hard to get out of bed.  In the day, even the sunlight seemed to hurt.  Then after about five days I woke up “normal.”  The weight had lifted and I was relieved to find myself home in body and mind.

So it was not really a matter of loneliness.  My depression seems to arise from a deeper displacement.  This is simply what I must live with.

­— Hozan Alan Senauke

“Tangled Up in Blue” originally appeared in Inquiring Mind Vol. 29 no. 1 (Fall 2012). Republished by permission. © 2013 by Inquiring Mind. http://www. inquiringmind.com

Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments

Tangled Up in Blue

Blue Buddha2

Right now I can’t read too good

Don’t send me no more letters, no

Not unless you mail them from

Desolation Row

— from “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan

 

 It starts with dread.  In a distant strange city, face up on top of the covers in a two-star hotel, ceiling fan humming and circling slowly, mosquito net shrouding the bed.  Or driving alone on the late night interstate, rolling through a desolation of strip malls and chain stores.  Or just walking down an everyday street, feeling empty inside. Dread has a physical quality — dead weight on my chest and shoulders. Sometimes a gnawing sensation in my stomach. Nausea.  A wish to jump out of my skin and into oblivion.

Within these sensations there is infinite loneliness, despair, and the certainty of ceaseless separation.  The dread is that life will be like this from now on, and that it always has been like this and I have been so disconnected that I didn’t even notice.  If I am far from home, I fear I might die there, alone and unknown. I want to be home in bed, watching television, as if that would provide the absent intimacy. Carefully, I think through the necessary steps that would have me on a homebound flight within hours. I have a plan, and that provides me with the illusion of a way out. This feeling can last for three or four days, or weeks or months And even though there is not something objectively “wrong” with the circumstances of my life — things can even be going well — I can feel as if a curtain had been pulled back on the ugly workings of my life, exposed as meaningless, not worth living for another day.  It feels like the end of the line, and still the line continues.

Millions of us suffer in this way. We yearn for wholeness and accomplishment.  I have had plenty of that in life so far: two smart and wonderful children, a happy marriage, many old friends, a position of respect in the Buddhist world, writing published, music recorded, stages occupied I would rather leave the word as a teacher and as a performer.  Despite repeated admonitions about “no gaining mind” (some of these in my own talks), the suffering of depression simultaneously suggests the dream of self-fulfillment and the impossibility of that dream.

I don’t usually talk publicly about depression.  Nor do most people who suffer this way, whether they are Buddhists or no.  But for Buddhist practitioners all those hours and weeks and years of meditation are supposed to lead to happiness and equanimity. Depression feels like a kind of embarrassment or failure.  To admit depression is maybe to suggest that Buddhist practice doesn’t always “work.”  Someone in our community said recently: “You’re the last person I’d think of as depressed.”  I guess I keep it hid.

But consider a bright young man in his late twenties, well-educated and physically healthy.  His mother dies when he is an infant. For most of his life he has not left his family’s house.  He has all the advantages of a privileged background — good clothes, delicious food, doting servants.  He is married to a beautiful young woman from a similar background, and he has become the father of a son.  But all of this seems empty to him.  There is no joy or happiness for him, though others seem to find at least moments of happiness.  So he leaves his comfortable home, his wife and son and friends, without any particular goal beyond relieving himself of the fatalistic gloom that has settled over him like a cloud. For six years he tries every meditation technology and trendy diet or fast available in his day. Even under the Bodhi tree, as enlightenment approaches, the Buddha is confronted by Mara the Tempter’s beautiful daughters, one of whom embodies depression and discontent.  Finally Shakyamuni gives up, lets go, and everything turns out right.

This is the early life of Shakyamuni Buddha, but I can hear it as the description of someone suffering from chronic depression. Aside from the fact that I am not a prince, there are some parallels with my own life, growing up in a prosperous suburb.  By all accounts, the Buddha’s suffering fell away when he awakened under the bodhi tree.  Maybe he really did arrive at a place where he was always happy, never anxious.  That is what we are asked to believe, but I wonder?

***

 As for me, after nearly thirty years of meditation I have come to no great enlightenment. I haven’t seen the cosmic light shows, or transcendental visions of reality.  This is not to say I do not feel changed or even free and joyful at times.  But freedom is momentary.  I appreciate it for what it is. I just don’t stay there, and that is okay with me.    That’s a loaded word — “stay.”  In terms of the law of anicca or impermanence, one does not stay anywhere.  But I digress.

What I mean to say is that I have come to think that given my propensity towards depression — biochemical, hereditary, or karmic — the settledness of meditation, the sense of relief in just sitting down, may be as good as it gets for me.  There is a phrase I love from Eihei Dogen, in our Zen tradition: “When Dharma fills your body and mind, you realize that something is missing.” That is, the very incompleteness of our being, actions, aspirations is a manifestation of Buddha-nature itself. Everything is broken.  No regrets.

Over the years I have tried to “deal with” (that means get rid of) depression in various ways.  I have done talk therapy and acupuncture.  I’ve sampled organic remedies like St. John’s Wort, SAM-e, homeopathy, and most recently Vitamin D.  I have been on and off a modest dose of fluoxetine (Prozac).  Actually Prozac seemed to work for a while.  When I began to take it, twenty years ago — on the advice of my therapist and in consultation with a psychiatrist — it was as if a dark cloud that had always circled my head just disappeared.  It was a great and joyous relief.  But the relief seemed to be only temporary.

 So, I return to what I trust, meditation—and to that other reliable remedy: friendship. Actually, the two are not unrelated.  Meditation is not a cure, but if I can sit down in a quiet space and follow my breath, the weight of depression usually lifts while I am sitting. If sitting is not possible, I will take a long walk. Either way I have bridged the internal disconnect; I am, for this time, friendly towards myself.

The power of friendship multiplies when extended beyond oneself. I keep in mind E. M. Forster’s famous epigraph to Howard’s End: “Only connect…” In the darkest moments, when I feel least able to do so, I know this is necessary and true.  So I leave my room and seek a friend.  In depression, friendship is an alkahest, the alchemist’s universal solvent that brings forth light and energy.  It’s the best remedy.

The gift of depression is the ability to identify with people in pain. Their suffering is something I can understand. I can’t count the number of people who have told me in private interviews about unshakeable depression and the pain of isolation and loneliness.

I am moved by their predicament and honesty. They suffer as I have suffered; and I am like them.

***

 I was about thirteen when I became aware of my own depression. Fifty years ago. My parents were in the midst of a difficult divorce.  I had just completed my bar mitzvah, a ritual that had, if anything, been drained of all joy and meaning by five dreadful years of compulsory Hebrew school. Then my mother kept the cash bar mitzvah gifts to pay for the reception.  Times could be hard even in the suburban splendor Great Neck, NY.

I was finishing eight grade at a WASPish private day school where I had no friends. For nearly a year I got out of school early one day a week to attend Hebrew school.  After the bar mitzvah I just didn’t tell the private school and kept leaving early each week.  I didn’t mention this to my mother either for some months.  Instead, I had the school bus drop me in the center of town, alone.  I would go to the movies, eat some well-done French fries, and walk home.  It sounds like a teenage adventure, but with each passing week I felt more and more desolate.  I couldn’t stand the private school, I couldn’t go home, and I dreaded being alone.  So finally I confessed. In one of those very rare mother-son moments of intimacy (at least rare in my memory), my mother calmly explained that I was depressed, and that this was only natural after all the anxiety of divorce, the buildup and letdown of my bar mitzvah, and new vistas of puberty.  She spoke to me gently, conveying a sense that she knew what she was talking about from her own experience.  I am sure she did.

Now I had a name for what I was feeling, even though I had no idea what to do about it.  It would be another thirteen years before I saw my first psychotherapist, and even then depression was framed as a psychological matter — a symptom of unconscious issues, mostly centering on my parents — rather than a condition as much physical or biochemical as psychological.

All these years later I continue to live with this condition and its close companion — anxiety. One of the Buddha’s unique discoveries is the Wheel of Life, or Dependent Origination. The wheel is made to roll, from birth through death and on to successive lives. Anxiety is its fuel.  But we can also consider rebirth from moment to moment, and do our best to end the ceaseless spinning. Anxiety is linked to the fear (and certainty) of future non-existence, real doubt about my present existence/non-existence, fear of pain, sickness, debility.  Such anxiety leads to a kind of self-fulfilling depression.  How can I break the chain?

 ***

 I may have to live with depression as a condition of my particular being.  Current medical research suggests that depression is hardwired into our brains.  In evolutionary terms the sleeplessness and hyper-vigilance may have some survival benefit. So maybe depression is a good thing.  I am genetically selected to be a survivor…at least if I lived in the jungle.

But Buddhist practice is simply about being awake.  It is not directed toward a particular goal, not even survival.  The path of practice leads right through our immediate life circumstances. The pangs of depression, or any pains — physical or mental — are vividly part of that life.  I’m not able to avoid unpleasant circumstances, but the question is: can I turn depression, or will I allow it to turn me? Again and again the Buddha long ago showed us how to do this.  Each event of his awakened life — including illness, injury, temptation, betrayal, loss — was occasion for him to learn, then to share his understanding.  He didn’t try to change or avoid external conditions, and he wasn’t pushed around by circumstances.  He lived in community with his friends and he turned towards suffering.

There is a message in depression. Things in life are roiling. Change is afoot. After years of practice I sense this even in the hard times. If I can bear it, see through it, depression becomes the harbinger of transformation.  I know that things are always in a state of change.  Only connect. With that kind of understanding life seems to be a fortunate accident, even in moments of despair. I am alive, so change is always possible, however unlikely it seems… What am I doing here on the planet?  Oh, I remember. I’m setting up shop in the saha realm, the world that must be endured, the land of samsara, literally wandering on.

The heart of Buddhist practice may be a matter of faith, in a dark night when faith seems hard to find. My friends help me through the night. Night and day, depression and joy — there is really one whole, true life.  Practice gets me to what is true.  That’s where I want to live.

 ***

 POSTSCRIPT

Early in 2013 I flew to India to visit and teach among Buddhist friends there.  Since our children have left home for work and college, my wife Laurie and I were able to travel together for the first time in more than twenty years.

As I wrote above, when I travel I usually have to endure some days of depression at the start of a journey.  This seems to be my own unavoidable pathway to the present time and place.  I have wondered if this phenomenon was simply a matter of loneliness, since I almost always arrive alone.  But on this trip I was not alone.  Laurie was with me.  And the first five days were as hard as ever. I was not lonely, but in some way I was still alone to wrestle with the darkness.

I was grateful to be able to talk things over with Laurie.  Far from home, among India’s teeming streets, she was having difficulties of her own, quite unlike mine.  But the ability to talk about my troubles was valuable perspective, but it did not make them go away. I felt apart from my body and mind, alienated and uncomfortable — what I take to be the meaning of the Buddha’s dukkha. In the morning it was hard to get out of bed.  In the day, even the sunlight seemed to hurt.  Then after about five days I woke up “normal.”  The weight had lifted and I relieved to find myself home in my body and in my thoughts.

So it was not really a matter of loneliness.  Depression seems to arise from an even deeper displacement.  This is simply what I must live with.

—  Hozan Alan Senauke

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Meditate, Educate, Organize: With India’s Dalit Buddhists

DSC_0400

Pune, 6 February 2013

Laurie and I have been here in India for the last two weeks.  First with friends in Mumbai, where we led a weekend Zen retreat, teaching from Dogen and Suzuki Roshi in the heart of Maximum City.  We commuted daily much the length of the city, from our hotel in Santa Cruz, near the airport, via the harpesque Sea Link Bridge to a makeshift retreat center by the shore in the south of the city. Along that drive the extremes of conspicuous wealth and squalid poverty alternate with a terrible social logic. It is an amazing and overwhelming city.  I love its energy and abundance of better and worse…and we were ready to fly out to Nagpur.

Nagpur, square in the geographic middle of India, is a sprawling and ragged city of 2.5 million.  It is known as the “Orange City,” which I know only because there is a big orange sphere on a pedestal in the center of town.  Much of the year it is unpleasantly hot.  Fortunately for us, the late winter weather was mild, even cool.  Nagpur is also a center for India’s Dalit Buddhist movement.  That is what brought us there.

For the last four years I have been visiting a remarkable school in Nagpur — Nagaloka or the Nagarjuna Training Institute (NTI) <http://www.nagaloka.org/>.  Usually I teach there for a week and spend time with the students.  Back in the states I do my best to raise money for direct support of these students and for their local projects after graduation.  Since 2002 NTI has been operating a residential Buddhist activist training program for youth from a lovely 15-acre campus on the city’s outskirts. An extraordinary 40-foot tall image of a golden walking Buddha watches over the site.  In the cool of an evening families come out from town after work to gather and pay their respects.

Nagaloka was established by the Indian practice community, Triratna Buddha Mahasangha, what used to called FWBO, or Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, created by the British Buddhist teacher and scholar Sangharakshita. Indian order members have done remarkable work over the last thirty years, bringing dharma to the poorest of the poor.  As always I owe thanks to Lokamitra, Mangesh Dahiwale, Vivekaratna, Nagamitra, Maitreyanth, and numerous others.

Over the last eleven years Nagaloka has hosted more than 700 young people from 24 states of India.  The 8–month program includes meditation and chanting twice a day, education in the Buddha’s teaching, social thought, investigation, and action. At their heart of their vision is the example of Babasaheb Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a key figure in the creation of modern Indian, little known in the west. Ambedkar was himself from an untouchable Mahar background. (Dalit, “meaning broken to pieces,” is a word adopted by Ambedkar for outcasts and untouchable groups and tribes totaling perhaps a majority of India’s population.) By virtue of his astonishing mind and great effort Ambedkar won an education for himself, one of the first untouchables to graduate from an Indian university.  He went on to doctorates in economics from Columbia and from London School of Economics, as well as admission to the bar in Great Britain. He was a fierce advocate for Dalit/untouchable rights, and is the principle author and editor of the Indian constitution.  The force and clarity of his writing is vivid and radical even today.

Along with Ambedkar’s social thought, his experience of caste within a Hindu-dominated social and religious system led him to look deeply into religion.  In 1935 he vowed that he had been born a Hindu, but would not die as one.  By 1956 he completed his influential book The Buddha and His Dhamma and, along with 400,000 Dalit brothers and sisters formally converted to Buddhism at the Dikshabhumi (conversion grounds) in Nagpur.

There is much more to say about the influence of Babasaheb Ambedkar.  His social vision of Buddhism has been a guiding light for me over the last twenty years.  And the young students at Nagaloka are in every spiritual and intellectual sense Ambedkar’s children. They all come from impoverished rural backgrounds, gaining an education against unimaginable barriers of caste discrimination, poverty, and even violence.

A year ago, leaving Nagaloka, I wrote a blog post much like what I am writing today. I said: “I love being with these young people, much the age of my own kids, which is why I have been coming back here each winter. Despite the challenges of poverty and continuing reality of caste oppression, they come to Nagaloka and blossom in an atmosphere of friendship, dharma, and critical thinking. It is gratifying to see them maturing, setting goals of higher education and making plans to serve their communities at home by establishing practice and providing social services.”

This year we did a weeklong unit on parallels and differences between the Dalits and African-Americans, looking at the history of slavery, the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and considering how racism and discrimination remain imbedded in American society despite courageous advances.  And how this work is yet to be done in India, despite is growing economic and technological development.  Ambedkar’s vision and the vision of Shakyamuni Buddha remain in our mind’s eye, the vision of future India, a nation defined by “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”  These are the principles Dr. Ambedkar saw as the essence of the Buddha’s social teaching.

Laurie and I leave our heart with the students, who threw themselves into our study each day, who shared their vivid and painful life stories with us, and regularly posed questions that push at limits of our understanding.  Half a world away from Berkeley, both of us feel completely at home at Nagaloka.  We yearn for a day when Nagaloka’s students can share their vitality, understanding, and dharma throughout India and the suffering world.

Naga 13

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JARVIS MASTERS On California’s Failed Anti-Death Penalty Initiative

An Open Letter on California’s Proposition 34 — “SAFE California”— to Death Penalty Focus from Jarvis Jay Masters, an innocent man on San Quentin’s Death Row

The 2012 election is over, with its victories, defeats, candidates, and propositions.  California’s Proposition 34, the so-called “SAFE California” initiative failed, falling short with 47.3% of the popular vote.  A large percentage, for sure, but not enough to win.  Where I live, on San Quentin’s East Block Death Row, the election night defeat of Prop 34 was met with loud cheers and with fears.

From the moment SAFE California (The Savings, Accountability, Full Enforcement for California Act) was announced, I have objected to the message that has come from Death Penalty Focus’s Jeanne Woodford, who introduced the campaign and Natasha Minsker, the campaign’s director.

Several days after the election, Minsker wrote:

“We came stunningly close to our ultimate goal of passing Proposition 34, and together we shared the real facts with millions of voters about our broken system and changed the conversation about the death penalty in California — and the United States — forever.”

It seems to me that the campaign was incredibly selective about the “real facts” they shared with voters. The emphasis of Prop 34 was on economics, on savings of $130 million each year if California’s death row inhabitants were moved to a sentence of Life Without Parole (LWOP). It noted that California has spent more than $4 billion dollars since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, with 14 executions and 725 prisoners presently on the row. Promises were given that funds saved from capital punishment would be redirected to law enforcement.

In their literature, lip-service was given to the possibility that sooner or later the state would execute an innocent man or woman.  But I believe that supporters of an anti-death penalty proposition and Death Penalty Focus should have done what every other state has done in abolishing the death penalty.  It is a matter of innocence, not economics.  It is a matter of race and equal application of justice.

Instead, as weeks and months of the campaign unfolded, death row prisoners were portrayed as privileged over other prisoners. Campaign literature says:

“Death row inmates live in special housing (individual cells), and have special lawyers, exercise and visitor privileges and taxpayer-funded appeals that last for decades.  Yes on 34 puts an end to waste and special privileges.”

Is living with death hanging over you day after day a privilege?  Is a principled process of legal appeal in the face of state-sanctioned killing – a penalty abolished by virtually every other nation in the western world – a privilege?

For many years Death Penalty Focus has been a powerful and articulate voice for abolition.  It’s arguments have, of course, included the economics of capital punishment. But they always spoke for the innocent, for the impossibility of equal application of the law – looking at race, class, legal representation, and the varied financial resources of local jurisdictions – and the families of victims and the prisoners, all of whom also pay a steep price for the death penalty.

I wonder why Death Penalty Focus remained silent on these issues during this campaign?  I wonder why they chose Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of San Quentin who presided over four executions without apology, to direct their organization? Why did it pitch a proposition that argued that condemned prisoners, if anything, deserve worse than capitol punishment, life without parole with government-mandated and funded appeals stripped away?  You could say it is just politics.  But I would respond you are trading on my life, my innocence, and the lives of many here on the row.  And you never even came to talk with us about it. 

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Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King

 

The Dharma of Martin Luther King Jr.

Hozan Alan Senauke

Berkeley Zen Center – 13 January 2013

I’ve been thinking about Dr. King.  On Monday, January 15 Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 84 years old. A week later my wife Laurie and I are going to India, where in recent years I have been teaching young Dalit/ex-untouchable youth for the last four years.  This year Laurie and I are planning to spend a week with Dalit students exploring the American civil rights movement, Buddhism, and the liberation movement of India’s most oppressed people. 

Over the last fifteen years I have studied Martin Luther King Jr. — reading his sermons and speeches, examining his actions and strategies, and mourning his loss. We need him now more than ever. As much as any person of the 20th Century, he has been a dharma teacher for me. I was fortunate to have seen Dr. King twice in the sixties. First, at the 1963 March on Washington, listening to his famous speech as I stood with my high school friends under a tree on the north side of the reflecting pool. Then, Dr. King and his associate Ralph Abernathy, came to the crowded sanctuary of a suburban Great Neck synagogue, in an era when Jews and Blacks still shared a sense of oppression.

I’m not talking about the King of postage stamps, sound bites, and carefully edited dreams.  In the forty-odd years since his assassination in Memphis, the man’s essence has been homogenized — broken into bits, and blended into a bland and unthreatening image soup that helps image-makers preserve America’s self-congratulatory illusion of tolerance.  (An aside: this U.S. postage stamp business is really strange. Along with the MLK Jr. stamp in 1976, there are other USPS issues featuring Black revolutionaries: W.E. B. DuBois (1992), Malcolm X (1999), Paul Robeson (2004) and others.  Men who were hounded by the government for decades because of their radical beliefs. What would they have thought of this phenomenon? I don’t think it is hard to guess.)

The essence of Buddhism is “the three treasures”— Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  We can understand Buddha as our own enlightened nature.  Dharma is thought of as “the teachings,” and these teachings are essentially a description of how things really are.  Sangha is the circle of practitioners or the community of all sentient beings.   Using these definitions, the dharma of Martin Luther King shines forth.

Dr. King was a Christian, a Baptist minister, but by inclination and education he was a religious inclusivist, which means he saw the workings of divinity in every being. In a sermon from Montgomery, Alabama Dr. King wrote:

“All that has just been said concerning the spiritual element in man gives backing to the Christian contention that man is made in the image of God. Man is more than flesh and blood.” (“What Is Man?,” July 1954)

In Zen terms we say, “All beings are Buddha.”  One could quibble that this is not exactly the same as Dr. King’s proposition, but it is close, and his practice was to see what was good and true in each person, even in his enemies.

He did his best to meet each person with respect, and this was the training that was offered to each Civil Rights activist in the early days of the movement.  Similarly it is our training in zazen and in our practice community to meet ourselves with acceptance and recognition of Buddha, and to relate to each other this way, Buddha to Buddha.

Dr. King’s dharma unfolds in so much of what he said and did. In the early 50s, doing graduate studies in theology he studied about Buddhism.  I found a paper he wrote about Mahayana ideals.  In its conclusion he writes approvingly:

“Buddhism became a religion for the laymen as well as for the monk. The emphasis on fleeing from the world was replaced by a desire to live in the world, while yet being not of the world.”

The mature vision of Martin Luther King was rooted in one of the Buddha’s great discoveries.  In the first days of his awakening, Shakyamuni Buddha had insight into the workings of what we call dependent co-arising, that all life and all things are infinitely dependent on each other, that nothing has an inherent or permanent nature, but is always arising.  King’s clear expression of this principle explains:

“We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny. An inescapable network of mutuality. I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be.”  (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 1963)

And in a later essay, “The World House” (1967) he writes:

“We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

The third jewel, sangha, is the heart of Dr. King’s vision, which he expressed as the “beloved community,” a term he borrowed from the American philosopher/theologian Josiah Royce (1855-1916).  In Dr. King’s day and ours the world is mired in violence and war. Not that things have ever been peaceful here in what Buddha called the saha realm, which means the realm of things which must be endured.  But today’s violence belongs to us. It’s our responsibility; surely not the dream we wish to pass to our children.  Martin Luther King — seeing himself in a lineage that included Jesus Christ, Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Gandhi — was not so much a teacher about race — racism is an effect, an artifact of social violence — but about the life and practice of active nonviolence. He raised up the ideal of the beloved community — in Buddhist terms, the pure land; in the Gospel of Matthew, the city upon a hill.

The beloved community is not a land devoid of conflict.  But it is a society that solves its conflicts without falling into retribution, overt or structural violence. This community is rooted in love not hate. Radical means going to the root.  Preaching in Montgomery, Alabama in 1957, Dr. King said:

“In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It is not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love.”

What is the alternative?  What do we see in the news each night; what do we realize at four in the morning in the dark nights of our soul?

“… hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. And that is the tragedy of hate, it only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off, and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.”

So on this day, and every day, I hope to be reborn as truly human, a card-carrying member of the beloved community. My dream is not so dramatic. May we walk quietly, side-by-side, enjoying each other’s good company in peace.

 

****

If you want to know more about Dr. King, read the extraordinary Taylor Branch trilogy on “the King Years”: Parting the Waters (from 1954 to 1963), Pillar of Fire (from 1963 to 1965), and At Caanan’s Edge (from 1965 to 1968).  See also the excellent website created by Stanford’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute  http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/

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CLEAR VIEW PROJECT, ETC. — SPRING UPDATE

SPRING UPDATE

Spring has arrived in Berkeley, and I suppose, in various other parts of the world. All is growing here.   The wisteria surrounding our front windows and door has already blossomed and turned.

BURMA

The flowering of civil society in Burma continues to astonish the world.  Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from years of house arrest to a seat in the new parliament.  A slow but determined process of national reconciliation is beginning.  In November and February visits with Jill Jameson, I saw this firsthand.  Jill and I had the opportunity of working with former political prisoners, monks, and activists from community-based organizations, offering trainings in peace-building and conflict reduction.

Group activity, Bago training

Our Buddhist-based approach to training aims at healing, beyond measurable results.  Stepping outside the ceaselessly shifting, dizzying world of NGOs and agencies, we try to work in a peaceful environment, with good food, time for relaxation, meditation, and exercise, sharing skills that are based on people’s shared experience.  The idea is to build trust and friendship across lines of ethnicity, religion, and organizational mandate.  In modest ways, the feedback we get has been very positive.

Clear View hopes to continue this work with Spirit in Education Movement and other local partners in Burma. Towards that end, we have a proposal for a three-year project on conflict-reduction and reconciliation pending with an interested U.S. foundation.  We hope to be able to say more about this in a month or two.

On this winter trip to Burma and to India I was working with a new dharma resource: Fostering Social Harmony — A Perspective from the Buddha’s Discourses of the Pali Canon. This anthology of the Buddha’s social thinking was assembled and introduced by our friend Bhikkhu Bodhi, with a foreword and exercises by me.  The idea is to create a kind of workbook for Buddhist activists in the Theravada tradition.  While the English version is still a work in progress, friends in Burma are already preparing a Burmese-language edition for publication and free distribution.  Of course, your support for this project is most welcome.

For years I felt instinctively that change in Burma, when it eventually and inevitably arrived, would come quickly.  This has proven to be true, though the process is far from complete. Ethnic tensions, fighting, and internal-displacement are still the rule in Kachin State and elsewhere.  Respected monitors count more than 450 political prisoners in Burmese custody, many having had no judicial process at all.  The legal system itself is threadbare and uneven, subject to the whims of local and national bosses.  And, of course, poverty is still more rule than exception throughout the country.  I am hopeful, like may others inside Burma, and around the world.  But our vigilance and our generosity are needed.

***

 

BUDDHIST INDIA

My annual trip to spend time with Buddhist friends in India is something I look forward to each year.  Not that it is always an easy journey.  The seemingly endless flights go halfway around the world, invariably landing in an Indian megalopolis that is immediately overwhelming.  Roads and highways are governed by nerve-wracking rules of the road (or lack of them) that depend on constant use of the horn and spatial awareness measured in centimeters.  Various conveniences we take for granted in the west are not always easy to find. But there is also the exciting sense that however flawed and incomplete India might be you are a guest in the world’s largest democracy.

This winter I spend some time in Mumbai and Pune, visiting a number of Buddhist groups new to me. As usual, most of my time was spend in Nagpur.  I offered some brief words and several songs — including one in Hindi — for several thousand people at the 2012 Buddha Festival, on the grounds of Nagpur’s Dikshabhumi, where Dr. B.R. Ambedkar took the Triple Refuge in 1956.  It was one of those occasions where I found myself nervous after the fact, taking in the size of the attentive crowd and the history of the place itself.

At Nagaloka/Nagarjuna Training Center I spent a week teaching young Dalit Buddhists from all over India.  We studied aspects of Buddha’s social thought — investigating questions of right view, communication, and the role of women in Buddhism and in society — reflecting on our lives and experience by way of small group exercises.

I am always lifted up by these young people — by their intelligence, open joy, and warmth.  They are in the age range of my own children, and in a sense I feel they are my children.  This year I also had an opportunity to spend time with the second year residents at Nagaloka, helping them consider their future paths and what is next. Whatever I or we can do to support them is a way to help create a caste-free future for all of India.

***

 

NACHAS

Silvie and Alex in their onesies…

There is an evocative Yiddish word for parental joy and pride — nachas.   On May 27 our daughter Silvie is graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, with a degree in American Studies.  Following a month’s trip to China after graduation, Silvie and her partner Max Livingston are moving to NYC, where she has been hired by Children’s Corps, challenging work as a caseworker with kids in the welfare system.

Alex graduates from Berkeley High on June 15.   In August he is also headed for Wesleyan, where he plans to study film, among other things.  If anyone out there in the East Bay has work for a smart and funny young fellow this summer, let me know.

It is impossible to put in words how happy Laurie and I are for Silvie and Alex, and how moving it is to see the creative, attentive, and caring people the are becoming and already are.

***

 

SHAMELESS COMMERCE DEPT.

• Calling everyone who wields a camera, even an iPhone.  This workshop is as much fun as I have ever had at Tassajara.

Peter Cunningham & Alan

 Seeing Beyond the Seen: Photography as Zen Practice

with Peter Cunningham and Hozan Alan Senauke

July 9-12 (Monday-Thursday)

A professional photographer & a Zen teacher team up to explore the unknown.

Let’s experiment with what it means to use the visual world as a way of practicing the Zen principles of Not Knowing, Bearing Witness, and Loving Action. So-called “Zen photographers” are often imagined as moving slowly, contemplatively through time and space but, as we learn in meditation, time and space are always in motion. Such a photographer might look to the outsider more like a dancer than a stone statue!

For information and registration: Zen Photography at Tassajara

The Bodhisattva’s Embrace is readily available in a new, all-typos-corrected edition and in Kindle format from Amazon.com. To purchase a copy: Amazon/Senauke

• In August — Fingers crossed — my new “buddhistic” recording project, Everything Is Broken: Songs About Things As They Are, will be available as a CD and for download.  Songs by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Bernice Reagon, Greg Fain, that old fellow Trad., and myself.  Amazing musical help from Jon Sholle, Chad Manning, Sandy Rothman, Eric & Suzy Thompson, Kate Brislin, Bill Evans, and Charlie Wilson.

 ***

Thanks for reading this, for your friendship and support.  As always donations are welcome through our Paypal account.  For gifts of stock or gifts in kind, please drop me a line at alan@clearviewproject.org.  As the season of warmth and light approaches, enjoy and take care.

Peace,

Alan

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Questioning the Death Penalty and the “Safe California Act”

I have been in discussion about the Safe California Act with my friend Jarvis Masters for the last two months or so.  As you may know, Jarvis has been on California’s Death Row for more than 22 years, convicted of a crime for which he is demonstrably innocent.  I have written about his case before, and will certainly return to it again.

He is deeply concerned about the impact of the Safe California Act, should it be passed.  Not so much about the abolition of the capital punishment in California, but about its limiting effect on the extensive appeals process and the meaning of the Act for inmates who are innocent.

It is late tonight and my time is limited, but I am including below commentary I found today by another California death row denizen, Darrell Lomax, who expresses the questions very well.  His letter was posted at <www.socialistworker.org>.

More later. Take good care.

Alan Senauke

*************

Death Sentence by Another Name

April 12, 2012

 Darrell Lomax is an innocent man who has been on death row at San Quentin State Prison in California for over 15 years. A poet, musician and activist, Darrell has been fighting for his freedom and advocating for justice. Here, he explains what’s at stake in a ballot initiative that would replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole sentences.

I AM responding to the proposed ballot initiative “SAFE (Savings, Accountability and Full Enforcement) California” that has garnered enough signatures to be on the November 2012 ballot for Californians to vote on.

The initiative was initially filed on August 26, 2011, by Jeanne Woodford, a retired warden of San Quentin State Prison and executive director of Death Penalty Focus, and it saddens me deeply that enough Californians have now signed petitions to qualify it for the ballot. I hope that this letter will enlighten you as to why this bill is unconstitutional and does a disservice to all innocent people, both on death row and beyond, and why it is wrong to advocate for a sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP)–which is a death sentence simply being called by another name.

I myself am a factually innocent man who has been falsely imprisoned here on California’s death row for 15 years. Aside from the loss of my physical freedom, I have also lost contact with my family and have been deserted by my old friends. As if that is not cruel enough, I have been in a long fight with the federal public defenders’ office, which has tried to work with the attorney general’s office to deny me my constitutional right to a new trial and has refused to assign me state habeas counsel, even though this is mandated by law in my appeals process.

I have sought repeatedly to gain legal assistance for my complaints and to raise issues of my innocence in court. Sadly, my case is unique only in my steadfastness to fight on to get due process, and that the facts of my innocence are glaring and obvious. There are many people on death row who have been similarly mistreated and denied their rights in the appeals process.

So imagine, if you will, how absolutely horrifying it was to read that within Jeanne Woodford’s endorsement of the SAFE California initiative, she not only seeks to end the death penalty by re-sentencing death row prisoners to LWOP (the other death penalty), but to retroactively terminate the appeal rights of current death row prisoners, like myself.

Woodford aspires to sell to the California voter a dream of ending the death penalty and saving our cash-strapped government money, when in fact she really wants to redirect the money saved from denying prisoners the right to appeal their sentence and conviction into law enforcement agencies. These agencies have a proven track record of injustice and will only further sweep all the dirt and corruption of this police state under the rug.

WITHIN THE language of the SAFE California initiative, you will find the following disturbing language that acknowledges the very problems that I have raised earlier about the state of injustice that currently exists in our capital punishment system.

The SAFE California Act Section 2, finds and declares the following:

– 1. More than 100 innocent people have been sentenced to death in this country. (The actual number of people exonerated off death row currently stands at over 135.)

– 2. Some innocent people have been executed.

– 3. Experts have concluded that California remains at risk of executing innocent people.

– 4. Innocent people are wrongfully convicted because of faulty eyewitness identification, outdated forensic science and overzealous prosecutors.

– 5. The justice system is not doing what needs to be done to protect innocent people from coming to death row.

– 6. State law protects a prosecutor even if he/she intentionally sends an innocent person to prison or death row, thus preventing accountability.

Let’s take a moment to put these admissions in proper perspective. This reflects what many of us who have been fighting for real justice have known for years: the criminal justice system in this country and state is inherently flawed, and innocent people have died and will die as a result. Prosecutors who have willingly participated in this injustice are protected, not made accountable for their abuses of power and misconduct, and this is what is meant by “equality and fairness” under the law.

This initiative does nothing to address these problems and instead seeks to limit prisoner appeals, which would actually make things worse.

Also in the SAFE California initiative is language that insists that one of its missions is to “get murderers off the streets, brought to justice and punished with full enforcement of the law.” (Sections 2 and 3.)

However, you cannot find anywhere within the entire initiative where there is any proposal for how to implement any state laws that would hold corrupt law enforcement agents or prosecutors accountable for their misconduct or for sending an innocent person to death row–the equivalent of false imprisonment and attempted murder, or actual murder, if the person was executed.

How can such facts as listed above be admitted so candidly, but then SAFE California have no means by which to make change and no means by which to hold perpetrators of this injustice accountable?

JEANNE WOODFORD appears to have adopted a “sweep it under the rug” philosophy towards the justice system and doesn’t give a damn about justice or addressing any of the serious ailments of California’s broken justice system. She has insensitively proposed as a resolution in the initiative to overlook any and all factually innocent people currently on death row by eliminating appeals, and instead simply states that eliminating the execution of innocent people is somehow justice enough.

Her mission as outlined within the “purpose and intent” section includes the following goals:

– 1. End the death penalty.

– 2. Re-sentence death row inmates to life without the possibility of parole.

– 3. Terminate all death penalty appeals.

– 4. Require every prisoner with LWOP to work to pay into a victim compensation fund as desired by the prison.

Wait! I am certain that the state and federal constitutions guarantee citizens the right to utilize the writ of habeas corpus and challenge the legality and validity of their convictions, sentences and detentions.

Currently, California law mandates that all people given a death sentence are due a post-conviction appeal. This appeal includes both direct and habeas components. The California Supreme Court is responsible for providing appellate counsel for all indigent death row prisoners. There are over 300 people on death row in California who have been here for over 10 years, myself included, who have not yet received appointment of counsel. I have been waiting over 15 years to clear my name.

The very language of this initiative admits that, statistically, there is a one-in-nine probability that people on death row right now in the state are factually innocent–which means that approximately 77 people are awaiting justice.

The SAFE California initiative is no more than a slow death for all those currently incarcerated on California’s death row–still death just by a different name. It also seeks to retroactively terminate all death row prisoners’ appeal rights, which means more innocent people will die and more injustices will be carried out. How will it be possible for the innocent to prove their innocence?

Jeanne Woodford is on a mission to not only end the death penalty by bringing in “the other death penalty”–LWOP–but also to appeal to voters by callously limiting prisoner appeals, after admitting that the justice system is flawed and that innocent people are falsely sentenced to death row.

This initiative is not about saving lives, but about keeping innocent people behind bars and limiting their rights to clear their names.

Respectfully submitted,

Darrell Lomax

P.O. Box K-27402

San Quentin State Prison

San Quentin, CA 94974

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