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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Saturday Night Audio Meditation - Bjork, "All is Love."

James: This song by Bjork is a serene meditation complete with mokugyo beats that aid in counting deep, relaxing breaths. I float through the heavy Saturday evening like I was riding upon notes as they rose skyward propelled by their vibrations; twinkling in the minds eye like dancing stars. Soon this moment will fade, and I will ease seamlessly into a dream state. Morning awaits. Sleep well, friends.

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Is the Swastika a "Universal" Symbol of Hate?

The swastika now shows up so often as a generic symbol of hatred that the Anti-Defamation League, in its annual tally of hate crimes against Jews, will no longer automatically count its appearance as an act of anti-Semitism. “The swastika has morphed into a universal symbol of hate,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy organization. “Today it’s used as an epithet against African-Americans, Hispanics and gays, as well as Jews, because it is a symbol which frightens.”

James: There is no doubt that in the western hemisphere the swastika is seen as a symbol of hate and intolerance but what most westerners don't know is that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis stole it from the Hindu and Buddhist religions and perverted its meaning. Ironically svastika is Sanskrit for "all is well" and is seen throughout Asia today--including emblazoned upon Buddha statues around the world. Thus, it was intended to be a message of harmony and well-being to all those who gazed upon its satisfyingly balanced shape. In Buddhism it is almost always seen pointing left, whereas the Nazis used it facing right.

I understand the aversion toward the swastika in the West but to say it is universally a symbol of hate could create more intolerance, not less. That's because it is a statement based in ignorance, and ignorance always breeds suffering. Their statement branding the swastika as universal symbol of hate excludes an entire half of the world where it is seen positively. In doing so this organization could possibly cause misunderstanding between Westerners and Easterners. What are less informed Western tourists going to think when they see a swastika painted upon a Buddhist or Hindu statue? What kind of conspiracy theories or misinformed opinions will they hatch out of ignorance propagated by a well-meaning organization? And just imagine the suffering that could be stirred up because of an ignorant tourist clinging to the Anti-Defamation League's wrong perception that the swastika is a universal symbol of hate. Of course you can't control how anyone is going to interpret something; nor should we seek to control it but I think the ADL owes it to the seriousness of this subject to educate to help prevent fear based ignorance from causing unintended consequences.

They were fine to remind everyone of the swastika's hateful past and that people are still using it to terrorize others. However, their mistake was in stopping with that statement, which is clinging to the hateful side of it. This could have been handled as a "teaching moment" as we say in America today. They could have gone on to educate the public that the symbol also means harmony and well-being. Then they could have advised us to stay vigilant toward intolerance and hatred but to not forget the original meaning, which we should embody instead of hatred and intolerance. This reminds us that all symbols have many meanings that can be interpreted one way or another based on our perceptions.

It is a great reminder of how much suffering our perceptions are to our lives. In the end though we have to let go of all perceptions. Even the perception that we are justified in hating those who hate us. As distasteful as this sounds we have to come to the realization that even those who flash the swastika in hate are doing so because of fear, ignorance and delusion. Thus, they too are suffering immensely and if possible having some compassion for them might help us overcome our hatred for them, which is only causing us additional pain. Hanging onto that hatred is like reminding ourselves of how painful that razor blade cut was a few weeks back by slashing your arm with it again. Or as Buddha said, "Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; its you who gets burned."

I'm not anywhere near at a place where I have been able to let go of all my perceptions, fear and ignorance (delusions) but I know the path to freeing ourselves from their suffering resides in letting go of their power. It doesn't mean that we ignore hatred, justify hatred, or stop educating people of their reality but it does mean that we should remember that our perceptions aren't usually completely accurate; and they can be damaging despite a well-meaning motivation. When we realize how interconnected we are there is often a natural widening of our mind and a greater awareness of the world around us, which enriches our lives and brings a deeper understanding of how we all work together.

~Peace to all beings~

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

You Left Hand Isn't Superior to Your Right.

The sound in this video is of poor quality so you'll want to turn up the volume.
James: I call Thich Nhat Hanh my teacher for many reasons: He's straightforward, uses simple explanations that explain deep concepts, has a knack for knowing how to teach the western mind, has a great sense of humor and is very kind and compassionate. His left hand, right hand analogy was a revelation to me when I was first studying Buddhism because it really helped me see the big picture of interdependence, interconnection and no self. I hope you enjoyed it too!!

~Peace to all beings~

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Monday, July 26, 2010

World Cup Buddhist.

Phayul, July 10, 2010

Dharamsala, India -- Barcelona and Spain defender Carles "Tarzan" Puyol who scored the only goal of the semi final against Germany to send his country into the first ever world cup final has a keen interest in Buddhism, according to his friend Ven. Thupten Wangchen of the Casa del Tibet, Barcelona. Ven Wangchen told VOA that Puyol's interest in Tibetan culture and Buddhism started after reading Sogyal Rinpoche’s book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying which helped him deal with death of a family member. Puyol, Ven. Wangchen said, has a Tibetan tattoo on his left arm which reads “Power is inside the Mind. The strong can endure.”

Puyol, also an admirer of the Tibetan leader has met His Holiness the Dalai Lama during the latter's visit to Barcelona in 2007. Ven. Wangchen said Puyol has also expressed his interest in helping the Tibetan national football team in the future.

James: I was thrilled like millions around the world to enjoy the football mega-tournament, the World Cup recently in South Africa. I think sports are a great way to connect with people from around the world to remind one another that we are all essentially the same. We all want to be happy, or as the Dalai Lama says, no one wants to suffer. It was great to see all the different cultures represented from around the globe and I especially enjoyed hearing all the unique national anthems play before each match. It really was a coming together of the world and I was overjoyed to be apart of it.

As to this article, I am mostly excited about the idea of a Tibetan national football team!! Go Puyol!! How cool would it be to see Tibetans play in the greatest game the world has ever played!! But the footage I'd love to see the most would be the Dalai Lama kicking around the hexagonal ball. Maybe surprise us with his stretching skills from years of meditation and go for a bicycle kick? That would be epic. I also happen to know that the 17th Karmapa has the bug for football/soccer and followed the World Cup. Besides I just think it would be cool to see a monk in robes blast a ball into the back of the net by way of a bicycle kick. I just think that dueling imagery would be cool to see. Ancient robes bustling in the air while a very modern game (football) is being played by the monk wearing those robes.

~Peace to all beings~

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Moon and the Idiot.

When the genius points at the moon, the idiot looks at the finger.

-Old Chinese proverb.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Worms Crawl in and the Worms Crawl Out.

When I was a young boy I spent some years in the Boy Scouts, which is a survivalist organization that trains young men on how to live in the wilderness. As well as teach them other life skills. When the leaders weren't around we kids would sing songs that, naturally, were deemed by our elders as, "gross." You know how kids are. The one that comes to mind today is something called, "The Hearse Song" which is about death and stems from the 19th century when it was documented among British soldiers serving in the Crimean War. Here are the full lyrics as I learned them:

If you ever laugh as the hearse goes by
You may be the next to die.

They wrap you up
in a bloody sheet
and drop you six feet

The Worms Crawl In,
The Worms Crawl Out,
Into your stomach,
And out your mouth.

They eat your eyes, they eat your nose.
They eat the jelly between your toes.
A big green worm with rolling eyes
crawls in your stomach and out your eyes.

This is how
It is to die
You end up looking
Like apple pie!

James: This "gory" topic was brought to mind from a post by the no non-sense Buddhist blogger Genkaku. In this post he was speaking about his experience attending funeral homes here in America. This got me thinking about death, which is something that I came to terms with years ago. Studying Zen Buddhism and having had to struggle with suicidal thoughts from a mental illness forces you to face death whether you like it or not. So, anyway, part of Genkaku's post is about how quickly some recoil and run away from anything related to death. Or how we're not supposed to laugh about death, as if doing so shows a sign of disrespect to the dead. Or by laughing we're cursed to die next. I find all that superstitious mumbo-jumbo to be funny in and of itself!! Cursed to be the next to die? If you wanna use those words and look at it in that manner then we're all "cursed."

That's the way Buddhism sees it too--not as a curse but definitely as a fact of life to come to terms with sooner than later. That's because we're all dying from the minute after we take our first breath as a fresh and snappy-skinned baby. Buddhism teaches us that death is nothing to be feared because it is just another change in the many changes leading up to it. As another online writer says it, "It is the temporary end of a temporary problem." Now, some think that contemplating upon death is depressing, leads to despair and suicidal thinking.

Actually, in my own experience, (and from that of others who have embraced death and come to terms with its reality) it opens one up to live with less suffering. When you realize that death could come at any minute then you truly understand how precious each present moment really and truly is. This has allowed me to savor and enjoy life on a much deeper and profound level. This blunt assessment of death and suffering isn't nihilism but a pragmatic acceptance of life as it is, and not how we want it to be.

As for the specifics of death, I personally find the way we deal with death in Western culture to be a bit silly. We buy dressy, expensive clothes to wrap our dead shell in, which are quickly going to rot away. Then we buy a really expensive, fancy, box that we're only going to use once. We fill it with our finely dressed, bag of bones, which we promptly bury in our bejeweled box under six feet of dirt. And we do this in a fancy park that could be used to house homeless instead of rotting bags of flesh. As if all that isn't enough to stroke our egos we top it all off with an intricately etched headstone proudly stating our name. Or, rather the name of the body.

According to Buddhist standards our name, and that body are long expired the minute our last breath escapes. In fact, our name is pretty much meaningless while we're living as well!! Some people are so attached to their lives that even after death they even want a fancy house (mausoleum) to surround and protect their buried box!! They don't want their "special bones" sitting next to the bones of some lowly, average citizen!!

Upon my death, I just want my body cut up and pieced out to use in helping sick, yet living bodies live longer, healthier lives via organ donation. I highly support organ donation by the way. If there is anything left I simply would like the rest of it cremated and have my ashes spread around, so that perhaps other living things can benefit from it. Or possibly the sky burial they do in Tibet if I could find a way to get away with it. Or perhaps just take my stinkin' pile of bones up into the mountains I love so much and prop me up against a tree to serve as compost for flowers and mushrooms and such. If all else fails just donate my bag of bones to science. So, sing, "The Hearse Song" and enjoy this present moment.

~Peace to all beings

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

When Meditating, Let Go of Expectations.

It is important to sit with the clear intention to be present. At the same time, we need to let go of expectations. In a very real sense, what happens when we sit is none of our business.

The practice is to accept whatever arises instead of trying to control our experience. What we can control is our wise effort to be present with what is. We can spend a lot of our sitting time dwelling on memories of past sittings or fantasizing of those to come.

When we read or hear about the benefits of meditation, it is tempting to dwell on the stories of wonderful outcomes instead of doing the work of actualizing these possibilities ourselves. There can be a big gap between what we have read about and what is actually happening. Sitting is a way of putting our bodies behind our aspirations.

-Narayan Liebenson Grady, "The Refuge of Sitting" (Winter 2003)

James: Nothing breeds discouragement with our meditation practice more than having expectations of how it is "supposed to be." That is why I like this quote about using meditation to just be present with your mind in whatever state you find it in. To become aware of our mind and what it is reflecting from inside our subconsciousness at any given moment is enough practice to work on for a lifetime. As much as we like to think we have things figured out in this existence the reality is that most of us are clueless, and bumbling through life like an inexperienced boy scout crashing through the forest.

In keeping with the analogy, I was always told when I was a boy scout that if I ever got lost to just sit down next to a tree and stay in that area. It makes it easier for people to find you as you aren't a moving target and you don't waste energy needed to sustain being lost for an indefinite period of time. Spiritually, we are lost in the woods. The woods being samsara while staying put in one place is akin to sitting down to meditate and center our mind in one place. When our mind is resting in the present moment we stop wasting energy chasing expectations and come to terms with what's really going on in that spinning washing machine like mind of ours.

Only when we accept what is bubbling up from our subconsciousness can we truly understand what is causing our suffering. Yet (as the quote warns us) don't expect every meditation session to ease your suffering. It seems that meditation is a bit like a box of chocolates (as Forest Gump would say) "You never know what you're gonna get." Sometimes meditation can make you feel a bit worse before you feel better because it will dredge up a long hidden obstacle. But don't freak out and stop meditating--it's good to dig up that shit because you're now aware of it and being aware is useful because you know where to focus your energies. Regardless of what happens when you meditate, it's all beneficial. There is nothing in life that isn't beneficial. It's our mind that says otherwise but the mind is exactly where the problem lies in the first place!! We can't rely upon the very mind that deludes us to bring us back to reality.

The mind might not want to reflect on something painful and seek to cast it aside as unhelpful but perhaps that's the exact reason to NOT cast it aside but to focus extra attention upon it. Perhaps the mind casts it aside because it knows that to focus upon it would mean it would have to see things differently and it doesn't want to do that because old habits are hard to break. Yet habit energy is what propels us incessantly through this cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Habit energy is another way of saying karma.

The mind isn't our friend--It's a delusion in an of itself, so of course it's going to try and distract us with doubt, which is one of the five hindrances Buddha taught to be aware of. Meaning, even BUDDHA faced those obstacles to meditation or else how would he be aware of them to warn us? So, you're in good company in facing obstacles to your meditation practice--that's what I try to keep reminding myself. Buddha and countless other greats in Buddhist history faced similar trials. So, in it's basic form meditation is simply about watching the mind--keep a eye on it to see where it has led us astray and where it would continue to like to lead us astray. Above all else don't feel bad if you can't always formally meditate because awareness can be had while doing anything. Washing the dishes mindfully or taking a mindful walk around a park. That's the beauty of Buddhism--it can be practiced anywhere. Not just in a formal meditation posture.

ADDENDUM: Special thanks to Philip Ryan over at Tricycle for the quote.

~Peace to all beings~

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Thursday, July 08, 2010

Adapting to Rising Heat.

This post started as a comment in regards to Genkaku's post about the current heat wave on the East coast of America. Thanks Genkaku for the inspiration:

The Earth is our only home but for too long humans have forgotten our close interdependent relationship with her, which has led us to neglect the relationship and abuse her. Yet as we know well from studying the Dharma, we can not hurt the environment without hurting ourselves. We can ignore science all we want but the reality is that it's been getting warmer and warmer at a faster pace than prior warming periods. Direct observations have linked it to fossil fuel use. Seeing how corrosive factory and car pollution is to the human body I will trust science when they conclude that it's changing our climate adversely. Schooling has a funny way of doing that. Science has been right in countless ways because it is based on direct observations and experiments, which incidentally is not entirely unlike the Dharma's teachings of awareness and mindfulness.

This isn't a political issue because we all physically and emotionally suffer when our environment is degraded but besides that it affects the only home we are lucky to enjoy. Regardless of how we got to this point of a warming climate, I think our society needs to adapt to nature better and follow the rest of the world that take siestas (afternoon naps) during the hottest parts of the day. Let nature do it's thing and not fight it. We should take the opportunity to rest and take a nap. What a novel idea!! When I lived in West Africa the whole place would nearly completely shut down between the hours of noon and 2pm. It's only two hours but many Americans would see that as lost productivity, and that unwillingness to accept limitations causes a lot of suffering. Both physically and mentally. It's not being lazy as the American, Puritan work ethic would suggest. It's being aware of our limitations and being fully accepting of the present moment.

I think we push the human body in our modern society too much. We have delusions about what the human body can take and how far we can push it but the human body is perfectly aware of the moment and it's capacities. Whether we accept those limitations or not the body will shut down when the present moment finds it unable to function. Our mind might ignore the present moment but our bodies are finely tuned to it.

Perhaps we can learn from that and accept our limitations instead of forcing and pushing everything. In today's western world (I can't speak for elsewhere) we're over-worked, get less sleep and eat bad food in an impossible chase to "save time" and stay one step ahead in this fast paced world. And I can't help but wonder if that's partly why there's been such an increase in anger, hatred and selfishness. So I say we slow down a bit and bring about noon siesta time here to America.

PHOTO CREDIT: Napping monk by Brian Keathley on Flickr.

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Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Reviewing "Not in God's Name" by Paula Fouce.

India. The cradle of Eastern spirituality (if not the capital of world religion) is where the documentary, Not in God's Name begins. And the nourishment of that spiritual child is the Ganges river. The beginning scenes on this mystical and legendary body of water are stunning in color, lighting and scope. Truly the imagery evokes sensations of viewing a unique and sacred place.

However, we are also reminded in these initial moments of the dark side of religion--hatred and violence. We are guided through this mine field by the Paula Fouce who spent many years traveling the subcontinent. She saw the best and worst in religion.

Including militant Sikhs who sought to secede from India but were violently expelled from their sacred shrine, which mixed two traditionally explosive ideologies together--religion and politics. In the aftermath many dead Sikhs and soldiers littered the streets and even the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi became a casualty of this clash.

She was assassinated for ordering the raid. As Indira Gandhi was a Hindu, her assassination pitted radicals of the two great religions of Hindiusm and Sikhism against each other. Religions that at their heart are supposed to be about peace and acceptance. I was moved by the images and in one particular quote by Blaise Pascal:

"Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious convictions."

The Dalai lama is interviewed for this documentary and he reminds us that the aim of most religions is to provide inner peace. In addition, he admonished us that there need not be one religion, and that they exist because of the various types of personalities upon this planet. In part I would suggest based on our different and varied karma.

The film goes on to spotlight the main religions of India (Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism) and how they have influenced the culture to create such a unique place in the spiritual world. Hindu sages and Muslim Imams speak about tolerance in the movie yet we are reminded as well that the two religions have often violently clashed. The movie made me think that unfortunately many adherents become blinded by pride and in doing so pervert their faith into a cause that succeeds only by the downfall of the faithful in other religions. This has often taken the form of violent clashes over disputed holy sites in a deluded clinging to the outward, physical representations of their faith. Sadly many see holy sites as able to provide some sort of outward infusion of spirituality into their inner lives. And while they can be helpful, clinging to them and fighting over them is not just counter to teachings of these great religions but violations of human dignity.

The Buddhist part was short but good and I especially liked the quote the great non-violent Ashoka would said that if you denigrate one religion who denigrate yourself. I also really liked how the narrator spoke of the Dalai Lama as not only being a symbol of political and religious freedom to Tibetans but to all people of the world.

My only complaint about this documentary was that the time line and narrative 0often jumped around a bit but yet the message was never diluted or lost because of that editing.

Not in God's Name is a testament and a potent, timely reminder of just how quickly religions can become the opposite of helping mankind evolve toward a more harmonious life and society. Overall I would suggest this documentary to anyone looking to better understand the many religions of India and how they interact. Another reason to see this film is that it is in the running for an Emmy award nomination in the Non-Fiction Special Category. The Los Angeles Times listed it as a front runner.

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