Different, Not Less: Confronting Ableism and Celebrating Inclusivity in Dharma Practice April 28, 2023 08:38
For those who prefer to listen to this article, please click HERE for the audio file.
Every day I walk by a poster that hangs on the wall around the corner from my office. In bold, colorful letters, it reads: “Different, Not Less.”
According to Buddhist texts, attaining a human life is extremely rare—as rare as “a blind turtle surfacing in a vast ocean every one hundred years and managing to put its head through a wooden yoke.”
In This Precious Life: Tibetan Buddhist Teachings on the Path to Enlightenment, Khandro Rinpoche outlines the eighteen qualities that are needed to attain a “precious human life.”
One of these qualities is the third personal endowment—that we are born with our six senses intact: “Our eyes can see, our ears can hear, etc., …our mind consciousness has the ability to discern right from wrong. Having all of our senses intact, we can remain in the ground of awareness with all of our perceptions, which is a precious quality.”
That may be so, but, I’m not going to lie, it also strikes me as extremely ableist as well.
I have been an educator for over thirty-five years, and I have worked with students, teachers, staff, and parents who were visually impaired, hearing impaired, or neurodivergent. Some endured conditions such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy, or paralysis. Regardless of their circumstances, what they shared in common was a yearning for knowledge and a strong capacity for curiosity and growth. Through much patience, determination, and effort, they succeeded academically and professionally, despite these challenges and “differences.”
You can’t tell me these students, colleagues, and parents weren’t precious—or capable of realizing wisdom and compassion.
Early on in my teaching career, I taught English at a very large high school in Indianapolis. This was long before 9/11, frequent news stories of school shootings, and data-driven standardized testing mandates. Our football team was doing very well that year, and, as a result, we had all-school convocations in the gym virtually every week leading up to the State Championship game.
On Fridays, students were corralled and packed into bleachers to celebrate the physical prowess and accomplishments of athletes along with the strategic genius of the coaching staff.
After every win, there would be a convocation. There were many wins that season…and many convos, which cut into our valuable teaching time and student learning time.
These celebrations became so commonplace that students and teachers sat in the bleachers like zombies, their eyes glazed over from boredom and complacency.
For me, however, there was a bright spot. Her name was Nikki. She was not a student in my class, but I would look for her during every pep session. Nikki had Down Syndrome and sat in the front row, courtside, along with her Special Education teacher and other MOMH students.
As students filed into the gym, Nikki sat quietly, but as soon as the band started to play the school song, she was on her feet, clapping her hands, smiling, her eyes wide open. She embodied and radiated joy while the rest of us sat quietly, unmoved.
For me, she outshone the cheerleaders with their practiced smiles and plastic pom-poms.
Seeing Nikki in the gym every Friday afternoon made me question who was the one with the disability?
Nikki was fully present during these weekly pep sessions, and each week, her genuine smile lit up the whole gymnasium. She had a capacity for joy that the rest of us could not comprehend or touch.
For all I knew—Nikki could have been a Bodhisattva, despite her diagnosis and cognitive challenges.
You can’t tell me she didn’t inhabit a precious human life. For those of us fortunate enough to notice her in the crowd during these weekly convos, we benefited from her uninhibited exuberance, her genuine joy, and her undying enthusiasm.
Recently, I watched a meaningful Dharma talk on YouTube. Vicky Beckett’s talk was called “Disability, Ableism, and the Dharma: Liberation from Views.” Beckett is a disabled Buddhist practitioner, and she gave this talk during a Buddhist festival in the U.K.
She began by explaining that the root of ableism is the mistaken belief that disabled bodies are worth less than abled bodies.
Beckett described some of the accessibility challenges that she has faced as a disabled practitioner who requires a wheelchair.
One of the most important questions that she posed during her talk was, “We know this human birth is a precious opportunity to awaken, so why are we deciding that some lives are worth more than others?”
Our experiences occur within the circumstances, dispositions, forms, and loci of our own bodies. Many teachers and texts agree that we create our worlds with our minds, that nothing exists inherently, and that nothing is permanent. After all, there are millions of disabled people in this world, and, at any moment, we could be one accident or one health crisis away from becoming a member of this demographic.
Beckett’s primary point in her talk was that regardless of our physical condition, “being alive in this body…RIGHT NOW…awakening is possible, whether you are disabled or able-bodied. This life is precious…rare…and beautiful.” I couldn’t agree with her more.
As a Buddhist, I do believe in reincarnation, and while I firmly believe that causes and conditions give rise to karmic imprints and results, I don’t think that it is fair to assume that if we are born into this world with a disability of some kind, that it is the result of an obscuration, negative imprint, or poor choices from past lives. I also don’t believe that able-bodied practitioners are more spiritually evolved than disabled practitioners.
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of working with differently-abled, neurodivergent, and atypical students who were powerful, inspiring teachers for those of us who were able-bodied. They moved through the world in their own unique ways and witnessed the world from novel perspectives. Their differences were valid and valuable—and so were they—and, most importantly, their differences enhanced the lives of others.
My favorite quotation from Beckett’s talk was, “I love my body. It is my vehicle for liberation.”
In this powerful line, she is acknowledging, with confidence, that her life is, indeed, precious, and that despite any physical limitations, she, too, is capable of attaining enlightenment for the benefit of herself and others.
We all have gifts that we develop and bring to this world. It’s up to us to make the most of the life that we currently inhabit—to learn and grow in the best way that we can—and to be a source of support, encouragement, kindness, and compassion for ourselves and others.
Thanks for taking the time to read or listen to this month's blog article. Be sure to visit the current collection of Middle Moon Malas designs. Mother's Day is coming up soon--or, you may want to treat yourself or a loved one to a beautiful mala just because :).
Until next time...Take Care--
Photo Credit: David Troeger courtesy of Unsplash
Rest, Relax, and Abide: Finding Confidence and Courage on Retreat September 20, 2019 16:50
I'm not big on traveling. I like to travel occasionally, but I really have to be motivated, especially if it's a solo adventure. Crowded airports are stressful for me, and I'm not the greatest with directions, so I get turned around and lost very easily.
Recently, I had an opportunity to attend a retreat and hear Her Eminence Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche teach at her Lotus Garden Retreat Center in Stanley, VA. I listen to her teachings and interviews online, and I have read her book, This Precious Life, so when I heard about this retreat, I was really motivated to go and hear her teach in person. The first step in dealing with any plan, obstacle, or challenge, is generating and maintaining the right motivation. Check!
Since the closest airport to Lotus Garden was two hours away, I decided the best option was to drive. I've taken shorter trips by myself before, but this was a ten-hour trip spanning four states. Needless to say, this was a big leap for me, and one well beyond my comfort zone.
After printing out directions, checking with my insurance to make sure I had roadside assistance, packing up the car, setting the GPS on my phone, I was ready to go. I even had a conversation with my teacher, Geshe Kunga, to let him know I was leaving. He was kind enough to give me an amulet to keep with me on my trip, instructed me to chant the Green Tara mantra, and said he would offer prayers of protection as well. Preparation and much-needed Support! Check and Check!
I chanted mantra the entire time I was on the road headed to Mindrolling Lotus Garden Retreat Center. Alternating between the 100-syllable Vajrasattva and the Green Tara mantra, I recited, in part, to help me stay focused, but more importantly, to manage my anxieties and fears of getting lost (which is ridiculously easy for me), breaking down, or getting run off the road by a runaway semi.
Chanting mantra helped me stay grounded, rooted in the present moment, and it added a welcome element of familiarity to a long journey full of change and unfamiliar landscapes. In short, mantra practice brought me safely to Lotus Garden.
It also served me throughout the retreat as well--from daily morning and evening prayers in the shrine room with the other retreatants to personal practice time in between teachings. I thoroughly enjoyed chanting quietly as I walked around the large lotus pond and along threadline paths that had gorgeous views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
As the week progressed, I could sense my own confidence level increasing, as well as my ability to simply rest and be in the moment. One of my favorite meditation sessions was outdoors. Each retreatant (150 in all) was given a small tent to pitch along the grounds. Once our tents were ready, we were given a sack dinner, a chair, and instructions to meditate for three hours. The instructions were as follows: to simply relax, abide, and allow for the duration of the session.
Our session began in the late afternoon and ended in early evening. I pushed the chair out of my tent and lay on the ground in constructive rest pose. A somatic meditation approach was exactly what I needed to remain grounded and aware of everything shifting around me:
patterns of light and shadow on the mountains
clouds drifting, gathering, and dispersing
a large spider busily spinning a web at the apex of of my tent
bird song shifting to chirping crickets
daylight easing into darkness
intermittent sneezes, coughs, the rustling of sandwich wrappers
and eventually, the sound of tent zippers, shoes on stiff grass and gravel as we made our way back to our rooms by flashlight
Over the course of the week, I noticed that my confidence and courage had increased dramatically, and my tendency to worry had diminished. Rinpoche's teachings surpassed my expectations. She was incredibly detailed, clear, and insightful. I enjoyed connecting with other practitioners as well. Even though the Mindrolling lineage was new to me, we had more commonalities than differences. I also enjoyed being able to take the time to improve my own practice in a fresh, unfamiliar environment.
I enjoyed my stay, and by the end of the week, I was eager to make my way home. Cell phone service was very spotty in this isolated area, so I had to rely on my printed instructions to lead me back to the highway. Ordinarily, this would be a cause for major concern, but I had the motivation, confidence, curiosity, and courage to find my way without worry or unnecessary anxiety (and I didn't get lost).
I also enjoyed the trip home, more confident in my independence and in my ability to navigate change: to rest--to relax--and to abide in this journey, and in all future adventures to come.
Why Are You Chanting, Seriously? April 7, 2019 20:36
I spend an hour every day chanting mantra. I begin my day by practicing a short sadhana and use a quarter mala to mark the twenty-seven recitations in the morning. Then, later in the day, usually in the afternoon or early evening, I chant using a full mala (108 beads).
WHY? There are so many other things that I could do with this hour every day. I could watch something on Netflix or YouTube. I could sleep in for an extra hour, or take a nap in the afternoon. I could feed my brain with information and read a compelling article or blog. I could take a long walk. I could declutter and organize my kitchen cabinets or volunteer at an animal shelter or soup kitchen. Why would I choose to spend this time chanting Sanskrit mantra?
These are reasonable questions. For the last five years I have practiced japa on the daily, and given the choices listed above, I’d rather continue to invest the time practicing mantra recitations, and here’s why…
- “Mantra’s nature is to protect the mind from negativity.” Ven. Lozang Yӧnten
Unsupervised, I am prone to worry and restless anxiety. Driving, for example, can be a trigger for me. If traffic is heavy, or delayed by construction, if I’m concerned about being late, or if an unexpected warning light suddenly appears on my dash board, I can go from focused and alert to tense and frazzled in .02 seconds.
When these unexpected surprises occur, I find that reaching for the clicker counter that I keep in the closest cup holder and chanting while I’m on the road helps to keep me calm, relaxed, and focused, and it also prevents me from spinning out into a vortex of nervous loops of spazziness. Chanting keeps me grounded, present in the here and now, and prevents the infinite “what if” scenarios from taking over—it keeps me moving forward, even if I’m at a standstill in traffic.
- “By practicing mantra, we can drive our awareness deeper into the bones, muscles and tissues of the body to gain a greater sensitivity and understanding of our makeup and amplify the emotional energies latent within, much like the potential energy present in mountains that then becomes kinetic in the form of an avalanche when the earth quakes.” Gabriel Axel (“Your Brain on Om: The Science of Mantra, U.S. News and World Report , 2 Oct 2013)
In other words, a mantra practice can recalibrate the body and the mind, motivating us to reflect and improve. Managing transitions is not one of my strong suits. When I come home from work, for example, I’m energetically exhausted and disoriented. I’ve entered that awkward bardo state between busyness and rest, from structured time to unstructured time, and japa practice can act as a helpful buffer. When I sit on my cushion for formal practice, chanting mantra helps me navigate the change of environment and gives me permission to let go of the need to accomplish tasks. If I chant soon after coming home from school, I’m less likely to either go into Type A taskmaster mode (doing laundry, dishes, making dinner, or creating more items on the “to do” list) or self-soothing by taking refuge in junk food.
Sitting for thirty to forty minutes in the afternoon gives me an opportunity to process the events of the day, to relax, release, and ease into my evening. I feel more present and embodied.
However, if I wait too late in the evening to practice, I grow tired and impatient, and my mind is too fuzzy or groggy to benefit from the practice. Late afternoon to early evening is ideal for me—it creates a smooth transition from Do-Do-Do to Be-Be-Be.
- “By allowing the mind to be permeated with compassion, you become one who upholds the integrity and purity of the practice. This, itself, is the key to liberating all sentient beings.” H.E. Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche
This chanting practice is not just about me, and it doesn’t simply benefit myself. It can help others, too. The sadhana and mantra that I work with are part of a specific purification practice. Through it, I resolve to relinquish negative habits of mind and tendencies that harm myself and others. I acknowledge, regret, and affirm not to continue these thoughts, actions, or habits that have the potential to cause harm (i.e. judging others harshly, being snippy or snarky with people when I’m impatient, spending money on things I don’t need, laziness, arrogance, etc.). There’s a visualization component to this practice—and mantra recitation is at the heart of this practice as well. By actively and consciously acknowledging these habits and traits—and taking steps to cease, desist, and purify them, I am not only improving my own life, but making the world more tolerable for people who happen to be around me.
Outside of the purification practice, sometimes I will dedicate a round of mantra recitations to someone who is suffering (friend or stranger), or to a challenging situation or conflict (local or global). Chanting in this context becomes an offering and an act of compassion for others, and there’s never a shortage of subject matter since suffering and turmoil are ubiquitous. The mantra can be short and sweet—it doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. Om Mani Padme Hum is just one example. What matters most is the intention behind the chanting practice, and the genuine focus and attention to the practice.
While watching Netflix or scrolling through Facebook may provide mindless entertainment and endless opportunities for distraction, mantra practice can actually improve focus, keep the monsters of attachment at bay, and help foster genuine compassion for others.