Friday, July 29, 2011

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany

Almighty God, we give you thanks for those witnesses who have preceded us in faith, especially remembering this day the New Testament saints of Bethany: Mary, who sat at her rabbi's feet; Martha, who trusted in Jesus and confessed him as Messiah; and Lazarus, who obeyed Jesus' command and came out of the grave. Give us the grace to listen to your Word, true hearts to know your presence, and the will to follow you from death into life. Grant that we too may follow you in faith, trusting ever in your promise of new life in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


The U.S. Constitution, adopted September 17, 1787: “Section. 8. The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States; To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;...” (

“This debt limit increase is his [Obama’s] problem...” John Boehner, Speaker of the House, July 12, 2011.

“We need to raise the debt limit - but Republicans can’t take the responsibility.” Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader, July 12, 2011. (OK, that’s not a quote - just a summary of what he said. He described his plan where the Republicans would vote “against” a debt limit increase - but also give Obama the authority to do it, abdicating their responsibility under the Constitution. See Mitch McConnell says Republicans will not let government default.)

Shame on you. Your economics are wrong. Your politics (I pray) are wrong. And your idea of leadership is to point the finger at somebody else, to shirk your duty, and to avoid any sense of responsibility for the state of our nation. The most out of touch institution in the U.S. is the Congress. This is about your spending, your tax policies, the budgets and earmarks and tax loopholes and bailouts and pork that you lobbied for, schemed for, and voted for.

Obama’s time in office: 19 months. Average length of service in the House at the beginning of the 110th Congress was more than 10 years; in the Senate, 12.8 years. If you want to assign blame, start from there.

If you want to accept responsibility, you need to start from a very different place. The President “implored both political parties to give ground and show the American people that Washington can actually work. ‘If not now, when?’ Obama said” (Debt-talks). Big proposals - the Republicans say no. Moderate proposals - the Republicans say no.

It’s about economics - artificially low taxes for the wealthy. And it’s about politics - according to Sen. McConnell, as long as Obama is president “a real solution is unattainable.” That means “we won’t work with this guy no matter what happens to the country.”

America will judge which position represents responsible leadership.

Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader McConnell: the debt limit, and the deficit, and the debt, and the job crisis, the housing crisis, the banking crisis, and the gap between rich and the rest of us - all of these are our problems. America gets it - why can't you?


Monday, July 4, 2011

Land that I love

July 4, 2011

I used to make a point of calling this holiday “Independence Day.” Its major feature was, for me, the specific point of national pride in seeking independence from a foreign master. It was about standing up, declaring “this is what we stand for,” and being willing to back it up with “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

I know a little more history these days, enough to know that few persons’ deeds ever match their rhetoric. Those who talk freedom are not always the ones who sacrifice of themselves to win it. And American freedom has far too often been at the expense of others’ bondage: slaves, women, native peoples, the poor in this land and others.

The very term “independence” rings oddly when we know that independence is a fiction, whether we are talking about “individuals” (who only exist in families and communities), the global political-economy, or the interconnection of all things (dependent origination).

Yet the fourth day in July is a good occasion to remember and reflect what is best about this land that I love. This Fourth, I'd like to highlight three things I value about my native land.

Freedom is linked to opportunity and justice. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men [people] are created equal;
that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Parse these any way you like, but these words were the opening salvo of American democracy, which led to our Constitution and Bill of Rights, one of humanity’s best attempts to structure a just civil society. We can enumerate the myriad ways which, since the beginning, this nation and our people have fallen short of this ideal. But the vision cannot be negotiated away without losing our soul. It is a hope and a promise and a guide.

Fighting spirit. While we may be too quick to engage in war, and not dedicated enough to the practice of engaged, disciplined diplomacy and peace-making, I do love the backbone behind this fighting spirit. We see it in the impulse to serve – in the military, in civic service, and in helping professions. And we also see it in the way Americans often find ways to pull together in times of crisis. I remember 9/11 – especially for the response of thousands after thousands of people to step up. We see it in most disasters. If we look, we see it every day. I sometimes dream about what our world would be like if we would put down the remote control and buckle down to tackle poverty, sickness, and injustice the way we can fight a more easily-defined enemy.

Welcome the stranger. In his book The Island at the Center of the World about the early Dutch history of New York, Russell Shorto sketches an intriguing case for the way New York City’s flagship role in the American experience is due to the relative openness and tolerance practiced by the Dutch and carried forth by their polyglot heirs.

The United States of America, except for our native peoples who first inhabited the land, and for the descendents of slaves, brought and kept here against their will, is a nation of immigrants. Our diversity is one of our greatest strengths. Our culture is jazz – which is to say we are the beneficiaries of the frisson, or sizzle which happens when cultures meet, ideas and goods are exchanged, peoples intermarry.

And despite the many points of conflict and even violence, by and large this is a story of people being able to work it out, to work and live together.

The illustration to the right is the American flag at Chuang Yen Monastery, a Pure Land Buddhist and mostly Chinese community near Carmel, NY. It flies outside the Great Buddha Hall, and overlooks statues of Buddhist saints and the community's large ceremonial drum. In every age, immigrants have come to America to make this land their land, and to enrich the rest of us through their presence.

God bless America - land that I love.

The Post-9/11 American flag painting hangs at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, artist unknown.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Sunday haiku

Rain drops, fish plops, monk
chants drift. A carp floats
close by Kwan Yin, belly up.


A glimpse of the Buddha

Today (Saturday 7/2) was the first full day of Buddhist Summer Camp at Chuang Yen Monastery. The day is programmed with Dharma talks and Buddhist education, service, “working meditation,” vegetarian meals, and typical camp activities like relay races. I have visited the monastery before but never stayed overnight. It is a peaceful, beautiful, well-used, and welcoming place.

At the end of the day, I walked back to the men’s dormitory, which sits across from a small lake. In late twilight, I paused to sit for a few moments on a flat rock. The lake was before me, mirroring the surrounding trees and the deepening shades of the sky above.

Every few moments carp would break the surface of the lake, each plop a reminder that the lake was a living thing. And also the occasion to think of how nice it would be have a pond with such well-fed fish, who dine on remainders from the dining hall, and who would no doubt make a tasty, sustainable addition to the dining table.

Then I thought of the karma generated by this place, where no animals are killed and campers do not slap stray bugs, but carry them outside. There just may be a different vibe to a pond where fish are never harvested, to a piece of land where deer are not hunted and no slaughtered chickens, pigs, and cattle are trucked in. And to a place-and-community where the people seek to cultivate compassion in their every day relationships.

Then a car came up the road. As it pulled in to park, for several moments its headlights illumined my lakeside scene. Past me to my left, on the small rock cliff that formed part of the shoreline, there was a shadow of a seated buddha, my shadow.

As a shadow, you couldn’t look for all the marks of a Buddha - you could only get a resemblance, a suggestion. While I have the build for a good Chinese Buddha, anyone seated on the rock in that way would have cast a similar shadow.

And that’s about right. Zen Master Seung Sahn writes that “Everyone already has goodness in their mind. It is already present, and needs no special cultivation” The Compass of Zen (Shambhala, 1997, p.38). In another idiom, you might recall “created in the image of God.”

The image does not have to be complete to evoke the truth that Buddha-nature, our God-given goodness, is right here where we live. In truth, I make a pretty crappy Buddha. An image which blurs some of my rough edges is sometimes necessary to see the shape of enlightenment, to recall the hope of deliverance and the peace that passes – or perhaps fully is understanding.

The car headlights went out. The mosquitoes began diving in to test my compassion for them and my equanimity towards even small sufferings. But the Buddha-shadow remains, contemplating Kwan Yin Lake in the moonlight, even as I write.