Friday, June 16, 2017

Cultural and religious spotlight: Chùa Linh Sơn Detroit Buddhist Temple in Warren, Michigan

A couple weekends ago I had a wonderful time with my dear cousin Rachel and my best friend Daniel Moen at the Chùa Linh Sơn Detroit Vietnamese Buddhist temple on 9 Mile Road in Warren. Linh Sơn is special to Dan and me because it’s where we went on our first one-on-one outing when we became friends in 2010, when “temple-hopping” was a big thing of ours. I still treasure our periodic visits there over the years because of this association, and because it’s an amazingly beautiful and peaceful place to meditate and chant daimoku.

When we first found this place, I was a spiritual free-agent seeking a form of Buddhism that suited my life. In 2015 I finally found what I was looking for in SGI Nichiren Buddhism; now when I go back to Linh Sơn, I enjoy it from the perspective of a person visiting the home of friends who practice a different version of my religion, instead of from the perspective of investigating to see if I want to practice it myself.

Dan and I knew that Linh Sơn practices a variation of Mahayana Buddhism (the large umbrella category that Nichiren Buddhism also fits under). We have only gotten minimal specifics from the people there due to the language barrier, however, so I decided to see if I could get any comprehensible English through auto-translating Linh Sơn’s all-Vietnamese Web site.

After putting the Web site through Google’s auto-translation, the only thing I could verify for sure is that the “Chùa” in “Chùa Linh Sơn” means “pagoda.” To put it bluntly, the auto-translation reads like a Buddhist Mad-Lib, so I recommend not even trying it.

Instead of continuing to try and figure out what its exact teaching is, I decided to simply appreciate this place for our experience there. The experience we have when we go there is something that few people experience when they go into a house of worship other than their own—even Christians walking off the street into a church of a different denomination. No one asked us if we are Buddhist, or why we were there. They just correctly assumed that we were there to pray, they spoke to us, invited us to lunch with them downstairs, communicated some of the essential cultural and temple etiquette to us, and even gave us a few lovely gifts—all using makeshift sign language (with a little English thrown in by the two people available who speak it).

Even though I had no idea what the monk said during his dharma talk, I got the impression from him that he is a kind man, and he really took a shining to Dan particularly, and he spoke just enough English to convey a sincere invitation to us to come back any time, especially Sundays for meditation, and told us that sometimes there is someone there who presents the dharma in English.

These folks are following the Buddha’s path in whatever way they’re following it, I thought, and they seem really happy doing so, so it's clear that they get the basic purpose of Buddhism. When I offered prayers at their altar I chanted my daimoku for them, for the success and happiness of their community, and for whatever goals they came to the United States to achieve.

Every time we’ve been to Linh Sơn, almost or everyone we’ve encountered there is from Vietnam or one of its neighbor-countries. While I don’t have any plans to learn to speak Vietnamese, or to have an immersion experience in the community, what I value about going to this temple and to the immigrant-run businesses on and near Dequindre Road in Warren (including the delicious Phò Hàng Restaurant and Q Q Bakery) is that it expands my definition of what “America” is really made of, especially at at time when so many people are trying really hard to make that definition narrower and narrower.

For the record, I have had the privilege of this cultural enrichment because of Dan, whose ethnic identity to date has been more pan-Asian than specific to his own ethnicity. Recently, however, he has finally directly connected with his Filipino rootsincluding having just gotten back from a family reunion in the Philippines with his birth family, whom he's been wanting to find his entire life and finally did a few months ago! Yay!

I’ll write more about my reflections from this experience with two of my favorite people next week, and in the meantime I encourage you to watch Dan’s amazing documentary-style video about our outing by clicking here.

Image: "Ahimsa" by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker and Sharpie marker

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

An honest and respectful "no" is better than a begrudging or exhausted "yes," for a few reasons...

When Soka Gakkai founder Tsunesaburo Makiguchi said that “to not advance is to retreat,” and our mentor SGI President Ikeda said “Buddhism is win or lose,” they were not expressing hard-hearted absolutism. They understood that when we truly tap into our inner wisdom while trying to encourage someone, we can tell the difference between someone who is trying to avoid the difficulty of personal growth and someone who is struggling to fill a role that is not in alignment with their vision for kosen-rufu in their lives.

For many people who say “yes” to voluntary community responsibilities, these roles are great opportunities to push themselves in healthy ways. For others of us, while it may be good to give community leadership a try for a while, we must then be honest with ourselves and our colleagues if we realize that these responsibilities do not suit us after all.

If we say to ourselves after each time we do tasks we can’t bring ourselves to enjoy, “That wasn’t so bad, now was it?” we negate both our own feelings and the benefits of our actions, because over time those actions will become contaminated by reluctance or resentment.

There are a few benefits of telling our colleagues a respectful “no”. One is that we may get out of the way of a successor who will both enjoy the work more and do it better than we did. Another is that we may strengthen our bonds of understanding with our colleagues, through transparent and honest dialogue about what our strengths and interests really are.

When we approach this dialogue from a high life-condition and with gratitude for the opportunity to serve, (rather than start it when we’re feeling depressed or overwhelmed), then our sincerity and our concern for doing what is right by the people our services affect will shine through, and make our decisions easier for reasonable people to accept without misunderstanding our true reasons.

Yet another benefit of relinquishing responsibilities we aren’t in alignment with is that we stop wasting time. During our self-assessment, we may realize we have spent as much or more time resisting—and complaining about—our responsibilities than we have actually spent fulfilling those responsibilities.

This does not mean that we should never try to expand our healthy limits beyond what is comfortable right now. We just have to change how we do it, and trust ourselves to know what is best for us despite what other people may think is best for us. I said last week that many of us need to take our human revolution more slowly, so part of this healthy-pushing is to identify and then honor our own natural pace for sustainable self-improvement.

One way I’ve been practicing this lately is when I’ve committed to a gathering or outing and then found myself feeling more tired or socially-reluctant than I thought I would be. In such situations, I ask myself, “Am I willing to go for an hour?” I then remind myself that I can leave whenever I want (politely, and without having to justify my early departure), and I have the choice of saying no if I am asked to volunteer for something. Then, I find that if I am willing, I enjoy and participate more fully in the activity, maybe even say “yes” to something small, and may not even have to leave early after all.

Developing an accumulated karma of honoring small commitments is what helps us slow-bloomers build up toward expanding our healthy limits if necessary, rather than pushing ourselves to be as useful as we can even when we’re overdue for a major life-recalibration.

This is like gradually increasing our fitness: If we go from being sedentary to trying to sprint, we’ll injure ourselves. If we start with walking, then walk a little longer each day, then do some short jogs, we can gradually increase our fitness level without injury.

Equally as important is identifying how long it feels good to jog for, and not continuing to increase the time until our enjoyable exercise turns into an exhausting chore. We may even realize we would rather swim than jog—If so, instead of committing to another month or year of jogging, we need to go find a suitable body of water to cultivate our inner fish in.

In addition to getting a better idea of what our healthy limits are, taking these small steps and checking in with ourselves as we go will help us identify what we are truly the happiest doing, and what is best left to other people who are obviously energized by what we felt exhausted by doing.

Image: “Mystic Main” by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, silver Sharpie, metallic gel pen, white gel pen, colored pencil

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Some thoughts on finding the Middle Way between doing what we really want to accomplish and not pushing ourselves past our healthy limits

So much of our cultural conditioning is about “pushing” ourselves, and this combined with our society’s insistence on extremes too often leads people to push themselves past their healthy limits and into the crash-zone. We all know those people who seem to say yes to and be able to do everything; what we don’t see is that many of them are tormented by frequent or chronic physical health problems or other sufferings they don’t share with us, because they feel that they are doing the right thing by continuing to strive to make everyone else’s life better without taking enough time for themselves to really discover what will make their own lives better.

A big part of my human revolution lately is finding the balance between striving to be productive enough to accomplish everything I’ve committed to do, and not pushing myself past my healthy limits to the point where I feel so burnt-out that I don’t want to do anything.

Part of this process has been chanting to increase my capacity. For me, this doesn’t mean increasing my capacity to take on more responsibility, more projects, or more activities, but to increase my capacity to better handle and make progress in what I’m already trying to do.

Thus, I’ve done a lot of self-exploration to identify what my capacity really is, rather than assume what it is based on people’s or society’s expectations of me because of the demographic categories I fit into.

One of the ways I’ve been assessing my capacity versus what I’m demanding of it lately is imagining my energy system as a main circuit-breaker panel. I’ve found this analogy to be helpful for identifying which of my circuits I’m trying to draw too much electrical current from (think about what happens if you plug a vacuum-cleaner and a space-heater into outlets on the same circuit), and for recognizing when my input-power is lower than the amount of energy I’m trying to draw from it. This is helping me visualize where I need to draw my boundary lines, as a way of not only honoring myself but of being true in my relationships with other people—especially when in large groups.

A few months ago, I reflected with a good friend about our similar experiences of striving to become more community-oriented when our original inclinations were to be loners. It’s not about being “introverted” or “shy,” he pointed out; whereas naturally-outgoing people find large, lively gatherings to be energizing, more naturally-inward people like us have the opposite experience: It takes us an enormous amount of energy to manage ourselves in such gatherings. This doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy ourselves or that we resent people for wanting or expecting us to participate; it does mean that we need a lot more recovery-time before our next interaction that involves more than one person.

Some people’s lives are so outgoing and so fast that the lives of people who are more reserved and who take a more gradual approach to personal growth look like they are not moving at all in comparison—which would be synonymous with stagnation and defeat in Buddhism. This misconception indicates a need to develop a deeper understanding of each other and not be so quick to tell others, for example, that they “should” strive to become more outgoing or do more in their community. Even if it may not appear that they’re doing much, we have no idea how hard some people are really trying, and how much energy it’s really taking them to do whatever they are doing.

This is especially important to bear in mind if a group’s emphasis is on rapid change or rapid growth: Some of us, especially those of us striving to overcome addictive behaviors, and who have exhibited emotional patterns that have been labeled as “depression” or “anxiety disorder,” need to take our human revolution more slowly.

I’ll continue these thoughts in my next post.

Image: “Mystic Main” and “Balanced Current” by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, silver Sharpie, metallic gel pen, white gel pen, colored pencil

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Speaking the “the universal language of music” with inspiration and instruments from around the world -- The musical stylings of Daniel Moen

Saturday May 20th I had the amazing experience of witnessing—and being a part of—the first solo concert of Daniel Moen, accomplished Detroit-area musician, photographer, graphic designer, animator, and all-around entertainer. I’ve been close friends with Dan for about seven years, and have had the privilege of witnessing his personal evolution—and human revolution—that led up to this production.

Dan was encouraged last year by the folks at Starkweather Arts Center in Romeo, Michigan, where he is a regular at their open mic night, to do a solo show. Starkweather hosted the show at the Romeo Masonic Lodge 41, as part of the two organizations' concert-series partnership. Dan has been composing and recording his music at home for a while now, and regularly uploads his songs with videos on his YouTube channel. He records tracks in layers, combining himself playing live instruments, electronic tracks, sound effects from nature, samplings of chants and vocalizations from various languages, and even occasionally himself doing different forms of indigenous throat-singing.

One of the distinct features of Dan’s live performances is that whenever he plays an instrument from another culture, he will give a brief introduction to it and to the cultural group it’s from. Far from simply picking instruments at random because they sound cool, Dan has done in-depth research into every musical item he owns, as one of the ways he applies his passion for learning about and experiencing cultures.

His music also has a deeper purpose than simply entertainment. He composes and plays multicultural music in the spirit of honoring the cultures and people who inspire him, not to appropriate or capitalize on their style. He hopes to one day be able to give back to the cultures of origin from any monetary proceeds he makes from selling music that features instruments or musical styles from those cultures. He also maintains sensitivity to concerns about cultural appropriation, to make sure that what he is doing is respectful to the cultures of origin rather than coming across as an uninformed American interpretation of their music.

Some of his songs he will never sell, due to the personal nature of the songs (such as musical tributes to specific people), or if the cultures he’s drawing inspiration from have been disproportionately victimized by—and are particularly sensitive about—cultural appropriation for profit (such as Native Americans).

While the dozen or so instruments Dan brought with him to the show in Romeo—including the Chinese guqin, Chinese bawu, Irish tin whistle, Native American cedar flute, African mbira, African mukuri, Australian didgeridoo, Indonesian suling, Hebrew kinnor, Brazilian berimbau, African djembe, and my personal favorite, the Chinese hulusi—don’t even represent his entire collection, they do represent a pretty good cross-section of Dan’s style and the cultures he draws most of his inspiration from. (Click on the names of the instruments to learn more; you can also go to YouTube and type in the names of the instruments to find demo videos of what they sound like.)

Dan performed several of his original songs, most of which are featured on his YouTube channel, including “Bawu Dreams,” “The Yi Wedding,” “The Water Emperor,” “The Spring Clan,” “Temples and Jungles,” “Northern Grasslands,” “The Sky,” “Song for Joe,” “Mediterranean Groove,” “Daughter of God,”, “The Peaceful Sanctuary,” “Soar Across the World,” and “Triumph of John.”

The latter song is one of the most personal songs Dan has ever composed, and it never fails to draw tears from almost every person in the room who knew John Suggs, the father-figure for our friend group, as well as we did. The first time Dan aired this song for other people to hear was at John's funeral last year. Musically, what is distinctive about this song is that Dan did use every single instrument he owned at the time in the song, laying down layer after layer in the recording until he captured every sound that he wanted—including audio clips of John’s laugh that was pure joy to hear, and John leading our drum night group in singing ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s prayer of welcome.

All of Dan’s art is not just about connecting people to cultures but people to each other, so it was only natural that Dan wanted to share the stage with some fellow artists from his inner circle. I was delighted and honored that he invited me to recite my poem “My Heart Tells Me Something Different,” while he played the African Mbira in the background. Guitarist and composer Ryan Muns served as the opening act, delivering heart-stirring monologues and a few songs from his new album “Selah.” A few of Dan’s songs were also accompanied by the dancing of multimedia artist Kona and professional dancer “Angelique Ziara.” Our dear friend Joe Black also performed a song with Dan, to which I added some light percussion on a Hawaiian gourd instrument.

We concluded the show with a freestyle drumming circle during Dan's “Soar Across the World,” all of us feeling that we had indeed done just that.

Miigwetch, Dan, for one of the most heart-warming, original, and memorable musical experiences of my life.

Image: “Soleiluna” by Karla Joy Huber, 2013; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, metallic gel pen, white gel pen, highlighter

Monday, May 15, 2017

With one foot in mainstream medicine and one foot in holistic healthcare, Heather Jose describes how to be not just a "survivor" but a "thriver"

A big theme for me since last year has been combining my Buddhist practice with holistic health, to both heal myself and help others think beyond diagnostic labels and textbook clinical outcomes. Through this, I have developed a greater interest in the stories of other people treating themselves as whole human beings in their journey to better health, rather than as broken machines that need fixing.

I found one such story, Heather Jose’s Every Day We Are Killing Cancer, to be an excellent bridge between mainstream and holistic health. Jose used both mainstream and holistic methods to overcome a sudden stage IV breast cancer diagnosis, which her first doctors assumed would be fatal. Instead of accepting this, she became her own “hero” through maintaining certitude in her victory, enlisting the help of family and friends in unique ways, and by using her clinical misfortune as an opportunity to make life-long improvements to her health.

One of the most fascinating things Jose did early on was acknowledge the nasty slippery slope it can be for patients to do medical research themselves. Instead of making their experience that much harder by rigorously researching their conditions and falling prey to the power of suggestion regarding how they “should” be feeling, it would be far more empowering for patients to enlist family or friends as “information-managers” and focus their own thoughts and actions on the process of getting well.

Jose also decided, instead of living like a “leper” in medicalized isolation during the course of her mainstream treatments, to craft an entirely new health-promoting lifestyle with the help of her family and more holistic-minded health and nutrition specialists, to both counteract negative effects of the medical treatments and assure that she would be a “thriver” instead of just a “survivor.”

Jose beautifully sums up the results of her efforts in her reflections about the day she was discharged from the hospital. She described how she and her family “were learning so much, how every day has so much to offer, how we spend far too much time on things that don’t actually matter, and how we have a say in how things turn out. We were healthy, we were eating well, exercising and nurturing our spiritual lives. It was crazily ironic to think that my cancer made my life more abundant than we had ever known.” (86)

Jose’s book is as much about her journey to reinvent who she is as a person living on a different vibration than most people around her as it is about reinventing herself as a cancer survivor. While she does still heavily identify with the label of a person affected by cancer, her outlook doesn’t have the same kind of heavy, fatalistic feel of people who make that such an integral part of their identity that it seems to perpetuate the presence of cancer in their lives, as though they still have it. Jose makes it very clear her point in still identifying with her clinical diagnosis is to help people form a more empowered way of surviving the disease, rather than feeling like “victims” of it and living in fear of the possibility of its return.

It’s easy for those of us who have always preferred a health-promotion approach (instead of the more common disease-identification-and-treatment model) to expect people we know to get right on board with us if we say that their medical doctors are only giving them a fraction of their available options. Some people have been so conditioned for so long by fear-based medicine that they can’t just leap completely from that to holistic health without anything in between.

Such people often need a bridge, and I highly recommend Heather Jose’s blended approach of mainstream and holistic health as an excellent example for those who are vulnerable to being persuaded by fear of dying into signing up for treatments that can be just as damaging to their health as the disease itself, and discounting the value of any holistic approaches to supplement if not replace their medical treatments.

One of her friends stated in the book that Jose’s loved ones got to “piggyback off her survival” (129), and Jose did us a wonderful service by sharing that benefit with the rest of us by choosing to publish her narrative through Read the Spirit Books.

You can also read more about Heather Jose’s wellness tips and teachings for people learning to thrive during and after disease-recovery at

Flower illustration by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Prismacolor marker and Sharpie marker

Monday, May 8, 2017

Song and Spirit Institute for Peace's new location is, for me, at the intersection of interfaith and Kosen-Rufu

In a 2014 post about my experience with the Song and Spirit Institute for Peace, I made the point that “being part of a religious community doesn’t necessarily mean you all have to practice the same religion.” The original worship services conducted at Song and Spirit are Christian and Jewish, and while I didn’t fit into either of those categories myself, I always felt spiritually at home there. 

Song and Spirit was an important part of my spiritual life from 2013 through early 2015, and I realized last Friday while attending my first Kabbalat Shabbat (Shir Hanishama) in over a year that it still is—regardless of the fact I now practice Nichiren Buddhism and no longer blend elements from different religions into my personal spiritual practice.

When I shifted my interfaith focus from shared worship to “the individual friendships and working relationships I have with people of other faiths,” the bonds I made at Song and Spirit were among the top of that list. I decided last weekend that the services at Song and Spirit can still fit into my spiritual life as celebrating sacred time with my friends, enjoying singing spiritual songs, and hearing the wisdom from Chazzan Steve Klaper and Brother Al Mascia, OFM, that transcends the contexts of their individual religions.

I don’t take the religious elements home with me to incorporate into my personal practice anymore, but I do take the warm memories of my experiences with my friends home with me—Even more so since last Friday’s Shabbat was the last one to be held at Song and Spirit’s original location in Berkley, Michigan. This summer, the organization will be setting up shop in a new space, and has already begun hosting some of its musical worship programming at Unity of Royal Oak.

Instead of feeling sad during or after the service as I looked around the cozy, vibrantly-colored combination library and worship space, I felt so grateful that I got to have one more heartwarming and soul-moving experience there.

I spent a lot of time at Song and Spirit’s Berkley building as both a worship participant and volunteer in 2013 and 2014, and I was pleased to notice that the positive vibration of those memories pre-empted any sense of sadness that could have come up. For sure there will be times I’ll think of how I’d love to be able to sit in that library again, walk those halls again, and socialize with the volunteers and the Duns Scotus friars there; regret and loss are feelings I’ve been working very hard to kick out of my life, though, and I was pleased to see how much progress I have made in not letting them crowd out my enjoyment of the present.

I hadn’t brought a camera, so instead I looked closely around the room during and after the service, to inscribe in my memory how everything looked and felt—The Shabbat candles, the beautiful rainbow-mosaic banners on the walls with the names of the Divine and the word “peace” in several different languages, the brightly-colored Tallis that the community made for Steve Klaper as a gift for his ordination as Chazzan which hangs over the altar-space, the stained-glass flaming bush (a community art project on which I assembled one of the leaves) atop the arc-cabinet housing the Torah, and of course the arc itself. I was struck by how much Song and Spirit's arc looks like a giant butsudan, so in my head I now think of it as the “Jewish butsudan.” 

Most importantly, I was so glad to re-kindle my relationships there, and though I won’t start attending every event again, I do look forward to participating with the Song and Spirit community in both the organization’s new headquarters and its new worship-space at Unity of Royal Oak. Song and Spirit hosts many interfaith educational opportunities, and I’m particularly interested in the Torah study that Chazzan Steve Klaper is thinking of re-instating, to help people understand key teachings and historical elements of the Old Testament that have been totally misinterpreted and mistranslated ever since Christianity removed them from their original Hebrew context.

While having more than one spiritual home used to feel like a crowded house that I needed to clear out some space in, I now see that there is enough room in my Buddhist home for participating with Song and Spirit as part of the interfaith component of my vow for kosen-rufu.

Image: "Interfaith Collective 2" by Karla Joy Huber, 2008 and 2015; Prismacolor and Sharpie marker

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The more we talk with people, the easier it becomes to learn how to bridge our differences

“Those who at least recognize that they may have all kinds of unconscious prejudices are likely to engage far more amicably in intercultural dialogue than those who are convinced that they have no prejudices,” SGI President Daisaku Ikeda wisely points out. He goes on to say that “When we stop reflecting on ourselves and asking ourselves questions . . . we don’t listen to others and cannot engage in dialogue. Dialogue for peace starts with a humble and honest dialogue with ourselves.” (December 1, 2001 World Tribune, pg. 10)

The Soka Gakkai International (SGI) has a strong tradition of dialogue, created by Daisaku Ikeda. Since the 1970s, Ikeda has met with many revolutionary thinkers and activists to demonstrate ways in which we can work together with people who have different beliefs than us. (The complete list of Ikeda’s published dialogues is available here.)

The purpose of dialogue is to find ways to meet in the middle to negotiate regarding issues we may not agree on, and thus learn from and expand our thinking through our exploration of our different viewpoints.

At the April 14 Vanguard Discussion series event on “Respect for the Dignity of Life,” which I wrote about in-depth here and here, facilitator Carolyn Ferrari prompted us to reflect on the challenges of relating with people different than ourselves in our current national culture which is deeply divided by the “existential division of self and other.”

I gave the example of having to assign a value-judgment to every aspect of ourselves and to each other. Even if a person is giving unsolicited praise, having to insist that “you’re this and I’m that” often makes people feel alienated and misunderstood, by implying that we and our attributes must be ranked against other people—And that when ranked against another set of people, there is always the risk we'll come out with a lower ranking.

Assigning value judgments to people, religions, careers, economic status, and so forth is an affront to human dignity. Dignity has been defined as “the quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect,” as Carolyn pointed out, and such dignity should be treated as an inalienable right, not conditioned on how we are ranked when compared with other people by using our religions, ethnicities, cultures, careers, nations, or personal opinions as criteria.

One of the most damaging forms of this is the rankings assigned by race, as Vanguard panelist Daniel Moen pointed out. Last year he wrote a report about the “the youth, the media, and its effects on race,” for which he interviewed dozens of people. “The biggest thing I realized,” he said, is that a lot of people “on both sides were actually more terrified of trying to bridge” their differences, “because of the fact they were afraid they’d be judged.” He said his friends who are white were “terrified of talking about race” because they feared being labeled racist. His studies got even more interesting when he realized that his friends of color were just as hesitant to discuss race in the larger intercultural context.

He realized that “They actually have more in common than they realize,” and that one way to help us get through these restrictions and judgments is for us to bear in mind that “individuals are not the representative of the whole,” meaning that it is not correct to judge an entire ethnicity or culture just by the actions of one person or even a group of people.

The only way to start to bridge the self-and-other divide is to talk to people. “Once you start to talk to someone, they become human,” as Susie Beber paraphrased from a book she read.

To conclude this second installment of the Vanguard Discussion series, Carolyn challenged us to read the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” of the United Nations, and pick one of the rights that we can seek to foster in our communities. She invited people to email her at vanguarddiscussions @ with their thoughts, or with ideas for upcoming discussion topics for the Vanguard series.

I look forward to sharing with you about what we come up with when the third event takes place in a few months. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

Illustration (SGI lotus) by Karla Joy Huber, 2015; Prismacolor marker, white-out pen, Decopage on fabric

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Helping people form a beneficial connection to Buddhism through interfaith and intercultural dialogue - The Vanguard Discussions series

“Commandments or expressions like ‘must’ or ‘have to’ no longer motivate people in this day and age,” SGI President Daisaku Ikeda says. “This is a time in which no one will act unless they are truly convinced in their hearts. . . . For this reason, fruitful conferences and discussions are becoming all the more important, while one-to-one dialogue is becoming tremendously vital.” (Faith into Action, pages 181-182)

Dialogue is a primary activity in the practice of SGI Nichiren Buddhism, to not only deepen our understanding of our own spiritual practice, but to build bridges with people of other spiritual and cultural perspectives. The Vanguard Discussion series, which I introduced you to last week, is a great example of such bridge-building dialogue. Carolyn Ferrari created the Vanguard Discussion series to serve as “public forums that allow artists to address community and societal issues from their unique perspectives, and share how their art informs change, and presents concepts that challenge the status quo.”

Last week I talked about my and Kathryn Grabowski’s presentations, and now I’ll share with you some highlights from the presentations of musician and sound engineer James Beber, and multi-media artist Daniel Moen.

After starting his music career as part of a rock band, James Beber decided to find additional ways to use music to bring people together. He began learning audio engineering, and is currently developing his own recording studio and label, where he will produce not only his own but other people’s music. “Art and culture are pretty much inseparable,” Beber pointed out, and his “final goal in this endeavor is to throw art festivals around the world, and show actual proof of the humanistic power of Nichiren Buddhism.”

What he means by this is to use the principles of Buddhist humanism—including the ideas that everyone is capable of attaining enlightenment, and that we (rather than an external force) have the power to shape our own world and our future—to both empower and unite people from different cultures and perspectives to work together and enrich each other’s experience.

Like dialogue, the idea of art and cultural festivals is also part of the SGI’s legacy. The SGI emphasizes the value of our diversity, and encourages its members to branch out and form bridges with people who are unlike us to enrich and strengthen the range of our human experience, rather than to make us all more like each other. Regarding propagation, Daisaku Ikeda’s emphasis in his interfaith dialogues and other peacemaking efforts is on helping people “form a beneficial connection with Buddhism,” rather than on “converting” people to become Buddhist.

The fourth panelist was musician, graphic designer, and photographer Daniel Moen, who also happens to have been my best friend since late 2010. Dan, like me, has always been interested in Buddhism, and has been on a lifelong quest to continuously diversify both his cultural and his spiritual perspective by studying different philosophies, and then building as many bridges as he can between people of these different philosophies. He incorporated chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo into his spiritual practice, and has participated with the SGI community enough to be considered part of it, without having made the decision to “officially” become Buddhist.

Dan’s work is inspired by his love of culture, which grew out of his interest in exploring his own heritage and being inspired by the heritage of people around him. He was born in the Philippines and adopted by an American family, and grew up in a community with almost no ethnic or cultural diversity. (He and his sister were “the darkest people in our school,” as he put it). His art—which includes freelance photography, themed photographic compositing, painting, performing in the Elf Ensemble at Michigan’s Renaissance Festival, and playing a wide variety of instruments from around the world—reflects his passion for interfaith and intercultural bridge-building, as well as social justice. I’ll discuss more about Dan’s insights—and his upcoming concert—in my next post. 

“Everybody is an artist, even people who say they are not,” Dan expressed. He then elaborated on this with something profound he read on Facebook: “What I mean by that is that your soul is the paint brush, and the canvas is your life.”

Whoever wrote that on Facebook sounds like they’d fit right into the conversation that followed our presentations, which I’ll write about next week. Please stay tuned, and thank you for reading. Namaste.

Image: "Elemental Ashiko" by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, white-out pen, highlighter

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Using the arts to express and promote "respect for the dignity of life": The Vanguard Discussion Series

Artists, Carolyn Ferrari said, “have a very unique approach to the world, and I think art is a neutral space to tackle some pretty amazing topics.” Inspired by a quote from SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s 1998 Peace Proposal to the United Nations, she decided to create a forum for artists to present about their work in the context of how they use their talents for kosen-rufu, or the accomplishment of world peace through the spread of Buddhist humanism.

The result of her efforts is the Vanguard Discussion series, “public forums that allow artists to address community and societal issues from their unique perspectives, and share how their art informs change, and presents concepts that challenge the status quo.”

Carolyn, an accomplished poet and musical, performance, and jewelry artist herself, began seeking out artists in 2016 for quarterly panel discussions, each to be centered on a particular theme, and held in conjunction with an SGI introduction to Buddhism meeting. The first discussion, held last November, centered on the theme of “forgiveness and healing,” and featured visual artist Laurent Schiratti, musician Zen Zadravec, and photographer Loralei Byatt.

The second Vanguard Discussions event, held last Friday, focused on the theme “respect for the dignity of life.” The four panelists featured were me, musician and cultural programming coordinator Kathryn Grabowski, musician and sound engineer James Beber, and visual and performance artist Daniel Moen

While most of the panelists chosen are SGI members, Carolyn extends the invitation to people who have participated with the SGI community enough to be considered part of it (such as Loralei and Dan), but without having made the decision to “officially” become Buddhists.

All of the presenters have more than just Buddhism as their artistic, spiritual, and cultural framework for their art, which takes the form of writing, drawing, graphic design, photography, music, cultural event coordinating, jewelry-making and other crafts, and other forms of creative expression of the human experience.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ve already seen the primary way I use my written and visual art for the greater good. “My big focus right now is doing a lot of bridge-building,” I said during my presentation, “rather than bonding only over what we have in common.” Whether I’m speaking with people who are SGI Nichiren Buddhist, or who practice other forms of Buddhism, or the Baha’i Faith, or Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, or no faith, I look at “our differences as resources, contributing different things to the pot, rather than saying, ‘Oh, that doesn’t matter, that’s secondary, let’s bond over everything we have in common.’ I like the fact that we’re all different.” After showing a few samples of my visual art, I read my poem “When Your Heart Tells You Something Different.”

The second presenter, Kathryn Grabowski, made the point about how unique our SGI Buddhist organization really is, pointing out that “This movement truly began in response to the unfair treatment of humankind, and in response to war and intense human suffering.” She went on to say that “The arts hold within them this unique, precious power to speak a universal truth. … This is why the arts are so instrumental in bringing together people and healing our differences. … As artists, activists, advocates, and human beings, we have the arts as a tool at our disposal to permeate our differences.”

Some of the ways Grabowski has used the arts to help promote unity in diversity are through her performance work with flute and dance, working with public radio, as a booking agent for jazz musicians, in fundraising for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, coordinating the annual Concert of Colors diversity music festival in Detroit, and now working as the Humanities Programming Coordinator at the Arab American National Museum. Her mission at the latter is “to diversify our audience and make this beautiful institution a place for everyone to come together.”

That also happens to be a pretty good description of what SGI Buddhists strive to do with our organization.

I’ll introduce you to the third and fourth presenter in my next post next week. Until then, I leave you the above-mentioned quote from Daisaku Ikeda’s 1998 Peace Proposal:

“Human rights will only become universal and indivisible when they span the most basic, existential division, that of self and other. This can only occur when both the right to and duty of humane treatment are observed—Not in response to externally-imposed norms, but through spontaneous action stemming from the naturally-powerful desire to assist our fellows whose ability to live in a humane manner is under threat.”

Image: “The Power of Music” by Karla Joy Huber, 1996; marker and colored pencil

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sharing other people's sufferings isn't about having no boundaries -- It's about knowing how to help each other to own our own power without overstepping our bounds

A friend pointed out that research has found differences in the brains of more progressive and more conservative people, particularly in the area of the brain that processes fear. (Think “fear of change,” a hallmark of conservativism.) While such information is interesting, I don’t see how it can make a difference in helping us understand or accept each other more--nor is there a way to prove if the people’s brains were like that all along or if they became shaped that way by their thinking.

Even if scientists could prove which is the case, what does it matter? Would I just give up on a conservative southern relative, for example, because she has the brain of a conservative so there’s no point in trying to help her see things differently regarding the importance of diversity and inclusion or the presence of non-Christians in her family? Of course not.

On the other hand, if my relative isn’t open to considering the validity of my beliefs, I can’t force her to be receptive and ready if she’s not. Such people don’t typically ask us to change their minds, nor do they ask us for our advice.

In mainstream American culture, we’ve always been told we must impart our wisdom and enlighten others, whether they ask us to or not. In the book Earth Medicine, author Jamie Sams makes the point that Native American custom regarding advice-giving is very different: In Native tradition, one does not give advice unless one is asked (pg. 155).

If someone dumps their problems on us, that doesn’t obligate us to give them advice or solve their problems. If we have something that can help them, and we feel guided to ask them if they’d like to hear it, go ahead and share. More often than not, though, our rescue-reflex to give advice just causes us problems and overburdens us with expectations or obligations we’re not qualified to fulfill with people we barely know or whose beliefs or needs we don’t understand.

In such cases, trying to impart our wisdom or our enlightenment can backfire, and make such people more resistant to our ideas, because our timing and our audience considerations are not right. We won't have success changing people's minds by imposing new beliefs or ideas on them that they are not ready for.

What I’ve learned from holistic health specialist Cindy Dillon is that it is more compassionate and helpful to listen, and not feed into the other person’s victim-energy and self-disempowering chatter. If we really want to be a friend, we’d do better to turn the responsibility of solving their problem back on them rather than try to rescue them by having the right answer to a question they need to ask themselves.

To use one of Cindy’s examples, we can say, “I hear your dilemma. Have you thought about how you can change that?” Far from being insensitive, this approach cues the other person that the problem is theirs to manage, which means they have the power to do just that—manage it, without having to transfer it temporarily to someone else so they can take a break from carrying it around for a while.

In Nichiren Buddhism, we have a teaching about compassion and helping others that says “regard the suffering of others as your own.” This is easy to misinterpret, however, especially by those of us who have struggled with boundary issues about what’s our karma to manage and what’s other people’s karma to manage, as well as by people who say “My sufferings are enough for me, thank you, I don’t need to be dealing with other people's problems!”

What I’m learning (from Cindy and Buddhism) is that we help others not by managing their feelings for them, giving them unsolicited advice, or trying to rescue them; instead, we share and overcome our sufferings together by really listening to each other, by reminding each other of our own power to resolve our own challenges, by referring each other to books or teachers who are qualified to help if someone has needs we don’t understand and shouldn’t guess our way through trying to help with, and by sharing what has worked for us if it seems the person is like-minded enough to be receptive to our method.

Then, we can support others on their journeys without the heroic and exhausting idea that we have to start and manage their journeys for them.

Image: "Highland Creek Bridge in Northville" by Karla Joy Huber, 2008; Oil pastel

Friday, March 31, 2017

“We don’t have to sort all our garbage before we throw it out”

Before a purification ritual I attended a few years ago with the pagan community, one of the priestesses pointed out, “We don’t have to sort through our garbage before we throw it out.”

Those of us who have been through lots of Freudian talk-therapy find this exceptionally difficult to do at first. Don’t we have to bring all the old traumas to the surface, dialogue with our inner child, confront and seek closure with our abusers, and “solve” everything first? Aren’t we negating some part of ourselves, or ignoring our deeper problems, if we say we can “throw out” our past traumas and disempowering belief systems?

I used to think so; then I realized a few years ago in my work with holistic health specialist Cindy Dillon that there’s a lot more to our healing process than talking about and trying to “solve” our problems.

While it’s important to understand our problems and stressors so we can learn any important messages or use the growth-opportunities they present to us, we really don’t need to repeatedly dissect every single trauma or abuse or self-doubt for years and years before we can release it. Many of us have already done more of this than we ever needed to in therapy, and now the next step for us is to learn how to release the energies from these old hurts that still haunt our lives.

In my previous post, I introduced some energy-work concepts which conventional therapists are not trained in. I was first introduced to the idea of grooves by Cindy Dillon, whose approach as I understand it is emptying from the grooves our old negative beliefs and energies, and re-filling them with positive energy and new beliefs we are trying to integrate into our lives.

A few weeks ago I heard a different approach to this concept from a life-coach named Dal Bouey [pronounced boy-AY], so I’ll present that now so you can decide for yourself which of these two ideas resonates more with you, or if some combination of them is apropos to your life.

Dal echoed the idea from the pagan priestess I mentioned above, using plumbing problems as an analogy. When a building develops plumbing problems, the plumbers come in and realize that the surface issues in the sinks actually stem from a much deeper problem in the pipes underground. The plumbers realize that not only were the pipes not installed correctly in the first place, they are made of substandard materials that leak and deteriorate much sooner than pipes in a commercial building should.

The business-owner is then horrified to find out how long the repair or replacement process will take, and how much it will cost, while the plumbers spend weeks or months excavating and studying the system to figure out how to fix it, and risk damaging the foundation of the building or the integrity of the earth around and under it in the process.

Did it ever occur to these plumbers to just lay new pipe? Dal asked. What if the plumbers decided instead to close off the valves to the underground pipes that can’t be fixed in a reasonable amount of time and for a reasonable cost, and lay better pipes just above them, using correct installation practices to assure that these pipes don’t develop the same problems as the old pipes?

Not only would this process give the business-owner a whole new plumbing system for less than the cost of fixing the old system, it disturbs the building and the earth around and under it far less than extensive excavation and rework of the old system would.

For people who have only just started their self-healing work, these ideas may need to be worked up to. For those of us who find ourselves with nothing new to say about our old issues, then it is likely time to start digging out the old grooves and re-filling them with new material. Or, if we feel that the old grooves are just too damaged or too deep to keep what we don’t want from falling back into them, we can figure out how to close them off and dig new ones to a more manageable depth.

Image: “Enchanted Tree Congress” by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker

Monday, March 27, 2017

Integrating the karmic storehouse with our health and wellness journeys

Let’s think for a moment about what our lives would be like if we realized we no longer have to carry the soul-stains from all the things we thought—or were told—are “wrong” with us. Think of what it would be like if we decided to release ourselves from all the negative stereotypes we’ve ever been held to, the misunderstandings people assumed because they didn’t understand our behavior in certain circumstances, and any limiting diagnostic labels we’ve ever been boxed in with.

This is easier said than done, of course. It’s easy for us to make suggestions to other people, and often we’re quick to suggest the very changes to others that we struggle the most with ourselves. This is one reason I decided it’s more helpful to present my readers with some kind of alternative-thinking about my topics rather than say “This is right and here’s why and how you should do it,” or “This is wrong and here’s why you shouldn’t do it.”

Thus, even though I disagree with certain diagnostic labels in mental health, I’m not going to waste time arguing they are “wrong” and disempowering for everybody. I only speak from my own experience, and as I said last week, such diagnostic labels never gave me anything I could use.

My intention for therapy was always to learn how to become independent of the need for such assistance—not just hold me over until my next “refresher” sessions. The methods of the therapists I saw, plus their strong promotion of antidepressant medications, actually made me more dependent on them. When I realized this, I decided that going back to a conventional therapist was no longer of any use to me.

No therapist ever asked me questions or did bloodwork before prescribing a drug to see if there were nutritional imbalances or other issues we could address first. Many years later, with the help of holistic health specialist Cindy Dillon, I found out I did have nutritional deficiencies that affected my mental and physical well-being, as well as other issues that were resolvable with homeopathic supplements. For example, taking a certain “fish oil” supplement has resolved the nutritional deficiency that led to the excessive muscle-pain I experience when I’m stressed out, and a hormone-balancing supplement from Standard Process stabilizes me more than any anti-depressant drug or mood-boosting supplement I ever tried.

I also didn’t realize that a particular problem I had was a side-effect of medication until I stopped taking the medication, and I wonder how many other people are similarly trading one problem for others and not realizing it. If they really compared any benefit they get from medication against the side effects, the pros and cons of the drug may actually cancel each other out, making the medication a zero-benefit option after all (as was the case for me).

Another thing I’ve learned from Cindy Dillon is how to use my spiritual practice as part of my health-promotion and empowerment skill-set. Most therapists aren’t trained to help clients use their spiritual practice in this way, so it isn’t necessarily fair to hold this against them. It does, however, make them less equipped to help those of us who need more than talking about the same issues over and over again to help us finally break out of the ruts we’ve been stuck in, or fill our “containers” (to use Cindy’s term) with more positive and empowering energies and beliefs.

I like the idea of thinking of our old patterns as grooves or tracks we’re stuck in, or as a container that we can explore and learn to replace the contents of. For me, these concepts are synonymous with the Buddhist concept of the karmic storehouse, which some people call their karmic “basement”: Just talking about our problems and trying to fix our lives with intellectual exploration and behavior-modification simply don’t go deep enough to help us change our deepest karma that has hindered us from being able to change our lives. Working with ideas such as grooves and containers and changing our core belief systems is energy work, and that’s what’s helped me actually find the door to my karmic basement after being stuck for years at the top of the staircase to it.

I’ll continue these ideas, as well as present another approach I recently heard about working with the groove and container concepts, in my next post.

Image: Diamond-heart detail from “Nothing Without Love” by Karla Joy Huber, 2016; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, metallic gel pen, white gel pen

Monday, March 20, 2017

Finally seeing light after over a decade of clinical endarkenment

One of the main purposes of practicing Nichiren Buddhism is to expand our life-condition. A lovely description of the inner feeling of enlightenment is that “it is like lying on your back in a wide open space looking up at the sky with arms and legs outstretched. All that you wish for suddenly appears. No matter how much you may give away, there is always more. It is never exhausted.” Josei Toda said this to his disciple Daisaku Ikeda, and then encouraged him to “Try and see if you can attain this state of life” (as cited in Living Buddhism, February 2017, pg. 13)

What this means is that, regardless of our life challenges, the sheer quantity of our responsibilities, and tasks we must accomplish, we have the limitless energy of the Universe on our side, and chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo and practicing Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings are how we develop our ability to tap into that energy to live the lives we want and help others do the same.

This is the purpose of religion, both Toda and Ikeda—and before them Soka Gakkai founder Tsunesaburo Makiguchi—insist, and this is why my Buddhist practice has helped me close the gaps in what I learned before Buddhism about personal growth and breaking free of early conditioning I’d been held back by—conditioning reinforced and perpetuated by mental health diagnostic labels and the idea that I required prescription medication to minimize the severity of my lows.

Finding out in 2010 that this simply wasn’t true was more liberating and empowering than anything any therapist ever said to me. In 2010 I stopped taking medication for depression because I could no longer afford it as a broke college student; while I was still worried about how quitting an antidepressant cold-turkey would affect me, I had a conversation with my friend Christa S. which finally shed some light for me after over a decade of clinical endarkenment.

Christa, who is trained in psychology and chaplaincy work, commented on the overuse of certain diagnoses that, instead of helping people improve their quality of life, actually lock them into the idea that they must adapt to their conditions rather than overcome them.

(It’s important to note that we were talking about people like me; people whose conditions involve psychosis or are severe enough to require crisis intervention were beyond the scope of our conversation.)

What if, Christa said, instead of labeling as life-long depression, we see it instead as something more like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which has lasted many years because the person hasn’t finished healing or hasn’t learned what they need to know to overcome it.

Christa’s idea made a lot more sense than the clinical rhetoric about depression ever did. One reason why is that PTSD acknowledges the condition is a response to something, and that I have the power to change how I respond, instead of the implication being that something is wrong with the chemicals in my brain that may never be completely right.

Events in my life triggered me to get stuck in that life-condition at an early age; I wasn’t naturally like that. I’ve always had a more moody personality and a low social-saturation point, but those are personality traits, not clinical problems. They do make it require more effort for me than for more naturally-outgoing and cheerful people to maintain a high life-condition—Again, though, not a clinical problem; and this challenge has actually made me able to understand and help certain types of individuals that people who’ve never plunged to those depths don’t know how to relate to or help. (If you’re familiar with archetypes, think wounded healer.)

Christa’s idea helped prepare me for working with Cindy Dillon, whom I met in 2012, when I started applying her holistic-health approach to developing a higher life-condition as my norm without pharmaceutical products or diagnostic labels. I wrote extensively about what I’ve learned from Cindy last summer.

I’m still a work in progress, of course, and still have lows. These lows are fewer, shorter-duration, and milder than before, and I’m not afraid or discouraged by them anymore, nor do I worry there’s something “wrong” with me or that I’ve failed by having them at all after everything I’ve learned to counteract them. This takes a lot of effort and courage, so it’s all the more apropos that Nichiren Buddhism emphasizes and helps us develop courage for handling our life-challenges.

Image: “RainbowWind Dancer” by Karla Joy Huber, 2005; Microsoft Paint and Microsoft Photo Editor