Thursday, July 25, 2013

That Bird Has My Wings (III)

Earlier this week I notified my superior at work of my intent to resign. It'll be a of couple months before I leave. The decision is a scary step, but I'm making it because I've recognized that the longer I stay the more isolated from life I'm getting in actuality. That was something I already recognized back when I made my decision to visit Antaiji. I want to do something more positive and meaningful with my real life face-to-face with people before I die. The longer I stay the more difficult it will be to re-integrate, so much of what interests most people in society seems increasingly trivial.

What does my decision have to do with "That Bird Has My Wings?" The way I see it, just like our society's systems trained Jarvis in the ways of violence, our society's systems have trained me in the ways of isolation and withdrawal. Those influences and their karmic effects have pulled Jarvis and myself in a downward spiral that's difficult to escape.

Thankfully I hold the keys to the door of my "solitary confinement," though my chastising someone snowballed and trivialized my life and the lives of others in ways I could never have imagined. In some ways the intervening months have felt like being skinned and filleted alive due to my mind's sensitization to this environment. I'm afraid that I've lost the ability and opportunity to live the kind of life I originally hoped for. Sitting has helped, though on its own it's not the solution as long as I'm looking for answers here.

Do I think the situation could have been handled in a better way? Definitely. I'm including myself in that judgement, but I've been harassed, baited, and deceived by a few of the people whose judgement and knowledge of history I was forced to rely on. At the same time were those people mirroring and extending errors in judgement made by others at earlier times? Was it necessary to correct views, point to risks in the on-line environment, and cauterize? Possibly.

Why did my mind become increasingly sensitized? Because of my isolation and because the decision I made almost four years ago was a decision intended for my real, not virtual, life. It's unfortunate that even back then, it's possible others didn't realize the extent of my commitment. I've been in a state of shock and loss ever since.

I have at least one more post I intend to write before I leave and that post concerns bodhicitta. It'll be awhile because I want to read the Chapter of the Shobogenzo entitled Gyobutsu-Yuigi (The Dignified Behavior of Acting Buddha) as well as a couple of others and listen to what Dogen has to say on the subject.

Another book I want to read is "Finding Freedom"... And Jarvis, even though I've never met you, there have been many moments in recent months when I've felt close and held you in my thoughts because of the commonalities I've pointed to in spite of vast differences in our lives. Like you were, I've been in a state of shock throughout what has felt like a trial.

For good measure:

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

That Bird Has My Wings by Jarvis Jay Masters (II)

The influence of environment on thoughts, feelings and behaviors is something that happens to each of us where-ever we are. It's instinctual for most of us to adapt to the norms of people we're interacting with, the people we feel closest too, and the expectations and norms of people with power. Both spoken and unspoken codes of conduct exist and the standards are different in academia, the arts, the business world and the military, as well as different religions. Within the Zen tradition alone, if a person were to visit several different monasteries, the rules, dress codes, meals, ceremonies and schedules would differ at each. Unspoken expectations also can vary within the same monastery at different times. As an example, I remember one retreat in which the Ino (person running the retreat) kept me awake working on her laptop much of the night. (I didn't mind. After the long hours sitting I don't sleep that well anyway.) During the next retreat, one of my roommates risked waking up the whole dorm to chastise me for waking up thirty minutes early to stretch my legs before zazen. I had no problem adjusting as opposed to challenging her wishes.

No matter what environment we're in, it's survival of the fittest. Each of us has a better chance if we meet the expectations of those around us. We typically do that by adapting with intelligence and/or with power.

It was the system that trained Jarvis in the ways of violence.

For Jarvis, each of the foster homes and institutions he was placed in had different rules and expectations. Jarvis learned to adapt early. At one school, two of the caretakers hand-picked boys to train and fight each other for their entertainment. Jarvis, as strong as he was, was one of those hand-picked boys. Because of his strength he also was able to protect others. In contrast, weaker boys got dragged into the toilets and severely beaten. At least one was beaten to death, several others were beaten and simply disappeared.

From early in the book:

When Jarvis' and his two sisters were separated from his mother and placed in foster care, Jarvis' first foster parents were very loving. But due to his foster mother becoming seriously ill, he was transferred to another home that not only misrepresented itself, but baited the foster children, and was almost as violent as the above school. One of the saddest moments in the book was when Jarvis' went to visit his first foster family and their views of him had been poisoned by the false reports of his second set of foster parents to his social worker.

Why has this book made such an impression on my mind? It's an impression that has grown tremendously since I first read the book. For one thing, it has reminded me to drop off views or at least to be more flexible.

Imagine for a moment that you are Jarvis and that you are judged by all the rules and expectations of each foster home and institution, not to mention family and society in general, all at once, overlapping at the same time. That's one way to view Jarvis' case.

I am not writing this post specifically to argue for Jarvis, even though from my perspective his case should win. I have to say to Jarvis and those individuals responsible for his case that based on my own experience on-line I have hesitated to say anything lest it damage rather than help. My own on-line experience has given me cause to worry and wonder.

I am writing because over the last few months it's become clear that the situation in this open on-line environment is very much like Jarvis' case. The rules and expectations of multiple belief systems and traditions, not to mention teaching and training techniques, both within Buddhism and without are simultaneously overlaid and interacting in an ongoing way. In many ways, this is exciting and progressive since it represents an interaction and co-mingling of traditions that may affect how what the Buddha taught is represented in the West and how society perceives it. The co-mingling of traditions also represents a threat to the individuality and values of each tradition. The effectiveness of teaching and the risks to students, practitioners, friends and family also is increased due to the openness of this environment.

Each of us is the system and each of us potentially is Jarvis, especially here on-line. How do we cope with the multiplicity of standards, not to mention the whole range of society's potential situations?

-- to be continued --

Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Review: That Bird Has My Wings by Jarvis Jay Masters (I)

It's been a few months since I read 'That Bird Has My Wings' by Jarvis Masters. Jarvis is currently in 'maximum security' on Death Row. His case in appeal. This book is his memoir, which he wrote with the hope of promoting change in the agencies of our society that we entrust with the lives of children who have been "abandoned, abused, and wounded." Jarvis was born to parents who were addicted to heroine and, without doubt, Jarvis belongs to this group of children. It's clear from the memoir that the agencies that we have set up in our society to help the impoverished and neglected in many cases result in repeated re-victimization.

I read 'That Bird Has My Wings' mainly as an exercise in compassion. I had recently finished reading my first book on the lojong teachings but still felt confused about what compassion actually is in practice. How and why did our system fail Jarvis instead of giving him the chance it was designed to?

It's an important question because that system is us. Not only that, each one of us is Jarvis. Not only because of the awareness that we all share, but also because, placing myself in Jarvis' shoes,  I can truthfully say there were very few instances I would have made different choices than he did and, even in those instances, it may only have been a matter of time before I reached my limits. That's true for each of us. Our limits are only a function of circumstances and past conditioning, i.e. habits and fears. Moreover each of our habits whether good or bad runs the risk of becoming an addiction if we don't learn to drop off views (by addiction, I mean a situation where our definition of right and wrong is black and white). On the other hand, if you think no-self is the perfect state to live from, think again. No-self is allowing ourselves to be driven by the "winds" and delusions of the people we are in contact with and that is sacrificing our ability to think for ourselves and affect change. Both self and no-self are characterized by a degree of blindness to the influences of the part of society we inhabit.

I want to share one of the particularly moving moments Jarvis writes about and ask readers to ask themselves what they would have done. (I'll include a couple more in another post.):

After years of being in foster care and a variety of detentional institutions for teens, Jarvis was released and given a job in a town where he didn't know anyone, felt listless and not belonging to anything. It was a situation that was sterile and desolate. It was easy to see how he got talked into returning to his extended family even though he was aware of the potential problems. It was family, including the warmth and hospitality that family implies. Jarvis had had such a limited opportunity to be with caring family throughout his life. What would you have done?

Of course, given the need to support and defend himself living in an environment with different rules, his situation deteriorated and eventually he was sent to San Quentin for armed robbery. Think of it though. When he was released, he was in a mental space similar to 'no-self' but of a sterile, desolate nature. No warmth, affection or appreciation. When he joined his extended family, his mind was still in that sterile no-self space, easily influenced by the people, demands and problems of his environment.

-- to be continued --

Sunday, July 21, 2013