Sunday, December 23, 2007

Recap for December 23, 2007

We began with introductions, and an announcement that the magazine Color Lines has a section called “The Innovators,” in its January/February issue. It features Rosalind Bell. Subscribe, information at

Dexter announced he is going on sabbatical leave from the University, starting in May. One of his topics is a group of Rastafarians who call themselves the Nazarites, who were in the town where he grew up. He told part of his story today.

We discussed Jamaican words and phrases, the odd twists and turns we make in our working lives, the world of air-traffic controllers. We also noted the meeting of moral commitment and social action found in liberation theology—asking questions like, if the church is so rich, why are the people so poor? We went on for some time learning many detailed features of Dexter’s life. This note taker, keeping with our common practice, does not write down the details of the story teller—but let me say the Members were fascinated and the story-teller was good natured in sharing those details. One feature Members commented on and asked about: ‘blue streak’ language was part of several of the stories, but Dexter doesn’t curse. So the challenge was to convey the flavor and impact of the words without saying them. Well done.

Callista spoke to us about a Tibetan Buddhist holiday, Losar, which is the celebration of the new year. The holiday predates the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet, part of the Bön (focused on nature). The founding story for the holiday is about a woman who discovered the passage of time marked by the cycle of a fruit tree—many cultural features have something to do with the rhythms of agriculture, or management of water. The ancient practice of linking the new year to forces of nature is at the center of Losar. Among the way Tibetans adopted Buddhism—the local deities, or spirits that acts as place protectors, had to be converted to Buddhism before they would allow monasteries to be built and for people to practice it. The holiday is thus a Buddhist appropriation of an earlier tradition.

Preparation for the holiday begins with weeks of purifying chants, and is marked by a central celebration at the Potala in Lhasa. For the last few hundred years this central celebration was officiated by the Dalai Lama. People petition enlightened beings like the Dalai Lama, who is said to be a reincarnated version of an earlier realized being, to stick around in samsara (the limited and ignorant world in which we live) to encourage us in the right direction. It continues for more than one day.

Buddhism is transmitted in lineages, and the one Callista shared with us is a form of the Shambhala tradition. In that tradition Losar is called ‘Shambhala Day.’ Their way of celebrating the holiday includes a chant added to daily practice. The tradition is rather precise about numerical expectations for the chants, so the more the merrier in celebrations (100 people each saying a chant 10 times produces 1,000 chants). The chants are a path to transforming negativity—the chant itself is not a magical incantation, it is a way to get the chanter out of their usual tendencies and circumstances. One way to put it: clean up your life. Start with the house, and do it with the internal stuff as well, such as grudges. The path will lead, hopefully, to kind and direct conduct, to openness to your own awareness, transform one’s personal energy, and to paying attention to the details of our lives.

Some questions were about the “kind and direct conduct,” and how some folks who claim to be direct are actually being damaging or aggressive. One teacher (Trungpa Rinpoche) described this way of being direct with the phrase “idiot compassion.” The notion is, one is being direct for themselves, not really doing it for the other person.
In Callista’s Shambhala tradition, they perform a purification ritual (which includes the burning of juniper leaves and working with the smoke), meant to dispel negativity and encourage wisdom, a liturgy about overcoming materialism, and a feast ceremony that explicitly encourages people to not seek anything for themselves (it is not an opportunity for networking). Some of us has read an account of how a Navaho use of ritual and art was astonishingly close to Tibetan practices, so much so that a group of Tibetans encountering a group of Navaho thought the latter were Tibetan.

One question was about the term ‘spiritual materialism.’ One of her teachers believed Americans are too often drawn to Buddhism as a Thing To Be, as in “I am a Buddhist.” The search for personal aggrandizement, or seeking things in one’s life as part of a yearning to be separate and special, is entirely missing the point. So, spiritual materialism is a warning about that.

One question noted the account of Buddhism sounds a lot like leading a healthy life. The response included the idea that the Buddha was not a god, he was a human being—and so being Buddhist is about learning to become a human being. One early attraction to Buddhism—the notion that when someone is pursuing you, challenging you, is seen as a teacher, because it shows you how you encounter the world (the story of the monks being chased after the invasion by China).

A member asked about how that story is connected to what we try to do here in the Conversation. That response, seeing challenges as teachers, is called ‘sacred world.’ If we find an unsacred part of the world, say, features of the color line in the USA, we try to find the places we can work with. And when we acknowledge we have not yet found the point we can work with, we look for people who seem to have found it, and learn from them.

In response to one question, Callista noted that all the things we find in Christianity—bureaucracy, turf battles, doctrinal disputes, corruption, and so on—you would find all of it somewhere in Buddhism as well. One nice phrase: “the center of trade is also the center of plunder.” There is wealth that accumulates when things get institutionalized, and issues arise around what to do with it.

Several members spoke to the notion of knowing, or becoming aware of, self. This is connected to the way institutions channel our energies, and make some outcomes more likely. Another feature of it is the connection to social action—what is the point of pursuing personal enlightenment without some kind of social reverberation?

Martin Luther King’s notion of redemptive suffering is a similar challenge to the self—one part is understanding how you encounter the world, and one part of it is a call to live in the world and attempt to reduce the causes and conditions of suffering.


April 26 is the Ebony Fashion Fair.

January 15th 7 pm at Pierce college, , Michael Chabon, author of “Yiddish Policeman’s Union.”

March will be the Dine Out for Life to support the PC AIDS foundation.

The 2012 CD goes great in the automobile stereo. Awesome. We got ours from Keith.

Tacoma Art Museum, Threads that Bind,

December 26, 10 am, School Board will have a study session on the Superintendent search.

Second Sunday Salon will meet January 13. See the website at That website also has notices of other speakers about local war resistance efforts and Iraq refugees, on January 18 and January 24.

January 9, a panel discussion on contemporary issues with a civil rights coalition, flyer passed around. This emerged out of an examination of progressive white and communities of color, noting a separation that arose a long time ago. This is an initial step in an effort to find constructive steps to take here in Tacoma.

The YWCA sends thanks for the support and gifts the group gave in previous weeks.

Anyone with ideas for who to ask for financial support for the MLK Jr. event on January 20, let the organizing committee know. Make out a check to Associated Ministries, with the memo line note “MLK 2008” to make a tax deductible contribution.

Friday December 28, at Mandolin Café, on 12th, Record Hop/Sock Hop MLK Fundraiser. 7:30-midnight,
Rosalind has tickets.

See to see the notice for the PBS show that will look at the connections between inequality and health.

Reza Aslan, the internationally acclaimed author and scholar, will deliver the first lecture of the 2008 Swope Endowed Lectureship on Ethics, Religion, Faith, and Values at University of Puget Sound. The talk is scheduled for Thurs., Jan. 31, 7 pm, free tickets from the info desk in the UPS student center.