The Zen Studies Podcast

Episodes on Buddhism Today

188 – What Does Practice Look Like When Your Country Is Broken?

When our country - or our global community - is broken, how do we practice? Faced with incomprehensible violence, injustice, lies, greed, and destruction, how do we cope, let alone respond in accord with our bodhisattva vows to help free all beings and end all delusions? Our first responses are usually anger, fear, judgment, and an effort to assign blame. Then may come a desire to check out - to ignore what's happening because we feel powerless to do anything about it. I discuss how our Buddhist practice can help us remain open, strong, and responsive.

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178 – Declaring a Climate War and What That Means to a Buddhist

It may seem strange for a Buddhist to suggest we declare war on anything, but I think it is the most natural and constructive way for us to shift into the mindset we need. In Buddhism, we wage war on the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion, not on people. We wage war out of love for all beings. In wartime we come together for the common good. We sacrifice with dignity, and help one another summon all the strength and hope we can. We all contribute to the war effort, whether it is by serving on the frontlines, darning socks for those on the frontlines, or broadcasting messages to keep up morale.

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170 – Looking to Buddhism to Support Values and Beliefs We Already Hold – Part 2

Continuing with the case study of social action, I follow the discussion of Donald S. Lopez's article on whether Buddhism - in particular, the bodhisattva ideal - has much to offer in the domain of social action. Then I discuss why it matters to some of us that our faith tradition – whatever it is – encourages and supports the values we already hold, and what we might do about it when that isn’t the case.

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169 – Looking to Buddhism to Support Values and Beliefs We Already Hold – Part 1

As modern, mostly lay Buddhists - particularly those of us who are western, adult converts to the religion - we may seek encouragement and guidance from within the tradition for values we already hold. How much support does Buddhism actually give for things like social action, the importance of justice, honoring our connection to nature, enjoying our family and our daily lives, and learning to love ourselves? If we don't find support within Buddhism for our values, do we simply look elsewhere, or do we expand Buddhism? In this episode I focus specifically on social action/activism, but the discussion is relevant for any deeply held concern or value you bring to Buddhism.

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160 – Bearing Witness without Burning Out

For the sake of ourselves and others, we need to learn to Bear Witness without burning out. Bearing Witness means exposing ourselves to the suffering in the world in all its forms out of compassion. At the root of all suffering are the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion, so Bearing Witness also means being aware of those forces in the world and the effects they have. This practice can be agitating and emotionally exhausting, so we need to learn how to do it without burning out.

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158 – Social Strife and the Forgotten Virtue of Decorum

Recent events show how deep a divide has developed within the United States. Those guilty of crimes need to be held accountable, but how do we repair the social fabric of our nation? It may help to renew cultural respect for the value of decorum: Dignified behavior according to social standards for what demonstrates a basic respect for one another’s humanity and acknowledges our mutual dependence. I discuss the teachings on decorum in Buddhism, and how critical it is to social harmony.

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149 – Understanding People’s Actions Through the Six Realms Teaching

Understanding people's actions can be difficult. Sometimes we can't help but feel disbelief, judgment, or disgust toward people based on how they respond to the suffering of others - particularly regarding the problems we’re facing as a society such as the climate and ecological emergency, the serious undermining of democracy, continued racial injustice, an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. The Buddhist teaching about the Six Realms of existence can help us understand people's mind states and motivations, hopefully leading us to greater patience, less judgment, and – most importantly – insight into what might work best to get through to people and help them change.

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147 – Loving-Kindness (Metta) Practice as an Antidote to Fear and Anxiety

When we call suffering beings to mind and extend metta, we face reality while centering ourselves in our true self, which is boundless and interdependent with all of life. We recognize the wellbeing of others is not separate from our own wellbeing. This might seem like metta practice would open us up to even more suffering, thereby increasing our own fear and anxiety, but this is not the case. In fact, metta helps us face reality – an absolutely essential part of our Buddhist practice – while aligned with our deeper nature. This alignment results in a sense of plenty – of having resources to share. It results in a sense of strength, because we are centered in our boundless self and have given up our self-centered concern and defensiveness. Metta practice also counteracts our sense of powerlessness in the face of tragedy or difficult circumstances, and awakens our compassionate impulses to help.

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138 – Buddhist Images of Fierceness and Compassionate Anger

Despite the placid appearance of most Buddha statues and the Buddhist precept against indulging anger, there is a place for fierceness and compassionate anger in Buddhism. Especially when we're faced with injustice or need to protect others, we may need the energy of anger or fierceness to make ourselves heard. I discuss how respect for appropriate fierceness and anger appears in Buddhist iconography and mythology.

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137 – Sustainable Bodhisattva Practice when the World is (Literally) on Fire

Many American cities are on fire - literally - as tensions over systemic racism erupt. How do we enact our bodhisattva vows in the face of all of this suffering - caused by racism, the global pandemic, the breakdown of earth's natural life support systems, and global heating? Our vow is to "save all beings" but - at least in terms of an individual's goal - is impossible. How do we honor our bodhisattva vow in a vital and authentic way, as opposed to it being a largely irrelevant ideal?

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130 – Practicing with Fear in Buddhism

Fear is a natural response that helps us protect ourselves and our loved ones, but it can also be inappropriate and debilitating. Buddhist practice offers many ways to help us manage our fear. We start with mindfulness of fear in and of itself, and then become mindful of what feeds it versus what decreases it. We then act in ways that increase our equanimity. We also let go of expectations, assumptions, and narratives in order to decrease suffering and ground ourselves in the absolute aspect of reality.

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128 – Taking Action: Getting Out of the House and Helping Others (Crisis Buddhism Part 3)

Taking Action is the second area of practice in Crisis Buddhism. It means working to help alleviate or prevent the suffering we witness in the world by leaving our homes, interacting with others, and engaging in bodhisattva activity in an active, tangible way. In this episode I begin addressing three reasons we resist Taking Action: We don't think it's "our thing," we don't have the time or energy, or we don't see anything we do that's also worth doing.

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127 – Bearing Witness: Exposing Ourselves to the Suffering in the World (Crisis Buddhism Part 2)

Crisis Buddhism requires us to mindfully balance three essential areas of practice: Bearing Witness, Taking Action, and Taking Care. In this episode I discuss Bearing Witness, or exposing ourselves to the suffering of the world in all its forms in order to make wise decisions, activate our natural compassion, and awaken a sense of urgency. How do we Bear Witness without becoming overwhelmed, depressed, or despairing? We embrace it as a noble practice of compassion and wisdom.

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126 – Crisis Buddhism: Sustainable Bodhisattva Practice in a World on Fire – Part 1

Crisis Buddhism is a new formulation of Buddhist practice I’ve come up with that I hope will help you navigate your everyday life as we face ecological and climate breakdown. It asks us to mindfully balance three essential areas of practice: Bearing Witness, or learning about the suffering of the world in all its forms in order to make wise decisions, activate our natural compassion, and awaken a sense of urgency; Taking Action, or participating in a tangible way to help alleviate or prevent the suffering we witness, and Taking Care, or engaging in activities, relationships, and practices that sustain us.

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123 – Engaging Our Climate Emergency as a Koan and Opportunity

Our practical, lived response to our ecological and climate emergency – as individuals, Sanghas, and Dharma teachers – is inseparable from our Dharma practice. As Greta Thunberg has said, “Change is coming whether we like it or not.” Also, as Buddhists we're morally compelled to act for the welfare of other beings. Finally, the eco-crisis is a profound and difficult koan, whether we choose to engage it that way or not - and therefore, it's an opportunity to grow in understanding, compassion, and manifestation.

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109 – What Does Buddhism Have to Say About Mass Shootings?

What does Buddhism have to say about mass shootings? Of course, traditional Buddhism doesn’t say anything about mass shootings per se, but it does present teachings on human nature, behavior, and choices. In this episode I discuss the Buddhist of view of how and why people do horrible things, pointing out how Buddhism is realistic but also optimistic, and how a Buddhist view can help relieve some of our fear and despair.

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104 – Buddhists: It’s Time to Address the Climate Emergency

Most western convert Buddhist communities have had the luxury of regarding “activism” for social or environmental justice as an optional or supplemental activity some people take up because they have the time, kind of like a hobby. The truth is, many of us are so busy it’s difficult to imagine finding time for activism regarding the climate emergency. However, we may not have a choice – at least not if we hope to avoid extinction. And if there are no sentient beings, there are no buddhas.

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91 – Unethical Buddhist Teachers: Were They Ever Really Enlightened?

The list of supposedly-highly-realized Buddhist teachers who have abused their power and acted in harmful ways – particularly in the realm of sex – is long, and getting longer all the time. Unethical and selfish behavior is incompatible with our Buddhist ideal of true enlightenment, and transgressing teachers are often exactly those held up as especially inspiring examples of realization and practice, so what does all of this say about realization and practice? Were the teachers ever really enlightened?

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77 – Western Zen Grows Up and Faces the Koan of Race – Part 2

This episode is the second part of a two-part series I’m calling “Western Zen Grows Up and Faces the Koan of Race.” It’s the story of my particular school, Soto Zen, in America, but even if you identify with a different type of Buddhism you may find it interesting because so many forms of Buddhism face a similar lack of racial diversity in the west – despite the diversity of our surrounding communities. Even if you’re not particularly interested in the development of western Buddhism, this is also the story of facing collective karma, and of a group questioning its collective “self-nature.”

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