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Buddhism in the News


Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bill Maher: Buddhism is a Crock and Outdated.

The Worst Horse as usual is on its game in reporting another example of just how foreign Buddhism still is to many in the West. Bill Maher, the American comedian and t.v. show host (who I usually find hilarious) recently said some pretty uninformed things about Buddhism. His comments are in red and mine in yellow:

Maher: [Buddhism] really is outdated in some ways — the “Life sucks, and then you die” philosophy was useful when Buddha came up with it around 500 B.C., because back then life pretty much sucked, and then you died – but now we have medicine., and plenty of food

(James::Not all of us Bill, a lot of people in this world don't know where their next meal will come from. And medicine? Americans can't even afford medicine these days let alone impoverished countries. Go to Africa where I lived for two years and tell me there's enough food and medicine for everyone. Then tell me that thus there isn't much suffering from it.)

Maher: and iPhones, and James Cameron movies – our life isn’t all about suffering anymore.

(James: And life wasn't all about suffering back in Buddha's time either)

Maher: And when we do suffer, instead of accepting it we try to alleviate it,

(James::Buddhists seek to alleviate suffering too but we also have had the revelation that no amount of "relieving" can end the suffering. What Buddhists are more interested in other than alleviating suffering is to END suffering once and for all through, what I would consider to be the first "12 Steps" program that is the Eight-Fold Path).
If Buddha saw life as hopeless as Maher believes he taught then why would he have even tried to develop a system to deliver himself from it?

Maher: Tiger said, “Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves” makes us unhappy, which confirms something I’ve long suspected about Eastern religions: they’re a crock, too. Craving for things outside ourselves is what makes life life

(James: And despite its highlights, life is full of a lot of suffering Bill. There isn't enough money--even for a lot of millionaires who won't be "satisfied" until they get a BILLION dollars. Even those that spend their money can never buy enough houses, clothes, boats, vacations to feel satisfied for long. We lust after something until we get it and then quickly become bored with it and we return again to enslaving ourselves to crave once more. Buddha didn't say that we couldn't enjoy life but that we should enjoy life in moderation to reduce our suffering, and he laid out a path that many people have followed over the millennia toward lasting peace of mind and happiness.

And Buddha didn't command any of this, which is what I think separates Buddhism from many of the traditionally defined, "religions." Buddha encouraged seeing for oneself if his techniques do indeed bring about a greater peace and a life of less suffering by direct experience, which isn't unlike the scientific method where direct observations are the basis of knowledge. Pursue a life of constant seeking for the next "buzz of pleasure" and then live life for at time following the Buddha's guidelines and see, which way gives you the strongest feeling of satisfaction and happiness of life. If you find you think Buddhism is only causing you more problems then best of luck. Sincerely. A lot of people come and go with Buddhism. Buddhism doesn't want to force anyone to do anything. Buddhism would rather let the people come to it so that they are making a choice of their own free will and feel ready to follow such a path).

Maher: — I don’t want to learn to not want, that’s what people in prison have to do

(James: We're in a prison, now, Bill--look around you--We Want a better job, want a new car, want our body to heal quicker or look sexier, want our spouse to change to how we think they should be, and on and on. It's a prison without bars that lures us with shiny new distractions to keep us from finding a way out of the suffering. However, it doesn't have to be an either or proposition as you're stating. You're saying Buddhism says "life sucks, it has no meaning, purpose or value" but that is a common misconception. That isn't Buddhism--that's nihilism. Buddhism teaches that there is a way to live in balance with things of the world yet reduce your long-term suffering. That is what Buddhism offers).

Maher: And reincarnation? Really? If that were real, wouldn’t there be some proof by now? A raccoon spelling out in acorns, “My name is Herb Zoller and I’m an accountant.” …something?

(James: First of all not all Buddhists believe in reincarnation. A lot of Buddhists believe in rebirth and yet still others believe in neither. As for proof? Even science says that energy never disappears but simply changes form. There are many Buddhists who say that it doesn't really matter much what happens after death (if anything) because the only moment we have is this one. For these Buddhists they focus on the rebirth that happens within this lifetime. For example, I am a completely different person from who I was 10-12 years ago when I was an ardent Mormon who was politically conservative. Now I am a Liberal Buddhist!!

But the point of rebirth, in my view, isn't so much about whether we are reborn a slug, or even reborn at all but rather that we realize how our actions affect our future. It's about becoming aware of how we alone are the architects of our own life and what our life becomes is directly influenced by our actions. So, for me, it comes down to what you reap is what you sow. And if all you water are seeds of hatred, greed and delusion then you will reap a lot of misery but if you water seeds of love, compassion and patience then you will reap the opposite and leave a better world behind then when you were born into it.

Maher: People are always debating, is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy: it’s a religion. You’re a religion if you do something as weird as when the Buddhist monks scrutinize two-year-olds to find the reincarnation of the dude who just died, and then choose one of the toddlers as the sacred Lama: “His poop is royal!” Sorry, but thinking you can look at a babbling, barely-housebroken, uneducated being and say, “That’s our leader” doesn’t make you enlightened. It makes you a Sarah Palin supporter.

(James: Bill, I like you--I really do, and while I think your usually well informed, on Buddhism you're quite ignorant. Only one school of Buddhism believes that their teachers are reincarnated, and that's Tibetan Buddhism. If you have a problem with Tibetan Buddhism then take that up with the Dalai Lama, but I would have expected you to know better than to lump all Buddhists together. I didn't want to write this to defend Buddhism so much as to explain it, as best as a common practitioner like myself can to those who aren't familiar with Buddhism so they, can hear both sides).

~Peace to all beings~

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Dalai Lama: Tiger Woods? Who's that?

Besides the obvious advice of cultivating self-discipline, I think the best thing about the Dalai Lama's comments in regard to Tiger Woods and Buddhism was that he needed to be told who Tiger Woods was in the first place!! I think the Dalai Lama's ignorance about celebrities and their lives is a good thing--it's a good example to put forth. So many of us are obsessed with celebrities because we find our own lives unsatisfactory, boring or inadequate in one way or another. This obsession is a craving for a different life, one where we are famous, beautiful and/or rich. Anything but our "ordinary selves."

The world of celebrity looks glamorous and ideal but it's a facade for fellow, flawed humans who are just as miserable as anyone else in this sea of samsara. Because when we peel back the layer of glitz, glamour, make-up and good acting skills we see that they live very flawed lives of sex, drug and money addictions amongst many other chains of suffering that bind them. Our obsession is a form of escapism in a desperate but futile search for happiness in the material world. Yet once we return from the movie or finish reading the celebrity magazine we must face our lives again. The waves of reality come washing back in like a tidal wave to inundate and knock us over with the suffering that we tried to ignore.

This is why, like the Dalai Lama, I generally am not very interested in the lives of celebrities. I appreciate their art but I don't see them as examples of how to live a life with less suffering. One of the only "celebrities" that I think does that is the Dalai Lama himself.

~Peace to all beings~

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Tiger Woods Credits Buddhism in Helping Him Deal with Cravings.

(PHOTO: [Getty images] Tiger Wood's embraces his mother who is a devout Buddhist)

Personally I don't care too much about the whole Tiger Woods "scandal" except how Buddhism fits into it. I'm not one of these people who feels that Tiger Woods personally owes me an apology or any kind of explanation of what he's dealing with. He's apologized to the public and yet that's not enough for some people. They want their pound of flesh. Why do some people live through the lives of celebrities like they are apart of their lives to where they'd deserve an apology? Just leave him and his family alone to deal with their issues. The media is asking, was his apology enough to gain the forgiveness of the public?" As if we all are apart of his personal life!!

This obsession we have in America of worshiping celebrities and then tearing them down when they show that they're human, (just like us) is a highly corrosive aspect to our society. It is escapism to live vicariously through other people, so that we don't have to face our own struggles, obstacles and weaknesses. So, when these celebrities inevitably miss the mark of perfection we feel let personally let down because we have this delusion that our happiness is somehow tied up into how they live their lives.
Personally, I think that this incident is between him and his wife but he said in his public statement that Buddhism is helping him deal with his sexual attachments and that's what I'd most like to focus on in this post. Woods said:
"I have a lot of work to do, and I intend to dedicate myself to doing it. Part of following this path for me is Buddhism, which my mother taught me at a young age. People probably don't realize it, but I was raised a Buddhist, and I actively practiced my faith from childhood until I drifted away from it in recent years. Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously I lost track of what I was taught."
James: Buddhism is a compassionate religion, which I think demands that we give people a second chance because who amongst us hasn't needed one ourselves? I think we should be supporting him whole-heartedly in his pursuit to free himself from samsara. It is quite common for humans to turn to spirituality in times of need and suffering. In that sense perhaps something good can come out of the ashes of Tiger's previous life. In some ways our suffering does us a favor in channeling us toward a path to free ourselves from that misery but you can't force that path onto someone who isn't ready. I think that is in part why we Buddhists don't do much proselytizing. Buddhism doesn't come to you, you have to come to it. Because proselytizing often involves using coercion and fear, which causes suffering. So you're basically causing people suffering to get them to overcome their suffering!! It's a futile exercise. Once Tiger was ready, the teacher arrived to help him blaze a new trail, and I for one wish him the best and support his recovery and dedication to living a life with less suffering.

Perhaps in a strange way to others, Tiger Woods is a role model again in drawing attention to how much attachments can make us suffer and how one can go about alleviating it. So says renowned Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, "The fact that people could see this kind of behavior causes suffering is an incredibly important message for all kinds of people who respect Woods." If someone with such a high profile as Woods can inspire others to deal with their own toxic suffering then this whole situation will have been positive overall. That is where he'll find redemption. He has the potential in this moment to inspire countless people to excel at more than golf. Besides working through this with his family, I can't think of a better way for him to find the redemption he seeks. The compassion in Buddhism is seen in part how each moment we can start a new. May Tiger, his family and his ex-lovers find the peace and happiness that all sentient beings deserve.

~Peace to all beings~

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Oprah Interviews Thich Nhat Hanh.

American talk show icon, Oprah has recently interviewed Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. The whole interview is great but I especially liked this quote:

Enlightenment is always there. Small enlightenment will bring great enlightenment. If you breathe in and are aware that you are alive—that you can touch the miracle of being alive—then that is a kind of enlightenment. Many people are alive but don't touch the miracle of being alive.

James: If you want to read the rest of this interview (and I recommend it) then just click on this sentence.


~Peace to all beings~

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Friday, February 12, 2010

China to U.S.: Don't Meet with Dalai Lama.

China is one of the places that I want to visit before I die. I have long been attracted to Chinese culture. The traditional architecture of temples, monasteries, neighborhoods and other historic buildings is stunning. The designs are classic yet are still some of the most unique in the world and the public gardens appear tranquil, relaxing and invigorating. Their written language is one of the most beautiful I have seen and with some of the oldest history in the world; China is a must for a historian like myself. They have produced some of the greatest thinkers of the human race and I adore Chinese traditional music. I honor it as being the birthplace of my tradition of Zen Buddhism. Yet, sadly this great country has fallen far from the days of celebrating Buddhism. Actually its government has fallen in that regard, not the people who I think would investigate Buddhism if allowed. As we all know, the government has been actively working to eradicate it from the culture for decades. The most obvious example being Tibet.

The irony with China blocking Buddhism is that Buddhism has much in common with the socialist mindset. It teaches interdependence, oneness and reliance upon each other. In fact, most monasteries seem to act as small communes!! The difference is that Buddhism is also inline with democracy. It values human rights, individual freedom of religion, freedom of speech, etc. So in many ways Buddhism represents the middle-path in politics--a little bit of socialism mixed with a little bit of democracy. This is a political mindset that is found in practice in Europe. Buddhism, however, also encourages a healthy dose of skepticism of the political system in general. In the end politics can and does cause a lot of suffering. It can easily lead to greed as people seek power to control and manipulate the masses for their own selfish gains. Too much politics is just as dangerous as ignoring it. So, in some ways I hesitate even bringing up politics in the same conversation as Buddhism. However, to not participate in voting and maintaining good government can easily lead to losing ones freedom to practice the relatively non-political religion of Buddhism in the first place.

I know that there are some Buddhists who think politics should be avoided altogether but with all due respect I think that's potentially, dangerously naive. In some ways it's ignoring reality and ignoring a big part of our daily lives to be mindful of how our leaders affect our daily decisions that we might not think much about otherwise. Like the freedom to just walk out your door and sit with your sangha, read a Buddhist themed book or visit a monastery for a retreat or other services. Or the freedom to write online about your beliefs to share with others without censorship. Yes, politics can be ugly and cause a lot of harm. That said, however, to retreat from it completely is veering off the middle-path to the point where such denial can literally jeopardize the very basic freedom of religion that you enjoy and center your life around. It's not about protecting Buddhism because it too is impermanent but rather it's about protecting each others right to basic human dignity, decency and free will.

So, I couldn't be happier that U.S. President Barack Obama will be meeting with the Dalai Lama. It is a powerful symbol to the world and to oppressed peoples everywhere that someone, somewhere is standing for freedom. That there are still places in the world that celebrate diversity and encourage religious expression. The light is on shining in the darkness to guide and give hope to those without freedom. I know that the United States has interests with China that might be hurt a bit with this visit but as an American I would rather upset China than abandon those suffering unnecessarily in political oppression.

~Peace to all beings~

UPDATE: China has asked the U.S. to rescind the offer to meet with the Dalai Lama but thankfully the Obama administration said the meeting will go forward as planned.

PHOTO CREDIT: His Holiness the Dalai Lama taken by Manish Swarup for AP News.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Buddhadharma Magazine Mention.

As some of you know, Buddhadharma magazine was working on an article on unaffiliated Buddhist practitioners. I'm not exactly unaffiliated but I do not have a regular sangha for many reasons that I've already mentioned here before. Well, I was approached awhile back to submit a paragraph on the subject. Yesterday the Spring issue arrived and I have been savoring the in-depth article like a bone. I was surprised but excited that they had included my submission. Here is what I said about unaffiliated Buddhists:

There is a long history in Buddhism of hermit monks, which has been lost a bit but can perhaps be seen rising again with the many lone-wolf practitioners around the world. The hermits still studied with others from time to time but knew that it comes down to the individual practicing. After all, the Buddha was just one person meditating off in the woods, he didn't mean to set up a formal religion. Who knows what he'd think of our sanghas today, especially how they are structured in the West. I think monasteries and temples are important to maintain and keep, as they train the next generation of teachers and students looking for more instruction and structure. However, I think one can still fulfill taking refuge in the sangha without having to physically take up space.
James: I just wanted to post something short to thank Buddhadharma for including my remarks within a great article. I am humbled, honored and only hope that my words help in some way advance the discussion. It really is a very in-depth article encompassing several pages and is worth picking up. I really applaud Buddhadharma magazine for taking on the subject of unaffiliated Buddhists in such an inclusive and broad way. It's nice to read something serious on the subject instead of unaffiliated Buddhists being laughed off and treated like they committed heresy.

~Peace to all beings~

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Sunday, February 07, 2010

Fierce Fudo Myo-o.

If you've been reading me for a while now then you also know that I like deities, Bodhisattvas and other super natural beings, but as archetypes only. They inspire, motivate and help give me strength to face the challenges of life. That is primarily because as an artist their visual representation brings their meaning and symbolism out stronger for me sometimes than just reading esoteric lines in a daunting tome.

Though don't get me wrong, I adore a good esoteric tome but they are best absorbed in my brain coupled with visual representations. These statues of beings are powerful representations of aspects that exist within all of us. Fudo Myo-o is one of the "Five Wisdom Kings" in Vajrayana Buddhism. A wisdom king is a being that is not yet a Buddha, nor Bodhisattva. They are guardians of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas--they are the gate keepers to those advanced states of being. Those states of being that unlock the doors to allow the lotus of enlightenment to unfold above the waters of fear and delusion. Of course wisdom isn't the only attribute to cultivate. The masters teach us that it must be balanced with compassion to reveal the truly balanced being that comes from realizing enlightenment. Represented by the mythological demi-Buddha, Avalokiteshvara of Kwan Yin.

Fudo Myo-o (also known as Acala in sankrit, which appropriately means "Immovable") is known for his wisdom, which compares to the development of wisdom in our practice. Fudo Myo-o is that development process--he is that state of mind, which propels us to realize greater wisdom. Meditating upon him is to remind ourselves of our potential. He is a destroyer of delusion. So, he compares to the strength and perseverance within us all to realize the hold that delusion has over our lives, and destroy it through wisdom. He reminds us that wisdom is also a sacred treasure to be protected but shared. This, "knowing" then, like a guardian protects our Buddha-to-be essence and/or our Bodhisattvas vows, which can be compared to our true nature. This wisdom protects these natures and vows from the "poisonous" influences of greed, hatred and delusions. Thus, the fierce-some appearance of the kings who will turn on even us if we miss use our wisdom.

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Friday, February 05, 2010

Don't Expect Your Practice to be Clear of Obstacles.

My practice has dwindled of late. So this is exactly what I need to hear:

So an ancient once said, "Accept the anxieties and difficulties of this life". Don't expect your practice to be clear of obstacles. Without hindrances the mind that seeks enlightenment may be burnt out. So an ancient once said, "Attain deliverance in disturbances.

- Zen Master Kyong Ho
[ 1849-1912]
James: It's not a sprint it's not even a marathon--it's placing one foot in front of the other. Present moment. Wonderful moment. Only moment.

~Peace to all beings~

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