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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Be not Afraid of Growing Slowly.

Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.

-Chinese Proverb

James: This quote really resonated in my heart today because I often feel like my practice isn't where it should be, but how could it be anywhere except where it is? I must keep reminding myself (gently, of course) that there is no moment but this moment and that you can't get "there" without being here first. I use, "there" in quotations because in this case, "there" refers to realizing enlightenment and liberation from suffering--not an actual destination someplace in the ethereal future as we know that the future is but a hologram.

It can be easy to be discouraged and think, "I'm not meditating enough" or long-enough but even Buddha got discouraged. He studied with several mystics before his enlightenment but was eventually discouraged by their teachings, which he felt unsatisfied with. In addition, he pursued extreme aestheticism only to be discouraged by it. During his meditation under the Bodhi tree, before his enlightenment, he was tempted by desires to abandon his practice. He could have easily given up after all of these events but he pressed on not knowing what would come next until he shattered the hold of the ego and realized enlightenment.

Something else to consider is that our sense of progress is too often seen through the eyes of the mind, which demands immediate, Earth-shattering and over-whelming results. So it can be hard sometimes to see our progress; especially since progress seems to unfold in increments. Yet even the lotus seed has to burst up through seemingly unending layers of mud and inches of murky, shifting water to eventually reach the top of the water to bloom in the sun. Our journey is similar. It seems like an impossible journey yet it has to be such for if the lotus grew instantly to the surface the stem wouldn't be strong enough to hold the enlightened flower.

So, we too must build a strong base or foundation for our practice. Thus, we don't need to worry so much about how "fast" we're growing in our practice. We can only grow as fast as our karma will allow. There is a lesson in everything and just because someone might seem "advanced" on the path doesn't mean they aren't having difficulties on their way to the sun too!! The goal isn't to keep up with some Zen master or those around you whom you consider stronger meditators but rather that we keep growing--period. I realized that wanting to be further along in my practice is giving into the desire for being better than others. It's hard to accept it but that's at the root because why would we be unhappy with our practice if we weren't trying to, not only keep up with others, but outdo them? As if it's a race to see who realizes enlightenment first. No, it's better for me to stay happy with where I am because like it or not, that is the only true reality. The rest is destructive delusion.

~Peace to all beings~

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Buddha on PBS April 7th.

The Public Broadcasting Service here in America was kind enough to send me an advanced copy of the documentary, "The Buddha" by David Grubin, which is set to air on April 7th (check your local listings). It tells the story of the life of Buddha and the teaches he shared that would bloom into one of the largest religions of the world. As I watched it noticed I noticed that it was very similar to Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh's book, "Old Path, White Clouds." It is a book that is very thick and somewhat tedious to read in parts but it is probably the best book I've read on the details of Buddha's life as we know them. If you don't have the time to read such a large book then I highly suggest watching this documentary if you can.

The imagery used in this documentary is as beautiful as it is inspiring. The fields and villages shown look as though they probably did back in Buddha's time, which helps the viewers realize the timelessness to Buddha and his teachings. I found this documentary to be very intimate in that it portrays Buddha in such a humble light. Some documentaries laud him to the point of godhood, which I think the awakened one would caution against. The music blended nicely with the storyline and carried us from scene to scene as if it were Buddha's hand itself guiding us along. In a sense, this documentary not only tells his story but our own as well. After all, the point of his story is to open the door to the path he followed, for ourselves. It is not just a bedtime story but rather a map that explains life itself.

~Peace to all beings~

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

"Unmistaken Child" Documentary on PBS is Worth Your Time.

I was recently sent an advanced copy of an upcoming documentary on PBS titled, "Unmistaken Child." It follows the journey of a young monk in Nepal looking for the reincarnation of a great lama who also happens to be beloved friend. This documentary was as much about finding the courage to believe in yourself as much as it was about finding the reincarnated Rinpoche.

As a Zen Buddhist, I try not to follow my mind down the rabbit hole into the realm of what happens after death too much because it is keeps me from staying in the "now," which is really the only moment available to us. It is where our practice takes place. So I have been taught that if I concentrate too much upon what might happen I miss what is happening. However, for the sake of conservation I have no problem with the idea of death and dying. I also have no problem with the idea of rebirth and suspect that it happens. Likewise I have no problem with the possibility that nothing happens after you die.

However, reincarnation of a specific person or "soul" seems counter to what the Buddha taught but I'm no expert. As a skeptic of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of reincarnating lamas I must admit though that this documentary really makes me reconsider the possibility again. I truly marveled at how accurate the process was. Look for a cameo from the Dalai Lama.

It truly was remarkable to follow the journey of the young monk seeking his reincarnated teacher and watching his struggles, his triumphs, courage and undying patience and respect for his mentor. The documentary did a wonderful job in showing us the intimate process of testing children to reveal the new body of this master. The dialogue was minimal, which seemed fitting for such a sacred and serious mission. I didn't realize how intricate the process was for finding a reincarnated lama. I had some idea from the movie "Kundun" as to how the Dalai Lama was found but I didn't know that the process involved divination of the ashes of the cremated teacher, astrological charts and dream interpretation.

It was fascinating to discover just how deep Tibetan Buddhism is intertwined with the metaphysical. After watching this movie and getting even more insight into the heavily ritualized nature of Tibetan Buddhism, it really does seem like its own branch of Buddhism. So instead of the traditional recognition of only two main branches of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana, it makes sense that some say there is a third--Vajrayana, because Tibetan Buddhism is so unique. While there is some overlap with Mahayana schools, Tibetan Buddhism has such a distinct nature, which is probably due to its development in such an isolated region of Asia.

Anyway, the documentary was enthralling, inspiring, educational and revealing. The scenery of the Nepalese highlands is stunning and worth viewing this film for that alone. The high mystical peaks seem so very fitting for such a otherworldly exploration. I highly recommend you watch it when it airs on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) here in America on April 7th at 10p.m. (check your local listings).

~Peace to all beings~

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tugging on Nature is Tugging on all Things.

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, one finds it attached to the rest of the world.

-John Muir

James: I propose that while all environments are helpful, nature is one of the best places to understand interconnection and interdependence. It is sometimes difficult to see the importance of interconnection in the concrete mazes of our cities where we have sacrificed a sense of community on the altar of individuality. It's still possible to witness the interconnection in city life but difficult with all the shiny, bright distractions. Yet walking mindfully through nature's wonders (forests, mountains, jungles and beaches, etc) it is immediately clear that there is a rhythm. There is a well balanced community that exists in a constant state of co-operation. Glaciers feed streams, streams become rivers, which water trees and other plant life.

The green foliage grows high and deep providing ample food for the deer, which in turn shit out seeds for future grass plants elsewhere in the forest providing for a constant migration and survival of that vital plant. It is hard not to feel small in such a intricate yet vast natural system of interdependence. Yet it's not feeling small in a depressing way but rather feeling apart of something. In the city it's as if we are in a sanitized, isolating bubble bouncing erratically without much control but bouncing into one another from time to time. Yet not long enough to form much of a bond.

Often in nature, if one plant goes extinct then it can throw the whole system of interdependence off, which can eventually bring down the entire eco-sytem. We humans are no different but we think we are. We think that we can worship individuality and not face the consequences of living in this illusion. Yet the consequences of basing our culture around individuality couldn't be clearer. We think that man has become so smart that we have mastered nature and don't need her but obviously this is a delusion based on our greed to consume endlessly. Our greed is so ravenous that we are killing our own host--Mother Earth. We are shitting where we eat, sleep and live. Yet like a drug addict destroying the lives of everyone around them, we push on thinking we can out smart nature. Oh foolish man.

~Peace to all beings~

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Walking Meditation Through the Woods.

Feet touch the damp Earth as green, wet leaves stick to well worn heels as they reach a small clearing on the edge of a forest. The smell of Earthy life fills lungs and relaxes muscles. A reverent hush rolls through the emerald forest and the silent figure stops to gaze up into the rain soaked branches just as a cool drop falls upon the fore head--the third eye. The person smiles, breathes deeply and methodically and slowly continues down the meandering path until they disappear into another dense stand of forest as quickly as they appeared. Somewhere a crow announces its arrival.

-By James R. Ure

~Peace to all beings~

PHOTO CREDIT: A misty morning on a section of the Appalachian Trail outside Blairsville on Blood Mountain, the trail’s highest point in Georgia. By Erik S. Lesser for The New York Times.

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Friday, March 12, 2010

The Zen of Pain.

I have from time to time heard of monks who can meditate in the freezing cold and maintain a warm body temperature, and those who have a high threshold for pain. Well, it seems that science has proven that meditation helps reduce pain.

AFP, March 3, 2010

Montreal, Canada -- ZEN meditation helps lower sensitivity to pain by thickening a part of the brain that regulates emotion and painful sensations, according to a study published recently. University of Montreal researchers compared the grey matter thickness of 17 Zen meditators and 18 non-meditators and found evidence that practising the centuries-old discipline can reinforce a central part of the brain called the anterior cingulate. "Through training, Zen meditators appear to thicken certain areas of their cortex and this appears to underlie their lower sensitivity to pain," lead author Joshua Grant said in a statement.

Building on an earlier study, the researchers measured thermal pain sensitivity by applying a heated plate to the calf of participants. This was followed by scanning the brains of subjects with structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The MRI results showed central brain regions that regulate emotion and pain were significantly thicker in meditators compared to non-meditators.

James: This isn't news to Buddhism because reports of over-coming pain have been known in Buddhist history for centuries. It is interesting though to see science proving it. It makes sense though that meditation, which regulates the mind would help reduce pain. There is clearly a connection between the mind and body, so it isn't any wonder that Buddhists teach that oneness of body and mind through meditation and mindfulness opens the way for a calmer state of being. This is proving that through meditation one can literally rewire the brain, which surely has something to do with realizing long-term enlightenment.

I have noticed actually a higher pain threshold since beginning my Buddhist practice. I blew it off at first as being pseudo-science experiences but this makes me rethink that position. When I get tattoos I can sit through the pain to where at times it actually feels good!! I think that's in part because I meditate while getting the tattoo. The first few tattoos that I got where quite painful and ironically enough that was a time before I was practicing Buddhist meditation.

This also makes me think of the pain experienced from doing sitting meditation when first starting out or when returning to a dormant practice. Because the more you practice, the less painful it seems to get:

"The often painful posture associated with Zen meditation may lead to thicker cortex and lower pain sensitivity," Grant opined. Several of the meditators tolerated a maximum 53°C produced by a heating plate. They appeared to further reduce their pain partly through slower breathing: 12 breaths per minute versus an average of 15 breaths for non-meditators. "Slower breathing certainly coincided with reduced pain and may influence pain by keeping the body in a relaxed state," Grant said in the earlier study. Ultimately, Zen meditators experience an 18% reduction in pain sensitivity, according to the original study.

James: If everything is interdependent and interconnected then clearly it makes sense that the body can be tempered by the mind when its steered in the right direction. The mind in my opinion isn't entirely useless or bad as some Buddhists might believe. I see it as a wild horse that if tamed, it can accomplish some amazing things. After all, if we shut off the mind completely then we'd be piles of mush unable to be moved to practice compassion, loving-kindness and good will.

ADDENDUM: The blog just surpassed the 400,000 mark of visits--Thanks to everyone for all your visits, comments and conservations. Let's keep it going!! Bowing...

~Peace to all beings~

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Can You Imagine the Dalai Lama Holding a Machine Gun?

Neither can I, but that's exactly what some are suggesting now that Tibet has been under Chinese occupation for over 50 years. A recent online article called for the Dalai Lama to end the campaign of non-violence in relation to the oppressive Chinese government:

It has been 51 years since the last most significant Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule. That’s a long time. In the ensuing years under the leadership of the 14th Dalai Lama the Tibetan people have chosen a non-violent protest against Chinese occupation. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know that this has not worked. In fact I am here to say it will NEVER work. This is because the non-violence advocated by the Dalai Lama has pacified the current Tibetan to the extent that the Chinese are now in firm control. Mix in some global politics and economics and you can say the Tibetan cause in its current format is utterly hopeless!

That is why it is now time for the Dalai Lama to renounce this non-violence and call for an armed struggle against the illegal Chinese occupation of Tibet.
People who know me understand that I am a man of peace. However, as I’ve watched the failure of the Tibet cause in my lifetime, I am now convinced the Chinese will win, if something urgent is not done. While in the past I may have subscribed to the Ghandian view of non-violent struggle, when it comes to the Tibetan cause I am more along the line of the “Just War” position as advocated by St. Thomas Aquinas .
James: Never is a word of impatience because there could be a democratic revolution in China tomorrow and over-night the relationship between the Chinese and Tibet would change. Impatience is a desire to force delusions we have of how things should be if we had our way but being a trick of the mind, things never turn out the way we think they will and thus bring much suffering. Impatience is a lust for control, which is often disguised as a sincere concern but can can often backfire and just cause more suffering. For example, fanning the flames of an armed insurrection in Tibet could just harden the Chinese government and turn a public that quietly supports the cause of the Tibetan people into supporters of the state. Nothing unites a people more than a war.

Plus, how could the Tibetan people even have a chance in a fight against the jaws of the giant Chinese military machine? It would merely end in even more Tibetan deaths and the aftermath would be horrific to the cause. The Chinese would turn Tibet into a further military state and perhaps create a "final solution" for Tibet, which could easily include mass executions and an increased re-population of Tibet by ethnic Chinese.

Besides, if you think that the Dalai Lama is going to give up on non-violence then you really don't know much about him, nor about his religion. Besides being a leading voice in the world for peace today, he is first and foremost a simple monk. It would go against his vows as a Buddhist monk to renounce non-violence. And how could he send Tibetans into war yet not himself espouse violence? In fact, the very act of sending Tibetans into war would be one of violence. It is greedy to demand that one of the holiest men in Buddhism (and the world) call for blood-shed because you are frustrated and impatient that Tibetan freedom isn't coming fast enough. I can see the Dalai Lama smiling in response and calmly stating that none of us are truly free anyway.

Even if freedom was granted over-night there would still be a lot of misery and suffering within the newly independent state. There could be power struggles, corruption and your average crime. What I'm trying to say is that having democratic freedoms doesn't guarantee lasting happiness. There are many people in the world living with all kinds of freedom that are very unhappy. Freedom brings with it other problems such as rampant greed. The author of the opinion piece then gives their reasons for why they are calling for armed insurrection:
1. We’re running out of time Tenzin Gyatso the current Dalai Lama is over 70 years old. He he is not going to live forever. Even if he lived another 20 years that is a limited time. Once he passes away the Communists in Beijing are going to put forth their own Dalai Lama who is more sympathetic to their cause. The Tibetan people will have their own. This split will be the final nail in the coffin for Tibetan independence. Right now there is unity. Never under-estimate the power of this unity.
James: To assume that the Tibetan people wouldn't relate more to their Dalai Lama seems a bit hyperbolic to me. The Dalai Lama is a central pillar in what makes up Tibetan culture, and to think that they would bow to the Chinese fraud of a Dalai Lama doesn't give the Tibetan Buddhists much credit for their tenacity at maintaining their religion in the face of oppression. Besides, it's not about Tenzin Gyatso himself, so much as it is about the essence of a Dalai Lama. Tenzin Gyatso is just the current version of that essence. Tibetans aren't going to disregard their century long traditions of finding the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama and trust the Chinese "methods." Tibetans of all people know that everything is impermanent and that was the case with their long hidden civilization when the Chinese took over but the other side of impermanence is that eventually China's power will wane too.

And it is important to note that there is a strong and growing Tibetan diaspora in India and beyond, which has brought a lot of attention to Tibetan culture, Buddhism and it's political cause. That attention has brought many countries onto the side of the Tibetan people. Isn't it better for the Tibetans to live within places like India or American or Europe, etc. where the allowance of other cultures and religions maintains and grows their culture instead of wiping out the Tibetans that are left in an armed insurrection? We all want freedom for Tibet but forcing it through violence runs contrary to everything the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism teaches. So you're not only asking them to go to war against one of the biggest militaries in the world, you're asking them to betray their beliefs in the process:

2. Non-violence only works with liberal democracies – Every non-violent movement cites Gandhi’s success in securing independence from Britain. We now have over 50 years of analysis to figure out why it worked. The answer is simple. It worked because of Britain. I’m not excusing British imperialism or exploits of the sub-continent. All I’m saying is because Britain was a well established liberal democracy you could appeal to its citizenry on moral grounds. You can’t do that when you’re dealing with a violent communist regime like China. (Same goes for the Burmese struggle too.) China is not a liberal democracy. You can not appeal to its citizenry on the basis of compassion and morality. China is gearing up for world domination. It has cash, it has energy, it has enthusiasm. The communist regime will not do anything to give the impression it is weak. And granting anything to Tibet would be perceived as weakness. It will not relent to some pesky monk in a robe preaching.

James: How does this author know that the Chinese people aren't sympathetic to the Tibetan cause, and that they aren't compassionate, moral people? Throughout history it has often been the case that the people under a dictatorship are good, just people who are just as much victims of their government as the Tibetan people are!! And once again, they are assuming that the Chinese people won't rise up themselves against their government. As I said before, a Tibetan uprising could unite the people behind their government at a time when western philosophy and Buddhism are on the rise within the silent majority in China. Why push them into the hands of the oppressor by igniting a war?

And in the end, a country isn't anything but an attachment to an institution that we think is going to make us happy, prevent us from suffering and helping us succeed. Yet here in America, (which is supposed to be the beacon of democracy) we are in a current state of absolute corruption. Our government is owned by the corporations, and is increasingly disenfranchising the people who are increasingly poor and unhealthy.

And being an American I have an up close view of what war does and does not do. Unfortunately America has a lot of experience with war and "liberating" people. After fighting in Iraq for 6 years now, the best we can say about it was that we created a barely stable yet highly corrupt government. And in Afghanistan we are stuck in a perpetual war, with no end in sight. I'm not saying that war should never be used but I believe it should be used very sparingly because while war can bring some good, it can and always does bring unexpected problems. And I'm not trying to say that Tibetans shouldn't be able to decide for themselves if they want a war because that's their right. However, to say that the Dalai Lama, (who is considered by many to be an incarnation of a Buddhist saint of compassion) should push a war is unrealistic. And finally, it's easy to talk tough and call for war when you're not the one who has to fight that war. Of course that's assuming this individual isn't Tibetan or unwilling to fight but I didn't read anywhere in the article that the author would lead the charge or fight in the ranks.

PHOTO CREDIT: The Dalai Lama arrives at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. AP Photo/Jonathan Hayward, The Canadian Press.

~Peace to all beings~

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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

"Persist" by Peter Clothier is an Inspiration to Creative People Everywhere.

Peter Clothier is a long time expert in art, a fellow dharma practitioner and fellow blogger. You can find his blog over at, "The Buddha Diaries." He has written a great, easy to read book titled, Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad with Commerce. As both a Buddhist and an artist I was pleased to read aspects of Buddhism within his advice on how to be a creative person/artist in this modern world of commerce.

I especially liked how the author compassionately stated that just because your art doesn't sell, doesn't mean you're not a good artist. That is a very brief summation of a lot of the book so I encourage you to read it cover to cover for yourself but for a struggling painter like myself who doesn't make consistent money from my art--it's nice to hear. Especially coming from someone who has been in, "the biz" for as long as Peter.

I use to think that if my art didn't make me a millionaire that I wasn't a true and talented artist. Peter helped me rediscover doing art simply because it's my passion and brings me joy. I guess you could say he teaches to, "Paint canvas and carry turpentine" as in the Zen saying, "Chop wood, carry water" to remind us all to be present in the moment and to focus solely on whatever activity that moment finds ourselves engaged in. I also really appreciated his advice on meditating before doing your art to clear your mind of doubts about your talent and that critical voice that says, "You're not doing it right." It is clear how the meditation can clear your mind for the creative ideas to flow freely in the moment. This is a great book for anyone interested in being a creative person in a modern world that has boiled art down to mere commodity.

~Peace to all beings~

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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya 2010.

The Dalai Lama recently visited to Bodh Gaya for discourses to Buddhist pilgrims at the Mahabodhi temple. The following, and above are all pictures taken during his visit to the site venerated by Buddhists as the place where Buddha realized enlightenment. I like the first three pictures and the last one most.~Peace to all beings~

: Tenzin Choejor of The Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Science, the Brain and Meditation.

One of the subjects that interest me most is the intersection of science and Buddhism as I highly value both. So, it is always enlightening and exciting to see where they meet and compliment each other. I have posted several articles showing the effects of mediation on the brain but this one triggered a fresh perspective to the subject--That being the interactions between the left and right hemispheres of the brain:

Enlightenment has been described in many ways, but what is common to most descriptions of enlightenment is a change in the sense of ‘self,’ and a sensation of a release from suffering. An enlightened person is said to no longer identify with herself as the individual she once was. She is also said to no longer experience negative thoughts.

Our feeling part of our Self is located in the limbic system, in this case the amygdala. In most people, the left side feels pleasure or positive emotions, and the right side experiences negative emotions. In each case, the right (positive) and left (negative) components are synaptically ‘wired’ to each other. Thoughts and emotions are communicated back and forth between both sides of the the brain along the synapses. Now here is where meditation impacts these processes. Most meditative practices involve techniques to de-emphasize, defuse or reduce negative thoughts. Over the long term, what this means in the brain is that the transmission of electrical impulses into both the right side (negative) of both the amygdala and hippocampus is reduced. Fewer negative feelings and thoughts, less activity along those pathways.

Published studies support the idea that long term meditation works by ‘starving’ the brain of negative emotions and expectations. So meditation not only trains us not to respond as intensely and frequently to negative thoughts and emotions, it also causes an ‘atrophying’ of our brain’s ability to process those thoughts and emotions. But the caveat here, is that it takes a lot of consistent practice over the long term.
James: This has probably occurred to others but the explanation of the right brain, left brain interaction has really given me new insight into why duality is such a strong aspect to the human reality. And it's pretty impressive that science can now prove that meditation can literally rewire the brain to unlock a less volatile brain and thus mind.No wonder people are said to be "transformed" and a "new person altogether" or "reborn" when they realize enlightenment. They have finally mastered their brain and trained it with meditation and mindfulness to no longer express the dualistic nature of the mind. Buddhism and science are always amazing me with how much we still have to learn but also experience. Thus, the practice.

~Peace to all beings~

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