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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Of Robots and Altars.

We've been in the process of moving over this past month into our first house and the packing has dislodged all our "possessions" from their "right" place and thrown them into a mixed soup of items. As I was dutifully sorting and wrapping up our materialistic karma into the appropriate boxes, I noticed that during the churning maelstrom of the process that my toy, "Robot B-9" from the 1960s, American, science-fiction, t.v. program, titled, "Lost in Space" had found its way to the altar. Anyway, at first glance my conditioned mind saw this clunky, garish, pop-culture refugee, toy as a blight on my otherwise serene, elegant and meticulously designed, altar.

Yet as I questioned this initial reaction from my mind I began to see the cheap, plastic, robot in a different light. I questioned myself, "Why do you see the Buddha differently than the robot?" In a flash my newly focused mind replied, "me." By their nature, the Buddha statue and robot are inanimate objects made unique by their artists yet still of the same nature or essence. It was my mind that was labeling one as "beneficial" and the other as "clutter."

So, just to shake up my habitual mind I've decided to replace the Buddha statue on the altar with the robot for a few days as a kind of koan to contemplate. Religious paraphernalia can be a powerful reminder of what it means to follow the Dharma. However, it can quickly turn to spiritual materialism where we start to think that the items have some sort of power that improves our spirituality; and that without them we're somehow less of a practitioner. Surely the first time I go to bow to Buddha before meditating and instead see that goofy robot I will laugh out loud at my silly mind. Perhaps in a different world in a different part of this universe Buddha takes the form of a robot!! If you find that idea sacrilegious then perhaps you have some of your own spiritual materialism to shed?

---End of Transmission---

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Are You a Buddhist, and Does it Matter?

I get questions from people from time to time about how they should "become" a Buddhist. This isn't a silly question because a lot of religions have a very intricate process one must go through before they can call themselves a member of that faith. Unless you're becoming a monk there isn't exactly the same process in Buddhism. Traditionally a practitioner became a monk after taking formal refuge in the "Three Jewels" (The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha). The idea of refuge is vital to understanding these. By coming to the monastery the novice was renouncing the failed appeasements of the world and embracing the shelter or refuge and help of the Buddha's example, his teachings (the Dharma) and the community of monks (Sangha).

It is the same for us today. Taking refuge in the Three Jewels isn't something to check off your "Things to do before I become a Buddhist" list but rather a personal acknowledgment that your life is out of control (like is the case for all of us) and that you need help. The refuges are meant to remind us that there is a way out and that it has been done before by Buddha but that the way out requires complete surrender. However, it's not a surrender to Buddha himself but rather to his example because Buddha isn't a savior like Jesus. We are saying, "O.k., I give up in trying to find relief externally, and figuring this out on my own. So, I am trusting in Buddha's example that it can help me as well." So, in essence every time we recite refuge in the jewels we are reminding ourselves of that reality. For, It is only when we let go that we find true freedom. Or, as the wise (yet rather crazy), "Master" Tyler Durden says in the movie Fight Club, "It's only after we've lost everything that we are free to do anything."

Then there are of course the "The Five Precepts" vows, which are a list of commitments that have been shown before by well-known monks to reduce suffering but they aren't a "naughty list." There isn't anyone that's going to be checking up on you if you don't keep all the precepts because, frankly, that would be counterproductive because in Buddhism there is no one that you need to please, appease or obey. Buddhism is the classic, "D.I.Y" or "Do it Yourself" motto because no amount of bowing, vowing or wowing is going to end your suffering. You and your karma are your own judge and savior.

I'm not saying you won't need teachers and other helpful guides such as the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path. I'm simply saying that being a Buddhist is not about checking off boxes on a list and off you go to Buddhist retirement. If you look for Buddha--you won't find him anywhere but inside you. That means that to be a Buddhist, one only has to be a human being who has seen the useless help that the external world offers and actively live your life to find relief from within yourself with the example of Buddha as your guide. You have to live it to be it is another way of saying it.

Another Buddhist I was reading today inspired this post with a story about her desire to "become" a Buddhist and her teachers response to that desire. She wanted to know when she'd be ready to become a Buddhist. Her teacher wisely replied, "You know you're ready when becoming a Buddhist is simply a recognition of something that has already happened." So, perhaps the question isn't, "How do I become a Buddhist" but rather, "How do I reduce my suffering?" Because it is that goal, which defines most "Buddhists." If you follow the Buddha's example, seek to put his teachings into practice and ask for help, support and guidance from the wider Buddhist community (Sangha) then I'm sure you'll have your question answered by your own actions.

~Peace to all beings~

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Myths About Meditation. Hint: It's Not Just for Buddhists.

Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens. - Carl Jung.

Meditation has brought life-changing benefits to millions of people world-wide. It is perhaps one of the original "self-help" programs as it helps calm the mind, stabilize emotions and motivate. Meditation is probably best known in Buddhism and the Hindu belief system but it can not be said that one must be a Buddhist or Hindu to benefit from it. That is one of the persisting myths about meditation, which is sad because it could be holding some non-Buddhists back from really benefiting from the discipline. This and many myths about meditation are raised in a recent article by Doctor Ronald Alexander (who specializes in psychology):

Myth 4: "Practicing mindfulness meditation will conflict with my religious beliefs." The practice of mindfulness meditation is free of religious and spiritual dogma. In fact, if you believe in turning to God for guidance, you can use mindfulness meditation to set aside distractions and listen to the divine wisdom that can be found only when you tune out the endless chain of thoughts your own mind creates. This form of meditation turns down the volume of the chatter in your mind and allows you to tune in to deeper wisdom and insight. Mindfulness practice is a pathway to discovery that any of us can use, regardless of our religious or spiritual beliefs.

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Friday, August 06, 2010

Is Buddhism a Religion? Yes, and No. How's That for a Koan?

We often talk about Siddhartha, the young man who became known as the Buddha, as if he were a god. The fact is that he was just a simple Indian guy, a human being like you and me. We think of him as some kind of super-genius for having attained complete spiritual awakening, but in fact his real genius was in showing how any one of us can attain the same awakening as he did. We describe him as a prince and a member of the elite royalty of his time, and we think that must have given him an advantage over us -- but the reality is that most of us today are probably better off, in material terms, than Siddhartha was. The point is, we shouldn't mythologize Siddhartha's life and think that his spiritual awakening was due to his special circumstances. Most of us today actually live in conditions very similar to Siddhartha's, in terms of our material situation.

James: This is something that many in the West don't understand. They think we worship Buddha when we bow to his statues. I think a segment of this misunderstanding stems from the Western idea of what a religion constitutes. The main religions practiced in the West all have the common denominator of a belief in an omnipotent being that rules over all humanity--a "God." Combine that with a relative cultural isolation of many Americans and you have a recipe for misunderstanding Buddhism and other non-Western belief systems.

Siddhartha was a truth seeker, nothing more. He wasn't looking for religion, as such -- he wasn't particularly interested in religion. He was searching for the truth. He was looking for a genuine path to freedom from suffering. Aren't all of us searching for the same thing? If we look at the life of Siddhartha, we can see that he found the truth and freedom he was seeking only after he abandoned religious practices. Isn't that significant? The one who became the Buddha, the "Awakened One," didn't find enlightenment through religion -- he found it when he began to leave religion behind.

James: I don't think this means that we should abandon monasteries, temples and teachers but it is a necessary caution in reminding practitioners that these things are tools to help us along the path that only we can walk. For example, I think we deify our teachers a bit and lean upon them sometimes too much like a crutch. Yet Buddha was clear that we can know the Dharma like the back of our hand but all that is worthless unless we set out on our own and put them into practice. No one can walk the path for us. No teacher can cure us of our suffering--regardless of how enlightened and talented they may be. So, in that sense Buddhism isn't a religion in the Western sense but rather, perhaps, a spiritual school. Let me be clear, however. It doesn't hurt to practice with others in a physical sangha because it offers us support and encouragement but just remember that Buddha had none of these things. And if he can do it, so can we.

After all, what would you do if you were the last Buddhist on Earth? Would you stop practicing because there were no more teachers, temples, statues and sanghas? Of course not. These things are maps but they aren't the path itself. Spiritual materialism and attachment to it's trimmings is just as sure a pitfall as falling into the delusional hole that we don't need any teaching or guidance at all. Ironically, fittingly and beautifully we come back to the conclusion that Buddhism itself should be approached with the middle-path mindset. The way we view it should be balanced between traditional practice and freelance adaptation to an individuals particular karma.

Neither wrong to attend a temple or monastery nor wrong to be more of a hermit Buddhist as Buddha initially was. Some teachers I have read will actually recommend certain students leave the monastery to study on their own as a hermit. So, there are many paths but only one Dharma. That said, neither I, nor Rinpoche are advocating we do away with Buddhism as a religion but rather to go beyond Buddhism as a religion. This means having the structural integrity of the Dharma as our foundation but we shouldn't let organized religion hold back our practice to where we simply copy someone else's practice. In my years of practice I have found that mimicking the path of someone else is simply yet another delusion.

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Thursday, August 05, 2010

Christopher Hitchens on the Why the Universe Doesn't Care About You.

Christopher Hitchens is a thorn to some and a champion to others, but to the cosmos he's nothing. The famous (or infamous, depending on your beliefs on religion) British Atheist is known for being up for a good fight; he now has a fight that is even daunting to his larger than life personality. That fight is against cancer but his acerbic wit is still, thankfully intact. In addition, his daunting challenge hasn't shaken his acceptance that none of us have guarantees in this life, which has prevented him from using too much of his precious days left to ask, "Why me?" His response to that question is almost koan material, which is ironic for not only a committed Atheist but a passionate advocate against religion altogether. To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

It's not an easy thing to admit because it feels like we're losing control over our life. However, this life was never "ours" to begin with, which I think it partly why so many people go through the "5 stages of grief" when facing the exacting, unbending and non-discriminating bringer of death (but also other crises in our lives). It is said that the ego-driven mind goes through 5 stages of grief before finally accepting the inevitable. The stages are as follows: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally Acceptance. Interestingly these stages seem to mirror the Buddhist process of accepting the reality of suffering and the impermanence of all phenomena. It's a thought that itches my brain with wondering, "Do awakened people such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh go through such a process when faced with death?" The answer chimes clearly like a temple bell calling all to meditation, "No, because if one hasn't accepted the unwavering power of impermanence and the delusion of our ego; how can one be fully awakened?" It makes me wonder too if most Buddhists are better prepared for death than others?

The Buddhist teaching that always comes to mind when I meditate and contemplate about the impermance of life comes from the famous and beautiful Diamond Sutra:

The Buddha asked, “Subhuti, if a man had a body as huge as a mountain, would he be a great man?” “No, Lord. Because “a great man” is only words, and being a great man is an illusion, created by the belief in ego.”

"So listen to this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream. --
So should you understand the world of the ego.”

James: And so it is with all things too; not just death. The sooner we accept that our ties to this body, personality, accomplishments and pleasures aren't anchored in rock after all but sand slipping through the fingers of time, is the sooner we overcome suffering to bloom like a lotus in the bright, clear, sky of radical acceptance. Letting go is when we are the most free like a rock climber floats suspended in the mid-air after letting go of a rock wall. If you've ever been rock climbing and been stuck on the rock wall out of fear of falling you cling to what little grip you have as if your life depended upon it. You have to face your deluded mind and make it let go of the fear of falling to free oneself from the panic and fear that is keeping you stuck in an unstable and uncomfortable state.

Just as with life, it is terrifying to let go of all that we know but that rock we are clinging to is not giving us much comfort, which makes us cling to it tighter. Yet whether our mind lets go of trying to control life or not; sooner or later it will have to let go. Christopher Hitchens has let go and is accepting the possibility of death. It must be said, however, that some cancer survivors have said that cancer was the best thing that happened to them. They state that it freed them from a lot of emotional baggage and suffering that was preventing true peace and happiness from blossoming in their life previously. Everything happens for a reason--so let go. You won't regret it because that letting go might just allow you to fly high into the peaceful heavens of awakening.

---End of Transmission---

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Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Ground Zero Mosque Gets "O.k." but Still Faces Opposition.

So the much ballyhooed "Ground Zero Mosque" will go ahead and be built, which isn't just the right thing to do--It's the American thing to do. The opposition to this mosque said that it was too close to the "Ground Zero" site and was thus a slap in the face to the memorial of those Americans who died during the September 11th terrorist attacks. First of all let's clear something up right away; there were Muslims who died on 9/11 along side Christians and Jews. Including innocent Muslims upon the planes used as missiles. So when they say this mosque is spitting upon the memory of those who died I guess they only mean Judeo-Christians. This is intolerance disgustingly hidden behind the American flag to soften the face of their hatred toward all Muslims. Increasingly Americans are packaging radical beliefs behind symbols of good old Americana, which unfortunately often legitimizes such extremist ideologies to the vulnerable.

The people who are opposing the building of this mosque and cultural center are also standing in opposition to religious freedom in America, which we supposedly hold dear. This reverence for the freedom of religion is ironically often espoused by the very same people who are protesting this mosque!! They say this mosque is a monument to radical Islamic terrorism, which is beyond insulting and embarrassing to listen to as an American who works hard to be inclusive. It is the height of arrogance, stupidity and bigotry to lump all Muslims of the world in with Islamic terrorists who probably consist of less than one percent of the worlds BILLIONS of Muslims. Sadly, however, this is the kind of ugliness you often hear from Americans whose only connection with Islam is the 9/11 terrorists and the wars against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Anyone who has interacted with an average Muslim knows the truth; that most Muslims are peaceful, kind and tolerant of others. I spent two years living in West Africa where Islam is a popular belief system, and some of the nicest people I met there were in fact Muslim. The Muslims I met would invite me into their homes off the street and feed me like a welcome guest. And the irony perhaps to some was that I was there in West Africa as an official Christian missionary!! But that wasn't important to them or myself. I was a guest in their country and guests are treated with great respect in many Muslim households.

Out of respect for that invitation I refrained from talking religion but when the subject was raised by them, I would discuss it. However, it was always respectfully discussed by both sides. And interestingly, when we did converse about faith it was often about what we had in common rather than apart. Rather than preached to or insulted for my religion at the time, I was often shown the passages within the Qu'ran that speak reverently about Jesus Christ. And I, in turn, asked respectful questions to learn about a religion that was new to me at the time. Islam isn't an "evil" religion and most people would find that if they had an open, respectful and honest dialogue with the average Muslim that they'd find more in common than not.

In the end, Americans need to come to terms with what it means to be an American. If you think it's o.k. to ban a mosque because of 9/11 then by that same logic we should ban churches close to the sites of abortion clinic bombings too.

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