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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dalits Bravely Embrace Buddhism.

Hundreds of Dalits belonging to Chettipulam, a village near Vedaranyam in Nagapattinam district are planning to embrace Buddhism on December 6, the death anniversary of B R Ambedkar. During September 2009, the CPI(M) had alleged that the Dalits were not being allowed entry into the temple by the villagers. The party organised temple entry agitations twice - on Sep 30,and Oct 14 of that year.

James: I have been watching with interest the continued phenomena of Dalits converting to Buddhism since the revered Dalit Dr. B R Ambedkar converted giving Dalits a way out of the cruel label of "untouchable." In the Hindu caste system Dalits or "untouchables" are considered the lowest of the level of human being. The castes system was officially abolished with the drafting of the Indian Constitution but the tradition is still stubbornly held to by all too many Indians and the discriminatory suffering continues.

Traditionally Dalits were forced into the "impure" professions of: trash collectors, butchering, animal carcass removal and waste clean-up. They are sometimes still banned from entering temples because of their "impure" status. This combined with the political rights movement by Ambedkar has been the fuel that has created and perpetuates the mass conversions of Dalits to Buddhism (to read more about the political and social reality of the caste system, click here). This is all a cursory description, of course, of the very complex nature of the Dalits place in Indian society.

Buddhism was revolutionary and a bit rebellious at the time of its birth in Indian society (and still somewhat today) as it challenges and denies the existence of the caste levels. Hinduism teaches a fatalistic approach to life, whereas, Buddhism approaches it from the aspect of choice. In other words, there is a way out in this life from our present circumstances. Buddha's famous declaration on the matter was, "Birth does not make one a priest or an outcast. Behavior makes one either a priest or an outcast." Buddha himself was born into the warrior caste in ancient India.

Indeed Buddha believed that one's past lives were but one aspect to what determined who we are as a person in this present life. However, unlike the Hindus he taught that we can change this through our actions in this life. We aren't segregated into a less equal status for life simply for being born into a certain family. The caste system doesn't allow for advancement or change in one's existence in this life, and seeing how there are virtuous and less virtuous people in all the castes points more toward Buddha's theory that our personalities are shaped more by our actions than by birth outcome.

In the face of all this I have wondered what tradition of Buddhism are these new Buddhists embracing. As it turns out, their own. Theirs is often an ecclectic form of the Dharma that is based upon the traditional Theravada tradition but borrows as well from Mahayana and Vajrayana. They are very socially engaged Buddhists stemming from their movements political campaign for greater rights in their homeland of India (SOURCE: Queen, Christopher S. and Sallie B. King: Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist liberation movements in Asia: NY 1996: 47ff. u.A.). The eclectic nature and socially engaged focus of these Buddhists is shared within the emerging western, Buddhist cultures, and is in part why I am so interested in its emergence in modern Indian society. May all Dalits find the way out of their suffering -- as may all of us.

~Peace to all beings~

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Friday, October 29, 2010

The Best Buddhist Writing 2010. A Book Review.

How would you like to have a collection of excellent Buddhist writings all in one book for your library? Well, that's exactly what Melvin McLeod and the Shambhala editors have offered up in the "The Best Buddhist Writing" series. Each year they select the cream of the crop in Buddhist essays and other writings to inspire and edify the Buddhist community. This year they have complied one of their best, and it's not simply Buddhist masters who are featured.

You'll read heartfelt writings from people as diverse as a man on death row to Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Death row inmate Jarvis Jay Masters was a hardened criminal who has since shed those violent ways and dedicated his life to practicing the Dharma. His narration of a short visit to a hospital outside the prison walls will make you see the present moment in an entirely new way. One that will rededicate your will power to soak up every last drop of it. He writes about the ride to and from the hospital for a basic hearing check-up and how he savored each time the car he was traveling in stopped at a red light.

It gave him precious time to take in the beauty of regular life unraveling before his eyes hungry for a glimpse of an average life. How easily do we go about our day and take for granted that we can freely walk out our door at any time and go for a walk to see things that an prisoner would give anything to experience again. The simple beauty of watching the traffic lights turn from green to red was enough to make this inmate tear up with appreciation. May we all too learn to see the world in such a pure way. This is a good book if you are looking for a collection of easy to read, inspirational tales from both Buddhist masters but also average practitioners.

~Peace to all beings~

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Winds of Change.

changing winds swirl
clinging golden leaf shivers
smoke escapes cabin

By James R. Ure

Recently my wife and I did some cabin-sitting for our friends. Their A-frame structure is perched on a small hill deep in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado near where I live. It is miles from any sign of civilization, which is divine. They are nearly entirely, "off-the-grid" or self-sufficient thanks to solar panels and wind turbines that our friend manufactures with a buddy at his cabin a few miles away. It's a lovely home with a sea of green pine trees interspersed with small groves of quaking Aspens for a view from their front porch. We are often welcomed to come up and camp out on their property during the summer, so we were honored to give back to them by watching their homestead for a time.

Living "off-the-grid" means changing your focus on how you use energy and other resources. Knowing that the energy for the cabin was not unlimited nor on-demand like it seemingly is in the city made us much more conscious of its use. The irony is that we are already quite environmentally conscious. It underlined the truth that actually the energy we get in town isn't in-fact unlimited as we often think. It's easy to get complacent with energy use when we live in a city because it seems so permanent. Almost every time that we flip a switch, we are flooded with energy. This lulls us into thinking that this energy will always be there for us, which can never be true. Awareness of how energy is actually created; like seeing it work from wind gave me deep insight into how the way we live our lives is creating a deficit of suffering so to speak.

We put off a lot of natural suffering by our over-consumption of energy. We run our thermostat high, so we can wear shorts inside the house during the winter, and we plug in our cell phones while running the laptop and the television. This all makes for a very luxurious life to be sure, but each time we flip on the switch we are taking years off the livability of planet Earth. And, at the same time robbing our children and grandchildren from a healthy life. It's not unlike a country borrowing money to maintain a lifestyle that's unsustainable. It's a foolish game of borrowing against tomorrow to increase the enjoyment of today. And, like any form of karma this lifestyle will come back and reward us with exactly what we have invested into it.

But the hour is not too late. We can adjust our ways and live less greedily. It's easy to see greed by people who hoard money or take what isn't theirs but it's hard sometimes to see flipping on a switch as a form of greed. That's why I think if we invested in making everyone have a direct role in providing for the energy they use by hooking up all houses with wind turbines and solar panels that we could wake up in time. Awareness (as Buddha taught) is a powerful tool that can allow us to accomplish just about anything. If we don't know the full scope of what's actually going on around us, we really are living in denial and will be shocked back into reality. Isn't it better to see that reality now and adjust accordingly so that we are at one with that reality? That way, whatever is good for us will be the same thing that's good for nature because is it really a healthy life to have so much energy that we can go shopping for crap at 2 in the morning?

PHOTO: Cabin view from front porch by James R. Ure

~Peace to all beings~

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I'm Linkedin!!

I finally signed up for Linkedin, so you can find me at the link below:

~Peace to all beings~

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Friday, October 22, 2010

The Power of an Open Question: A Book Review.

Recently I was sent a copy of Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel's book, "The Power of an Open Question: The Buddha's Path to Freedom" by Shambhala Publications. I must be honest and say that this book probably won't make it onto my Buddhist "classics" bookshelf but I did enjoy parts of her work.

I enjoyed the section of the book about suffering and "fixing" things. In our deluded states of mind we sometimes think we can "fix" all the worlds problems but as Buddha teaches, "suffering is inevitable." This can often lead people down one of two paths: 1). Become frustrated with the ever suffering world, disconnect from it and live a solitary existence. Or, 2). Acknowledge that no one can end all the suffering in the world but do things that reduce suffering.

In this regard Mattis-Namgyel recounts a story about a lady who devotes much of her time reducing the suffering of animals. One of her projects was to redesign stockyard and slaughterhouse facilities that reduce fear and stress in cattle. In reaction to this a radio interviewer asked her, "Why bother creating more humane conditions for animals that are about to be slaughtered anyway?" Her wise and compassionate response was, "Why else, but to reduce their suffering?"

Overall, I found the book to be a bit too elementary for my liking. That, however, doesn't mean I think it's a terrible book; because it does have some good insights. I simply think it is a book best suited for those new to Buddhism who are looking for a very basic over-view of the teachings. Although, I must say that if you're looking for a good over-view of the core basics of Buddhism I would point you in the direction of, "The Heart of the Buddhas Teachings: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Happiness."

~Peace to all beings~

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Living the Simple Life: Stories and Teachings of Munindra.

Anagarika Munindra was a Bengali Buddhist master who many (certainly in the west) might not of heard about, and there's a reason for it. He was a very simple yet profound man who didn't seek attention or recognition for his presence of being. Yet the energy that he radiated made him a magnet that seekers of awakening couldn't help but be attracted to. Whenever he went; people followed.

His teaching was not complicated, which in my mind that is the true nature of Buddhadharma. Recently some students of his compiled a book ("Living this Life Fully: Stories and teachings of Munindra") of what it was like to learn from his side and the end result is a true example in living the Dharma. He doesn't just teach you--he shows you.

I get a lot of Dharma books from publishers and there are a fair number that rarely grab my attention immediately. A lot of times I find myself laboriously hacking my way through a dull and scattered book as if I was making my way through the maze-like Ituri rain forest in Congo, Africa. I was pleased, however, to crack open this book to the first page and be greeted with this breath of Dharmic fresh air.

Everything is meditation in this practice, even while eating, drinking, dressing, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking. Whatever you are doing, everything should be done mindfully, dynamically, with totality, completeness, thoroughness, Then it becomes meditation, meaningful, purposeful. It is not thinking but experiencing from moment to moment, living from moment to moment, without clinging, without condemnation, without judging, without evaluating, without comparing, without selecting, without criticizing--choiceless awareness. Meditation is not only sitting; it is a way of living. It should be integrated with your whole life. It is actually an education in how to see, how to hear, how to smell, how to eat, how to drink, how to walk with full awareness. To develop mindfulness is the most important factor in the process of awakening.
James: What else needs to be said of the Dharma? Indeed it is simple if one can be totally absorbed in each moment; whatever that moment might find us doing. This teaching reminds me so much my Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh addresses Dharma practice. A lot of this book mirrors what Nhat Hanh speaks of, so if you like his style then you'll really get a lot out of this book. Another section that resonated with me was Munindra's approach to sectarianism, which is so silly. Sectarianism is like two school boys having a contest to see who can pee the furthest. The Buddha taught one Dharma and that's the approach Munindra takes. As one student said of him, "awareness was awareness, and it was open to anyone." Student Eric Kupers noticed: I didn't notice any sectarianism from him at all, or "you gotta sign up for something" or "you shouldn't sign up for something." It was just very much about living truth of the teachings in the moment in a very down-to-earth way.

James: Such wisdom resonates deeply within my essence because when we are truly absorbed with the present moment, all lines of demarcation between "us and them" fall apart like an structureless cloud revealing a clarity of mind that is as crisp and clear as the blue sky. Munindra understood firmly that no sect, tradition or teacher has a copyright on the present moment. It belongs to none of us, yet is apart of us. As student Robert Sharf remembers, "Basically, it doesn't matter style of practice you're doing. Either you're doing it mindfully or you're not."

This is an excellent book on showing the way to being at one with the freedom of the present moment. So, while formal meditation is very valuable we must learn how to make our meditation mobile. Thus, it infuses our every moment and we can practice anywhere and at anytime. You'll find powerful insights packed into just the first few chapters more than the entire length of a lot of books. It's a must have for a serious Dharma practitioner.

~Peace to all beings~

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Damp Soil Haiku.

spout pours waterfall
damp soil aroma swells lungs
smiling body sighs

By James R. Ure

When cleansing rain touches brittle and cracked soil it expands and swells to life, which allows it to emit that rich, musty scent that is so relaxing. There is something so familiar about this scent that makes me feel so comfortable and balanced. I think it's because it reinforces the reality that I am at one and interdependent upon the saturated earth. Perhaps we feel that instant comfort from wet soil because we recognize the motherly essence of it as so much life springs from it. I know I do.

It's calming effect on me is so instant and consuming that it has often reminded me of how automatic my nerves relax when I catch the scent of my mother. It is the scent of being "home." Another reason I think the smell calms us is because by breathing it in we are very vividly living in the present moment. Wet soil is so common to the basic operations of life that it's hard to not feel profoundly connected to the present moment when intoxicated by its scent.

Interestingly, that rich smell from damp dirt comes from a bacteria that resides within it:
As it turns out, the smells people associate with rainstorms can be caused by a number of things. One of the more pleasant rain smells, the one we often notice in the woods, is actually caused by bacteria! Actinomycetes, a type of filamentous bacteria, grow in soil when conditions are damp and warm. When the soil dries out, the bacteria produces spores in the soil. The wetness and force of rainfall kick these tiny spores up into the air where the moisture after a rain acts as an aerosol (just like an aerosol air freshener). The moist air easily carries the spores to us so we breathe them in. These spores have a distinctive, earthy smell we often associate with rainfall.
~Peace to all beings~

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Monday, October 11, 2010

A Letter to Homosexual Teens and Others: You are Loved and Important.

(click image above to enlarge)

Recently a wave of homophobia has gripped the nation with the news of several gay teens and college students committing suicide over bullying they received for being honest about who they are. Then, a few days ago in New York, a gang savagely beat, terrorized and tortured 3 men that they perceived to be homosexual. So, today I want to address homosexual adults and teens who feel vulnerable and afraid to be who they are:

To all the young people out there who are gay or who think they might be gay, bisexual, lesbian or trans-sexual--you are not alone. Your are not weird. You are not perverts. You are not a bad person and you certainly are not evil. There are many adults and fellow teens who are ready to welcome you into society and into our lives. You are NOT less than human and you do NOT deserve to be treated like you are less than human. It does get easier but killing yourself will not make anything better. Admittedly, high school is always hard but please know that if you are thinking about taking your life--please talk to someone.

Send me an email because I know a thing or two about suicidal thinking and being misunderstood as I have a mental illness where I have been labeled as "crazy" "weird and "different." I have had suicidal thoughts and yet I have come back from the brink every time--why? Because I know that there are people out there who love and accept me--even if I don't know them (just knowing they are out there helps so much). Don't hurt yourself--you are beautiful just the way you are. People love you deeply and care about your happiness so much. We want the best for you and to grow up happy, healthy and strong. We are working hard to make the world safer for you--don't give up because we won't give up one you!! You are a valuable person and have so much to offer the world.
We all look forward to seeing how your wonderful gifts will benefit society. We love you; and don't be afraid to reach out to those who are worthy of your trust.

Talk to a teacher or a principle of your school and tell them what you are going through. They are there to protect all kids from mistreatment. Be brave because it's better to stand up for yourself then let the hateful people win. Killing yourself will only let them win. Prove to them how awesome a person you are by speaking out, and in doing so, become a hero to someone else. Imagine what your bravery would do for other teens feeling a similar way; and imagine what that bravery would do for your self-esteem. If you feel alone--I hope it helps to know that there are many adults and others who are holding your hand. Never forget that. Never. One final note--please consider this blog as a safe zone. I will not let any person commenting here to hurt you. It will be deleted before it even makes it to the comment page. Above all else--don't forget to love yourself for being just the way you are. You're just as normal as anyone else and don't let anyone tell your otherwise.

~Peace to all beings~

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Friday, October 08, 2010

New Look 2.0: Accent Color Poll.

I'm glad the majority prefer the gray background--I do too. Now, the other question I have is about the accent color I want to use with the gray color scheme. I heard some in the last poll thought the purple on gray was hard to read as well. So, I've set up a new poll (to the left--->) allowing you to choose, which color of the options you think goes best with a gray background. Something to remember is that this accent color will only be used for links and the sidebar text color.

In order to help make your decision; I'm going to highlight the choices in this post, so you can see what the look would be against the gray background. First is blue, which is the color I am using right now for the sidebar text and link texts in the posts.

Next is purple, which I had started out with yesterday but some thought it was hard to read--any other opinions on purple?

Finally we have red, which I know is vibrant but it looks softer I think with the gray background. I hope that one of these three colors will win a majority, so that I can settle on a new design by the end of this week. Thank-you for your participation. It really value what my readers think.

And, again, if you want to leave a comment after taking the poll please feel free to do so in the comment section of this post.

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Thursday, October 07, 2010

The New Look: Take the Poll!!

Well, after several kind requests about the blog being somewhat difficult to read with the black background; I've decided to go with gray. I set up a poll about it, and I'd appreciate if you gave me some feedback. And if your answer isn't one of the ones I listed then feel free to leave it here in the comment section.

~Peace to all beings~

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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Pema Chodron Online Retreat: Free Tickets Offer.

Renowned Tibetan Buddhist nun, and author, Pema Chodron will be leading an online retreat this month from the 15th through the 17th. She seldom leads such an event for the general public, so this is something special. Not surprisingly, the event sold out early but don't fret; Shambhala has kindly offered a chance for "virtual" participation via live-streaming of the retreat online. Click on this sentence for further information; including on how to sign-up for the online event. Shambhala is also offering you a chance to receive two, free, tickets to the event. If you are interested in the tickets; please write a short comment on how you deal with fear in your Dharma practice, or (if your not Buddhist) "how do you deal with fear in your personal life?"). I'll pick two that I like the most and award those authors with one ticket each. I'll look forward to your replies!!

~Peace to all beings~

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Monday, October 04, 2010

Buddhist Bhutan Bans Monastics from Voting.

In the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan monks have been allowed to vote in political elections, but that is about to change. The government says it's to maintain a distinct space between religion and politics. Yet, one has to wonder if they've gone too far in that pursuit since Buddhist clergy have been beneficial over the years in effecting political change that helps create a fertile field for less suffering for a vast, diverse number of people.

Two obvious examples being the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh who both have advocated for political freedoms of all people but especially in their homelands of Tibet and Vietnam.

In fact, Zen master Hanh has developed a form of socially active Buddhism called, "Engaged Buddhism" which teaches Dharma practitioners on how to apply Dharma lessons to real world challenges such as social, political and economic realities. His aim, however, isn't necessarily to favor one political side over another. In fact, during the Vietnam War his group focused on the innocent community caught in between the armies of the Communist and Democratic sides. Engaged Buddhist inspires us to practice the Dharma in ways that aid us in helping our communities become better stewards of the people and its resources (nature and otherwise) so that the collective suffering can be lessened. Hanh embraced this way of engaging the world as a form of following the natural conclusions of compassion combined with the reality of interconnection. In other words, monks and the layity can't practice compassion as called for by the reality of interdependence without being apart of the community.

Engaged was partly inspired by the Chinese monk Taixu. Taixu was concerned about monastics and laity alike in Pure Land Buddhism being distracted and obsessed with working to escape Earth for the otherworldly and supernatural Pure Land. He felt that the awareness of the suffering of others, which engenders compassion to help transform this current life--in this current moment into a happier reality was being lost out of a personal desire for transcendental bliss. It wasn't the belief in an end to suffering via Amida in the Pure Land itself that he was concerned about. It was with his perceived obsession that many had with it, which he felt was disconnecting people from each other, turning people into selfish beings and ultimately preventing the betterment of the society he lived in. It certainly inhibits one from fulfilling the Bodhisattva Vow taught by many Buddhist traditions.

At it's core, the Bodhisattva Vow is a commitment one makes to take action toward helping others within one's community receive the same respect, happiness and betterment that we might have and wish for our own family. This then is a wonderful code for politicians and other leaders today to guide their service for citizens. It goes to show that Buddhist principles aren't simply for spiritual pursuits but can also be beneficial in the public service arena. Still, I think it's important to find the middle ground between politics and spirituality. However, I feel that this decision to outright prevent monks and nuns in Bhutan from voting to be veering off the Buddha's compass of the middle path of finding a healthy balance between politics and spirituality.

Some believe that politicians are incapable of ruling in a just way as politics is driven by desire. Yet, take the example of Emperor Ashoka who used the Dharma as his guide when ruling his people. He was initially a brutal and greedy leader until he was changed by the Dharma, which led him to change many of his ways; including turning toward a vegetarian diet out of compassion for animals. His later rule was motivated by kindness, egalitarianism and philanthropy.

In Bhutan, the monks and nuns may personally decide to avoid politics altogether to dedicate all of their efforts toward spiritual endeavors. However, to prevent them from voting, (if they are so inclined) means taking away peoples' personal freedom, which isn't just antithetical to good government but also to the Dharma's message to not spread suffering and discord. It makes me wonder what the Dalai Lama would think of Bhutan's actions given his views on politics. As well as the reality that Bhutan predominately follows the Tibetan version of Buddhism. Preventing monks and nuns from voting means taking away from communities the many voices of moderation, peace, compassion and happiness that the monastics represent. If we feel that hearing their opinions helps improve life then we'd be silly to prevent those opinions from being registered in the political process.

At the same time, there does need to be a clear line drawn to prevent religion from getting involved in the actual crafting of policy in government. This also goes for preventing government from sanctioning and propagating one religion over another, which raises another question in Bhutan. The Bhutanese constitution that was drafted in 2008 still heavily favors Buddhism, which seems to contradict the government's policy of keeping religion and government separate.

~Peace to all beings~

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