Author: Kelsey Blackwell

Image of people singing around a campfire

Rising to the Challenge: Race and Inclusivity in the Sangha

Last summer I traveled from my home in Berkeley, California to Pátzcuaro, Mexico for a weeklong “young” sangha meditation retreat. I say “young” because in our group of roughly 20, though we varied in age from early 20s to 40s, chronological years didn’t matter. We were artists, activists, educators, and scholars united by a curiosity to explore how creativity and contemplative practice might inform the larger social and environmental ills of our time. As a 33-year-old dancing, writing, Buddhist, I felt right at home. In addition to the Mexican participants, the young-at-heart arrived from across the United States and Europe. By day, we meditated, studied the Dharma, and engaged in experiential activities. By night, we enjoyed campfires, conversation, and maybe a few sips of tequila. As the days turned into what felt like years, we became close. Romances blossomed, disintegrated, and blossomed again. Our nighttime campfires morphed into uninhibited sharing free-for-alls with impromptu poetry, mystic storytelling, and group sing-alongs. We were connected to each other and the lush, blooming forest that held us—one beautiful, breathing …

Is a Fear of Death at the Heart of Capitalism?

Donald Trump is a personification of capitalist values: He’s elitist, possessive, exploitative, and always hungry for more. Having multiple buildings emblazoned with his name is not enough. The presidential pantheon is the next prize he wants to devour, perhaps with dreams of becoming immortalized on U.S. currency, the yardstick for contemporary worth. What compels Trump’s oversized appetite, a hunger that mirrors capitalism’s drive for endless and rapacious growth? Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist and social theorist Ernest Becker conceived of capitalism as a contemporary search for the Holy Grail: immortality itself. According to Becker, it is easy for the human animal to feel small and servile in the face of death. We seek power over each other and the more-than-human world to compensate for felt smallness. As Becker wrote in his final book, Escape from Evil, “power means power to increase oneself, to change one’s natural situation from one of smallness, helplessness, finitude, to one of bigness, control, durability, importance.”1 Money offers this vitalizing power. For Becker, “money is the human mode par excellence of coolly denying animal …

Illustration of bullet train and mount fuji

Speeding Past a Receding World

This past June, during a three-day research trip across rural Yamanashi Prefecture, a friend and I visited a town called Hayakawa, nestled in the mountains 100 kilometers to the west of Tokyo. One of the least densely populated municipalities in Japan, Hayakawa is home to fewer than 1,000 people spread across 400 square kilometers (150 square miles) at the foot of the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps, the country’s tallest mountain range and one of its few true wildernesses completely devoid of roads and human habitation. Over the past two years, my inquiry into post-growth cultures and depopulation has carried me to more than a hundred locales across Japan. I added Hayakawa to my itinerary after reading about a settlement here called Mogura, which the map I picked up at the municipal office fondly nicknamed “Machu Picchu.” After an hour driving up a serene river valley, we turned off the main road and for twenty minutes slowly inched our car up a crumbling switchback shrouded in leaves and dappled with sunlight that trickled through …

Illustration of protestors confronting police dressed in riot gear

Why Buddhists Can Stop Worrying and Learn to Love “Us vs. Them Thinking”

An often-rehearsed refrain in Buddhist and contemplative communities is that we need to overcome “Us vs. Them thinking” (or what I’ll abbreviate as UVTT). This intention makes perfect sense. Dualistic thought informs many of the vexing otherings that shape our social worlds, otherings along the axes of race, class, gender, sexuality, species, ability (the sad string goes on and on). Inasmuch as UVTT contributes to systems of domination, then it should be transformed. But this is not the most common argument I hear from fellow Buddhists and contemplatives. Instead the most regular critique of UVTT is directed towards activists and toward social movements themselves. The argument runs like this: Activists are in danger of replicating dualistic and oppositional thought in the way they conceive of and confront their adversaries. I recently spoke with Dawn Haney from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), an organization on the leading edge of engaged Buddhism. She reported how during Occupy Wall Street, the BPF heard from a number of Buddhists worried about the language of the 99% vs. the 1%. …

Illustration of bathhouse

Out of the Shopping Mall and into the Bathhouse

At the beginning of August, I flew from Tokyo to Hong Kong to attend a friend’s wedding. It’s now possible to make the four-hour journey for as low as $100 each way, courtesy of the growing number of low-cost carriers that connect East Asia’s dozens of megacities. I sprung for the cheapest flight I could find, which happened to depart Tokyo at 6:20 AM. Perhaps because the bus I rode through the hushed early-morning streets was completely empty, when I walked into the new 24-hour international terminal building just after 4:00 AM, I was disoriented to discover a sprawling duty-free shopping mall with fully staffed sales counters and bustling with foreign customers making last-minute purchases of luxury bags, perfume, and heated toilet seats. If the tourism industry typically revolves around the commodification and consumption of places of difference—foreign locales with exotic cultural, culinary, linguistic, and physical characteristics—international travel is now driven increasingly by the opposite desire: to spend time in “non-places” with no cultural or social distinctions: the airports and shopping malls filled with familiar …

Illustration of person falling

Taking Refuge in the Family of Things

—Exploring the Nature of Attachment— To take refuge is to return home. Children come into this world needing to take refuge. All children. To be born onto this plane of existence is to experience the vulnerability of being a stranger in a strange land. Hence, during the first years of a child’s life, the primary context in which he or she can take refuge will be that of the child’s primary caregivers…. [B]ecause our first experience of need and of sangha is in our contact with our first caregivers, the quality of this connection will affect our every future perception of relationship, as well as our perception of the world as good or bad, safe or threatening. If enlightenment is indeed a capacity to experience the inherent intimacy of all things, then it becomes useful to discover how our earliest relationships either enhance or block this intimacy. —Download full article below— —Read Jessica Stern’s introduction to the special section here— Download Article PDF: Taking Refuge in the Family of Things Illustration by Alicia Brown

Leveraging the Science of Relationships to Build a Compassionate Society

—An Introduction to the Special Section— Beginning with the relationship between mother and child, the dynamic between two individuals is the source of secret and invisible power. Even though relationships between parents and children, or between romantic partners, can become confused, nonetheless the lineage of humanity stems from this caring feeling, the radiant hum of life… Good human society comes about through strength in our interchanges with others. Sakyong Mipham1 When my cousin was born, my grandmother sewed for her a yellow blanket. It was beautiful not because of its individual threads, but because of the connections between them; moreover, it was beautiful because my grandmother—who spent much of her early life in an orphanage with no such blanket—had made it, in spite of the threads of her history. Though my grandmother was not often a source of warmth or comfort for her own children, she was able to stitch together a blanket that could be just that for her grandchild. The strength and goodness of society, likewise, comes not solely from its individual members …

Praxis, Pragmatics, Right Action and The Shambhala Principle

—Toward a Socially Responsible Philosophy— In this article, I will first discuss the socially responsible European philosophies of praxis, pragmatics, and right action, and show how they have given new meaning to human activity. Then I will show that although they are helpful in giving us insights, they are inadequate in providing us with a practical plan of action to fuel societal transformation. Finally, I will argue that what is presented in The Shambhala Principle is not only consistent with ideas presented in these European socially responsible philosophies, but actually takes these ideas to a new level by stating that personal and social transformation are inseparable. By studying both European philosophy and The Shambhala Principle, we will see that they mutually inform and enrich each other, turning theory into practices that uplift the human condition and make us better human beings. —Download full article below— Download Article PDF: Praxis, Pragmatics, Right Action and The Shambhala Principle Illustration by Alicia Brown

Moving Beyond the Language of Economic Utility

On a spring evening in Southern California, with too much school work and an uncooperative clock ticking away the day’s warmth, I glanced outside my window to find the sky imbued with the color of a sunset. Captured by its beauty and magic, I wondered whether I should take a break from writing my undergraduate thesis to watch. As the sky shifted from yellow-orange to reddish-pink, my thoughts turned to a cost-benefit analysis: “Is it worth it to go outside and watch? A break would interrupt my progress right now. On the other hand, refreshing myself might increase my productivity for the next half hour before dinner.” By then, of course, the sky had faded into deep purple, the sun slipping over the horizon. As an overworked college student, evaluating actions in terms of productivity was common. Even now, several years after Microeconomics initially offered a powerful language for describing human decision-making, marginal utility remains a convenient—if not a little contrived—way of understanding my everyday choices. Indeed, since its inception, the field of economics has …

Illustration of landscape with thunderclouds and rain storm

A Din amid Quiet Ruins

A year ago on a bright summer morning in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, I took a break from a study on community water I was conducting to explore the countryside. All around me were the fields and orchards of Hispano ranchers whose Pueblo and Spanish ancestors had watered these lands for countless generations. A friend of mine among them, a builder and farmer and sometime engineer with the strength of a linebacker, said he’d take me to a trailhead of a place unlike anything I had ever seen, so long as I promised not to tell anyone exactly where it was. “We don’t want all kinds of people driving up and down the road, parking their cars, snapping pictures,” he said. I agreed, eagerly accepting his invitation. On the way to the canyon, he told me the trail would lead me upward to the ruins of a village of the ancient ones, the ancestral Puebloans, who lived in this place for generations and left mysteriously about seven hundred years ago. Most speculate …