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