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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Interdependence in World Politics.

Recently American President Barack Obama traveled to Russia and with the help of his Russian counterpart negotiated a deal to reduce nuclear weapons between the two countries. For too long America has seen itself as the only important country in the world, which has bred the three poisons with alarming but predictable speed: Greed, hatred and delusion. Thankfully America now has a leader that better understands how interconnected the world is and just how destructive and counterproductive the "us vs. them" mentality can be. I thought this quote from Obama about interconnection in world affairs was refreshing talk for a political leader because politics is all too often used to exploit people, money and power:

There is sometimes a sense that old ways of thinking must prevail; a conception of power that is rooted in the past rather than in the future... In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries... As I said in Cairo, given our interdependence, any world order that tries to elevate one nation or one group of people over an other will inevitably fail. The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game - progress must be shared.
James: A verse from the Tao Te Ching comes to mind:

If you want to govern the people you must place yourself below them If you want to lead the people you must learn how to follow them.

Tao Te Ching v.66, Paragraph 2.

Barack Obama isn't a perfect leader but it is refreshing to hear a leader speak of interconnection, interdependence and the oneness of all people and cultures.

~Peace to all beings~

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Way of the Hermit.

I've been contemplating lately on the role of so-called, "Hermit monks" which can still be found in remote areas of the world. We know that monasteries are the traditional venue for Buddhist monks looking to further dedicate their lives to studying and living the Dharma but what of the role of hermit monks? Well I found an excellent documentary on the lives of Chinese Buddhist, mountain, hermit, monks titled, "Amongst White Clouds." It's about an hour and a half but so worth it:

Traditionalists might argue that these monks are going "rogue" from the historic path for monks and are thus misguided. However, consider the quote from one of these hermit monks "There are many hearts in this world--the Buddha has a teaching for the heart of every being." This was spoken by a Buddhist Master said to be on the final leg of his liberation who resides in the Zhongnan mountains of China in near solitude.

The majority of these hermits appear to be well practiced in the Dharma and veterans of monasteries and thus able to better practice in a solitary environment. They are not aesthetics in the traditional, pre-Buddhist sense of total denial of food, etc., which Buddha advised against. They eat just enough to remain healthy like most monks, maintain a shelter and do from time to time visit other hermit monks to bolster each other's practice. I hesitate to say that this path is for the average Buddhist who isn't well practiced in the Dharma. For as one of the hermit monks on the mountain states, "Most of the monks here already understand the practice methods, they don't make mistakes. But you must understand the practice. If you don't, you make mistakes and that's nothing but torture."

These hermit monks seem to have reached a point in their practice where they really can't help but wander off into the woods. Historically it was quite common in Buddhist traditions (especially Tibetan Buddhism and Chinese Ch'an or Zen) for monks to wander off to a cave or isolated hut for long periods of deep contemplation. In some branches of Tibetan Buddhism this occurs, however, after about a decade of traditional, monastic Buddhist practice. In some branches of Tibetan Buddhism it is required of monks to do solo retreat for three years and three months.

There are rare cases, however, where younger monks have been recognized as unique in their knowledge, karma and practice of the Dharma to where monastery life is not much of a challenge. In some rare cases it is a distraction for them to further their practice. So sometimes the abbots of those temples send them off to do a solo retreat. This usually is done with an older hermit monk at first but just long enough to get acclimated to the environment/way of life and then they're on their own. Thus the quote about Buddha having a teaching for the heart of every being whether they are an abbot, a senior hermit monk, a younger hermit monk, a novice monk or a lay person.

These men (and one woman--a nun) in this documentary have come to the place where solitude is required to enable their level of near constant meditation and mindful living. Isolation is a very strict, strong and effective teacher in that it forces one to confront that in the end you can't rely upon anyone else for your liberation. Even your fellow monks and practitioners. In practicing the Dharma in isolation one is forced to be with one's thoughts with nothing much to distract oneself from them day and night. The neurotic mind has little to manipulate out of the hermit monks life as silence and raw, naked, confrontation of nature exposes it's futility. Everyday actions take on new meaning when one has no one or no thing to rely upon to distract one from not just practicing Buddhism in general but total, complete, consuming submersion in mindfulness.

Some say they they wander off because they are near enlightenment and therefore where ever they go they are where they need to be. The lessons of mindfulness, of total immersion into mindfulness have carried them outside the monastery walls to reside in the monasteries of old--the forests and mountains. These locations are Earth's first sacred sites and some of the most pure, inspiring and liberating places. It was under a tree, in solo retreat after all where Buddha finally realized liberation.

For these practitioners the spirit of the monastery/sangha travels with them where ever they go. The monastery is everywhere to them including deep in nature where birds, monkeys and other animals are their teachers and fellow practitioners. As well as the trees, caves, waterfalls and rivers. And from time to time many of these hermit monks meet up with one or more other hermit monks in the area to discuss their practice with each other and stay on track. In this documentary the monks in these Chinese mountains are roughly an hour and a half to one day's hike away from each other.

I don't see them as radicals, rebels, misfits or heretics but rather as highly evolved spiritual beings who have reached the point of no return in their quest for final liberation. They seem to have come to the conclusion that monasteries can sometimes become havens for stagnation where it can be easy for some to become lulled into a state of spiritual materialism and spiritual laziness. Not unlike the tendency for some students at universities to stay in school for the socializing and status instead of the learning and growing aspects. So It's as if monasteries are universities for Buddhism where most monks are working on their undergraduate degree.

Whereas hermit monks are doing graduate and post-doctoral work, which is often undertaken independently that usually involves study outside of said universities, in the field so to speak and that means these "students" don't interact with the undergraduate students as much. I would venture to guess that a good majority of these hermit monks come back down after a few years of solitary practice to teach at a monastery. Not unlike a post-doctoral graduate returning to their university to teach undergraduates as a professor. Some, however, have been up their for numerous decades are will most likely die on those mountains and in doing so merge into parinirvana.

In "Amongst White Clouds" I really was inspired and educated by the hermit nun up on the mountain who quoted the Lengyan Scripture, which says in part, "Though there are words to speak, none of these are real. Talk and talk, like flowers falling from heaven--It's all worthless. So there is really nothing to say." This was an appropriate statement because it seemed many of the hermit monks didn't have much to say but their shining eyes and broad smiles sure did. One monk said after the camera man asked another question (and I'm paraphrasing a bit) "I've been talking all day with you and still you want more words?"

This same nun said, "All of the great masters, if they hadn't endured some hardship they wouldn't have opened their wisdom gate." I really connected with that particular insight as my hardship with mental illness is in large part what led me to Buddhism. Of course I'm not a Buddhist master but either way there is great wisdom to be adopted by all who follow the Dharma in that statement. No creation, no destruction.

Finally, consider these thoughts from the man [Red Pine] who wrote the book on these hermit monks, which inspired another man to do this documentary, "Amongst White Clouds":
I’ve never heard of any great master who has not spent some time as a hermit. The hermit tradition separates the men from the boys. If you’ve never spent time in solitude, you’ve really never mastered your practice. If you’ve never been alone with you practice, you’ve never swallowed it and made it yours. If you don’t spend time in solitude, you don’t have either profundity or understanding — you’ve just carried on somebody else’s tradition.
~Peace to all beings~

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Oasis of Dharma.

The Self cannot be pierced by weapons or burned by fire; water cannot wet it, nor can the wind dry it. The Self cannot be pierced or burned, made wet or dry. It is everlasting and infinite, standing on the motionless foundations of eternity. The Self is unmanifested, beyond all thought, beyond all change. Knowing this, you should not grieve.

-Bhagavad Gita 2 23-25

James: This description of oneness is the kind of wisdom that initially attracted me to Eastern spirituality. As many of you know I was raised in a very strict, dogmatic Christian religion, which shaped my life in every way. Eventually as I matured into adulthood that carefully constructed, isolating world started showing cracks. I could no longer stay in the religion because I began to see it as incompatible with the world I was discovering as an adult.

It didn't fit with the new ideas, concepts and information that I had been sheltered from all those years and my world crashed down around me like a cascading crystal chandelier falling from above. For the first time in my life I felt truly alone, lost and didn't know what or whom to trust. And so like many in this world of chaos, selfishness and suffering I felt overwhelmed. Add modernity's way of diminishing peoples' value and I was living in constant fear and anguish.

I was going through my own process of seeing the true unsatisfactory nature of the real world as Buddha did. I drifted into nihilism and hated just about everything and everyone that I came into contact with and then I began reading books on Buddhism and other Eastern spiritual traditions. I began to see hope and sought out every book and teacher on the subjects that I could find. I was insatiable. It was like I had been wandering in a desert thirsting for relief and stumbling upon a cool, relaxing, refreshing oasis. Except that at this oasis there was a Buddhist master patiently sitting at the side of the clear, clean, crisp pool waiting for me to finish guzzling the water. The water was like the initial gratification of finding Buddhism before realizing that was just the tip of the iceberg. It was as if he smiled and said, "Water is nice but you must find the infinite oasis for lasting relief."

This master (Buddhism) began teaching me not only how to survive the suffering of thirst (greed, anger, delusion--suffering in general) but taught me how to survive traveling through the desert (samsara) in a way that wouldn't be so painful and discouraging. So that one day I would reach my destination (Nirvana--liberation from traveling from life to life in an infinite cycle of suffering) and no longer be lost wandering the disorienting desert (samsara). This of course was the Dharma. I had spent too long just looking for the next oasis (immediate gratification) instead of trying to actually find the way out of the damn desert altogether!! It took Buddhism to show me that life changing discovery.

I was no longer looking through the self-isolating eyes of individualist, materialism. I zoomed out and saw the bigger picture, which made me smaller and I found some much needed relief in that reality. Saying that feeling small made me feel relief might sound odd to those new to ideas of the Higher Self or Oneness. Or to those use to the materialism of the West. However, it helped me feel for the first time that I wasn't alone and that I didn't have to take on this overwhelming world alone.

I was apart of a much bigger essence that could never be diminished, tarnished or taken away regardless of what this sometimes mean and nasty world could present as an obstacle. It gave me a feeling of belonging, true belonging that could never be taken away because how do you take away everything that is? How do you take away Oneness? How can you separate the molecules that make up your body from the molecules that make up the air that surrounds your entire body? How do you then separate the air molecules from those that make up the radiation from the sun that keeps all things on Earth alive? And how do you separate those radiation molecules from dark matter and gravity? So if we are both this body AND air, earth, water, fire, space dust, dark matter and who knows what else--how can you feel alone and lost after knowing all of that? As the quote says,"Knowing this, you should not grieve." It's easy to diminish an individual but impossible to diminish the totality of the all that exists.

I soon realized, however, that it isn't as easy as just making that discovery--it takes a lot more than discovering a mine to find enough to gold to free you from poverty. It's not easy following the path of Dharma but I have seen enough to know that it sure is worth it and better than the alternative. It's easy to forget to look at the compass (not practice the Dharma) while traveling toward the end of the desert (samara) so I keep meditating and breathing my way toward liberation. The funny thing is that in reality there is no desert!!

~Peace to all beings~

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Little Shrub.

This is one of my favorite poems and sounds very much like something a Zen master would say. It reminds me of the teaching to be in the present moment and try to be the best you can be in that moment and not to worry too much about what will come:

"Yes if you can't be a pine on the hill, be a shrub in the valley, but be the best little shrub on the side of the road - be a bush if you can't be a tree.
If you can't be a highway be a trail.
If you can't be a sun be a star.
It isn't by size that you win or fail - be the best at whatever you are."

-Dr Martin Luther King.

James: It's so easy to feel insignificant and worthless in this world that constantly tells us that we aren't good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, rich enough, healthy enough, spiritual enough and on and on. Well I say, enough with the expectations because no matter how hard we try to be perfect it will never be enough because as Buddha taught us this very existence is imperfect. It's so hard to remember this sometimes but it's so true and when it does click for us it is so liberating from our suffering and self-doubts. We must remember that while we might be comparing ourselves to someone else--they are comparing themselves to someone else too.

~Peace to all beings~

PHOTO: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.

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