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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Does it Improve Upon the Silence?

to find an answer
you must lose the question first.

James: This is the saying for the month of February on my Zen calender and reminds me of another jewel of wisdom. That being, "Before you speak, ask yourself: Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary, does it improve upon the silence?" -Shirdi Sai Baba. It is also attributed to the Quakers.

I don't always improve upon the silence but It is something that I strive toward via mindfulness, which I work on cultivating through the practice of meditation. I have personally found it to be somewhat difficult to foster right speech without mindfulness because through mindfulness I am more aware of what I'm saying. I have found personally that it is hard to expect mindfulness to unfold in the moment without practicing it regularly. I find it to be like exercising muscles to maintain top fitness.

When I'm not being aware it is easy for my mind to simply go on auto-pilot and thoughts arise without awareness, which are all too often blurted out in verbal excess and disharmony. It seems to me that eventually we won't have to actively concentrate on cultivating mindfulness but that it will be our inner and outer reality spontaneously arising in each present moment without thought.

Until then I still need the training wheels on my bicycle to use an example. I still need to actively concentrate upon what is going on in the present moment, which includes of course being aware of what I am saying and what consequences those words carry. There is a paradox between realizing the imperfection of language and that words in the end can't replace practice and experiencing the moment. However, we still need language to describe how to get to the point where we no longer need so much communication.

In closing I'd like to share some wonderful thoughts on mindfulness meditation from the Tibetan Buddhist master Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche:

No matter what kind of thought comes up, you should say to yourself, “That may be a really important issue in my life, but right now is not the time to think about it. Now I’m practicing meditation.” It gets down to how honest we are, how true we can be to ourselves, during each session.

Everyone gets lost in thought sometimes. You might think, “I can’t believe I got so absorbed in something like that,” but try not to make it too personal. Just try to be as unbiased as possible. Mind will be wild and we have to recognize that. We can’t push ourselves. If we’re trying to be completely concept-free, with no discursiveness at all, it’s just not going to happen.

So through the labeling process, we simply see our discursiveness. We notice that we have been lost in thought, we mentally label it “thinking”—gently and without judgment—and we come back to the breath. When we have a thought—no matter how wild or bizarre it may be—we just let it go and come back to the breath, come back to the situation here.

PHOTO: Portland Japanese garden.
~Peace to all beings~

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Becoming Enlightened." A Book Review.

I have two altars where I keep my Buddha statue and other sacred objects. The main one where I meditate is in the front room with a framed picture of my teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh with prayer beads draped around it. Along with of course a lovely statuette of Buddha. I keep a second but smaller one in the bedroom with a picture of the Dalai Lama and one of Thich Nhat Hanh above on the wall.

Well, whenever I look at these pictures of these two men I think of loving grandfathers who patiently pass on wisdom to the younger generations. I smile looking at their kind and warm faces feeling comfort that they are with us. They are two of the world's grandfathers and we are very lucky to have them in ourlives. I was recently sent two copies of the DL's latest book, "Becoming Enlightened" to review one and to give the other away to one of my readers.

This latest book is a real gem to add to your Buddhist literature because it is a well written introduction to the Buddhist path. That said, however, it has much to offer the long-time practitioner and it did me a lot of good to reread the basics so to speak. It is a very quick read (I read it in 3 days) and it offers contemplation exercises at the end of each chapter, which are summaries of what was covered. I think they will be very useful when I want to meditate upon something said in the chapter without having to reread the entire chapter.

The Dalai Lama begins by saying that we should be open minded about other religions and Buddhist traditions because religion is relative to each individual. And as he mentions, the Buddha did not always teach the most profound teachings to all students. He taught according to the individuals interests and dispositions. So in other words, whatever benefits that person most is best for them. It makes a lot of sense and explains why there are so many religions and sects.

He reminds us that we are in a favorable position to make great progress toward enlightenment with this very human existence. It is a precious state and we must do our best not to waste it upon afflictive, selfish things. He speaks a lot in the book about the benefits and importance of selflessness as it is hard to have hatred, greed and delusion in our hearts if we are acting in an altruistic and selfless manor.

Another teaching that I really responded too was that of how if we realize that much of our suffering is our own fault from past actions that we can accept the pain easier and move past it because as he said, "This is the nature of cyclic existence." I think I'm going to use that phrase as my new mantra because I have experienced its power to help already in the few meditations I've incorporated it within since reading this book.

He also warns against worshiping gods instead of putting all confidence in Buddha saying, "Altruism based on love and compassion is the avenue to all these benefits. This is the beauty of Buddhism. But if you leave your afflictive emotions as they are, then even if you imagine a god of long life to your right, a god of wealth to your left, and a god of medicine in front of you, and you recite a mantra a billion times, still you will find it hard to achieve anything."

He spends a lot of time discussing our relationships and how we should practice compassion toward all beings regardless of if we agree with them or get along with them. All are deserving of compassion--even the most hardened criminals. In specific this quote really put this into perspective and like usual the truth often only requires a few words. "Real compassion does not depend on whether the other person is nice to you."

I was happy that His Holiness added a section on including animals in our compassion and spoke of the horrors of the factory farming of animals for meat. It is curious then, however, why the Dalai Lama still chooses to eat meat. I know his doctors tell him he needs the meat for his health, however, I wonder if he's getting the best and latest advice/information because It is very easy for people to be healthy without eating meat.

Though I am a strong advocate for animal rights and vegetarianism it is not my place to judge anyone who decides to keep eating meat (least of all the Dalai Lama). I am not a militant vegetarian who screams and yells at those who do eat meat because it doesn't do any good and becoming vegetarian must come from a place of sincerity and personal conviction to last--not from being guilted and shamed into it. I do not think that one must be a vegetarian to be a Buddhist but I think it helps in cultivating compassion.

Overall I really enjoyed the book and will keep it as a handy desk reference to the foundations of Buddhist practice. It's a great read for say a weekend get away or a overseas flight. As I alluded to above, some of the best wisdom is said in few words.

As I stated in the top of the post I have a second copy of this book to give away. Due to a lack of funds though I can only open this up to those living in the U.S., Mexico or Canada. Unless you are willing to pay the overseas shipping and if you are then I'll be happy to send it to you. So just leave a short message in the comments saying you'd like your name to be entered into the mix. Or email me:

I'll leave the submission period up for a week, which means have your name submitted by next Thursday and I'll make the selection on Friday. Here's how it will go: I will write each name on a piece of paper, fold it in half, and drop them into a hat. After all names are dropped in the hat I will have a third party (my wife) pick a name out of the hat that I will hold up high so that she can't see the pieces of paper. Good luck!!

~Peace to all beings~

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Why I Chose Zen Buddhism.

When we practice zazen [Zen Meditation] our mind always follows our breathing. When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say "inner world" or "outer world," but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door.

The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, "I breathe," the "I" is extra. There is no you to say "I." What we call "I" is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no "I," no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.

--Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.

James: I often am asked why I chose Zen Buddhism over the other Buddhist traditions. I have written about this before but I'd like to write about it again, however, hopefully from a bit of a different angle. I respond well to the stripped down nature of Zen Buddhism as seen in this quote by the Zen legend Suzuki. I was raised in a very dogmatic religion and found it to be less helpful and I think that past experience led me in part to Zen, which (in my view) the least complicated form of Buddhism. For me it demystifies Buddhism and does a great job of focusing on the basics of Buddha's Dharma.

As well as the focus on Zazen (meditation) because that is something that I can easily understand and implement. I continue to study the sutras and canons and I certainly do not want my readers to think that I don't value them at all nor think them necessary to understanding Dharma because they do overall offer essential wisdom. That said, I find it more valuable in my personal practice to spend more time meditating than doing rituals (thought I find some ritual to beneficial) and keeping track of deities except as archetypes. I also like that Zen (in my view) is a bit more flexible in regards to dogma.

I find great success in Thich Nhat Hanh's style of Zen, which gets back to the very basic teachings of Buddha such as focusing on one's breath (as mentioned by Suzuki) while meditating and extending that formal meditation practice to everything that I do. So that mindfulness is the center of my practice, which cuts through the fat so to speak to better enable self-awakening. In my practice I have found that focusing on living in the present moment is where the essence of Buddhism flowers like a lotus.

I like that Buddhism has many flavors because it is more proof to me that karma is indeed apart of our lives. I believe it is this varied karma that, in part directs us toward one school of Buddhism over another. I'm currently reading the new book by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, "Becoming Enlightened" for a review and he speaks about these different variations in Buddhism.

When teachings at particular students are examined as a body of work, it is possible for their surface of literal meanings not to be in agreement, since their purpose is to help in ways appropriate to a student's current situation. Buddha himself sometimes taught this way, based on a trainee's need.

He also has some real gems of wisdom in warning against a stubborn, strict adherenace to dogma:

For a teaching to be a suitable source of refuge, it must pass the scrutiny of reasoned reflection and must be highly beneficial. A famous Chilean scientist told me that a scientific researcher should not be attached to science, and I believe that in much the same way a Buddhist should not be attached to Buddhist doctrine as such, but instead should value teachings and teachers that can bear investigation into their validity. The scientific attitude and the Buddhist approach are the same in this case.
Now, of course some dogma is essential to maintaining a religion but I have personally found that a little goes a long way. Remember though that this is my personal experience, I'm not a sanctioned teacher nor a Buddhist scholar but have seen the damaging effects of a heavy handed dogma.

So while I am a Zen student I find much to agree with in these two quotes from the Dalai Lama as well as from many of the great Theravadan teachers. I think all traditions of Buddhism have something essential to offer the others. I don't think that there is one form that is "superior" to any other but again that the variations are there to take into account our different karma, life experiences and socio-economic-cultural differences.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

What is the Zen of Pornography?

What does this article have to do with Zen? Not much except the author's attempt to make a two sentence statement about pornography into a koan. Other then those two sentences there is no other reference to Zen or Buddhism. YET. Yet the title of the post is, "The Zen of Porn: If Pornography is Everywhere, Is It Nowhere?"

Upon reading that I thought that the article was going to be about some Zen Buddhist porn star or something. Instead it's an article about one woman's crusade against pornography.

I don't want to get into the debate about pornography itself (Though I will say that I consider pornography along with much of sexuality to be a personal matter). That said I found it somewhat disrespectful that she was using the Zen label to draw attention to an article about pornography. It appears to me that once again Zen has been misused for a catchy, "cool" title.

I know that it's often better to ignore this kind of thing but it seems at some point we need to say something if for no other reason than for self-respect. Yes, it's important not to get angry with every misuse of our Buddhist labels but it's also important to value our traditions--and ourselves. I don't think we need to get offended at every misuse of Buddhist labels either but at some point it comes down to showing courtesy for other beliefs and people.

Yes, it's important for ourselves to not get attached to simple words but simple words also carry sacred energy and meaning too. At some point we have to say something or we'll end up with Zen toilet seat covers and Zen toilet paper. Yes, it's important to keep the peace and not get personally invested in such disrespect but it's also important to stand for something.

Imagine saying, "The Christianity of Porn," you'd get bombarded by people finding offense and rightly so. Sometimes you have to draw a line. Yes, Buddhism is more than words but there is still a tradition to it and it would be sad if we just let all of our traditions disappear. True we don't need all of those things to practice meditation but then don't we just become someone who happens to meditate?

If Buddha is just a word then why do we take refuge in it? Don't we do Buddha's gift of the Dharma to us a bit of a disservice? Maybe I'm not a "real Buddhist" but I like some tradition and sacredness in my beliefs. I enjoy having things to respect and find meaning and value in.

Some people just don't know any better so I'm not saying we should insult them back but I am advocating that we educate whenever we have the opportunity.

~Peace to all beings~

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Elephant and the Dog.

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I think that these two animals are well on their way to being reborn in the human realm where they can have the best chance at liberation from samsara. There are many humans who don't have the level of compassion, love and commitment as these two realize.

I find it especially endearing that this happened in an animal shelter between two animals who were otherwise rejected by the human realm. It could be that the elephant came from a circus who no longer saw her as "profitable." It is sad when humans see animals as nothing more than to be here for our benefit.

This is evident in all the pets that are abandoned each year in animal shelters because people bought the animals thinking that they'd be the perfect accessory. Instead they realized that they were no different than little children and required a lot of attention, care and responsibility so they abandoned them, which to me says more about the humans than the animals.

Once I learned in Buddhism that we are inter-related with not just humans but animals I saw these creatures completely differently. It then became impossible to me to continue eating meat when I learned that a chicken meant for slaughter could have been my mother in a past life.

Animals have so much to offer and I've found that they really do have little personalities, which fits the Buddhist teaching that we all have our own karma. In having different karma that means that we each have our own personalities, tendencies, quirks, weaknesses, etc. and animals are no different. There are dogs for example who are very smart like my sister's dog whom I swear can understand English and other dogs who aren't so smart. Thus, perhaps the smarter dog is further along the path toward a human birth due to a different karma.

Then there are dogs and other animals who are aware/mindful enough to get help for their human friends who have an accident or get sick. That requires a certain degree of compassion, which is a thought/action that leads to a change in karma, which (in my view) increases in these animals a greater potential for a human rebirth. May all beings achieve liberation from samsara.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Winter Green Haiku.

winter sun bathes plants
green light glows through hungry leaves
flowering smiles

By James R. Ure

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dr. Seuss Wisdom.

"Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened."
-Dr. Seuss

(If you don't know who Dr. Seuss was and want to know click on his name above).

James: I really like that quote. In other words, enjoy the moment. This quote speaks so much to me of the wisdom of being mindful at all times so that I can enjoy the happy times but also be thankful for the not so happy ones because they have taught me a valueable lesson that will most likely help me avoid some suffering in the future. As well as help lighten my karmic load. It's not always easy to see it that clearly but that is why I practice.

I find that in knowing all is impermanent I tend to savor things more and feel more prepared for those inevitable changes to come that might not be seen by my ego-mind as "enjoyable." It has helped me learn to deal with my fear of death and now I am prepared to die, whenever that present moment is born. That is because I stopped worrying about when or how it will happen and instead focused on being in the moment, being the moment and enjoying life to its fullest. So that death has just become simply another moment in the filmstrip of my karmic movie.

I tend to be a bit of a worrier and when you worry you lose out on a lot of life and before you know it you can worry your life away and miss precious opportunities to practice the Dharma in this precious life. I do my best to live life without regrets and to be happy to just be apart of this grand project we call this moment, this existence and this essence. So when my passing from this life to the next occurs I'm be able to "smile that it happened" as the sagely Dr. Seuss advises like a Zen master offering up a koan.

~Peace to all beings~

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Blue Jay in Winter Haiku.

powdered snow hugs trees
shrieking blue jay breaks silence
looking for peanuts

By James R. Ure

PHOTO CREDIT: Larry Hennessy on Flickr

~Peace to all beings~

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Buddhist Economics.

***This is a long post but I hope worth it***

By the way, I find it ironic that Nepal has put the non-materialist Buddha upon money (above). It's probably a commemorative thing but still It's kind of odd given his teachings on giving up materiel possessions.

We currently find ourselves in a global economic crisis. There aren't many in the world who can say that they haven't been affected in some way by these difficult times. Yet in between hyperventilating fits I am realizing that I knew this was coming. It's a cyclical thing.

Buddha certainly saw this coming all those thousands of years ago. I find myself depressed now and then that the world is in such terrible times but then I remember that this is samsara and thus the world has always been in such terrible times. The reality hasn't changed but my concept of what is reality has changed.

My mind wants so badly for things to never change and yet that is impossible nor is it desired in the long run. Imagine a world where nothing ever changed--would such a world even be possible? I say no. However I digress. But that doesn't mean that we have to surrender to the suffering. The world is just as amazing, beautiful, beneficial and worthwhile too. We might have to look a little harder because pain is often the loudest crying baby in the mind but the good is there too to be sure.

I already knew that the economic goods times wouldn't last. The "Laissez les bon temps roulez" (let the good times roll) bubble has burst as Buddha would have warned us all. I think he would have warned us to save (even if it's only a little) money for these inevitable crashes. Yet saving means putting a muzzle on our desires because the mind would say, "Put it on a credit card then you won't have to worry about not having the money and you can have that [insert material item that I'll tire with in two months].

Not so fast. Buddha would I think stress mindfulness as in all areas of life. If we are mindful of our money, mindful of the good and not so good about it as well as being mindful of the fleeting nature of it then perhaps we will be more committed to living within our means. I think Buddha would advise us that credit cards are the Earthly, material versions of karma--sooner or later they must be paid off for there is a consequence to every action. In a way credit cards are worse than karma because karma doesn't (as far as I know) accrue interest!

Buddha might say that despite our best efforts and now matter how fiscally responsible we might be that sooner or later a devastating blow will hit us. Life is anything but predictable. Such is the nature of this existence he would gently remind my exasperated mind. I imagine him softly, slowly advising me of this and imagining that it would calm me down like pouring cold water over raging hot coals.

Buddha teaches us that we are all interconnected, which in economic terms means that we take care of the needs of our brothers and sisters more. That means perhaps living a more modest lifestyle so that others might have basic human needs such as hospital care, food and shelter. This isn't a popular one in our CEO, "capitalism on steroids" society but if we were to look out more for the needs of others than we wouldn't need so much ourselves.

Yes, maybe what I'm speaking of is a utopia but still we can try our best to share and travel through this life together so that the greater good can be achieved. In the west we look at a person's accomplishments in their job and income but that is a false assessment of what is valuable because that is all going away no matter which bank you put it all in. And because it is based upon greed, which is a desire that brings much false happiness. We need to focus more on the Gross Domestic Happiness more than GDP such as in Bhutan.

We would also do our society a lot of good to put more emphasis and value upon people and time together with those people than making buckets of money. And upon nature, which is (if we are totally in the moment) one of the most wonderful things to experience and you don't need much money to enjoy it. Maybe we should spend more time listening to the birds and the sound of the wind caressing the vocal cords of the trees making them whisper through the air than getting the new iPod model accessory.

Another thing he'd probably tell me is that I don't have to have all the things that I think I need for living life well. I'd be reminded of the simple monk who despite owning basically only his robe and his bowl is happier than probably most people with all the bells and whistles of modern, material life. It seems so liberating to cast off all your possessions and walk a simple path of being present. When I am present I realize that in reality all that I need is the Dharma because it is the I Ching for all of life's questions and dilemas. Well, that and a nice plate of stir-fried vegetables and a bowl of sticky rice now and then (wink).

One final note, which comes right back to that impermanence of all things mentioned in the beginning of this post. We need to realize I think that we are in an economic transition period right now all over the world. The old paradigm is dying out but we need not be crushed by the change because while the change is bringing turmoil it is also bring new industries such as the green economy.

It is an exploding industry that will not only give people good paying jobs but also let them live Right Livelihood all while healing the planet for future generations. We need to embrace this opportunity with our collective energies. Perhaps we just need to shift our thinking to see a better, greener economy that has been with us since the first winds blew across our beautiful blue planet. It has been with us since the first rays of the sun kissed our Earth and when the water first churned to create energy. The new economy is literally right underneath our feet--in nature. We help nature and nature helps us. So those are some of my thoughts.

~Peace to all beings~

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Practice Can Not Be Measured in Time.

Munindra-ji is used to say that in spiritual practice, time is not a factor. Practice cannot be measured in time, so let go of the whole notion of when and how long. The practice is a process unfolding, and it unfolds in its own time. It is like the flowers that grow in the spring. Do you pull them up to make them grow faster? I once tried to do that with carrots in my first garden when I was eight years old. It does not work.

We do not need any particular length of time for this process of letting things be.

~Joseph Goldstein

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Tricycle Meditation Challenge 2009.

Meditation is not a means to an end. It is both the means and the end.
~Jiddu Krisnamurti

I'm out of shape and not physically--o.k., well I do need to lose some weight but I'm talking about meditation. Other than today I haven't meditated in a long, long time (blushing) but I have decided to make it a new year resolution to meditate more in 2009. Today I received the most recent newsletter from Tricycle magazine and they are proposing what they call a 90-day meditation challenge.

So to begin my resolution and the new year I have decided to take that challenge. I am going to get back into the groove by meditating every day for 90 days--even if for only 5-10 minutes. They say that they'll have some additional information regarding the challenge in the February issue.

It's always easier to maintain a resolution with the help of friends and their encouragement and even participation. So if anyone wants to do this with me I think that'd be great and we could all motivate each other during the challenge. My goal is to not stop after the 90 day period but to take that good habit energy and roll it into a 401k, er wait that's not it. My goal is to take that good habit energy and roll it into a strong year of meditation. I'm going to also keep a daily log of how things are going along the way--some of which I might include as updates at the bottom of my posts.

~Peace to all beings~

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Monday, January 05, 2009

"The Story of India."

Starting tonight the American Public Broadcast Service channel will begin airing a six part series on the 10,000 year old history of India titled, "The Story of India." The series originally aired on the BBC in 2007. The first episode covers the ancient origins of the Indian civilization while the second one is about the revolutionary years after 500 B.C., which includes the "Age of the Buddha."

I have long been fascinated with India and not just because of the Buddhist connection. I have always seen India as one of the cradles of civilization. So my interest is also motivated from having a university degree in history and a minor degree in world geography. It is a country that seems so rich in culture and that appeals to me coming from a country (America), which is quite culturally barren.

Visiting India is the number 1 thing that I want to do before I die--mostly the Buddhist holy sites as I will most likely have limited time and money. That said if I had the means I would love to visit as much of the country as possible. Speaking of visiting India, I'd love to meet some of my Indian readers some day should I make it to your wonderful country. Maybe you could show me around Bodh Gaya and others places.

I'll be watching the whole, "The Story of India" series and probably do some posts regarding them--especially the "Age of Buddha" segments. Anyway, I wanted to do a little post about the series in case anyone else would be interested in catching the series.

~Peace to all beings~

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