In a way. They have a “cit­i­zen jour­nal­ism” blog site, and they decided that my idea — post­ing com­men­tary from a prac­tic­ing lay Buddhist — might be worth pol­lut­ing the com­mu­nity with car­ry­ing to the masses.

Anyway, here’s my inau­gural post.

Greetings, all. This is the first post to a new kdminer​.com blog, “Meditations”, the sub­ject of which is likely to be broad, though the con­tent will have one com­mon thread — it’s com­ing from the point of view of a prac­tic­ing lay Buddhist.

It’s prob­a­bly a good idea for me to begin by offer­ing my cre­den­tials. I’ve been casu­ally involved with Buddhism for about 20 years, begin­ning (as many do) with an explo­ration of Zen — a Japanese style. At the time I didn’t have a lot of direc­tion avail­able to me, so found Zen to be a lit­tle beyond my grasp. This hardly makes me unique.

A few years ago (more than half a decade, actu­ally), I became involved with Shambhala Buddhism, which is a Tibetan vari­ant. I found its instruc­tional style much more approach­able; Tibetan Buddhism in gen­eral tends to be quite enu­mer­a­tive and explicit about med­i­ta­tion stages. Of course, being Tibetan, it also has a lot of deity prac­tice, and that was some­thing I didn’t feel drawn to.

My prac­tice now is ecu­meni­cal, and involves ele­ments of Mahayana tra­di­tion, with a nod to Theravada as well (the dif­fer­ences are sub­tle and have more to do with one’s belief about rebirth than any­thing else). We have a reg­u­lar prac­tice group called “Sangha” that meets on Sundays at KRMC; for more infor­ma­tion, go to http://​sangha​.night​wares​.com/

When I say I’m a “lay Buddhist”, what I mean is that I’ve never been for­mally ordained as a monk, and I haven’t even taken an offi­cial refuge vow. Refuge vows are sort of like bap­tism, in that you essen­tially declare your­self as com­mit­ted to the Buddhist path, “tak­ing refuge” in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. “Dharma” means, essen­tially, “teach­ings”, and “Sangha” is the cog­ni­tive equiv­a­lent of a con­gre­ga­tion or community.

To be clear, though, “Buddha” does not mean “god”. The word actu­ally trans­lates more or less as “one who is awake”. Buddhists think that, about 2,500 years ago, a prince named Siddhartha Gautama under­went a process of self-​​discovery and real­iza­tion, where­upon he estab­lished what we now call the Four Noble Truths. (“Noble” in this sense doesn’t mean “royal”; rather, it means “unchang­ing”, just as the noble gases on the Periodic Table — helium, neon, etc. — do not mix or com­bine with other ele­ments. They remain “pure”.) These Noble Truths are:

1. The truth of the real­ity of suffering;

2. The truth of the cause of suffering;

3. The truth that suf­fer­ing can cease; and

4. The means by which suf­fer­ing can cease.

The fourth truth points to what is known as the Eightfold Path. Over time I’ll go into greater depth on each of the Four Noble Truths, and get into details on the Eightfold Path. But I should prob­a­bly be clear that Buddhists do not believe Gautama was a god; only that he had some very good ideas about deal­ing with life. He was just as human as any­one else, and when he died, that was it for him. Just like any­one else.

I’m bring­ing this all up here, now, as a kind of back­ground; I don’t intend to lec­ture or do any other such thing on these topics.

While there are quite a few dif­fer­ent Buddhist tra­di­tions, they all share as their foun­da­tion the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, and have a few other things in com­mon as well. Of chief impor­tance to me, per­son­ally, is that Buddhism is non­the­is­tic — that is, it doesn’t require a belief in a god, and doesn’t require non­be­lief in a spe­cific god. Strictly speak­ing, you can be Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Pastafarian, athe­ist or any­thing else, and still be a prac­tic­ing Buddhist. (For the record, I con­sider myself an atheist.)

The core prac­tice in Buddhism is med­i­ta­tion, which prob­a­bly isn’t what you think it is. Meditation doesn’t mean zon­ing out, shut­ting down the mind, going into a trance, or any­thing else of that nature. In the Buddhist con­text, med­i­ta­tion is actu­ally a height­ened state of aware­ness, an obser­va­tion of the mind. This can make it sur­pris­ingly chal­leng­ing. It can also make it a bit dull. Working with bore­dom — or with dis­cur­sive think­ing — is an ongo­ing process for any­one prac­tic­ing meditation.

I think that’s more than enough back­ground for now. On to the pur­pose of this blog: Meditations, or ideas, or perspective.

No one can be unaware of what hap­pened in Haiti, or of the world reac­tion to it. Some responses were cal­lous (as with Pat Robertson’s asser­tion that the Haitian peo­ple had “sold their souls to the Devil”, and thus deserved the ter­ri­ble dev­as­ta­tion they’ve suf­fered); some were remark­ably pow­er­ful (wit­ness the suc­cess of the Red Cross cam­paign to accept $10 dona­tions when you text HAITI to 90999 — the last count I saw had dona­tions at more than $21 mil­lion). Some are a lit­tle harder to fathom.

Royal Caribbean char­ters cruises that include a port-​​of-​​call at Haiti (I don’t recall the name of the des­ti­na­tion, but it’s actu­ally trade­marked, if their press releases are to be believed). For now, they’re still putting in there and let­ting their trav­el­ers frolic on the beach.

On the face of it, that seems cold-​​hearted, at best. It might be bet­ter to post­pone land­ing in Haiti, telling the pas­sen­gers that, in light of the tragedy (~200,000 dead, and count­ing), the ship isn’t going to be using the island as a vaca­tion or hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion for a while. It would seem decent.

Contrarily, con­sider that the peo­ple on those Royal Caribbean ships booked their reser­va­tions well in advance, long before they knew a quake would hit; and some of them, at least, are hav­ing events (wed­ding, 50th anniver­sary, what­ever) which are more or less lit­er­ally once in a lifetime.

This is a hard deci­sion, and what Royal Caribbean did was prob­a­bly the best of all pos­si­ble choices: They still put in at the port-​​of-​​call, and left it up to the pas­sen­gers to decide for them­selves if they would be rev­el­ing on the beach or not. Some have cho­sen to remain aboard. Others have not. Their rea­sons are their own, and prob­a­bly not up to us to judge in either case.

Here’s the extra ele­ment, though. Royal Caribbean has promised that all rev­enues gained from vis­i­tors at the Haitian port will be directed into relief efforts.

Also, Royal Caribbean ships putting in to the port will be deliv­er­ing non­per­ish­able food items, such as dried beans, flour and canned goods. The first ship to put in there deliv­ered “40 pal­lets” of these essen­tials, which rep­re­sents a fairly sub­stan­tial amount of food. I don’t know how much a pal­let can hold, but I’m guess­ing it’s some­where between 500 and 1000 lbs., assum­ing it’s fully loaded — i.e., the freight on it is roughly cubic in vol­ume. It’s safe to pre­sume that future Royal Caribbean ships will deliver more goods. (The first appar­ently diverted to Puerto Rico briefly to col­lect the supplies.)

All told, Royal Caribbean has donated at least $1 mil­lion to Haitian relief efforts, and it’s rea­son­able to pre­sume they will con­tinue to do so for a while longer.

Of course, Royal Caribbean has been using Haiti for years as a vaca­tion stop for the fairly wealthy (the extremely wealthy, of course, do not book pas­sage on cruise ships; they have their own yachts for that); it could be argued that Haiti has been abused in the past by cruise pas­sen­gers. It’s fea­si­ble. Haiti is a very poor nation, with essen­tially no nat­ural resources, indus­try, or intel­lec­tual base. It seems to be eas­ily taken advan­tage of by wealthy or pow­er­ful nations, and it’s easy to make an argu­ment that Royal Caribbean is exploit­ing a tragedy for the sake of bet­ter PR. (I per­son­ally doubt that; there is no small num­ber of peo­ple who are deeply offended to learn that ships are still stop­ping by Haiti so their pas­sen­gers can make use of the beaches. If this is “good” PR, one won­ders what bad PR would look like.)

I think it’s worth not­ing, how­ever, that the Haitian gov­ern­ment wel­comed the relief efforts, and have encour­aged Royal Caribbean to con­tinue bring­ing ships to their shores. Not for the relief aid, but because of the vital stim­u­lus to local econ­omy that the pas­sen­gers represent.

To my mind this is an exam­ple of a large and rel­a­tively wealthy cor­po­ra­tion behav­ing as a good cit­i­zen; that is, act­ing with com­pas­sion — while at the same time con­tin­u­ing to do what cor­po­ra­tions do, namely, remain in busi­ness. Changing course to avoid Haiti would have dis­rupted at least some pas­sen­gers’ plans or itin­er­aries, while sim­ply con­duct­ing business-​​as-​​usual would clearly have been a heart­less, thought­less gesture.

There is no really com­fort­able mid­dle ground for Royal Caribbean to have taken here; they chose instead to walk a very del­i­cate edge. Of all the options open to them, the course they chose was prob­a­bly the best pos­si­ble option for the largest num­ber of peo­ple. That means it was a com­pro­mise, which means some peo­ple aren’t happy.

Had they sim­ply changed their cruise route, though, odds are pretty good that a lot more peo­ple would be unhappy.

If Royal Caribbean were your com­pany, what might you have done dif­fer­ently, if anything?

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