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Buddhism in the News

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Buddhism: Opium for the Masses?

Buddhism has long been ignored in America but now that it is gaining in popularity, it is often being labeled as being practiced mostly by "New Age" types looking for the next spiritual fad. That seems to be the general thesis of Mark Vernon's recent article, "Buddhism is the New Opium of the People" for The Guardian news outlet. His example upfront is that of David and Victoria Beckham's four foot golden Buddha in their living room and how it smacks of consumerism.

And, perhaps he would be right if we were all like David and Victoria Beckham but most of the "western Buddhists" I know (and ones I am in contact with) are just as concerned about the commercialization of Buddhism as anyone else. Read any Buddhist blog for a time and eventually they'll write about Buddhist iconography and concepts being manipulated to sell everything from booze to yogurt. But, what can any of us do in the long run to get such companies to not manipulate our religion for their commercial gain? No much. Unfortunately, religion has long been usurped by those would seek to make a buck off it. However, that crass commercialism does not automatically delegitimize a belief system in and of itself. Sincere adherents can't be expected to answer for opportunists who don't even know what Dharma means, let alone practice it.

Unfortunately, that's not the only gripe that the author has with Buddhism in America. Vernon's article goes onto make the claim that Buddhism in America is a form of "zoning out" and avoidance of the problems of modern life. In doing so, he relied heavily upon a quote philosopher, Slavoj Zizek that paints all of western Buddhism as nothing more than a drug:

Western Buddhism presents itself as a remedy against the stresses of modern life though, as Slavoj Žižek has noted, it actually functions as a perfect supplement to modern life. It allows adherents to decouple from the stress, whilst leaving the causes of the stress intact: consumptive forces continue unhindered along their creatively destructive path. In short, Buddhism is the new opium of the people.
James: Firstly, this quote does nothing to define what Zizek (or Vernon for that matter) mean by, "Western Buddhism" which is an amorphous label of a brand of Buddhism that doesn't even exist in any concrete terms. It's just a catch-all phrase that sweeps up all American Buddhists into a convenient box that is then labeled with nearly every possible misconception of Buddhism imaginable.

It's easy to attack all American Buddhists as starry-eyed, "New Age," wannabe Buddhists when you lump them into a conveniently undefined category. Especially since there are no "Western Buddhist" monasteries to visit, no "Western Buddhist" lineage to consult and no "Western Buddhist" doctrine to define it. In other words, "Western Buddhism" is a blank canvas that anyone can color to define American Buddhists/Buddhism in any way they like-good or bad.

But, getting to the meat of the above quote, Buddhism is not interpreted by most American Buddhists as just another self-help fad that allows you to zone-out of life, disconnect from everyone and feel groovy. You can't compare David and Victoria Beckham's flirtation with Buddhism to all American Buddhists who are trying sincerely to practice what Buddha taught to improve their lives, and the world. And, simply because Buddhism is new to Americans doesn't mean that we see it as a commodity to flash around like a jewel encrusted necklace or watch--even if some high-profile celebrities do so.

The majority of Buddhists I know in America live very humble lives, have small Buddha statues (if at all) and a sparse altar space from, which to meditate. We do seek to "decouple" (to use his word) from the mental poisons of greed, hatred and delusion but that is not the same thing as numbed-out nihilism and disconnecting from the world. Other than that, we buy books from teachers to guide our practice who are highly respected people in their storied lineages and throughout Buddhism world-wide. And to label "Buddhism" as practiced in Asia as "medieval" is demeaning and purely ignorant of 2,500 years of tradition. If Buddhism, at its roots, is "medieval" then why are scientists today finding much to agree with in Buddhist philosophy? Such as seeing comparisons between concepts of rebirth and the first law of thermodynamics?

Vernon digs his hole of confusion deeper by saying, "For if Buddhism is to live in the modern world, it must be treated as a living tradition, not a preformed import." Is he honestly saying that the only valid form of Buddhism that can be treated as a living tradition in America has to be American made? If so, that's just plain absurd. There is no reason why Zen in America can't be a living, valid tradition for American culture despite it's Japanese roots. That's just silly. We'd have to say the same for Christianity; that's it's just a preformed import from Israel and not a valid living tradition. It seems, for someone who has a lot of strong criticism of American Buddhists, Vernon doesn't seem to understand the adaptability built within Buddhism very well.

As for meditation, it's not seen as the defining Buddhist practice except to a few traditions; namely Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. It preposterous to claim that meditation was never apart of early Buddhism because that was how Buddha realized enlightenment. Now, the modern, English word, "meditation" surely wasn't used but the concepts are still the same. But don't believe my supposedly ignorant, "New Age" American Buddhist, mind. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a lengthy book on the Buddha's life, and if meditation wasn't a fundamental aspect to Buddhist practice then the 82 year old Zen monk Nhat Hanh must be a liar?

Vernon then makes the implicit claim that most American Buddhists don't even know what meditation is about; that we see it as just some "feel good" vibe in an isolated moment and not something that helps us deal with the real world in a more balanced and responsible way:
What is also missed in the focus on meditation is the ethical challenge implicit in his call. Any practice must concern your whole stance towards the world, and it's a stance that is intensely, relentlessly critical. The aim is to enquire into all aspects of your form of life.
James: Anyone who is practicing Buddhism as a way to escape life hasn't fully studied the Dharma from long-time practitioners and teachers. And, to lump those people in with all American Buddhists is irresponsible and makes the authors come across as simply looking for away to demean and discredit the growing number of sincere Buddhists across America.

~Peace to all beings~

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Wish of Comfort for the Japanese People.

My heart throbs with empathy for the Japanese who are experiencing such all-encompassing destruction and suffering from the natural disaster.

I hold you in my heart through-out the day, and wish I could just spend some time with each person suffering to offer a warm blanket, listen to your fears and comfort your distress in any small way that I can. Perhaps a warm wash cloth to wipe off the grit or soft socks to bring some small comfort to your strong spirit.

I don't have a lot of money but I have found a few dollars to send with love; from one family member to another. I watch the news reports with the level of concern that I would have for a direct family member. I truly feel each human being as family because I have seen the power and reality of interconnection. We are all in this thing called life together and when one of us suffers, we all suffer.

My tears give way to conviction that the proud Japanese culture will over-come this trial like the noble and spiritually strong siblings that they are. I lend them my heart for whatever these words of electronic bit and bites can convey. I am with you in spirit--I listen to your cries on the news and embrace you with my energy and offer my patient ear should your stress call for such aid. I bow to your resilience and await the day when I can visit the land of Zen.

May the deep compassion of the Buddha's soothing words carry you through this time of struggle. The international internet Sangha is holding you tight in our collective arms and send you our support in full. We are with you for the long-haul--you are not alone, ever. Even though there is a long physical distance, we are together in the oneness of the Dharma--think upon your international sangha family and take hope and strength in our united determination. I leave you with this wish, from my heart to yours, from the mouth of the wise Buddhist scholar, Shantideva...

For as long as space exists
And sentient beings endure,
May I too remain,
To dispel the misery of the world.

Whatever joy there is in this world
All comes from desiring others to be happy,
And whatever suffering there is in this world
All comes from desiring myself to be happy.

~Peace to Japan~

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Buddhism: A Refuge for the Japanese.

Video feed from myfoxphilly.com

Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, which is Japan's oldest, survived the earthquake but it's spire shook quite a bit; as you can see in this video. I'm not sure what the laughing was about in the background of the clip but the footage is a metaphor for the stability of the Dharma. The temple is dedicated to the Bodhisattva, Guan Yin, (Avalokiteshvara) the Bodhisattva of compassion.

I personally don't believe in the literal existence of the Bodhisattva, but I believe in the archetype and that it can help uplift ourselves, others and give us a feeling of safety. It also gives us the inspiration to help others, which can help alleviate feelings of self-pity, helplessness and depression. That refuge, as represented through the temple, and it's monks, have a role to play in healing the Japanese. The temple (and many others) will provide a welcoming, embracing, compassionate and calming beacon for the many emotionally and physically injured in the aftermath of the quake and tsunami.

The Japanese people will benefit greatly from the Buddhist monks, as they have trained much of their lives to relieve suffering and show others how to do the same. I don't for one minute think that any of this rebuilding and healing will be easy, quick or without obstacles but Japan's Buddhist tradition will serve the people quite well in surviving the deep suffering that comes out of such a life-altering disaster. I have always seen the Japanese as admirably resilient, determined and patient, which will serve them well in the years to come. I believe that a lot of those qualities come from their cultural influence of Buddhist philosophy.

I have read that Buddhism has declined in some communities within Japan, especially amongst the youth. However, I think this tragedy will renew the embrace of Buddha's calm, compassionate and peaceful teachings because disasters often shake us from the modern delusion that materialism is a better way to find fulfillment in this world. When everything you own is lost, your house in rubble and maybe a loved one (or many) dead, material wealth doesn't seem so helpful. It's moments like this sobering event in Japan that remind us what truly matters in our journey in this life.

We need tools that can survive an earthquake, outlast a tsunami and restore peace of mind. The Dharma is a toolbox that we can carry anywhere, at anytime and is specifically geared toward learning how to live in a world of suffering that is full of empty promises of long-term happiness. It is my hope that in this time of need the Japanese (and all of us) will remember how the Dharma helped our ancestors not only survive a world of disasters, sickness and under-development, but thrive in it. May the Japanese people be healed by the soothing words of Buddha. I bow with compassion and love toward you all.

~Peace to all beings~

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Chernobyl Reminder: A Documentary.

Although the Fukushima nuclear disaster following the Japanese quake and tsunami isn't at the level of Chernobyl, I feel it would be beneficial to repost this documentary on Chernobyl and the dangers of nuclear energy. It's titled, "The True Battle of Chernobyl Uncensored. It's helpful to remind ourselves just what nuclear radiation can do to humanity and the environment:


May we all stay humble in regards to the human potential for unspeakable disasters.

PHOTO: Gas mask in the rubble at Chernobyl, suspended in time 25 years after the Chernobyl nuclear nightmare.
---End of Transmission---

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Nuclear Lesson of Fukashima, Japan.

Nuclear energy is not worth the risk. I'm watching the footage out of Japan with bewilderment and disappointment that our greed for cheap energy is contributing to an already epic disaster. The nuclear genie is restless in Fukashima, north of Tokyo, and it appears at this hour that a partial meltdown of a severely damaged nuclear reactor may be unfolding before our horrified eyes. Flashbacks of the Chernobyl holocaust race through my mind with chilling anxiety. But, In the back of it all I hear Master Thich Nhat Hanh telling me to, "just breath." It's times like these that our Dharma practice can carry us through some uncertain and frightening events. As we all know, it's something that we should incorporate into our daily routine, so that it becomes us and naturally unfolds, especially in times of crisis.


According to the Dalai Lama, and others, we practice the Dharma for not only life, but death. He explains that the death bed can be a frightening time but if we are practiced in the Dharma, it can be less of a stress upon ourselves, and the loved-ones around us. It will have already prepared us for the dying process. Our breathing techniques and contemplations upon impermanence, no-self and interdependence can really bring a lot of peace to the frightened mind. After a life lived of letting go of the fear of death, I would think it would be easier to accept death's clinical and unbiased verdict.

Now, having said all of this, such a strong practice is easier said than done, but even simple knowledge about deep breathing can really calm a person down in a crisis. I use it often to calm myself down when I have a panic attack from my psychological disorder. I realize that it would be harder to practice under an environment of total devastation, but any practice under the belt is better than none. It is my hope, that should I be caught in such a horrifying disaster, my training would carry me through--even, hopefully a possible nuclear nightmare.

But, humans have a consumption problem--we are greedy to the point of risking the death of countless people, and even more injuries, just for cheap power, so that we can continue our life of unchecked desire. And, yet, we take a risk with nuclear energy on something we still don't fully understand or know how to contain upon meltdown because we don't want to have to live a life with less luxury and fulfillment of desires. Well, I don't like saying this, but this is what happens when we gamble with samsara.

The time is now to commit, as a world, to putting the nuclear genie, back into the bottle, as much as possible. We owe it not just to our children, and their children, but the billions of innocent sentient beings, who are living within their means, in balance and harmony with nature's limits and abilities. We must learn the lessons of interdependence, because if we human's mess up and ruin Earth, making it inhabitable, then we have the karmic weight of the death of all those beings to bear into the next life. I know that I don't want that on my conscience, so let's work together to make this world a little safer and peaceful.

~Peace to all beings~

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Friday, March 11, 2011

VIDEO: 8.9 Magnitude Earthquake, and Tsunami Rattles Japan.

May all beings be happy and safe. May they have happy minds.'

Let him not perform the slightest wrong for which wise men may rebuke him. (Let him think:) 'May all beings be happy and safe.

May they have happy minds. Just as a mother would protect her only child with her life even so let one cultivate a boundless love towards all beings. Source link: Access to Insight.

---Excerpts from the Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Discourse on Loving-kindness---

James: That footage is shocking, yet humbling as to the small nature of man in the face of the greater picture of nature. I was amazed at the fire burning atop of the tsunami waves crashing into the Japanese countryside. The size of the tsunami makes the boats look like toy boats tossed around in the wake of a bathtub filling with water. It's surreal to be sure.

I send my heart and loving-kindness energy to the Japanese people in this hour of need and turmoil. May the loss of life and suffering be as minimal as possible. May those who survive, find peace in their minds in the wake of this devastating and mentally shocking disaster. May those who lost loved-ones be comforted and shown deep compassion.

May we around the world open our hearts and wallets to give freely of our good fortune to help our brothers and sisters in Japan. We are all one and will get through these disasters as one. May we reach out with our loving energy to hug the people of Japan in our caring arms and minds. We must not ignore their plight and needs, for to do so is to ignore our own humanity.

How to help: The Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, one of the biggest charity groups in Taiwan, announced earlier in the day that it has set up a command center to prepare for launching relief aid to Japan. Click on this sentence to access their page to donate money for earthquake relief and aid. The Tzu Chi Foundation is a reputable organization that can be trusted with your money. It looks, however, like the donation is by phone--I'll look for an online donation option and update if I find it. UPDATE: A specific Red Cross page for the Japanese earthquake and tsunami has finally but set up. Click here to access page.

~Peace to all beings~

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Illinois Becomes 16th State to Abolish Death Penalty.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a death penalty ban into law on Wednesday, making Illinois the 16th state to end capital punishment. Quinn also commuted the sentences of the 15 inmates on death row in the state. Instead, they will serve life in prison without parole. The ban on executions will take effect July 1. -by Jennifer Epstein for Politico.

James: State sponsored killed is the wrong way to show people that killing is wrong. Seriously, why do we kill people to show other people that killing is wrong? I believe that life in prison without the possibility of parole is a just, yet humane punishment as it avoids that taking of a life while ensuring that they will never kill again. It also gives them plenty of time to think about the horror and pain that they have caused.

They say that time heals all wounds, and I think there is some truth to that phrase. I've seen plenty of documentaries about men on death row who are older now and speak of how much they regret their previous actions. I've seen hardened criminals cry like a baby as an old man at the suffering they causes for their victims, themselves and the criminal's family.

Ending the death penalty is also a cheaper policy than maintaining a death row. As it turns out, it's ten times cheaper despite most people thinking the opposite says Donald McCartin, a former California jurist know as, "The Hanging Judge of Orange County." This from an article by the Associated Press.

And, what of the moral cost to the individuals that we task with the actual killing of the prisoner? I saw a documentary on the death penalty that interviewed several former executioners for prisons who are now emotionally scarred and experiencing nightmares from their former, grisly jobs. If we couldn't kill a person ourselves then how can we ask someone to do it for us and act like that blood isn't on our hands? And, what of the innocent blood that has surely been spilled from executing an innocent person? It seems we can't go a month without hearing someone being exonerated from prison after 20-30 years thanks to DNA evidence.

We can not hope to heal our society of violence when we are sanctioning it's practice in our name via capital punishment. It is my hope that all states in the U.S. move in this enlightened direction.

~Peace to all beings~

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Thursday, March 03, 2011

Looking for Books to Help Navigate a Mean World.

I'm sure that I'm not the only one who has noticed in the last decade or so that much of society has become increasingly mean, disrespectful, rude, greedy, selfish and heartless toward their fellow humans--as well as toward animals. Now, I realize that not everyone is this way but at least in my area of the world, social politeness has degraded severely in my lifetime.

As many of you know, I have a debilitating psychiatric condition called, schizoaffective disorder, which is basically bipolar with some schizophrenic symptoms. Along with having a.d.d., it's hard for me to filter out the toughness and harsh social relations that are poisoning our society. Since I have trouble screening the constant bombardment of stimuli in this world, I have little bandwidth, so to speak, to absorb this nasty behavior.

Thus, I get sad, angry and frustrated with the world, rather easily. Whether it's navigating reckless driving, dealing with selfish people at the market, or living amongst others who live a shallow, superficial life; it's hard to learn how to live amongst such heartlessness and ignorance without it depressing you to the point of wanting to give up!!

So, I am looking for some suggestions on some books that I could read about how to deal with mean, nasty, rude, selfish people. I'm not talking about any of the traditional Buddhist texts/books but rather those specifically dealing with how to live in this world without it getting to you, and turning you into a cynical person from a purely psychological, clinical point of view. To narrow it down further, I'm looking for a "self-help" type book on tips for dealing with such cruelty. Of course, meditation helps a lot, (as do Buddhist books) but I need something that's more related to specific tips on living in the modern world of cruelty from a non-religious point of view.

Please, don't criticize me or condemn me for my struggles. I'm a very tender person and gets easily depressed, down on myself and easily over-whelmed with negativity. If you don't know of something that can help, and would rather tell me my problem is not being a "good enough Buddhist," then please have some compassion and keep your thoughts to yourself.

I know this is the anonymous dominated cyber-land, but please treat me with respect and remember that behind my profile is a real person who struggles a lot with psychological issues. I'm a strong person but also quite fragile to stress. This is a very hard issue for me to deal with and talk about. I don't need criticism--I need support, understanding and some tips on a few books that might help me deal with my psychological stresses from having to live with this world. Thank-you for understanding my sensitivity. It's hard enough writing this out and exposing myself, so please, treat me how you'd want to be treated. Thanks, again--James.

~Peace to all beings~

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