76. IBP – Chenxing Han: Be the Refuge, Asian Buddhism in America

Asian and Buddhist and living in America: Does any of that matter? Those focussed in on practice and not much else regarding Buddhism might proclaim a resounding no. Others, all too aware of the tendency of western practitioners to ignore culture, and Buddhism beyond the meditation cushion might instead bellow forth with a resounding yes! Whatever your take, today’s guest Chenxing Han has written a book that fills a gap in our collective understanding, and appreciation of the role of Asians in making, shaping and living western Buddhism.
Be the Refuge is not merely another book obsessed with race and social justice, however. Those themes do appear but it is more than another product in the polarised times we live in. Yes, some of the buzz words and concepts are there, but this book is as much a work of poetry as it is a research project designed to illustrate the often sidelined role of Asians in making and shaping Buddhism in the West.

If more than two thirds of U.S. Buddhists are actually Asian American, perhaps it’s worth becoming more aware of them, right?

Be the Refuge is both critique and celebration, countering the erasure of Asian American Buddhists while uplifting their stories and experiences. The Oriental monk, the superstitious immigrant, the banana Buddhist: dissatisfied with these tired tropes, Han asks, Will the real Asian American Buddhists please stand up? Her journey to answer this question led to in-depth interviews with a pan-ethnic, pan-Buddhist group of eighty-nine young adults.

Weaving together the voices of these interviewees with scholarship and spiritual inquiry, this book re-envisions Buddhist Asian America as a community of trailblazers, bridge-builders, integrators, and refuge-makers. Encouraging frank conversations about race, representation, and inclusivity among Buddhists of all backgrounds, Be the Refuge embodies the spirit of interconnection that glows at the heart of American Buddhism.


The Imperfect Buddha site: imperfectbuddha.com
O’Connell Coaching: imperfectbuddha.com/authors-notes

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75. IBP – George Haas on the Practicing Life

Let’s get started!

Happy New Year to one and all and welcome to this new season (proper) of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast. Focussed on practice, this season engages Buddhist teachers, long-term practitioners, and creative innovators engaged in the practising life. Interspersed with regular interviews, this practice focussed season finally gets the podcast off of the couch and responding to the long stream of listeners calling for a practice focus.

We are also finally getting in touch with many of the guest suggestions put forth by you, dear listeners.

We have four episodes recorded already and I can tell you that guests have been generous and candid, and their struggles, insights and experience have already made me realise how important and useful such a personal line of inquiry can be.

Feedback as always can be posted at the usual locations. Suggestions for guests are welcome too. You can email the podcast at: imperfectbuddha@outlook.com

George Haas

Our first guest is meditation teacher, artist and author, George Haas. George moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1992. He started practicing Vipassanā at Ordinary Dharma in Venice, and studying Buddhist texts extensively. In 1998 he began study with his current teacher, Shinzen Young, at Vipassanā Support International, where he is now a senior facilitator. He began teaching meditation in 2000, founded Mettagroup in 2003, and became an empowered teacher through Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, where he taught from 2007 to 2016. Along with his daily Morning Meditation and full schedule of one-on-one students, he continues to teach weekly classes and intensives in Los Angeles, and offer day-long, weekend and extended retreats around the country. He’s also an artist with works in the permanent collections of the Hammer Museum, the Library of Congress, MoMA and the American Irish Historical Society.



Founded by George Haas in 2003 and named the Best Online Buddhist Meditation by Los Angeles Magazine in 2011, Mettagroup uses insight meditation to help students live a meaningful life. Drawing from Buddhist teachings and John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, the Mettagroup techniques serve as a model of how to connect with other people, and how to be completely yourself in relationships with others and with work.


Thoughts on Practice: warming up for exercise

The Great Feast provides us with an infinite number of takes on practice. Great and lesser minds since time recorded have shared opinions, ideas, beliefs, assumptions and assertions on what practice is, and should be. Sometimes what those minds produced (or received), developed into a tradition, a pathway, an institution, a religion; or disappeared entirely, folded back into the sands of time, as our ancestors pushed onwards, most merely surviving, others attempting to construct a better world. The hardier remnants of this great wealth linger on today, and with them an ever increasing wealth of books, workshops, retreats, podcasts, apps and online groups proposing new configurations, recycled products, and a variety of attempts by living human minds to imagine and leap towards that which might come.

Because of all this, whether we wish to be or not, we are all consumers. We can view ourselves economically as such; many propose we do so. We could also view ourselves as beasts, as animals, as mammals feasting on the world. Our existence requires we devour parts of the world for our mere survival after all. So, why would it be different with knowledge, practices, or the fulfilment of the religious impulse? Sorry, was I meant to say spiritual, but not-religious? To feast, devour, consume; these are metaphors civilised folks sit uncomfortably with. Our animal nature has a long history of being dismissed, ignored or suppressed in the name of progress, civilisation, and the pursuit of a world apart from the horrors of our carnal nature. This creates a bind in us, of course. As we attempt to transcend our animal nature, we also transcend our intimacy with the organic world we are forever intimate with. We downplay our interconnection with the limitations of the animal-human body, the animal-human heart. Oddly, in our attempt to mark Homo sapiens out as distinct from the other animals, we dehumanise ourselves; all too often in projects of escape. To be human is to be of this Earth. To be interdependent is to be in exchange with all the things of this Earth; not operating as an aloof being apart, casting its thoughts and mental projections outwards or downwards.

Such a dualistic vision is a practice, and one I would argue is fundamentally dysfunctional. For some Buddhists, such a view will irritate: Watching the mind, seeing your thoughts, all of this language betrays a dualistic tendency. There are other practices too. Ones involving immersion, this is also a stream within Buddhism and its long-history of variant practices and modes of practice. It presents its own problems too.

Psychologically speaking, we are conflicted beings. We are caught in conflicting desires; to be together and to be apart being one split we all must contend with. In fact, our modern understanding of psychology challenges many assumptions held within practices and traditions jostling for attention at the Great Feast. There is an immense amount of work still to be done in addressing the conflict between the claims of traditions and our understanding of the human mind, psycho-social needs, social participation, ideological formation, and the role of child and adult development. Who knows if we will ever find the time to address them?

I am getting ahead of myself though. That’s all context, and perhaps a little melodramatic for some of you. There is a simple question in there somewhere. Perhaps it is this: How do we choose a practice? Where should we invest our faith; and, perhaps more importantly, our efforts? 

This series on practice will not necessarily provide you with answers to these questions, but it will seek to bring out the humanity that underlies human elaboration, imagination, desire and creation and the less linear nature of a human life lived within and through practices.

May I invite you to make listening a practice? Don’t be passive receivers or men and women in waiting, listening out to have existing intuitions or beliefs confirmed. Listen deeply, listen critically, and listen carefully to what you hear. Practice generosity with your attention, and pay attention to your gut instincts.

You will hear the Buddha mentioned often, ancient teachings, the path, too. Listen for how these terms are wielded by those who use them. Don’t take the terms as given. How are such signifiers used; off the cusp, with deep reverence, with a call to their role as authority? What does their use tell you about the speaker’s personal relationship with such guarantees as ancient or teacher-x, or the certainty of an originator, a progenitor of practice, the stable foundation of tradition?

The Great Feast reminds us that things are more complicated than simplistic, relied upon readings may afford us, and simpler than the apparent complexities expressed by those in the know, performing ideology and expertise. Within all the bluster, claims, personal narratives, a human life exists; nothing more, nothing less. To accept that is to accept the knowledge that we are in samsara, that escape is relative, that the desire to escape is, more often than not, a tell-tale sign of the dehumanising instinct many of us inevitably foster when we approach the promises of practice.

Western Buddhism is a work in progress. It is many things. It is both what people claim it to be, and many, many other things too. In these conversations, you will hear about many Buddhisms, but they are secondary to the human practitioners that share their stories and answers to the practice questions I present them with, secondary to their struggles, their desires, and their seasons of practice. These are conversations about humans first, Buddhisms second.  

All knowledge and knowing is partial, relational, and a work in progress; this includes the Buddha’s teachings, the Guru’s wisdom, the path’s guarantees. We are works in progress too and recognising this can help us avoid the pitfalls of dehumanising practice and the mere performance of Platonic ideals; Buddhism, enlightenment or otherwise.

I shall do my best in each of these conversations to be a generous listener, a careful questioner, and to engage with the humanity of the practitioners, teachers, writers and instructors I engage with, and to keep in mind who might be listening in.

We will all have opportunities in abundance to learn from each other in the process. This first batch includes three practice episodes and two longer conversations with practice questions woven in.

I hope you find them worthy of your time.

My Practice

How can I expect teachers, philosophers and academics to open up about their private, personal practice if I won’t do the same and lead by example? I’ve tended to keep myself out of the picture throughout the life of the podcast, and even the Turns were an act of service (believe it or not), as opposed to ego projects of self-congratulatory, insight porn of the sort you see constantly on Twitter, Youtube and Facebook.

Letting go of the personal is, in part, one of the great themes that runs through Buddhism. But there is a paradox at hand, and it is one that recalls our current age, and its concern with identities. No fear, don’t panic, I have no intention of going there; rather, I merely wish to suggest that the many Buddhisms give rise to their own dynamics of identities, non-identities, the sacred and the profane. The personal is sacred in many ways, and an essential bulwark against the trappings of collective identities, but perhaps we should appreciate its sacrality is always in passing. Paradox resolved.

As mentioned in the last podcast episodes, I will be embarking on a series looking at the personal side of practice with a range of quite different guests, many the Buddhist teachers I have been asked to interview over the years by regular listeners. This is an experimental season and it will be interesting to see how folks respond, what they share, and what we all learn from each other’s struggles with practice, and ideas about it. The critical element will remain but also, why not, autoarchaeology and insider-ethnography to mention a couple of highfalutin terms for something very simple.

There are two topics I should address before starting, however, then I can answer some of the questions I have pre-prepared for upcoming guests.

I will go first, so to speak. Start the ball rolling. Kick things off.

Continue reading “My Practice”

74. IBP: Being at Large with Santiago Zabala

Santiago Zabala was once described as a most ignorant philosopher by the American philosopher Brian Leiter: An interesting take that one will need to interpret for themselves in listening to this conversation on fake news, the role of interpretation, freedom, and being at large. Santiago is not at all ignorant, of course, and might be better understood as a pluralistic thinker in the stream of European philosophy, thus accompanying living thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek, and Simon Critchley; philosophers who aren’t afraid to risk controversy by expressing ideas and opinions on all manner of topic, from film to Covid. Thinkers that Mr Leiter no doubt dislikes, in fact he considers poor old Zizek to be a charlatan and bigot! American Imperialism indeed!
Santiago is rooted in the hermeneutic tradition of philosophy and we discuss the role and unavoidability of interpretation in our relationship with the world, and the latest phenomena of fake news, online battles, and the wider sphere of social life, politics, and, that topic so fundamental to western Buddhists, freedom.
What is freedom today? What would it mean to use the concept of ’being at large’ to understand how we might or might not be free today? What does it mean to have a return to order?
We cover this and more in this conversation which stretches well beyond the world of Buddhism, but also philosophy, by looking at how society is evolving today. We discuss Santiago’s latest book, Being at Large: Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts, but asides from his books you can also find his writing in The Guardian, The New York Times, and Aeon, to name a few.
This is the third in this trifecta of episodes signalling a return to podcasting for the Imperfect Buddha Podcast.

The Imperfect Buddha site: imperfectbuddha.com
O’Connell Coaching: imperfectbuddha.com/authors-notes

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Twitter: twitter.com/Imperfectbuddha