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On Hope, Fear, and Mood-Altering Drugs

January 16, 2016

Book-bound by Michael Summers via

I have entered the stage of my doctoral program known as “quals,” or qualifying examinations. In the next year, I will take five exams to produce either written papers 30-50 pages in length (each) or timed exams to produce an essay on-to-spot in response to an examiner’s question that relates the totality (in the time allowed) of my knowledge and thought in a particular area. I must take at least one timed exam and, within two weeks of my last timed exam, submit to an oral defense of all five. Daunting, to say the least.

Yet, also not. I’ve produced that many pages for a single class in a semester before. I’ve performed well on graduate-level essay exams in the past. In fact, I tend to write too much rather than too little on such assignments. My struggles come from deciding on an argument and then making it succinctly. This experience gives me confidence that I’ll be able to produce the papers and essays, especially as I already have solid (if rough) ideas for three of the five exams.

For my first exam, I’ll be reading several Mahayana primary texts in English translation to identify their implications for pastoral/spiritual care, including two works by Shantideva and a collection of Tibetan lojong texts. A close reading of these texts will tell us something about what constitutes pastoral/spiritual care from a Mahayana Buddhist perspective, a topic with very little written to date.

Concurrently, I’ll be working on my exam in practical theology, which includes an overview of the field, it’s historical developments, dominant concerns, methods, and relation to my sub-specialty. In this case, I’ll also be further exploring the field’s relation to Buddhism, particularly the similarity between certain existing practical theological methods and the Four Noble Truths. (Assuming my examiner agrees at our meeting next week.)

For my third exam, I intend to craft a paper on the practice of spiritual care that, using material from my newly in-depth knowledge of Mahayana texts, is based deeply on Buddhist teaching, particularly in relation to the assessment of spiritual conditions and development of appropriate responses. This will be an attempt to construct Buddhist spiritual care both in relation to and reaction against existing Abrahamic paradigms, with which I must also be broadly and deeply familiar.

My final two exams have yet to be negotiated. A different faculty member serves as the examiner in each case. The last two will be on the history of spiritual care and counseling and my cognate field, leadership studies. In fact, I still need to confirm an examiner in leadership, but I’m not panicking yet. I may take one or both of these as timed exams.

So, the writing isn’t too daunting, the topics are personally interesting, and the examiners (so far) are all people I respect and enjoy working with. So what’s the catch? The reading list.

Each exam requires thousands of pages of research, often from dozens of different sources. The process of reading, annotating, making notes, and developing outlines seems endless. My advisor told me that I’ll never be as much as an expert in my field at any other time in my career than during my oral defense. (I do hope I’ll at least grow in wisdom, even as some of the knowledge fades or is replaced.) Other stalwart Facebook comrades have warned me that quals requires a whole new way of working and just figuring that out can be stressful enough. The academic blogs I read tend to dedicate content on the topic of quals to terrifying tale of woe and tips on how to survive in equal measure. Hope and fear seem par for the course.

I wasn’t actually afraid until I sat down and worked out a reading plan for the first half of the year. The math tells me I have to cover close to 200 pages a week in order to complete my first two quals by June – while working full-time and teaching and taking CPE and a Pali language class. And I have to start now. No easing into this and learning the rhythm. I’ve already warned the significant other.

I’m not actually used to feeling so excited by something and then so depressed. It took me a little by surprise, actually. Of course, I’m still tapering off a prednisone prescription to treat what turned out to be poison oak. In addition to a roaring appetite and a constant weird taste in my mouth (except when I’m eating), another common side effect of the steroids is mood swings. I suppose it’s a small price to pay for not wanting to scratch my face off anymore.

I’ll be off the drugs in three days and then we’ll see if quals is still as scary. (Maybe more scary?) In the meantime, I’m drinking lots of tea (which has it’s own side effects), and spending too much money on books, despite the support to two great libraries.

I’ve been working on Right Effort for years. This is what it was for. Now it’s time to test my results – literally.

Know Thyself 2.0

January 6, 2016

Oxford Street Sunrise by Dom Crossley via

I have learned that there is a difference between knowing yourself and knowing about yourself and that each, in its way, is equally valuable. The first is important because we are our own (and only) true experts. The second is important because of our capacity for ignorance, delusion, and willful self-deception. Let me distinguish the difference from the outset.

Knowing yourself (oneself, thyself, etc.) is about your individual uniqueness, your history, and preferences.

For example, I know it is immeasurably difficult for me to get up when it is still dark. My body simply does not comply. Yet somehow, when the first sunlight cracks the sky, I rise exponentially easier. Of course, I still sleep in, but I tend to set my alarm by the sunrise and push it a little later each winter and earlier each summer. If I try rise before dawn, even by a scant 15 minutes, it is a ridiculously herculean task which I no longer attempt (baring early flights to places I actually want to go). I just know this about myself and have accepted it. This realization also has a particular history or path that is useful to understand when trying to discover other things about myself. It is also interconnected with other traits and behaviors in layers of mutual influence.

Knowing about yourself, in contrast, is understanding those mechanisms, traits, and qualities you share in common with other humans (and animals) both in their general function and their particulars. It is knowing both the shape of the bell curve and where on it you sit. It is also knowing a little bit about what gives that bell curve its shape, as science or philosophy has discovered.

To continue the example, I know sunlight stimulates the release of particular chemicals useful to wakefulness in humans. This has not stopped my mother from rising at o’dark thirty for her entire life, nor prods my partner out of bed before noon on a Saturday. However, knowing this, I also understand that staying in our dark bedroom after my alarm (and the sun is up) won’t help me get a good start to my day. I need to get out into our bright living room and take the dog on his walk as early as possible if I want my mind to function best. I could rise later, and frequently do on weekends, but I tend to be more groggy and less productive when I hit the snooze button too much and linger in darkness.

I reflect on this now after several years of examining the mechanisms for my own productivity. I’ve dived into the science, social science, and Buddhist teachings on Right Effort. As someone who secretly suspects herself of being just plain lazy, Right Effort seemed a good place for me to start on the Noble Eightfold Path. While the buddhadharma was helpful (particularly when it comes to attachment, aversion, and delusion), it’s not exactly designed to provide guidance on sorting an email inbox, holding productive committee meetings, or evaluating competing projects.

Recently others have approached me to help them in a similar respect – to be more productive. Last fall semester I taught a class on willpower to ten students at my university that was very kindly reviewed by the participants, even the ones who forthrightly stated they only took it only to fulfill their wellness elective even thought their willpower was “fine.”* I’ve also incorporated a great deal of what I’ve learned into my freshman seminar to help new college students cope with the strange condition of having both more work and more “free time” (that is: unstructured by exterior authority) than ever before. Friends and coworkers have also asked directly for my advice, which leaves me both proud and apprehensive.

I wondered, if I were to try to teach this, where would I start? I mean, if I were really to try to teach ‘productivity,’ especially in a Buddhist-inspired way, where would I start?

Naturally, it starts with the self, or the non-self. It starts with the vehicle of our own productivity: our body and mind (and heart/soul/spirit, if you prefer). It starts with understand how we work as well as how we don’t work, how we deceive and delude ourselves, how we discover both happy and unhappy things about ourselves and then what we do with that knowledge.

I was rather happy to discover I just don’t do well before dawn. It released a lot of my struggle to get my wake up time ‘right’ and lifelong ridiculous notions that only morning people (like my mother) can be truly productive. I’m not lazy, I just have a different circadian rhythm. In fact, it turns out that I am a morning person, in that I’m most productive for about three hours between breakfast and lunch. Nowadays that’s when I try to work on creative, high energy tasks. I try to avoid meetings, errands, or chores. If I want to analyze that next data set, write that grant, develop that new program, morning is the best time. I can do it later in the day, but it requires more time and mental energy.

However, I also had to get rid of an old habit of rushing my morning. This is one of those interconnected layers. I love to sleep, so I often traded 10, 15, 30 more minutes of sleep in order to sprint out the door at the last minute because I thought sleep was better for me. It is more pleasurable, but not actually better. When I get up on time and have a relaxed morning with space for self-care (meditation, yoga, an actual breakfast), I get more done that day than if I had just spent that time asleep. But that was only after I also discovered what kind of morning activities constituted good self-care through consulting the literature (knowing about yourself) and then some deliberate trial and error (knowing yourself).**

If I were to teach productivity, I would teach this first: know yourself and about yourself, because, the truth is, your ‘self’ is a wonderful liar.

The more I learn about myself, the more I learn that this isn’t necessarily bad. Different tools do different things and its a skill to be able to chose the correct one in a given context. Sometimes we choose the tool that is easy to use, but not right for the job. Knowing about yourself helps understand the tools and knowing yourself helps understand the context. It helps us see through our own deceptions and also accept that those deceptions are perfectly normal. For the most part, they are not pathological or harmful, just human, the consequence of multiple systems running on concert.*** The good news is that humans have been studying humans for a very long time, so we have a lot to go on.

The next question may be: okay, how do I come to know both myself and about myself? Well, I’m giving that some thought. I may write more about what I did, but what you do will be different. You already know a lot; you are already the expect on you. And the only things you need to learn more are time and attention. No problem, right? You’re not busy?


PS – It took four doctors, including two specialists, to diagnose me with poison oak and prescribe the correct medications. (In retrospect, I should have just called my grandmother.) I am on the mend and I’ve learned a lot about the curious properties of poison oak in the meantime. Stay out of the woods.

*True for most, but even a fully functional adult has the oddly intractable foible that they can’t seem to resist or make themselves do. Willpower, like fitness, is an ongoing project.

**I was also inspired by a friend I stayed a few years ago. She’s one of the busiest and most productive people I know, but her mornings did not feel rushed (to me). She took care of many simple tasks around the house each morning before leaving for work and seemed better for it.

***Such as the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, that is, the stress/arousal response and the relaxation/planning response.

Hivey New Years

January 1, 2016

It’s New Year’s Day 2016 and I’m home, as I have been all week, covered in hives, or a rash, or shingles, or something that hasn’t quite been diagnosed but is thoroughly unpleasant.

We returned from our Christmas trip to visit Colin’s family in Pacific Grove on Sunday and I woke up on Monday with a swollen eye and a light rash under my chin. On Tuesday, he drove me to the doctor who declared “probably allergies” (to what, we don’t know) and gave me a shot of prednisone in the butt and a six day follow up course of oral steroids. On Thursday, I was worse and we were back at the doctors with rash now on my abdomen, arm, and leg. My doctor walked into the room and made this face:


Not literally. That’s Hugh Grant, not my doctor, but he has the same expression.

She looked very closely at all my itchy red bumps, asked a second doctor to come look, and then sent in a nurse with a camera to take pictures to email to the dermatologists. It being 4 o’clock in the afternoon on New Year’s Eve, they were already out partying, so we’re waiting for their expert opinions to come in on Monday.

In the meantime, I’m continuing my oral steroids, but we’ve covered all the bases with antibiotics (in case it’s a bacterial infection, which seems unlikely) and anti-virals (in case it’s shingles, which seems increasingly likely) and a prescription oral anti-itch/histamine/anxiety drug (for symptom relief that isn’t very relieving). I’m taking long, hot showers (I swear I’m in love with my shower wand more now than ever) and apply cold packs to my face and neck in order to resist the urge to itch.

Oddly enough, my ‘meditative discipline'(such as it is) has been the biggest help there. Observe the sensations without responding to them. Be mindful of what my hands are trying to do automatically and remain still. Know that the sensations are impermanent, they come and go, fade and return. Breathe. Focus on something else and let it hold my attention until the itch fades into the background. Repeat.

I just find it a somewhat odd way to ring in the new year. I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed this morning between sipping coffee, crunching on toast, and popping four different prescription meds in one go. Some people went out, some people stayed in, but they’re all posting their New Year’s wishes and resolutions. I’m just trying to resist the urge to peel all the skin off my face and neck just to get some relief.

There’s no moral or conclusion to this story. It’s very much ‘to be continued…’ and I’m on standby for urgent care of the emergency room if things get scary over the holiday weekend.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in serious pain or danger. No fever, not shortness of breath, no fatigue (aside from what comes with the benadryl I take to get any sleep). The hydoxyzine I’ve been given for anti-itch also acts as an anti-anxiety and anti-psychotic medication, so my mood isn’t all that bad. I’m Netflix binging and I completed an entire series of scifi novels (The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey). I have Colin to bring me food and basically look worried (he’s handsome so it’s cute when he looks worried). The dog and cat are keeping me company on the couch.

But it’s a little sureal and discouraging. Time is now measured in how long until my next dose of whatever it is and I just wish any of it was doing any good. The rash is still spreading and it still itches, but between all the meds I’m hopeful that it will start to resolve soon. In the meantime, if anyone has some serious home remedy for a magic anti-itch cream, I’ d love to hear it.

Has College Ruined Christmas?

December 2, 2015
'Homesick' by Ani-Bee via

‘Homesick’ by Ani-Bee via

“What do you think of when it comes to December?” my partner asked me over a dinner of Chinese takeout.

“Finals,” I blurted out.

His face tightened. “Don’t you think of magic and beauty and holidays and get excited with that anything-could-happen feeling?” he pressed.

“No,” I sighed. “Not until after finals.”

First, there’s Thanksgiving break. Thanksgiving is for term papers. It’s also for turkey if family is close, but if I spend the entire weekend with family, term papers will not get written. I have learned this from bitter, repeated experience.

Then, there’s finals, which are usually the second week of December (on the semester system). For me, finals means those term papers I started over Thanksgiving are due, but in the past it has also meant design project due dates and exams.

Once finals is over, there’s about a week of exhausted relief. Sleep, shower, catch up on all the chores I put off since before Thanksgiving, and veg out in front of the television. Now, that’s also the week I have to grade the papers from the classes I taught.

Finally, my energy levels begin to recover enough to start getting excited for the coming holidays. I start to feel a little bit of that December magic, at last, about a week before Christmas.

So, no, on December 2nd, I’m clearly not feeling it. I’m deep in the grip of finals.

To make matters worse, all the signals of the approaching holiday are blunted. This is Southern California, not the Great Plains. Yes, there’s holiday music in the stores and it gets dark rather early now, but the air doesn’t have that crisp bite (I’m sorry Angelinos, this is not “cold”), most of the trees still have their leaves, and there hasn’t been a hint of snow. It just doesn’t look or feel like the holidays are approaching. It feels like September. Psychologically, my sense of seasons is distorted. That changes the minute my plane touches down in Nebraska, but most years, I don’t go home for Christmas.

I remember what my partner is talking about, almost lost in the haze of childhood. Sure, I used to start getting excited about now. We’d go sledding and build snow forts and decorate the house. But since I was 18, all that energy has been rerouted. For 17 years, December has meant finals.

I stopped celebrating Christmas in 1998 and started celebrating the end of fall semester instead. It’s sort of like celebrating parole or shore leave.

Another student joked that all dukkha-s (sufferings) would come to an end in two weeks. Then, five weeks later, they would be reborn. Each semester is a microcosm of samsara. Each break is a tiny bit of bardo between lives. Grim humor of lifetime academics. Everyone laughed.

We weren’t laughing last night when Colin asked about putting up the Christmas tree and I brushed it off. Even though neither of us are religiously Christian anymore (I guess you could say we’re culturally christian), we still participate with our families and the magic of the holiday means a lot to Colin. And I’m being a killjoy.

The problem is, I really, honestly don’t have the energy for this. I’m not trying to be a grinch out of some lingering religious resentment. I do understand what he is talking about, if vaguely, at this point, and I still get that feeling on December 24th and 25th. But I don’t know how to change my present reality.

I have two papers due tomorrow, an exam next Tuesday, and a longer final paper due in eight days. And I work full time. At the moment this is the end-all, be-all of my existence. If I get to pause in the midst of that for Chinese takeout with my sweetheart and a couple hours of mindless television before bed, I’m grateful. For me, that’s the pinnacle of awesome right now.

I still realize that I’m disappointing him. To some degree, I’m disappointing myself. I’ve promised myself for years that “next semester will be better,” but it never quite seems to work out that way. To make matters worse, a young faculty colleague just commiserated over the same complaint – and he’s completed his PhD! This is my final semester of doctoral coursework. Isn’t it supposed to get better after this?

Maybe it will, but only if I really fight for it. Academia has habituated me to accept the grind, to perceive it as “normal,” and to disregard the other important rituals of human existence. Being in a relationship is good for me because it reminds me to keep my priorities straight.

People matter more than papers. People make magic happen. It’s time to reclaim my Decembers.

Close Your Eyes and Wake Up

October 30, 2015
'Banier: Wake up!' by Matt Callow via

‘Banier: Wake up!’ by Matt Callow via

We were in the schoolyard across the street from our house. It was cold and the trees wore red and golden leaves. My brother and his friend were on the teeter-totter. There was a swing set and merry-go-round and those little horses on springs. My brother and his friend told me to look in the crack in the school wall, a dark, jagged tear where the bricks of the sturdy, square building had broken. They taunted me to look and snickered behind their hands. They thought I would be scared, but I felt calm. I looked. I saw cobwebs and skeletons in the black, like a Halloween tablecloth come to life. I didn’t scream or jump or gasp; they were disappointed. I looked at their sad faces, pouting little boys and I thought very clearly “This is a dream.” I closed my eyes and woke up.

I was four years old.

We really did live across from a school. It was a brown brick building with yellow school busses parked out front where my brother went to kindergarten. I have a vague memory of going inside only once and seeing old wooden desks, the kind where the desktop and chair are one piece of furniture. I never attended that school. My parents would sometimes take us to play on the playgrounds, which were not fenced, or my mother would watch us from the porch of our little bungalow to make sure we crossed the street safely. We were the last house on the block, right on the edge of town, so there was very little traffic.

We lived in Tripp, South Dakota, until I was four years old, my mother, father, and older brother, along with a little white dog named Andy and a calico cat called Joker. My parents had moved there just before I was born from Valentine, Nebraska, when my Dad bought a business from a local man. Unfortunately, the seller had lied about the revenue and before I was old enough to start attending the brown brick school, my parents declared bankruptcy, sold what they could, and moved back to Nebraska.

We did not return to Valentine, where my paternal grandparents lived. Instead, we went to Lincoln, the second largest city in the state and where my parents had met while attending the University of Nebraska. I remember the red brick apartment we lived in and starting kindergarten there. But he job my dad had found turned out to not be very good and I didn’t get to finish kindergarten in Lincoln. Instead, we moved to Papillion, a suburb on the south side of Omaha, Nebraska’s largest city. Both of my parents found the companies where they would work for thirty years and counting.

We lived on the outskirts of that sprawling Midwestern city, never more than a block from the nearest cornfield. I attended first through sixth grade at Westmont Elementary and then junior high and high school at Gretna Public Schools. I was not as good of a student as my brother, who never gave his teachers any trouble. I gave them enough for two. We attended a local United Methodist Church every Sunday. We raised Guinea pigs successfully, killed several gold fish, and, when we were older, had two dogs and a cranky black cat.

It was a very normal life, probably so normal as to be exceptional. My parents didn’t fight or drink, only occasionally arguing (very civilly) over money. Most evenings they came home from work, we had dinner as a family, and then everyone settled down to enjoy watching television and reading books. My dad liked sports, especially football and basketball, and my mother knew many hand crafts, including cross-stitch, quilting, and crochet. My brother and I didn’t get into parties or drugs. We both got part time jobs as teenagers and bought our own cars when we turned sixteen. We were all introverted and bookish and, aside from childish squabbles, got along rather well together.

Nevertheless, in the midst of this American idealism, I felt unsettled. I struggled, even though I really had very little to struggle about. I was uncooperative in school and refused to do “pointless” homework for subjects I already understood perfectly well (according to me). I had few friends, was occasionally bullied and often teased, and couldn’t really relate to children my own age. I found very little meaning in church and often wondered what was wrong with me because I couldn’t feel “the warmth of Christ’s love” that everyone was always going on about. I felt like less than a person and I resented it.

So I tried to grow up too fast – got a car, a nine-to-five job, a house, a mortgage – and then realized that adult “independence” wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I hated mowing the lawn. I hated getting up early and doing the same thing every day. I made good money, but found the boring night classes at the local community college more fun than my job. I didn’t date and wondered if I ever would. I skipped a lot of the teenage and young adult experiences that many people proclaim as “pivotal” to their development – first loves, first apartments, first road trips. Sometimes I think I was born old and had to learn to be young. By nineteen I had my white picket fence and by twenty-four I had sold it all, but I waited until I was thirty to truly “run away from home.”

That feeling I had when I was four, “This is a dream,” never left me. I just didn’t know what to do about it. I couldn’t close my eyes and wake up.

I just wanted to close my eyes and wake up.

The Buddha is “the Awakened One.” That’s what his title means. He sat down under a bo tree in northern India, 2,500 years ago, closed his eyes to meditate and woke up. He said:

Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before …then I did claim to have directly awakened to the right self-awakening unexcelled in the cosmos with its deities, Maras and Brahmas, with its contemplatives and brahmans, its royalty and common folk. Knowledge and vision arose in me: ‘Unprovoked is my release. This is the last birth. There is now no further becoming.’ (SN 56.11)

This he told his ascetic companions in the deer park at Varanasi in what is now Uttar Predesh, India, along the Ganges River. His companions recognized his wisdom and called him “buddha” and followed him the rest of the days of their lives.

The Buddha had seen, years before, the suffering of life. People grow old, sick, and die, and no amount of wealth or love can protect them from this. Moreover, people want what they cannot have and don’t want what they cannot avoid, causing untold stress and suffering. The Buddha also “ran away from home” resolved to discover both the source and the alleviation of this affliction. He was successful in his quest.

My friend and professor, Dr. Drew Baker, recently reminded me that we choose our paths only from the options of which we are already aware. The Buddha chose to become a wandering ascetic, which was common in India in those days, and studied with many different teachers, eventually mastering the meditative disciplines they knew. I chose to move to Los Angeles and become a Buddhist priest and scholar by studying at various universities in the region. I have mastered the arts of library research and ramen noodle cooking.

I draw parallels not to equate myself with the legendary Enlightened One, but rather because I find the juxtaposition humorous, in a nonsensical sort of way. When he sat under that bo tree at the age of thirty-six and fought with Mara’s demons, did he know that 250 centuries later, it would take me thirty-six years of life to type these words on a computer screen? Did he realize I would know his name and follow his teachings, or that anyone would? Or would he shake his head in sadness at how we’ve lost the point entirely in the intervening time?

On the one hand, I read the words attributed to him through the social, cultural, familial, and personal lenses of a woman raised in a time and place so different from his own that I wonder “How can I possibly imagine what really happened under that tree?” On the other hand, we are both human, we both know stress, we both grow old, sick, and die – except that his suffering has ceased while mine continues. The Buddha found an entirely new option and spent the rest of his life ensuring that future generations would be aware of it. What am I to do with this?

Close my eyes and wake up.

I have enjoyed lucid dreams my entire life. I often remember my dreams. I often know that they are dreams when I am dreaming. I can frequently control what I dream. I have a few reoccurring dreams, including the dream of waking up.

I wake up. It is a normal day. I get dressed. I leave home. I arrive at school or work or the supermarket and realize “I am still dreaming.” I close my eyes and wake up. I get dressed. I leave home … and realize “I am still dreaming.” This repeats for what sometimes seems like uncountable instances, occasionally to the point of frustration, but when I do finally, truly wake up, it is absolutely unmistakable. The difference between “waking up” in the dream and being awake is absolutely crystal clear. When I am finally awake, I often lay there for a while and ponder. I’m not so quick to get up and get dressed and go out.

I’ve had this dream since I was a child, but it was only when I began to study Buddhism that I started to wonder if this is comparable to the Buddha’s certainty that he had Awakened. He was absolutely crystal clear. He saw the lure of chasing our desires like a dream to be happily abandoned upon waking (MN 54).

This particular dream keeps me humble. Every time I think I’ve figured something out or had some small insight, I remind myself that I am still just dreaming. This dream has helped me be skeptical and steered me away from dangerous gurus who claimed enlightenment for themselves but later hurt so many people. It has given me some small measure of hope when the teachings of the Buddha’s path seem daunting (impossible! frightening!), because no matter how many days I live while dreaming, I happily abandon all of them upon waking, never looking back.

Buddhist Lay Minister Ordination

August 13, 2015
Photo courtesy of ICCBCE

Photo courtesy of ICCBCE. Author is back row, third from the right.

On August 8, 2015, myself and twelve others were ordained as Buddhist Lay Ministers by the International Center of Chinese Buddhist Culture and Education (ICCBCE). This event has so many layers, I barely know how to unpack it. I could talk about the lineage and organization ICCBCE who made this happen, the precepts masters who administered our vows, the ritual program, the theological content of the ritual and our vows, the practical benefits of ordination to North American chaplains, the ongoing support ICCBCE is eager to provide for Buddhist chaplaincy in America, the generosity of ordaining Buddhists from so many traditions (and insisting they maintain their home traditions) under one organization, the progressive cultural elements of the ceremony, or just the fact that all of these newly ordained people are my friends. For now, let’s just cover a few of the basics.

Three abbots administered our vows, including one who flew in from the Philippines and one from China just for this ceremony. They are seated in the front row in the above photo: Venerable Masters Ben Xing, Chao Ding, and Chuan Yin. This is the first such ordination to be held by this organization in America. The majority of the ceremony and the content of all our vows was in English and I give full props to the abbots for whom this was a clear, but worthwhile, challenge. It is not uncommon for Asian-founded temples in the U.S. to continue to conduct all services in their native language, even when a significant number of non-native speakers are present, so this was a major step simply to accommodate us, English-speaking Americans. The ceremony was held at the ICCBCE U.S. headquarters in Monterey Park, California, and the ordination took place in the beautiful main hall of the Hua Shia Buddhist Association temple.

The ceremony began by inviting the three precept masters to teach and administer the vows, followed by repentance, refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, vowing to uphold the Five Precepts, and making the four Bodhisattva vows. Each section (except repentance) was repeated three times, once for each precept master. Each abbot (precept master) gave a short homily that conveyed how optimistic they too are for Buddhist ministers in America, their hopes for building connections across Buddhist traditions, and their care for us, the first generation. It involved a lot of bowing, prostration, and standing with palms together for those being ordained. The laypeople and monastic volunteers helped us all along the way, indicating where to stand, what direction to face, when to bow, prostrate, and stand, and helped us find our spot when we got lost during the Chinese chanting. It concluded in traditional Chinese chanting followed by endless group photographs. They also prepared a very yummy lunch for after the service. So many people put so much time and effort into a ceremony for our benefit when we are basically strangers to them – it actually makes my heart feel a little bit bigger.

We all received a robe, brown for the men and blue for the women to correspond to the colors of monastic daily-wear robes, stole, mala, and ordination certificate with our Dharma name. In our generation, the Dharma names begin with “pu” which means bodhi in Chinese. My Dharma name is Pu Shan or “bodhi is fit [for enlightenment].” The ICCBCE hopes to hold this event annually. This year seven men and six women were ordained, including Caucasian Americans, Jewish Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Filipino Americans, Chinese Americans, and Taiwanese (apologies if I left anyone out), representing Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions of Buddhism. All are either working chaplains or chaplaincy students obtaining graduate level education in Buddhism and spiritual care to complement years of personal practice. Eleven are students or alumni of University of the West and three are students of Claremont School of Theology (I overlap).

We provide care and conduct our clinical pastoral education (CPE) in hospitals, hospice, addiction recovery, universities, and elsewhere. Ordination will actually go a long way towards helping us continue to find employment as professional chaplains, where it is the norm and our explanations of “Well, my Buddhist tradition doesn’t really do that” don’t get us very far. So this is a powerful professional credential. Moreover, ICCBCE has indicated it’s willingness to support for our ongoing training in meditation, ritual, chanting, and other studies, through their network of temples and by working with inter-denominational partners in the three main branches of Buddhism. The development of training and work-related materials, like pocket prayer books, is also on the menu. Right now the ICCBCE in the U.S. is relying on a Facebook page to spread the word, while developing a more permanent and informative website.

Overall, I am proud to be associated with this organization, humbled to have been ordained, and grateful for the continued support. I’m sure not everything will be smooth in years to come. We have mountains of cultural differences to explore as Buddhism continues its diaspora, but overall I am optimistic and fascinated to watch this lotus flower bloom.

Before I conclude, I must offer a very sincere thank you to a few special people. My classmates and fellow UWest alumni Venerable Guan Zhen, Venerable Kiet Vo, and Reverend Aroon Seeda worked very hard to make this happen. Ven. Guan Zhen in particular is the ICCBCE secretary in the U.S. and in between his own monastic duties, application and acceptance into Columbia University (PhD in social work program), and many trips back and forth to China, he somehow made this happen. He emcee’d the ceremony on Saturday and, while not included in the photo, was undeniably the lynch pin of the entire event.  Thank you and deep bows.

Precepts, Vows, and Looking for Loopholes

July 28, 2015
"Loopholes," Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson

“Loopholes,” Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson

No killing. No stealing. No sexual misconduct. No lying. No intoxicants. This is the text of the five precepts I will vow to uphold in two short weeks.

Does this mean I can’t eat steak? Or dink whiskey? Because I like those things and I don’t feel like I’m harming myself or anyone else. Can’t I still…? Do I have to…? Should I even vow…? My clever mind is looking for a loophole to continue my little pleasures, to live my life as though taking on a robe and stole is just a formality. It won’t really change who I am or what I do. Right?

Another part thinks it should change things. Otherwise, what would be the point? I don’t want to make vows I know I won’t uphold.

But what do the vows even mean? Surely it okay to have a little red wine on a Saturday night as long as I don’t get “intoxicated,” as in, falling down drunk.

No intoxicants. That’s what it says. Why is that so hard anyway? I’ve always been a featherweight drinker. A week ago, I left half a carafe of warm sake on the table at a sushi restaurant out of prudence. If I drink once a week, that’s a lot. So why am I trying to wiggle out of what I believe to be the letter of the law?

No killing. I was mostly vegetarian for six years to reduce the suffering of sentient beings. It would be easy to return to that now that I have the means again. I still eat less meat than the average American …

… but I like meat, especially when my partner cooks it for me. I can’t make his life more difficult, can I? Meat is everywhere. It’s so easy…and yummy.

The rest doesn’t seem so difficult. It’s not like I’m into stealing, sexual misconduct, and lying on a regular basis. I can accept those vows gladly.

Surely that’s good enough, right?

But why should I only live by the easy ones?

We received the text of the ordination ceremony today. It says:

“All good men and women! Listen carefully! The Agama Sutras say there are good men and women who observe the precepts without making vows, who thus obtain very little merit.  Excellent results can only come to be when precepts are observed along with great vows.  When merit is cultivated without making vows, it is like a house built on sand. It is also like pottery that cannot be used without being fired in a kiln. Therefore, after bestowing the Refuges and the Five Precepts upon you, I shall teach you the proper way of making vows.  Please join your palms together, repeat after me, and sincerely make your vows in front of the Triple Gem of the Ten Directions.”

I believe that what it means is that doing what is easy requires little effort and makes no real difference in the course of our lives (merit). Only by doing what is difficult, can we shift the flow of our habit energies, the river of our karma, into a better direction. One does not need to bother with a vow to do something easy. Vows are for doing what is difficult. They are for creating intention and commitment. When we uphold our vows, our willpower grows stronger, like a muscle being exercised. Our vow is the foundation of a strong house. Even if the house burns down, if we make a mistake, the foundation (the vow, the intention) remains and the house can be rebuilt.

In this light, the answer seems simple. Of course, I vow and, of course, I keep the vows as best I understand them.

But do I really have to be that good? Does anyone even expect that?

And on it goes.


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