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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Buddhism and Homosexuality.

According to the ancient Indian understanding, homosexuals were thought of simply as being 'the third nature' (tritiya prakti), rather than as perverted, deviant or sick. With its emphasis on psychology and cause and effect, Buddhism judges acts, including sexual acts, primarily by the intention (cetana) behind them and the effect they have.

We will now briefly examine the various objections to homosexuality and give Buddhist rebuttals to them. The most common Christian and Muslim objection to homosexuality is that it is unnatural and "goes against the order of nature". There seems to be little evidence for this. Miriam Rothschild, the eminent biologist who played a crucial role in the fight to decriminalize homosexuality in Britain, pointed out at the time that homosexual behaviour has been observed in almost every known species of animal. Secondly, it could be argued that while the biological function of sex is reproduction, most sexual activity today is not for reproduction, but for recreation and emotional fulfillment, and that this too is a legitimate function of sex.

Theravada Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka and Burma had no legal statutes against homosexuality between consenting adults until the colonial era when they were introduced by the British. Thailand, which had no colonial experience, still has no such laws. This had led some Western homosexuals to believe that homosexuality is quite accepted in Buddhist countries of South and South-east Asia. This is certainly not true. In such countries, when homosexuals are thought of at all, it is more likely to be in a good-humored way or with a degree of pity. Certainly the loathing, fear and hatred that the Western homosexual has so often
had to endure is absent and this is due, to a very large degree, Buddhism's humane and tolerant influence. This has not always been the case though as the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism has had a different view on homosexuality.

At a press conference in 1997 the Dalai Lama said; 'From a Buddhist point of view (lesbian and gay sex) generally considered sexual misconduct.' As soon as he realized what he had done he immediately back-peddled. He called a meeting with gay and lesbian representatives, during which he expressed the 'willingness to consider the possibility that some of the teachings may be specific to a particular cultural and historic context'.

The truth is that while the Dalai Lama is one of the kindest people imaginable, he is also a very traditional Tibetan in many ways – and traditional Tibetan culture, like most cultures, has very skewed and confused ideas about homosexuality. Tibetan Buddhism does not derive its ideas about homosexuality from the earliest teachings of the Buddha but from Mahayana sutras and sastras, the earliest of which dates from approximately 500 year after the Buddha. By this time Indian Buddhists were being influenced by various popular Indian notions and incorporating them into their understanding of the Dhamma; sometimes with not very happy results. One such notion was the idea that sexual acts could be judged right or wrong depending on 'place, person and orifice.'

Exactly how does the law of kamma distinguish one orifice from another
? Other problems arise when we realize that many male homosexuals practice intercural sex and mutual masturbation rather than penetrative sex. And exactly which sexual organ do lesbians use to penetrate the vagina of their partner? The Dalai Lama is also reported to have said that he had difficulty imagining the mechanics of homosexual sex, saying that nature had arranged male and female organs 'in such a manner that is very suitable...same-sex organs cannot manage well.'

With all due respect to the Dalai Lama, and I do have the highest respect for him, this statement shows both his ignorance and naivety concerning sex, and I might add, of some aspects of the Dhamma as well.
What on earth have Buddhist ethical judgments got to do with two body-parts fitting together 'properly' or not? I often clean my ear with my finger despite it not fitting into my ear canal very well. Does this mean I make negative kamma every time I clean my ear?

James: And we must remember that monks have their own sexual code that has more restrictions than for the laity.

~Peace to all beings~

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Book Review, "Footprints in the Snow: The Autobiography of a Chinese Buddhist Monk."

Publicist Adrienne Biggs was kind enough to send me an advanced copy of the book, "Footprints in the Snow: The Autobiography of a Chinese Buddhist Monk." That monk being Ch'an Master Sheng Yen. The first thing that I was struck with in reading this book was how thoughtful and sensitive Master Sheng Yen is. He comes across in this book as a very kind person whom you'd enjoy listening to for hours and he has led a very eventful life being born to a poor farming family, joining the military, living in Taiwan and finally his monastic life. With a wonderful part on visiting Japan.

It was very fascinating for me to read his journey as a monk because I have always been curious about that life. I must say though that I was disturbed by some of the training techniques. His Master would make him do, undo and the redo things over and over, day after day. He made him stack, re-stack and then unstack a pile of bricks for days on end. He also berated him with (what seems to my unenlightened mind) unproductive criticism such as calling him stupid and other insults that I would not expect from a Buddhist master.

Sheng Yen said that it taught him patience and that he needed to go through that to purify his karma but what of the karma of the Master? Is not that kind of violent speech accumulating negative karma for himself? I think there are better ways to teach patience but I'm not a monastic, nor a Master monk and I come from a western mind frame so perhaps I'm missing something. Perhaps Sheng Yen needed to go through that to pay off a karmic debt to his master from a past life? I don't know.

And yet he says in the book, "Religious experience is not enlightenment" so he does understand that no matter what the religious training we must ultimately realize enlightenment on our own.

Just one of the profound parts of the book occurs while Sheng Yen is in the military in Taiwan. He writes to one of his teachers, Master Nanting complaining that he has little freedom in the military and the Master relpies, "Who has freedom in this world? As long as there is the body, there is no freedom."

All in all though this book was a great read. It was neat to see the inner details of the monastic life in the Ch'an tradition. Sheng Yen writes with such beauty in his vivid descriptions and his attention to detail is amazing. He writes in a way that makes you feel as though you are reliving every bit of his life with him. The last few words of the book were perhaps the most profound for me, "Now it is time to let go."

~Peace to all beings~

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Wisdom of Ajahn Buddhadasa.

For Ajahn Buddhadasa the way to end suffering could only be found through suffering. He described Nibbana as “the coolest point in the furnace.”

-Turning Wheel: The Journal of Socially Engaged Buddhism (Spring 2006 by Santikaro).

"Those who have penetrated to the highest understanding will feel that the thing called "religion" doesn't exist after all. There is no Buddhism; there is no Christianity; there is no Islam. How can they be the same or in conflict when they don't even exist?"

-Ajahn Buddhadasa.

~Peace to all beings~

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Cancer Killer Found in the Ocean.

November 1, 2007 — Biomedicine scientists identified and sequenced the genes of a bacteria calledI Salinispora tropica. (James: If you go to the link you'll find a video about this story). It produces anti-cancer compounds and can be found in ocean sediments off the Bahamas. A product called salinosporamide A has shown promise treating a bone marrow cancer called multiple myeloma, as well as solid tumors. It's estimated that over 1.4 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer this year, and for more than 500,000 it will be fatal. But now, scientists have found a new weapon against it. The ocean!

You run in it ... play in it ... splash in it ... but what’s found at the bottom of it can kill cancer! The bacterium was discovered in 1991, but just recently researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography unlocked the genomic sequence, revealing this bacteria's cancer fighting potential. "That’s how new drugs are discovered. We really have to go out there and grow bacteria, look at the genomes," Dr. Moore said. First discovered in 1991 in shallow ocean sediment off the Bahamas, it took several years to successfully sequence Salinispora’s genome, revealing that this mud-dwelling bacteria produces natural antibiotics and anti-cancer products.

James: We already know that trees and plants are the world's lungs and the oceans produce the rain that grows our foods and acts as a global thermostat but that is just the beginning of nature's bounty (By the way, An estimated 80% of all life on earth is found under the ocean surface and the oceans contain 99% of the living space on the planet. Less than 10% of that space has been explored by humans). There are so many medicines that stem from nature and yet we keep destroying the environment. Who knows how many cures for diseases or very effective drugs might have been found in the vast tracts of rain forest chopped down all over the world. There might be a cure for AIDS right now lying deep in the Amazon but we still have the outdated, neanderthal thinking that we must conquer nature and exploit it rather than live in harmony with it.

We need to listen to the shamans and explore their pharmacies (nature) with them and learn from them instead of ignoring them and deriding their time tested expertise. Some of the healthiest people I have met were villagers living in Africa using mostly natural medicines. I'm not advocating, however, that people abandon pharmaceuticals altogether, especially when dealing with a severe mental illness or other crippling diseases. I do think though that we should take natural remedies more seriously and explore our forests instead of clear cut them.

~Peace to all beings~

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Zen Buddhism and Western Society.

One of the aspects of Buddhism that I enjoy and find most refreshing is how simple yet profound teachings and insights can be. Such as when Sensei Taigen Henderson says in this interview, "But basically there isn't really any difference between spirituality and your regular life" in response to the question of how do you integrate Buddhism with daily life. And that is really one of the great benefits that Buddhism offer us, that every event in our life is a spiritual moment and a learning moment.

Which for me gives deeper meaning to things that I had (before embracing Buddhism) labeled as either good or bad and assigned numbers of importance to experiences/events/people, etc. I still experience this habit energy as most of us but knowing that all is interconnected and spiritual allows me to see the world in a softer, kinder and more accepting way.

And I also love the story he speaks of where people asked the Buddha if he was a god, a sage, a great saint to all of which he said no. So the people asked him what are you then and the Buddha said, "I'm awake." And I have found the state of being awake to be a feeling of "returning to my true home" as Thich Nhat Hanh says after years of wandering in a fog. A feeling of true freedom.

~Peace to all beings~

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Religion and Mental Health.

This has the potential to be a controversial post but if you've been reading me long then you know that I don't shy away from such posts. However, I don't mean to offend anyone with this post. Overall I'm just really curious about the subject. I'm not saying anything below is true or false because I don't know but I do find the subject fascinating.

I don't mean to belittle any particular religion. I'm just wondering about things. Probably thinking too much as I tend to do. So please forgive me in advance if I offend.

From time to time I contemplate the cross-roads between religion and mental health, two of my favorite subjects. As many of you know I live with a mental condition called Schizo-Affective disorder which is a combination of Bipolar type 1 and some symptoms of Schizophrenia. One of the things that is common amongst many mentally ill is a strong religious/spiritual connection yet often we are misunderstood (by some religions) as having "demons" possessing our minds.

This is a touchy subject but I've been wondering if some of the great spiritual leaders in history had mental health conditions/challenges. For example, was Jesus mentally ill? I don't mean to single him out but he is the one I'm most familiar with given I was raised Christian and spent 22 years as a Christian. I'm not saying that Jesus was indeed mentally ill but there are some intriguing connections. He saw visions, claimed to be able to talk with an invisible god and claimed to be the son of that god. In addition to believing that he had supernatural powers (we don't know if he did or did not have these gifts).

There was no understanding of mental illness in those days and therefore I can see why people would think that someone who claims to see visions and to be able talk to god would seem other-worldly, special and mystical since not all of the people showed those inclinations. And it makes sense that they would see those who were completely insane to be "possessed" for a lack of any other explanation for their behavior.

This all being said, even if Jesus and others had mental conditions doesn't mean that they were any less inspirational, amazing or transcendental. And having struggles with mental health doesn't preclude one from having a deep spiritual connection and as long as that spiritual connection is beneficial and not disruptive to one's sanity and safety then I think it's a gift. In fact some of the most spiritual people are those with mental health struggles because they are often more able to transcend the logical mind that holds us all hostage to some degree. Shamans for example are spiritual leaders of nature based religions who are initiated and receive special insights after surviving a personal psychological crisis.

As for the Buddha he seemed to be part psychologist as the religion that evolved from his teachings is one that is very beneficial to those suffering from mental conditions. It seems to be the religion that most addresses the mind and its formations. I guess that is why it is often called the "religion of psychology." However, the Buddha himself had some supernatural experiences that could be argued to have been hallucinations--who knows. Yet even if they were hallucinations it doesn't necessarily take away from their meaning and power.

This all being said, most religions have the potential to help those with mental struggles but there are some damaging teachings in certain religions that are still evident such as demonic possession. As well as teachings that people with mental illnesses have them because they are being punished for some perceived wrong doing. Or that it is a sign that they have a weak mind which is total ignorance because myself and many other mentally ill folks that I know have contemplated deep issues that many living on the surface haven't even considered let alone come to terms with such as death.

Anyway, just something I've been thinking about.

~Peace to all beings~

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Saturday, August 02, 2008

Buddhism and Stem Cells.

I was watching a great lecture given by the great Sam Harris and wanted to relay some of the information he mentioned about stem cell research. He talked about the embryonic stem cells which seem to show the most potential and that the stem cells used from this form come from the blastocyst, which is a collection of 50-150 cells and is only 4-5 days old. It's not organized with a nervous system and it doesn't have a brain. And the blastocysts that the scientists and doctors want to use are excess embryos created for in vitro fertilization donated with consent and used for the research.

Now think about this, the brain of a common house fly has 100,000 cells that make up its brain and that is just a fly!! A fly has a brain and a fly has neurons. Yet most of us don't think twice about killing one of them, however, do worry about destroying a 5 day old ball of cells that will be destroyed anyway? It seems short sighted to not make the most of these blastocysts before they are discarded. As Harris describes it, "We know that more suffering is visited upon this Earth every time we swat a fly than when we kill a three day old human embryo."

Sam Harris again:

"On one had with have this collection of 50-150 cells and on the other we have little girls suffering from diabetes and full body burns, we have men and women with Parkinson's disease, we have literally tens of millions of people suffering terrible torments which could one day be remediated by this research." I submit to you, if you think that the interests of a virtually microscopic collection of cells; I mean if you had ten of these (blastocysts) in the palm or your hand right now you would never notice. If you think that the interests of these organisms may yet trump the interests of a girl with full body burns, you have had your ethical intuitions blinded by religious metaphysics. No ethical argument would get you there. No argument that talked about human suffering and its alleviation would get you there. It's not enough to say that the collection of human cells are potential human beings. Given genetic engineering every cell in our body with a nucleus is a potential human being, every time the president scratches his nose he's engaged in a holocaust of potential human beings.

Just take for a moment the claim that there are souls in this petri dish, that every human blastocyst, a three day old embryo is ensouled. Well unfortunately, embryos at that stage can split into twins so what happens, we have one soul becoming two souls? Embryos at an even later stage can fuse back into what is called a kymero, a single individual born of two embryos, so do we have two souls becoming one soul? This arithmetic of souls doesn't make much sense.
James: As a Buddhist I agree with everything Mr. Harris has said above. I don't believe that we complex humans have souls let alone blastocysts. As one Buddhist scientist described it, "It is the recycling of life." In other words it is using life that would be discarded anyway to better the life and reduce the suffering of a living breathing being. I don't see it any different than donating blood or donating an organ upon your death. In a manner of speaking It's all a type of rebirth and coming from a place that any Buddhist would recognize, compassion.

Want to what the Dalai Lama thinks, so did I as he's the closest thing we have to a central authority on Buddhism. I know not all of us follow his tradition, like myself, but I think we can all agree that he's an expert on the Buddhadharma:

From the Buddhist perspective, the general line of demarcation in ethics is based mainly on the long-term consequences-the results of the scientific research. It's very difficult to distinguish the ethical status of an action simply by judging the nature of the action itself. Much depends on the actor's motivation. A 'spiritual' act with negative motivation is essentially wrong. A more aggressive act may seem destructive, but if that specific action is carried out with altruistic motivation, and the proper sort of goal, then it could be positive. Of course, the motivation is not opaque to the individual who is engaged in the act. So, it very much depends on the scientists' motivation. If you as scientists have a sincerely compassionate motivation, and a sense of responsibility for the long-term implications, then carry out your work and make your decisions. If you have to weigh the benefit for a smaller community against a larger community, the larger community is more important, generally speaking.

ut the basic point is that whatever is most beneficial is what needs to be pursued-or at least what an individual feels is probably going to be of most benefit and least negative is what that individual should carry out.
On the question of gene replacement and manipulation, this is similar to things we are already doing at the gross physical level. For example kidney, heart, and liver transplants are now very common practice and patients benefit from these transplants. By extension of that principle, one could conceivably replace or change certain genetic components that are instrumental in causing diseases. But we should at least have a very high degree of knowledge of the implications, both the benefits and the side effects. And then, perhaps, in principle, this would be acceptable.

"But how do we understand at what point consciousness enters the embryo? This is problematic. A fetus, which is becoming a human is already a sentient being. But a fertilized egg may actually bifurcate into 8, 16, 32, 64 cells and become an embryo,
and yet be naturally aborted and never become a human being. This is why I feel that for the formation of life, for something to actually become a human, something more is needed than simply a fertilized egg. It may be that what you do to a conglomeration of cells that have the possibility of becoming human entails no negative or karmically unwholesome act. However, when you're dealing with a configuration of cells that are definitely on the track to becoming a human being, it's a different situation. (James: My interpretation of this last sentence is that it becomes more problematic at a more advanced stage. For example I don't think many scientists are willing to exploit full blown fetuses for stem cells.)

"In some areas, Buddhism may have a different perspective from secular ethics. I think for example about human rights. From the Buddhist viewpoint, it is very difficult to claim that we human beings have special rights that are categorically different from animal rights. All sentient beings, all beings who have the experience of pain and pleasure, have the natural right to protect their existence and fulfill their aspiration to overcome suffering and enjoy happiness. The claim to rights is based on the capacity to experience pain and pleasure; it has nothing to do with intelligence, which is the main distinction between animals and human beings. They have the same experiences of pain and pleasure that we do.

James: As the DL reminds us, sentient beings are basically those who can feel pleasure and pain. So as blastocysts do not have central nervous systems to even register pain let alone a brain to experience I think it is safe to say that it is not yet human life. In conclusion my interpretation of the DL's teachings above definitely allow for stem cell research as long as it's done at the early blastocyst stage). Of course we know that we can not end all suffering in this world but it would be irresponsible of us not to help when and where we can to ease suffering.

~Peace to all beings~

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