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Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Compassion of Animals.

The November issue of National Geographic magazine features a moving photograph of chimpanzees watching as one of their own is wheeled to her burial. Since it was published, the picture and story have gone viral, turning up on websites and TV shows and in newspapers around the world. For readers who’d like to know more, here’s what I learned when I interviewed the photographer, Monica Szczupider. On September 23, 2008, Dorothy, a female chimpanzee in her late 40s, died of congestive heart failure. A maternal and beloved figure, Dorothy had spent eight years at Cameroon’s Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center, which houses and rehabilitates chimps victimized by habitat loss and the illegal African bushmeat trade. Szczupider, who had been a volunteer at the center, told me: “Her presence, and loss, was palpable, and resonated throughout the group. The management at Sanaga-Yong opted to let Dorothy's chimpanzee family witness her burial, so that perhaps they would understand, in their own capacity, that Dorothy would not return. Some chimps displayed aggression while others barked in frustration. But perhaps the most stunning reaction was a recurring, almost tangible silence. If one knows chimpanzees, then one knows that [they] are not [usually] silent creatures."

James: It touches me deeply that this chimpanzee family lined up to view the dead body of one of their own as it passed by them. It's similar to the funeral possessions that are common amongst humans, which makes sense on one level when you consider that humans and chimpanzees have DNA that is 95-98% similar. In Buddhism we are taught that the human realm offers the best chance for realizing liberation from suffering and the cycle of birth/death. In addition to that it is said that the animal realm is a horrendous station and from what I have observed of the animal kingdom it does seem rather harsh and rough. Sometimes this unfortunately leads people to see animals as "dumb" and that delusion often leads to taking advantage of them.

We do so at our own peril because animals are embedded in our DNA if you believe the generally accepted theory of evolution. Taken a step further in Buddhism, of course we know that we are interconnected to all beings regardless of evolution or not. The molecules that make up our body blend with the molecules that make up the air, which blend into the molecules that make up other people, animals, rocks, water and on and on. It is not a connection we can see with our eyes of delusion but if we look closer with a mindful eye that web of connection shines forth in beautiful and reassuring ways.

Those chimpanzees might not know the Dharma but they do understand love and compassion. How could a mother of any species not have a bond with their offspring that is an expression of concern and care? In my mind, that is but another way of showing and experiencing compassion and love. The uncharacteristic silence of the chimps is something a being wouldn't show if it didn't experience expressions of sorrow and respect. We know chimps are capable of showing respect in how they stratify their family groups. Respect is shown to the experienced and strong male as well as the alpha female.

So they may not know how to liberate themselves from suffering but in my opinion they deserve respect, dignity and a chance at life that we expect for our own offspring. It's not my place to say that someone should be a vegetarian--that's an ego boosting exercise nor it is skillful means. Besides, Buddha didn't set a strict rule about it nor can all people follow a vegetarian diet due to climate and health considerations. I don't eat meat and abstaining from it is for me personally apart of keeping the first precept to avoid violence. However, I struggle with other precepts so I don't have any right to condemn anyone for eating meat -- nor would I do so. I may not eat meat or kill animals but I do still struggle sometimes with verbal violence so I keep working and practicing. There is no point to judging others or guilting people into doing something or not doing something. In addition, people can be very compassionate, loving and caring toward animals regardless of diet. Although for some, vegetarianism might be helpful, rewarding and beneficial to understanding compassion as a universal right.

~Peace to all beings~

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Motivations for Becoming Buddhist.

Baseball player Alex Rodriquez is reportedly going to convert to Buddhism for his girl friend, actress Kate Hudson. I'm not a Religious Studies professor but I do know that converting to a religion out of a feeling of obligation or to please a person is a horrible reason. I was apart of a belief system growing up in which I remained for longer than I should have out of a feeling of obligation and It was gut-wrenching. I finally realized that I was living a lie and deceiving my parents into thinking I was a loyal member.

I can't say whether A-Rod will stay with it or not but too often we do things for the wrong reasons and the biggest example I can think of is with love/happiness. We might think that we have to be a certain way in order to gain the love of someone and be happy. The other side of that coin is when we withhold love to get things from someone. That isn't love or true happiness. That is loved based on attachment. It's like saying, "I love you but only if you do the things I like, be the person I want and believe the things I do." The Venerable Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says of happiness and love in his book, "Teachings on Love":

"Our idea of happiness can prevent us from actually being happy. We fail to see the opportunity for joy that is right in front of us when we are caught in a belief that happiness should take a particular form."

James: It's hard when our vision of happiness doesn't pan out but if we can find happiness in what we already have then we'll never be disappointed. And we won't be manipulating people thus causing suffering for them too. I working on that with everyone else by the way. My pot is no less cracked than anyone else's. I hope that A-Rod finds something about Buddhism to be important, interesting or worthwhile other than being the religion his girlfriend practices. I also hope Kate Hudson didn't pressure him to convert. Because that would make me wonder just how well she knows Buddhism because pressuring people to do much of anything in Buddhism is taboo. I'm not saying that A-Rod doesn't have any personal interest in Buddhism but from what I know of the story it sounds like he is doing it just for her. I hope it works out because I sure have found a lot in Buddhism that has helped my life but it doesn't mean much if you're not fully engaged.

~Peace to all beings~

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

"The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines."

Knowing this, a wise and learned bodhisattva, works not towards Arhatship, nor enlightenment, nor Nirvana. In the practice alone one trains for the sake of the practice.

James: So goes the 22nd verse of, "The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines." I hadn't heard of this treasure until now. However, hanks to the generosity, thoughtfulness and compassion of two people I've been given a great gift: My friend Jamie and the blog, "The New Heretics." Thanks Dharma buds. You should take some time and read the whole discourse because it's beautiful, insightful and an invaluable teaching. As well as a gentle and wise but compassionate reminder of what the essence of the Buddha Dharma is all about. After reading it I felt as though I had just received a rare teaching from a wise monk from centuries ago. It feels as true today as it was in Buddha's era.

So without further ado, "The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines" as interpreted by "The New Heretics."

PHOTO: Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Monjusri or Monju as said in Japan. He holds a scroll to represent wisdom and a sword to cut through ignorance. He represents the wisdom in all of us.

~Peace to all beings~

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Clinging to a Moment in Time.

I wanted to add some additional thoughts about the current discussion bubbling up to the surface in the Buddhoblogosphere about sanghas and teachers, which I addressed in my last post found here. As you know I support both online sanghas and interactions with teachers as well as the traditional sanghas and teacher environments. I am somewhat bewildered by those who refuse to acknowledge the usefulness of iSanghas (online sanghas). Especially when there are those, which are run and administered by ordained monks!! We have to let go of this idea which bubbles up from time to time that online sanghas and teaching environments are always inadequate.

So if I show up in person and talk to an ordained teacher at the agreed upon building I will get a "better" Dharma than if I interact with the same teacher via chat, phone or video-conferencing? Is the "specialness" (that some "purists" claim comes with physical presence of a teacher) the smell they give off? Is the trick being your smell mixing with their smell? I know that's silly sounding and that's the point because purists are being silly with this issue in my view. Whatever happened to the idea of 84,000 different ways of teaching the Dharma? I fully support traditional sanghas and a lot of other Buddhist traditions. However, we practice a belief system that was developed by a man who had NO Roshi or other Buddhist "Master" to help him. Even ordained teachers who wander the temples and meditation centers will tell you that no amount of interaction with a teacher will enlighten you. In the end it is each one of us who has to do the work. It doesn't matter if a Zen Master stands on his head while chanting unless you do the work yourself. That's not to say that interaction with an ordained teach is WRONG--It's not wrong AT ALL. It's very important and should remain intact but there is plently of room and elasticity in Buddhism to allow for iSanghas.

However, at what point are we clinging to something simply because "that's the way it's always been done?" Isn't being a "purist" in this case attaching way too much importance to the ritual of the student/teacher relationship? As well as the ritual of formal buildings and temples? Don't get me wrong I want to maintain these wonderful buildings and tradition of having a teacher to work with in person. However, I don't see "iSanghas" as a disease that will ruin Buddhism, which is an attitude I see behind much of this hyperventilation over these new developments in Buddhism. The original "temples" were forests. So was the change that would come with the advent of more formal temples with ornate carvings, golden statues and beautiful artwork poisoning the "traditional forest sangha" set-up? What about the great masters who left the temples after a time to study alone in a cave? Were they not "credible teachers?"

Were those caves hindrances to their practice? Tell that to all the great teachers who have come from that tradition, which is especially strong in Tibetan Buddhism. Tell Buddhadharma that the meditation he was doing in that cave wasn't "the real Dharma" because there was no teacher right there to constantly whack him on the back. So my point is that change is inevitable and we seem to be able to see that in our daily lives with learning to adapt to changes at work, in relationships and in all areas of life. Yet I have seen a strange stubborn streak in some practitioners when it comes to change in Buddhism seen here with the virtual sanghas and online interactions with a teacher. Hell, there are STILL people who say that Mahayanist Buddhists aren't TRUE Buddhists!! Some people are still fighting that change, which was a difference that arose ages ago.

~Peace to all beings~

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sitting with Jundo Cohen.

Awhile back I was contacted by Zen teacher Jundo Cohen about his wonderful Tree Leaf Zendo, which provides insightful v-cast teachings that include a time for sitting Zazen. It's a very effective way of staying interconnected with a teacher and the sangha of practitioners if one has needs that precludes a person from sitting formally.

I know the advent of the "Online Sangha" has been of some controversy of late on the Buddoblogosphere. I personally find it change to embrace and appreciate. It is allowing and enabling the Dharma to reach more and more people who seek its wisdom. People are discovering the Buddha's teachings through the internet who might not ever have come into contact with them if it were in years past.

I do not understand how enabling more people (through technology) to sit with and learn from ordained teachers as well as enjoy support from fellow practitioners is a less helpful. It seems to me that such thinking is allowing yourself to be tethered to the "iron ball and chain" obstacle of "I'm here" and "you're there." Just because people aren't sitting the same room does not mean that their sitting is less helpful, less real or a "fad." If we believe that we truly understand interconnection then the idea of a sangha meeting virtually from all corners of the world should make complete and total sense. It is a creative way to make that understanding of interconnectedness stronger to encompass the world and beyond. Jundo Cohen speaks of the illusion of "Now" and "There" quite beautifully in this v-cast:

James:Along this same parallel, I believe that there is other life out in the universe (as even the atheist Richard Dawkins believes). As Dawkins writes in his fantastic book, "The God Delusion":
Now suppose the origin of life, the spontaneous arising of something equivalent to DNA, really was a quite staggeringly improbable event. Suppose it was so improbable as to occur on only one in a billion planets. And yet, even with such absurdly long odds, life will still have arisen on a billion planets -- of which, Earth, of course, is one."
James: This was in response to the creationist claim that evolution means life was created spontaneously, whereas evolutionists know it evolved over billions of years. He was saying, however, that even if it was spontaneous--the probability still makes it very likely.

That all said, I do not believe that alien life has contacted us or our world--yet. But my point in all of this "alien life" discussion is that idea of infinite lives being connected to all things and beings regardless of proximity to a meditation center or physical presence at one. We are interconnected with things that we haven't even discovered yet!! How cool and humbling is that idea?!! Imagine one day being able to virtually meditate with Buddhist practitioners of some other planet?!! You could be meditating at the same time with someone from your country, another country on the other side of the planet and another life form on another side of the UNIVERSE!!!! That would be quite the mindful moment of awareness of the many levels of interconnectedness. What a marvelous thought. Even better? We can do that right now. We can imagine all forms of life as we meditate on interconnectedness, which makes the Universe (I find) very personal and easier to grasp.

UPDATE: I wanted to elaborate a bit more on why there is some blow-back (resistance) to online sanghas and online or telephone interactions with teachers. I suspect that some of the "anti-internet" sanghas stems from a perhaps hidden desire to maintain their position as "Abbot" of some prestigious temple. Or as an ordained practitioner by a prestigious and famous "Master." This is not to say that there is anything wrong with ordaination but there seems to be a bit of a tendancy for some traditional practitioners to act as "purists" when someone discovers another way of diseminating the Dharma.

It's sad that rather than welcome another way to spread the Dharma and sustain practitioners who can't access physical sanghas; some of these folks laugh off online interactions as "not as real" or "authentic." As if there is anything "real" to begin with but that's a topic for another time. Part of these backlash could also stem from a desire to maintain their institution and steady line of devoted students. Such a position of importance can easily fuel their egos and push them to seek maintaining such a situation regardless of what it might mean for others.

I don't see how online sanghas and online interaction with ordained teachers threatens traditional "brick and mortar" sanghas. They both administer to different groups of practitioners. Some feel the need for physical interaction like those who attend school on a campus. Versus those who attend online classes. This doesn't threaten the disappearance of traditional sanghas and temples for people will always have a need for sacred places. It's to say that no one needs a savior, a "master" or any other being to wake up. It's not a matter of one or the other.

Physical sanghas, temples and monasteries simply need to adapt a bit. Perhaps setting up an online sangha on their own web page administered by a senior monk would help people continue their practice while maintaining a deep connecting with their teacher and that particular sangha or temple. Even just maintaining an interactive website where senior monks answer questions as they can would help maintain both needs of updated sangha options and making sure our institutions are still honored.

Establishing or growing retreats and especially days or weeks when the temples and sanghas celebrate and honor traditions and festivals. That way people would be more willing drive an hour or so to attend something to connect with fellow physical practitioners from time to time without having to drive hours upon hours every time sangha meets. It would also enable people with psychological conditions to be apart of a communion and connection with a physical temple/sangha while limiting the stimulation that they easily become overwhelmed with.

Even just maintaining an interactive website where senior monks answer questions as they can would help maintain both needs of updated sangha options and making sure our institutions are still honored.They are all helpful, useful and I believe essential to a degree. However, they are still, in the end--fingers pointing at the moon. No one can do the waking up but us.

~Peace to all beings~

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Next Dalai Lama to be a Woman?

In 50 years of exile from Tibet, this self-professed “simple monk” has been the driving force behind the growing prominence of women in Tibetan exile society. He has even suggested that his next reincarnation could and should be a girl. “Woman is more compassionate and has more power to understand and feel the needs of others as compared to man,” he said at a press conference last November in Dharamsala, his exile home in northern India. That the Dalai Lama—believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha of compassion—should return to the world as a woman is a radical notion that perturbs even open-minded Tibetans, men and women alike. And despite his wishes, the 15th reincarnation will very likely be a boy, just like all the prior ones.

In the film he also spoke admiringly about a milestone in Tibetan history known as Tibetan Women’s Uprising Day. On March 12, 1959—just days before he fled his homeland -- about 15,000 women spontaneously gathered in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa in an unprecedented display of peaceful protest against China’s invasion of Tibet.

Those women were “heroines,” says the Dalai Lama in A Quiet Revolution. It was “as if they already knew the feminist movement!” He laughs gleefully as though he has told a hilarious joke. At the time, Tibet was closed to the outside world. To a Tibetan, Simone De Beauvoir and Betty Friedan might as well have been Martians.

James: I find it odd in a way that some Tibetan Buddhists who revere The Dalai Lama not only as their spiritual leader but also for being the very incarnation of the compassionate Bodhisattva Avalokitshevara (or Guan Yin) would disagree with him on this issue. How can he be wrong if you believe his very essence is to convey, show, teach and bring about compassion? He basically has a Phd in Compassion. I think he knows the subject better than most of us. Also, If we are all one then by not allowing women to potentially be a Dalai Lama is to deny a part of all of us.Besides, I have read several accounts where Avalokiteshvara is somewhat androgynous and has at least, a strong feminine side to him. In some cultures Avalokiteshvara is actually a woman in the form of Guan Yin. I don't see why it would be so controversial for the Dalai Lama to reincarnate as a woman if Avalokiteshvara is equal parts male and equal parts female. The Dalai Lama recognizes the deep compassion and nurturing instinct that many women have is essential in a world that grows more and more cold, harsh, mean and uncaring. And I can't think of a better way for the Dalai Lama to teach everyone about the equality of all people than by being reincarnated as a woman.

~Peace to all beings~

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Monday, October 12, 2009

The Truth.

If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between "for" and "against" is the minds worst disease. ~Sent ts'an, c. 700 C. E.

It seems that we often bounce back and forth between these two extremes, which kind of feed off each other. Just the emotionally whiplash of flipping between these extremes creates mental and physical exhaustion/suffering. It's reminds me of taking a winding path up hills then down them and how much suffering and exhaustion that creates for the body and mind. Whereas walking straight down the moderate, balanced middle is not only more direct but it requires less strain and thus less suffering is endured on the trek.

The more I meditate/contemplate upon the teaching of the Middle-Way I find it to be one of the most important building blocks to the foundation of Dharma practice.
This reminds me of the old adage, which I paraphrase as, "The truth is usually found somewhere in the middle between the two extremes." The Middle-Path in my view is one of compromise, which is in part what attracted me to the Dharma. I am a person who likes to take the best ideas of both sides and come to a common ground.

~Peace to all beings~

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Faith in Buddhism.

Perhaps because of our Judeo-Christian background, we have a tendency to regard doubt as something shameful, almost as an enemy. We feel that if we have doubts, it means that we are denying the teachings and that we should really have unquestioning faith. Now in certain religions, unquestioning faith is considered a desirable quality. But in the Buddha-dharma, this is not necessarily so. Referring to the dharma, the Buddha said, “ehi passiko,” which means “come and see,” or “come and investigate,” not “come and believe.”

An open, questioning mind is not regarded as a drawback to followers of the Buddha-dharma. However, a mind that says, “This is not part of my mental framework, therefore I don't believe it,” is a closed mind, and such an attitude is a great disadvantage for those who aspire to follow any spiritual path. But an open mind, which questions and doesn't accept things simply because they are said, is no problem at all.

–Ani Tenzin Palmo, from “Necessary Doubt,” Tricycle, Summer 2002. Special thanks to Philip Ryan at Tricycle for this quote.

James: This reminds me of the quote, "Minds are like parachutes. They only work when they're open." One of the reasons that I began to sour on Christianity was because of the insistence upon "blind faith." I never understood how using my mind to question the claims being made by adult leaders in my former church was giving into "Satan" when "God" was the one who gave me that brain, which is able to question in the first place!! I like the translation of "come and see" because it is an invitation to spirituality but coupled with an invitation to see for yourself. I was very impressed with that approach when I first began investigating Buddhism. It is a very science based approach to spirituality, which appealed greatly to me as one who was raised on the scientific method.

Seeing is believing as we say in the west and in many ways Buddha was an ancient scientist of the mind and perhaps the first psychiatrist. The teaching of cause and effect is very much a foundation of scientific inquiry. He was certainly compared to a doctor prescribing countless variations of the Dharma (medications) to each person based on their individual karmic needs. That said, let's get back to the psychiatrist analogy in specific. A psychiatrist knows that trust is vital to enabling the patient in believing that the specific treatment plan prescribed will be helpful to the patient. That means allowing the patient to ask questions about the process. That's because a psychiatrist/psychologist knows that if a person feels like they are doing something out of guilt, fear or blind faith it doesn't matter how helpful the therapy might be, the patient is simply not going to buy into the program.

Buddhism is a lot like psychological therapy program put forth by Buddha. He knew that being able to question his teachings was the only way people would fully consider what he taught without feeling forced into it and force is completely antithetical to the Dharma he revealed. Buddha was a great questioner as he dared question the great Brahmin priest class of his day, which was very rebellious. He took the power of religion out of the hands of the privileged few and gave it back to the masses. He was a Robin-hood of spirituality in a way. That great tradition of questioning phenomenon and experiences for oneself is to me what makes Buddhism such a respected tradition. It treats people like adults rather than children to be told what to think, believe and how to act.

He was not very interested in speculation and open-ended faith but rather faith, which is merely a step in-between ignorance and knowing for oneself. It is a pit-stop of sorts along the journey of experiential wisdom. The Great Awakened one said in the Kasibharadvaja Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya that "Faith is the seed and practice is the rain" which is nothing near blind faith. He goes on further saying, "And wisdom is my yoke and my plough." Thus, without the wisdom (the plough) to prepare the fertile field (the mind) with experience the seed of faith will wither, dry up, die and be of no use. Faith in Buddhism is in large part more of a conviction to accomplish ones goals for oneself, rather than being a submission and obedience to others as is often the case with the monotheistic religions.

~Peace to all beings~

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Friday, October 09, 2009

President Barack Obama Wins the Nobel Peace Prize?

I felt like someone waking up from a decades long coma this morning as I sleepily starred at the t.v. anchor telling me that President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. My first thought was, "For what?" Don't get me wrong, I like Obama and while I don't agree with everything he's done in his short tenure; I still personally really dig the guy. I'm not sure if I'll vote for him yet again in 2012 but I'm leaning toward re-electing him barring a disaster on health care, which I'm really concerned over.

Anyway, despite my admiration for the man I don't think he's done enough for peace in the less than a year that he's been in office to warrant such a prestigious prize. Especially since he has recently snubbed the Dalai Lama; himself an award winner. He struck the right tone, however, this morning when talking about the award in saying he felt he didn't deserve it. And that he was very humbled. He was a bit abashed by this surprise awarding. As well as stating how he wants to share it with the world who have collectively done so much for peace. What else could he say? This award was thrust upon him. He would have appeared rude to decline it and had he accepted it without feeling humbled; he'd be accused of having a messianic complex.

The candidate that I would have chosen would be the 82 year old Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh who was nominated in 1967. He was nominated by his friend the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his work to peacefully end the Vietnam war. At the time King, Jr. made the comment, "I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam...I know Thich Nhat Hanh." Nhat Hanh is using the peaceful message of Buddhism to effect harmony in the world.

In his native Vietnam a fledgling order of monks was established by him a few years ago, which is now being broke up by the religious police of the Communist dictatorship there. They have used violence to remove the peaceful monastics from the temple monastery yet because of Nhat Hanh's peaceful example these monastics were able to remain calm, peaceful and loving despite being treated so poorly. So, I thought I'd ask my readers, "Which Buddhist would you nominate for the Nobel Peace Prize?" You can chose a non-Buddhist but I was hoping to limit it to Buddhists since this is a Buddhist Blog (smiles). The other one I'd chose since The Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi have already received it would be one of the monks who led the peaceful protests in Burma recently. Feel free to vote for one I mentioned or one you thought of.

~Peace to all beings~

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Blue and Gray.

blue flash streaks gray sky
wings navigate leafless trees
wood smoke tickles nose

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Buddha's Wish for the World. A Book Review.

In this short but interesting book, Robert Thurman sets the tone in the forward with a welcoming punch to the forehead, "I am right" is the root of all problems. This book is part biography but is mostly a concise but rich discourse on the teachings of Shin Buddhism from the 24th Monshu of the Jodo Shinshu Hongwaji-ha--Monshu Koshin Ohtani. I was impressed with this book from the start with the Venerable Monshu touching on the importance of ridding oneself of a very unskillful emotion that I struggle with--self-pity.

Monshu says, "The heart of the matter is we humans turn our backs whenever duty calls and protest that it is not our responsibility. "How come I am the only one who has to do this?" "It is not like I chose to be born in this place." " I didn't do anything wrong." As long as we respond to a situation in this way, we can never get rid of the nagging feeling that the world is unfair or that we are dissatisfied with our lives."

James: Even if we do not believe in an external savior; It seems that many of us still long for one. Whenever I think that life is "being unfair to me" It's hard to remember that this is my ego-mind feeling that it is somehow special and different than everyone else. That somehow suffering shouldn't apply to me. Thank-you Monshu for reminding me of this tendancy of mine and why it's dangerous to my practice. Much of this book is timely to our era of hyper-inflated egos and selfishness becoming a near sainted emotion. It is exactly what we need to hear.

Monshu reminds us that everyone breaks the precepts; according to his tradition of Shin Buddhism we're all in need of the Amida Buddha's compassion. This is again timely as a heated discussion of precepts is often cultivated in the buddhoblogosphere. People set up camps, which often end up being arguments over who is more pious. Well, newsflash. None of us keep the precepts so rather than argue over who is the keeping the rules as Buddha intended; It is better for both sides to look inward and clean up our own mess before throwing around accusations and statements of authority. In fact, none of us are authorities on much of anything. We're all stuck in the mud of samsara together.

When you're stuck in the mud and you throw a handful at another fellow stuck being you also get yourself dirtier. No one wins when we turn on each other. We each have our own path to follow within the greater map of the overall Dharma. What might be hard for one person will be easy for another but it doesn't mean that person is better than the other because they have their weaknesses too. To deny such is pure folly and enforcing dangerous delusions. This all said, Monshu explains the traditional five precepts are not found in Jodo Shinshu because they believe Amida Buddha will save them. However, he warns this is not a license to do whatever those practitioners want. The focus he teaches in Shin Buddhism is not always about extinguishing desire but also about enjoying life but not attaching to desire.

He mentions the idea the "The Seven Gifts" in Buddhism, which I hadn't come across but I find it very wonderful. Here are the gifts: 1). The gift of gentle eyes, looking at others kindly. 2) The gift of a smile and kind expressions. 3). The gift of words, speaking kindly to others. 4). The gift of the physical body. Acting properly yourself, and treating others with respect. 5). The gift of heart, touching others with a heart full of love. 6). The gift of a resting place, offering others a place to sit and rest. 7). The gift of shelter and lodging, providing others with a room or warm place to stay. These all allow us to be Bodhisattvas right here, right now. The Bodhisattva vow doesn't have to be some metaphysical god concept.

I don't want to spoil the whole book for you though!! So I'll leave you with this post and some teasers of other concepts that Monshu touches upon in greater detail in his wonderful book: On feeling useless and a burden, (this section really helped me with my depression that involves those feelings of uselessness). On feeling that life is boring (again, very helpful). On comparing ourselves to others and how to see that in a more constructive way, which is again timely for our modern age where social status and being seen as beautiful, rich and powerful is hyper inflated. On growing old and how to feel better about your age and how to enjoy the time you have. And finally, on dying where he offers an interesting and fresh insight upon the long feared subject.

While this book is written by a Shin Buddhist; Buddhists of all traditions will find much to like in it. It is a short book and can be read in one sitting but don't let that fool you into thinking that it's not full of great wisdom. It is frankly wonderful how much wisdom and unique insights Monshu offers in this thin but enriching monogram. I highly recommend it and give it an 8 out of 10 on a scale where 10 is the highest ranking.

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Monday, October 05, 2009

"Bamso: The Art of Dreams." A book Review.

I was recently sent a copy of "Bamso: The Art of Dreams" and initially I thought it was more of a manual on how to use your dreams to better your life. And while it does offer some insights in how to use dreams to solve problems in your daily life it reads more like a novel or one person's dream diary. It certainly paints a very wonderful journey of the mind and it's an interesting read. However, personally I find the ideas of astral projection, mental projection and time travel through dreams to be distractions from our ideals as Buddhists of waking up from dreams and illusions.

I have found that the mind in Buddhism is not something to be encouraged. Also, In the book the teacher encourages the student to cultivate his imagination. For many Buddhists such an activity is going against much of the teachings on Dharma to reduce our fantasies and imaginations, which often distract us from the present moment of right here, right now. The Buddha taught that this present moment is all we have and I personally believe that gallivanting off into our dreams can be a really good way to lose focus and become distracted from true awakening.

That said, dreams can provide insights from time to time but attaching too much importance to them (I have found) just leads to more attachments. I have done astral projection before and while it was fun and interesting I didn't do much for me except cause me to attach to the warm fuzzies I often felt mentally traveling through fantasy worlds. It would probably best be appreciated in the Buddhist community by Tibetan Buddhists, who seem to be more open to dream analysis more than other schools. Especially the Dream Yoga and Dzogchen Tibetan Buddhist traditions. I do believe that sometimes dreams replay events from past lives but there is no way of knowing this for sure in a scientifically proven sense. However, I see most dreams as an amalgamation of the days events, worries, fears, hopes, desires and miscellaneous images. If we as Buddhists are too awaken to the illusory nature of our waking state then how is it that we should attach too much importance to our dreams?

The book did explain that if nothing else analyzing your dreams can bring about better sleep and relaxation during the day. Personally, it is quite distressing to have a nightmare and feel the distressing energy throughout the next day. So there suggestion in the book of combining dream analysis with meditation seems useful in letting go of the suffering that often comes with nightmares. Overall I personally wouldn't recommend this book for Buddhists who usually want to wake up from dream states, not enforce them. At least that's how I see it but I'm not a Buddhist master or anything. I know Buddha experienced dreams but somehow it's different, though I can't quite explain why. Perhaps it's that Buddha used his dreams to wake up, not enforce his delusions of the pleasure seeking self. As a Zennist who strips a lot of metaphysical aspects from his practice I'd give this book a 4 out of 10. If you're just looking for a good novel/story though I'd give it a higher rating. That said, I'd be happy to send this to anyone interested in it. Just email me: jaymur-at-gmail-dot-com. UPDATE: This book has now been claimed.

~Peace to all beings~

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Sunday, October 04, 2009

Of Gods, Bodhisattvas and Shrines.

This post was taken from a comment about a discussion of Richard Dawkin's excellent book, "The God Delusion" and the concept of a Creator God on Buddha Space. I've written about this before but have some new insights. Ah the many facets of the diamond that is the Buddhadharma:

My "Creator God" is science. However, I do not worship at the altar of science as some atheists and others do. Attaching too much to it. I see it as an impersonal force that holds everything together. The cosmic glue. I do not believe that one needs to believe in a God to be a good person. I am my own savior or my own destructive downfall.

However, I also believe that the existence or nonexistence of any deities is unknown but not necessarily unknowable. It's hard to shut the door on anything completely in this unpredictable universe. A scientist must also leave room for unforeseen information. For me personally I'm 99.99999% certain that there is no Creator God. Yet most of the time it doesn't really have much impact on my practice one way of the other--the idea of Creator God that is. I just don't see the need for a Creator God in my life or in existence overall.

The same goes for the gods and Bodhisattvas in Buddhism. I do not believe in the literal reality of these beings. I see them more as archetypes of what I want to become and need to avoid. So I believe in them in so far as I believe that I have their same potential with me. So I keep some Bodhisattva statues around the house like Avalokiteshvara/Kwan Yin because in part, I am a visual learner. I like having a visual representations as reminders to live more compassionately, etc. It's kind of like having a note up on the door to remind you each day to "Smile more" or a post-it note on the bathroom mirror to "be nicer."

The difference being the Bodhisattva "notes" are beautiful works of art to admire and find peace in. There is something in the way these Buddha and Bodhisattvas statues' faces are carved that always bring me a feeling of serenity and as an artist I really find something valuable in that. I forget easily and having that physical, visual reminder helps a lot. I'm not attached, however, to these statues and what they do for me. I am able to remember to be what I want to be without them as well. They simply add a flair to my practice, which I admit I have a bit of a weakness for at times. I do like a touch of artistic expression in my practice.

I certainly do not believe though that one must have these statues in their houses to be motivated and encouraged to be nicer, more compassionate, etc. And for those that firmly believe in the literal reality of bodhisattvas, gods, demons and believe in praying to them I say keep on doing what works best for you in your life. It it helps you reduce suffering in your personal life and within your relationships then that's about all that matters. There are many shades of light shining through the diamond of the Dharma; purple, red, green and blue but all is light. Plus the statues are beautiful art to have around the house. I believe that all that which encourages the Dharma is to be encouraged and shared with those who wish to hear of it. I do not believe in forcing others into hearing about Buddhism or coercing people into it. That only causes more suffering.

As for shrines I see them as places where a person can visit and find great strength and empowerment. As well as being a place where one can interactively and very physically make a connection with all humanity. There is a sense of connection when visiting places that many people consider special and places of refuge. It is a site that is a physical representation of all the aspirations and dedications of countless fellow aspirants practicing for the same ideals. That can be a powerful experience affirming the stabilizing presence of oneness. Offerings at shrines, altars and temples are for me symbolic acts of affirming my willingness to sacrifice my desires for realization of ultimate liberation from suffering. That said, I do not believe that offering a few coins at the alter will ensure a god intercedes on my behalf but if it helps you be a more centered person then all the best to you. Gassho.

~Peace to all beings~

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Saturday, October 03, 2009

Is the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh a Radical? Hardly.

As most of you know I have been following the crisis within the community of monastics following the teachings of the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh in Vietnam. The Western news organization, "The Guardian" quoted some of his followers in that Southeast Asian country. These monastics made the statement that their tradition is radical. "The Guardian" though didn't seem to investigate why or what made them say their tradition was "radical." It then assumed that this must mean that Thich Nhat Hanh is a radical. However, they missed the context by a mile. I'd expect the Vietnamese Communist government to say such but not a Western news outlet who should know better. It's lazy journalism.

Here's the context: The Zen tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh might be radical in Vietnam where the iron-fisted government maintains strict control over the actions of religious organizations. However,it's not radical in free societies like the U.S. and France where Nhat Hanh is most established. So calling their beliefs "radical" must be taken in the context of what radical means in a dictatorial country like Vietnam.

The full quote from the monastics was, "The followers, who describe their monastery as the 'most radical and fastest growing' in Vietnam, say the authorities regard Nhat Hanh as a threat to their tight control over religious observance.

: They clearly missed that important distinction even though it was lying right in front of them in their own quote!! Perhaps the distinction was implied but that's still misleading and confusing to those who aren't aware of Thich Nhat Hanh or his order. The way it reads makes it appear as if Nhat Hanh is some warrior monk, which couldn't be further from the truth. Thich Nhat Hanh is a peaceful, loving, kind, compassionate, non-violent devotee to the Buddhadharma. That hardly makes him a "radical" in the eyes of most people around the world. I hope, "The Guardian" realizes their mistake and corrects it in the future because the idea of a skinny, 82 year old Zen Buddhist monk being a radical except in the eyes of the paranoid Vietnamese government is laughable. When I think of radical I think of those anarchists who protest G-20 meetings and other international summits/conferences.

Can you picture Thich Nhat Hanh manning the barricades, wearing a gas mask and throwing Molotov Cocktails at police and military personnel? So when a Western news agency labels Thay a "radical" they are making a factual mistake. However, what's worse is that they are creating undo suspicion of a man many consider to be one of the most positive, beneficial and serene beings to walk the Earth today. In fact the world would be an even better place with many more "radicals" like him.

~Peace to all beings~

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Friday, October 02, 2009

Buddhism in America by State.

I have often wondered which American states have the most Buddhists and one of the ways of doing that is counting the number of Buddhist centers in each state. Well, I found a map from 2004 by "The Pluralism Project." Not surprisingly much of the south, the center plains states and the northern Rocky Mountain states stretching from Wyoming up to Montana and Idaho have the least. Those are regions that are either: Sparsely populated, dominated by Christianity and/or traditionally conservative politics, which are all factors that make establishing a Buddhist center difficult. That said I envision Buddhism continuing to grow throughout America in the coming decades.

The states that appear to have the highest concentration of centers are as usual on the east, west coasts and Texas of all places. Texas is part of the Bible belt region of states and has many who are anti-anything that isn't white, anglo-saxon, protestant. That said Texas is a big state with many immigrants I'm told. So that would boost the numbers, which I'm sure is especially large in the big cities like Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. Especially Houston with it's growing Chinatown. I'm sure the liberal, young, university town of Austin has a decent amount of Buddhists as well. New York is pretty self-explanatory. It has THE city (New York City) for diversity in all areas of life and not far behind is California where there is a very big Asian-American population as well. There are also many white-Americans who are very liberal and open-minded toward other beliefs. So no surprise that Buddhism is popular there either. So, California, New York and Texas are the big three.

The next level is where my state of Colorado is listed. It's that dark orange/brown, square state surrounded by all those white and tan states. Colorado has had a sizable Buddhist community since the 1970s when in 1970 Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche founded the Tibetan Buddhist Shambhala tradition in Boulder and established the Shambhala Mountain Center and Stupa near Fort Collins. In 1974 Rinpoche established Naropa University in Boulder, which private, Buddhist-inspired, ecumenical and nonsectarian. In addition, the many ethnic Tibetans, Nepalese and Bhutanese who moved to the northern Colorado area in part due to the Tibetan Buddhist centers established by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche feel right at home with our high mountains, alpine environment and high altitude. I have spoken to several myself who have said it is like a home away from home due to the similar climate and concentration of Tibetan Buddhist centers. So combine all of that with a very liberal, open-minded, college town like Boulder and it's no wonder there are so many Buddhists and Buddhist centers here. You can find several Zen centers as well if that's your style.

Colorado has kind of become a Mountain West refuge for minority religions and beliefs. I'm not going to go into too many other states as this post would get way too long but the last one I'll mention is Hawaii. My wife grew up on the islands and I have seen many Buddhist centers, shrines and temples there. They are gorgeous, especially when put in front of the backdrop of the stunning Hawaiian scenery. One of my favorite places on Oahu is the Byodo-in temple at Temple Valley, which is a replica of the famous Byodo-in temple in Kyoto, Japan. There is also a very vibrant and wonderful Chinatown in Honolulu. Hawaii is not only a great place to live if you can afford it but the Buddhist community is quite vibrant and very much alive.

~Peace to all beings~

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

Further Thoughts on the Bat Nha Monastery Incident.

Questions have been raised as to the veracity of the story put forth by the followers of Thich Nhat Hanh at Bat Nha monastery, Vietnam over the past few days. The practitioners of Nhat Hanh's style of Zen were initially invited and welcomed at the monastery around 2005. Everything seemed to be fine for some time between the two camps represented at the monastery. TNH's followers even used donations from lay followers of Thich Nhat Hanh to reinvest in Bat Nha monastery. Nearly $1 million was spent by TNH's lay followers to increase the land size of the monastery and build new buildings including a meditation hall that can seat 1,800 people. It was frequently filled every weekend with people from all around Vietnam, which is why I still question that the local population turned on the monastics in the past few days. I'm not ruling it out because tensions do build and trust frays in this crazy samsara. However, it is also true and dictatorial regimes often dress hardcore police and military officials in plain clothes.

It is also strange timing that this abbot should want TNH's followers to leave the monastery as the Communist officials claim. This is because it is occurring not long after Nhat Hanh asked the government to relax its grip on religious freedoms in the southeast Asian country. In addition, I find it odd that the abbot who supposedly was the one who wanted this removal of TNH's monks still has yet to speak of the incident. It is not unheard of in Communist totalitarian governments to threaten religious leaders with imprisonment and total destruction of their temples and shrines if they don't co-operate with officials. It just seems to me that if this abbot was so upset by the TNH monastics that he'd have said something by now. It is very possible that he was told to keep his mouth shut or face similar repercussions as the TNH followers are facing.The other point that makes me question the official story of the Communist regime is that they won't even allow the monastics to stay at the Phuoc Hue pagoda in Lam Dong province even though the state sanctioned Buddhist Church of Vietnam have welcomed them to stay. As you can see from above the pagoda isn't much to hundle hundreds of monks and nuns within. It seems the overall goal by the Communist government is to see them leave Vietnam altogether. However, I'm not interested in being a sycophant who defends my tradition regardless of what other evidence is presented so I am keeping the door open for further evidence to come in. That especially includes the story from the abbot, which I hope isn't just propaganda fed through him by the government at the threat of violence to him, his monks and his temple. If he presents a different story though then that from the TNH monastics I will gladly report it hear so that you (and I) can all decide for yourselves. Perhaps I reacted initially out of a gut reaction to stand with my fellow practitioners but I am more interested in the truth than being a brainwashed member of a cult of personality. I am more than willing to criticize these TNH followers should they deserve it. I'm not interested in Buddhism to simply be apart of a group. Questions still remain and I shall keep you posted as new information arises.

~Peace to all beings~

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