Author: James K. Rowe

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 …

Shimokitazawa, Tokyo
Photograph by Sam Holden

Rituals of Urban Life in Post-Growth Tokyo

Recently, as I pondered how the rituals of life in modern Tokyo emerged and evolved alongside the growth of the city, and what the rituals of post-growth Tokyo could become, I spent an afternoon wandering through Shimokitazawa, a neighborhood in western Tokyo that is popular for its sense of local charm. Since the end of the war the neighborhood has organically evolved into a mosaic of jazz bars and quiet cafes, shops filled with exotic fabrics and quirky trinkets, and artisans and residents who make their homes in a disorderly web of alleyways that emanate from the crossroads of two train lines. In a little second floor used book shop, I plucked a book off a shelf filled with titles on memory and ruins. My Map of Tokyo, written by Ineko Sata in 1949, is an elegy of the author’s lived experience of the city, recounting walks through the neighborhoods of her past, wooden planks over dirt alleyways lined by row houses, the oily smell of grilled meat wafting across the grounds of a quiet …

Illustration of Gesar

Creating Enlightened Society

—Compassion in the Shambhala Tradition— Abstract With the broader propagation of the Shambhala teachings that highlight the importance of creating enlightened society, it is natural to wonder what compassion means in a Shambhala context. In conjunction with Naropa University’s 40th Anniversary and the theme of “radical compassion,” this article explores the unique contributions of the Shambhala teachings to cultivating and manifesting compassion in a complex, ever-changing world full of overt and subtle modes of suffering. The approach of the article is to provide a historical and cultural context for the Shambhala teachings and for their relevance to contemporary global crises, and to provide scriptural and commentarial support for the view of compassion as a motivation for creating enlightened society. —Download full article below— Download Article PDF: Creating Enlightened Society Illustration by Alicia Brown

Illustration depicting various abstract protest scenes from Occupy Wallstreet

Through Rites, All Things Flourish

—The Power of the Ceremonial in Classical Confucianism and in Contemporary Rituals of Dissent— Abstract “The fate of our times is characterized, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.” This, Max Weber’s 1919 characterization of modernity, presaged what many have come to see as a crisis of meaning in our contemporary world. Some have argued that our “secular age,” with its pluralistic, relativized, and dominantly scientific episteme, fails to supply the sense of meaning that was once ensured through the myths and rituals that bound communities together under the promise of harmonization with sacred, cosmic order. And whether one agrees or not with the characterization of modernity as a disenchanted space threatening moral disorientation and existential doubt, it is clear that formal religious rituals no longer play a definitive role in organizing society at large. Ceremony may seem like a relic of an enchanted past, or the plaything of those who keep up ancient traditions in modern contexts. But perhaps we are not all that divorced from the power of ceremony and the enchantment of myth, …