Lois Judson’s humorous and entertaining “I Am Not a Sex Goddess” [January 2009] was a nice break from your usual essays. It was good to read something with a comic twist, and I could relate to the author’s outlook on her sex life.

Tina Ruzzo
Ocean Gate, New Jersey

“I Am Not a Sex Goddess” made me want to puke. Surely you can do better for your readers than something that should be relegated to the back page of the nastiest pornography magazine.

Jimmy Stout
Tucson, Arizona

“I Am Not A Sex Goddess” was disrespectful to the soul and heart, a desperate attempt to gain attention by degrading the sanctity of the human being. The essay made the members of our reading group want to take a shower. Please do not confuse spiritual searching with swimming in the mud. The Sun’s editors should take responsibility for what they are placing in people’s heads. The decision to publish the piece reminds us of the old adage “Those who do not know where the banquet is eat out of the garbage.” As Tibetan Buddhist scriptures state, people whose activities deviate from the beauty of the cosmic plan will dwell “among unclean and filthy lower astral spirits.”

Please cancel our subscription immediately.

The White Lotus Reading Group
Gill, Massachusetts

Lois Judson responds:

I am not sure what upset these readers of my essay. They seem to be of the opinion that nice girls don’t talk about their sex lives, and they have appointed themselves arbiters of what is “nice” and what is “nasty,” what is “pornographic” and what is “making love.” I am also puzzled because, in my essay, I am only saying what they are saying in their outraged letters: There are certain places I am loathe to go. I will not flog my waning sex drive with pornographic doodads and widgets. Spirituality is at odds with that sort of panting, lubricious sex.

I found Leslee Goodman’s interview with Buddhist former monks Kittisaro and Thanissara delightful [“A Mindful Marriage,” January 2009], but I want to argue with the interviewees’ statement on witnessing suffering.

Kittisaro says, about a rhetorical cow that’s stuck in a bog, “Even if you’re not able to get the cow out of the mud, to stay present to her suffering is itself a powerful and compassionate act.”

To me this statement attempts to glorify failure. I don’t think a struggling, suffering cow would be helped simply by my presence, no matter how compassionate I might feel. Is Kittisaro suggesting that human consciousness is benevolent simply by its existence? That merely by paying attention to other creatures, we help them?

Sure, it might be compassionate for me to “stay present to [the cow’s] suffering,” but compassion is cheap. And there’s nothing “powerful” about my standing there watching her suffer. Who, in that situation, is empowered? I don’t think I’d gain any power from standing there feeling bad for the animal, and neither would she be empowered by my sympathy. I’d say the powerful, compassionate thing for me to do would be to go get help, fast.

Gillian Kendall
Victoria
Australia

Kittisaro responds:

Gillian Kendall makes some valid points. My image of the cow stuck in the mud wasn’t a good example. It is certainly not my intention to glorify failure (though failure can be a powerful teacher). The primary goal of compassion is to alleviate suffering. Were I really to witness a cow floundering, I would do everything possible to help free the animal, including running for help if I couldn’t extricate her myself.

Living in rural South Africa, I am confronted on a daily basis with dire situations that I am unable to “fix.” This culture has, over its brutal history, been expert in its denial both of the horrors of apartheid and of the devastation of the AIDS pandemic. Consequently it’s not easy to shift the deep patterns that perpetuate suffering here. But just because I can’t repair the situation doesn’t mean that my attention to its nature is wasted or fruitless. Countless times I have experienced transformation (both inner and outer) by receiving into my heart the anguish of a painful circumstance. Even if I can’t immediately help, when I’m open and attentive to the situation, an appropriate response will usually emerge.

There is so much suffering in this world that has never really been heard. When we are feeling stuck in despair, a compassionate listener can dramatically change our relationship to our circumstance. We might still be sick or in pain, but we don’t feel alone. Perhaps then we can glimpse the underlying truth that suffering is a passing phenomenon and not the whole of who we are.

To truly feel and know suffering, in my view, is not easy to do. When we can’t fix the realities of sickness, death, and the consequences of ignorance, it is a challenging practice to let them be.

I do believe consciousness, when it is not distorted by greed, aversion, and confusion, is benevolent and healing. Even a contemplative hermit, cognizant of a unitive consciousness that knows no ultimate separation, is responding to suffering in an authentic way, just as the rain forest in the Amazon significantly purifies the air for the whole world. Admittedly there is the danger of splitting off from the suffering of the world and justifying our detachment with an inflated conceit about the great gift of our wise and compassionate presence. Nevertheless, effective compassionate action is rooted in profound listening.

What most interested me about the interview “A Mindful Marriage” was the information about how Buddhist nuns are treated. Just her thinking of marriage led to Thanissara’s summary dismissal from the monastery, whereas Kittisaro, as a man, was allowed to make his own decision whether to leave.

For much of my life I have looked on Buddhism as the religion that comes closest to my way of thinking, but this interview reinforced my belief that all religions are suspect. One would think that Buddhist monastics would clearly see that the sexes are equal, but Buddhists can be as blind and shallow as Christians, Jews, Muslims, and so on. Unfortunately we humans too often focus on the outer show of religion and completely miss the “jewel in the heart of the lotus.”

In that same issue, the selection from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning was a fitting inaugural to the new Dog-Eared Page department. Whenever I’ve allowed myself to dwell on the horrors of Auschwitz, I’ve never thought of it as a place where anyone experienced a sunny day. I pictured frigid, overcast winter weather and prisoners suffering only darkness and despair. What a revelation to read how Frankl, having been stripped of everything human except pain, could find joy in a sunrise and a remembrance of his loving wife.

Randall De Trinis
Lyndhurst, Virginia

Sy Safransky’s December 2008 Notebook left me breathless: The deer. The shattered glass. The stag’s leap.

My grandfather, an avid woodsman who died in 1980 at age ninety-six, often asked, “Where are the animals supposed to go?” Implicit in his question was the knowledge that animals have a right to exist, and that right should not be abridged.

Somehow in recent years humankind has largely lost the sacred bond that my grandfather felt with the natural world. This loss of connection with animals and natural cycles destroys the earth and diminishes our own humanity. I don’t know how we might regain it, since so many of us don’t even know what we’ve lost. We’re like a person born blind who cannot imagine sight.

Much of the environmental degradation we see around us must be laid at the feet of human overpopulation: people need homes and want “stuff,” and every new development, house, car, and store shrinks the natural world. We’re taking the animals’ space and crowding them out. Don’t we care?

Conservation is important, but it’s like putting a finger in the dyke. If we don’t stop population growth, our children will be the ones trying to jump back through the shattered window into the forests of the past.

Maureen Parker
Greensboro, North Carolina

In his December 2008 Notebook Sy Safransky writes about deer fleeing the invasion of suburbia. I share his concern about our impact upon the natural world, but I am also concerned that sentiment be supported by fact and not undercut by appealing fiction.

Deer thrive where forest edges abound. In early Pennsylvania and Ohio, pioneers encountered a much smaller deer population than we have today, because the density of the woods made “deer browse” — the plants that deer feed on — sparse. By the early 1900s deer had been eliminated from these states. When they were reintroduced, checkerboard clear-cuts and woodlots between farms created ripe conditions for a deer population explosion. The animals found an abundant food supply in suburban yards, parks, and former farm fields.

One fall about ten years ago here in Cleveland Heights, an inner-ring Ohio suburb, a buck crashed through the glass at city hall. Safransky imagines it was hunger that drove a deer to do the same in mid-October in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The fact is that fall is mating season for deer, and both bucks were likely in rut, hungry for sex, and charged their own reflections to defend their territory against that perceived intruder.

Deer make appealing poster children for environmental concerns, but misleading ones.

Russell Hall
Cleveland Heights, Ohio

Sy Safransky responds:

Why deer populations have increased in certain areas is a complicated question, and perhaps Russell Hall is right that the deer was looking for a mate rather than for food. But what earthly difference does it make? The sad fact is that the deer, displaced from his native habitat by human encroachment, had wandered into the busiest — and, for him, most dangerous — part of town. If the deer was motivated not by hunger but by the biological imperative to procreate, is he any less deserving of compassion?