Funny, that rainy day is here — complete with dance steps

Honestly, I thought I was reading some stray chapter from the New Agey Celestine Prophecy the other day. All the telltale blemishes were there: mystical experiences, wise native Americans, energy from within, persecution by white folks, a strange lack of factual material.

But no, it was a long-form feature in the otherwise respectable Los Angeles Times. The topic was rain dancing, an attempt to relieve the years-long California drought.

The story was part of the Times’ “Column One” series: prime journalism, best of show. But it was more like a study in politically correct, wide-eyed worshipfulness, right from the start:

The woman in line at the bank said she had already sold all her cattle and was now selling her land.

It was one too many tales of drought hardship for Laynee Reyna, also known as She Who Makes Things Happen — a name given to her by a shaman decades ago.

She felt a great spirit seize her. In the crowded bank lobby, the 79-year-old raised her arms.

Everyone in this town has got to come together and pray and dance for rain, and we’ve got to do it now,” she said.

Teresa Lavagnino, depositing checks at a teller’s window, rushed over.

“Can you do it? Can you make that happen?” she asked. “I can spread the word.”

If you’re a working journalist or if you’re used to reading news in newspapers, you’ll no doubt be asking questions already. Did the reporter witness that incident? How did she know Laynee Reyna felt a “great spirit”? And which shaman gave Reyna a name that sounds like a mashup of Suze Orman and Dances With Wolves?

You won’t be terribly surprised to know that “She Who Makes Things Happen” is a former hippie, as is her ex-husband, “Chief Sonne.” Reyna then brings in a native American consultant, Kanyon Sayers-Roods, for the lore to organize proper rain dances. Why her? Another hanging question.

With Sayers-Roods and her mother on hand, we can get to some serious rain dancing. They sew “traditional regalia,” design a dance and add “a collection of words in the tribe’s Mutson language.” They rehearse three times, and hey, it drizzles.

Again: Was the reporter there?

If not, who told her that? And did she check the weather that day? I’m guessing “no,” because she offers no attributions or hard dates.

She does mark Feb. 2 as a rainy day, but her reporting shows incredible credulity. “People felt their heartbeats match the pounding drums,” she says, without saying how she divined this. She admires Sayers-Roods’ “remarkably clear voice.”

And she seriously quotes Laynee Reyna intoning: “We are they who are calling the rain. We are true to where we stand — on our Mother Earth.”

If your eyes aren’t already rolling, the dancers also — oh, just let the Times tell us:

The circle danced clockwise. And then counter-clockwise to make sure there wasn’t too much rain and landslides.

Some women of an age who would favor Donna Summer added a disco touch. The children formed their own circle in the middle of the larger one.

Reyna passed out bottles of water. She told people to take a sip and spit it out as they danced. Spit it in the air. Spit it on the ground. “Water attracts water.”

People were laughing. It turned into a spitting water fight. Penney the terrier did her part by licking children’s faces.

At least the reporter had some proof of the last item: Next to the article is a photo of Reyna spitting a stream of water high in the air.

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God, faith, Jahi McMath and church (or not)

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I can’t remember the last time I became so engrossed in a story.

Perhaps it’s because I also have a teenage daughter (who, by the way, also is interested). Maybe it’s the unprecedented attention, or the opportunity to educate myself about an issue I had not previously considered: whole brain death and all its scientific and physical ramifications. More likely, it’s the passion on both sides and the way people of faith everywhere are reacting so emotionally to the case.

I can’t look away, in other words.

Jahi McMath, the brain-dead teen from Oakland, Calif., continues to make global headlines as family members, their lawyers, the medical community and media outlets …

What? What are they doing, exactly?

No one outside those intimately involved know where the child is or what the family is thinking and doing, outside of their press conferences and social media posts. But those statements and Instagram updates are filled with requests for prayers and allusions to miracles, in spite of the signed death certificate with her name on it. The mother, against all scientific data, precedent and the physical state of her child, believes God will heal her daughter. And she says she is pursuing a level of recovery-themed care for the legally dead child (a feeding tube, a tracheostomy tube) that will aid in the physical side of her vigil.

In the absence of real-time news in a society obsessed with instant updates, the media has focused some on the religious aspect of the story.

The Los Angeles Times has provided extensive coverage on the story. In its first report after the brain-dead child was taken by ambulance from the hospital, released to the Alameda County coroner’s office and then signed over to her mother, the Times’ story provided this insight from McMath’s uncle about their future plans:

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Westernized Zen and the art of hiding sexual abuse

So many details will sound terribly familiar. At the heart of the news story is a powerful religious patriarch, surrounded by disciples who view him with a reverence that helps support an iron-clad climate of silence and secrecy.

In this case, however, the leader is Joshu Sasaki Roshi, one of the most famous Zen Buddhist monks in the world and a teacher who has had a tremendous impact in American elite culture. Now, it is being alleged (and in some cases confirmed) that since the 1960s he has sexually abused many, perhaps 100s, of his followers in Southern California and elsewhere.

Here is a key passage from a report in The Los Angeles Times:

A recent investigation by an independent council of Buddhist leaders has suggested that Roshi, a leading figure in Zen Buddhism in the United States, may have abused hundreds of others for decades. According to the group’s report, that abuse included allegations of molestation and rape, and some of the incidents had been reported to the Rinzai-ji board, which had taken no effective action.

“We see how, knowingly and unknowingly, the community was drawn into an open secret,” the council wrote, adding: “We have reports that those who chose to speak out were silenced, exiled, ridiculed or otherwise punished.” …

The council of Rinzai-ji oshos — senior Zen teachers ordained under Roshi — however, responded with a public statement: “Our hearts were not firm enough, our minds were not clear enough, and our practices were not strong enough so that we might persist until the problem was resolved. We fully acknowledge now, without any reservation, and with the heaviest of hearts, that because of our failure to address our teacher’s sexual misconduct, women and also men have been hurt.”

The allegations had lingered, literally, for decades and were allowed to become, in the words of one figure in the scandal “a tribal secret for 50 years.”

In this story, the details of the alleged abuse are described with hints, but that’s about it. Where this Los Angeles Times piece — for me — fell short was in its lack of crucial background material capturing the impact this man had on culture in Hollywood and among other cultural elites. This paragraph in particular intrigued me (in part because of what one Buddhist leader told me about a decade ago, that the whole New Age phenomenon in American culture was essentially Buddhism stripped of ethics and moral content):

Roshi arrived in Los Angeles 50 years ago and was among a wave of Japanese teachers to tailor Zen Buddhism to Westerners. He quickly became an exalted figure and opened about 30 centers, including one on Mt. Baldy that is known for its rigorous training regimen. It was commonly thought, Martin and other critics said, that if women left Mt. Baldy it was because they weren’t tough enough to handle the demanding conditions.

What, precisely, is meant by the statement that he was willing to “tailor Zen Buddhism to Westerners”? This would seem to be a crucial area to explore, in light of the ways his abuse was woven into his teachings. This piece is all but silent on this point.

However, a far superior New York Times piece has some fascinating material on what, precisely, Roshi was teaching and doing.

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