In response to bell hooks’s interview with Pema Chödrön and the excerpt from Chödrön’s book [“Beyond Right or Wrong” and “When Things Fall Apart,” June 1997]: several of Chödrön’s depictions of Tibetan Buddhism should be emended. While Tibetan Buddhism certainly addresses chaos, not all Tibetan Buddhists have celebrated it to quite the degree that Chödrön and her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, are inclined to do. Acknowledging impermanence and chaos by no means undoes the law of dependent arising, which dictates that there is an inconceivable efficiency to even the messiest of experiences.
Chödrön’s emphasis on “groundlessness” is also not the only take of Tibetan Buddhists. The Tantric traditions consistently celebrate a universal ordering principle of bedrock awareness, which emanates from Buddhist divinities. If we can intuit this ground whence inspiration emerges, there is no problem with then developing strategies, pursuing ideals, or working for justice in the world. However dour we make the mundane world out to be, it is also the only ground for enlightened activity. Compassionate Buddhas do not simply abide in not-knowing; they also envision and create cultures of concern.
The emptiness/compassion teachings are often taught by way of the “two truths”: the first directs us to curb our fascination with this inevitably decrepit world, while the second, “higher” truth impels us to care compassionately for others anyway. Thus, until one has reached an extremely rarified level of realization, it is better to err on the side of caring too much!
“Any teaching that has us looking ahead is missing the point,” Chödrön says. But looking ahead with clarity is not missing the point; “the point” is ever yet to be determined, and we are all active participants in the dynamic process of meaningful awakening.
For many of your readers, who write each month to share their challenges, horrors, and hopes, Chödrön’s heart advice, as lovely as it is, may ring tinny and ethereal. We can discern right from wrong. To in any way undercut people’s determination to realize and claim their own powerful agency is to skew the Buddhist perspective such that only a partial refraction of its spiritual vision remains.
I was reading the June issue of The Sun in bed when I realized that the magazine wasn’t as warm as it used to be. The stories were still full of heart, but the magazine itself seemed cold. Then I read a sentence that caused me to pause and reflect, and I laid the open magazine across my chest. It was then I discovered the magazine really was cold; you had switched to a glossy paper. (Is Belle Matte Latin for “chilly paper”?) The Sun no longer felt like a warm flannel blanket, but a cold, slippery piece of ice ready to slide off my body. I began feeling hurt and angry about the switch.
Fortunately, I was reading Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart” at the time, and was able to see the experience as a small but perfect lesson in breaking away from attachment. A vision crossed my mind of a touristy T-shirt I’d once seen: “Wisconsin — Cold Noses, Warm Hearts.” I immediately amended that to “The Sun — Cold Pages, Warm Hearts,” and I knew then that everything would be all right.
You can change your paper as often as you want, just don’t stop printing such warm and wonderful stories.
Regarding “Dinner at the St. Francis Inn,” by Tom Lagasse [May 1997]: I also labored in a shelter named for St. Francis of Assisi. The place was a bloody joke. To this day I wince to think that I might have remained there, one of dozens of middle-class parasites drinking from the grimy tit of social shame.
We, too, distributed clothes, food, and medical care. But God forbid a hungry Mexican without a green card should walk into the dining room. The president was a trembling sadist whose tail had been yanked so often out of fires he’d started in other government agencies that St. Francis was his last chance. He had a pathological fear of poor people — especially of their urine, feces, and lice — and a special horror of lawsuits.
One blowing, snowy winter day, a drunk passed out in a bathroom and was found after the shelter had closed. Since the shelter wasn’t insured to have clients present after hours, the president ordered the man dragged outside. This was easier said than done, as the man had fallen asleep with his head inside the toilet, and had relieved his bowels outside of it. It took time for the more stalwart staff members to clean him up, put new clothes on him, roll him in a blanket, and haul him out the door. All the while, the president was in a panic, fearing that the man might die inside the building. At first, the security guards made a sort of bed for the man on the sidewalk under the awning, but the president was outraged, and ordered the drunk be hauled completely off the property, pronto! Finally someone called the police, who took the man safely away to a lockup for the night.
Because the St. Francis organization was funded in part by government grants, it had to adhere to a policy of complete nondiscrimination in all its hiring practices. But when the spiritual leader in residence, a Catholic priest, announced his retirement, the board and upper management passed a requirement that the position of spiritual leader subsequently be filled only by Catholic priests. This meant that most “guests” of the shelter would never encounter pastors of their denomination, and that there would never be any female pastors. The reason given for this policy was that Catholic money had built the shelter, and Catholic money was the only money that could be relied on to keep coming in. No priest, no money, was the logic.
I protested the policy and was told to mind my own business. I protested again and was fired. The president literally shouted me out of the building, accusing me of betraying the mission. I got a lawyer and, after some ugly negotiations, received a tiny settlement, along with a promise that the policy had been changed.
Not long afterward, I learned that a Protestant female minister was the new spiritual leader there, and the shelter was doing very well financially. Part of me wanted to call that minister and tell her how she came to have her job, but I figured management had already branded me a kook, and I had no desire to get a polite handshake from someone who thought she owed her position to the nice men at the top. But if I’m ever back in that area, I’d like a private conversation with whoever is the spiritual leader these days. And I’d like us to say a prayer together for all those with a pathological fear of the poor, and a pathetic distrust of God’s ability to provide regardless of color, creed, or sex.
I’ve been hooked on The Sun ever since I ordered my first issue from an ad in the back of Utne Reader. Over the years, I’ve made many copies of articles for friends and given away whole magazines to strangers. Then, about a month ago, I gave away all my old issues. Just inside the door to my neighborhood library, there’s a shelf where people leave magazines they’re done with, so others can take them. To this shelf I brought four years of The Sun (minus an issue here and there). I visited the library a couple of days later and all forty-odd copies had vanished into purses and book bags, while the Reader’s Digests and Newsweeks and Smithsonians and New Yorkers remained.
Your magazine has got umph! There’s no other word for it.
I am thrilled, saddened, amazed, awed, and challenged by each issue of The Sun. The May 1997 issue was one of the best yet. I loved Sparrow’s “Why Didn’t You Vote For Me?” Although I’m not as articulate as he is, I’ve always felt that the most important thing I can do is follow my own path and protect my decision-making processes from the rampant streams of bullshit that flow from all directions. The high priests of ignorance in the mainstream media try their best to wear me down, but The Sun is always there to pick me back up.
One criticism: I don’t like the new paper in the June 1997 issue. I hope you will go back to the old sheet. Please don’t try to look slick, glossy, and modern like other magazines. Part of The Sun’s beauty is its simplicity.
The Sun is the one magazine subscription my family has not let lapse over the years. I love the honesty and energy of the stories you print. Alison Luterman’s writing especially speaks to me. I’ve often read her pieces over and over, thinking that I know just how she feels, and marveling at how her simple words can convey such spirit.
The Sun leaves me with mixed feelings. I’m comfortable with the honesty, but uneasy with the confessional approach, and worried that the people or the experiences might lose their dignity. Yet I read each issue intently, as if it were news of family. Which, in a way, it is.
For those of you who wonder how many people in your part of the country read The Sun, we offer the following breakdown of subscribers by state:
|District of Columbia
The Sun also has 238 subscribers in Canada, 31 in Japan, 28 in Germany, 25 in England, 15 in Australia, 15 in France, 12 in the Netherlands, 10 in Brazil, and a scattering in the following countries: Argentina, Belgium, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Bulgaria, Colombia, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Fiji, Finland, Ghana, Grenada, Honduras, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Korea, Malawi, Mexico, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Norway, Paraguay, People’s Republic of China, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Serbia, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Uruguay, and Wales.