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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Dalai Lama, Science, Buddhism and the Kalama Sutra.

One of the reasons I am a Buddhist, is in how the DL answers the first question about science and Buddhism. He is asked, "What if science confirms something that contradicts your faith?"

*Note: Sutta and Sutra refer to the same thing but are from two different ancient languages.

: How many belief systems out there are willing to adapt when new scientific proof contradicts their teachings? Not many. The Dalai Lama's sane and realistic response echoes one of my favorite sutras, the Kalama Sutra. It also happens to be a large chunk of the foundation of my Buddhist belief. In short, it is a sutra that echoes the scientific method of testing and observation. It is the Buddha talking about doubt, but not in the pejorative way that some religions do. He was asked by villagers in an Indian town, how do we know which teachers to believe? He told them not to believe teachers simply because they are teachers, or traditions simply because they are long held ones, nor from sutras simply because they are said to be beneficial. At the same time, we shouldn't trust either our own preferences because they are almost always based on wrong perceptions of what is helpful and less helpful.

So, how does he advise us to know if we should practice Dharma? After hearing or reading about the Dharma, he advises that we put the teachings into practice for a time and contemplate on how they affect our lives. I feel this is best explained in the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta:
Whenever you want to do a bodily action, you should reflect on it: 'This bodily action I want to do — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Would it be an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?' If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then any bodily action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction... it would be a skillful bodily action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any bodily action of that sort is fit for you to do. -From the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta: Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone. Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
This same sutta instructs us further on the matter and I encourage you to read its entirety; it's not that long, really, I promise). However, since we can't always rely upon our mind and practice to interpret actions as either skillful or unskillful, we should check the conclusions we reached from contemplation against the experiences of wise ones. How do you know if said, "wise ones" are indeed, wise and trustworthy? Well, try investigating the Cula-punnama Sutta for answers, which says:
And how is a person of no integrity endowed with qualities of no integrity? There is the case where a person of no integrity is lacking in conviction, lacking in conscience, lacking in concern [for the results of unskillful actions]; he is unlearned, lazy, of muddled mindfulness, & poor discernment. This is how a person of no integrity is endowed with qualities of no integrity. -From the Cula-punnama Sutta: The Shorter Discourse on the Full-moon Night. Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Keep in mind, however, that the Kalama Sutta isn't Buddha saying to go out and do whatever you want because the "Buddha said I didn't have to listen to anyone." That is not what he is saying. This sutta doesn't replace doctrines like the Four Noble Truths, the Three Jewels and the Eightfold Path, but it does give us a realistic blueprint for how to practice spirituality without being duped by charlatans and zealots.

***By the way, "wise ones" aren't automatically Buddhist teachers or spiritual teachers, at all. The Cula-punnama Sutta goes on further to speak of other qualities of a wise person you can trust. It is quite exhaustive with examples, so if you want further details, I encourage reading the entire sutta. It's another short one, so please don't be daunted by the fact that these are ancient suttas. They are extremely understandable and approachable thanks to the tireless efforts of the great Theravada monk Thanissaro Bikkhu. All the quotes I've used in this post come from his greatly appreciated translations. I am also grateful to the Shambhala SunSpace who posted this video on their excellent blog. Thanks for the idea!!


~Peace to all beings~

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Monday, April 25, 2011


I managed to lock myself outside of my house early this morning while investigating some birds sitting in the pine tree out in front of our house. I was wearing my pajama shorts and a t-shirt with my hair all wild looking from just waking up. And, I was barefoot!! I ended up walking a mile and a half on a rough, dirt path to reach my wife's place of work to get the spare key and a ride home!!

As I was walking across the prickly path and sharp stones, I contemplated what it must be like for those who don't have shoes or socks to wear on a daily basis. I reflected upon my time living in Africa and remembered that many Africans walk barefoot everyday while carrying heavy loads of goods; usually in blazing heat.
Yet, despite all that hardship, they never complained in my presence or indulged themselves in self-pity; and often they were in good spirits.

I was so impressed by those Africans that I donated my shoes to friends there upon my departure--as well as my clothes. I literally flew home with just the clothes on my body. Anyway, as I recalled my beloved Africans this morning, I was humbled yet inspired by their examples and it helped me push through the pain. Surely, I thought, I can walk a short distance barefoot if countless people around the world have no choice but to walk everywhere without shoes.

Shoes are a luxury I too often take for granted, and once I got into the building where my wife works, I was so happy to walk on soft carpet. It was the most luxurious feeling in the world!! Yet another thing I won't take for granted today. All that walking and thinking led me toward doing something pro-active about the shortage of shoes in this world. So, I researched ways to donate shoes and found a great organization that is non-denominational and non-profit, it's called "Donate Your Old Shoes." Please, consider holding a shoe donation box at your sangha, business or other place of worship. I am hoping to set up one of their boxes at my wife's office.

~Peace to all beings~

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Friday, April 22, 2011

A Buddhist Earth Day Message.

Buddha's foundational teaching of interconnection and interdependence, or co-arising demands that we live in balance with the environment. If we are just as apart of a towering tree as it's leaves, then to recklessly destroy our forests, rivers and oceans is to slowly but exponentially kill apart of ourselves.

The Buddha's teaching on walking the middle ground between extremes of over-consumption and austerity fits perfectly into the modern, environmental practice of living in balance with nature. It's what we speak of today as "sustainability" or living within our means. It's not necessary to live like a cave man to be an environmentalist in the Buddhist sense, as that would be living out of balance in austerity. It's structuring our lives, so that when we utilize nature's resources, we do it in a balanced and sustainable way.

This "one or the other" thinking that exists in the environmentalist debate today is a less skillful approach. We don't have to choose between environmental sustainability and destructive over-consumption. The environment uses our byproducts of exhaled carbon dioxide to live, and our body waste (or that of animals) as fertilizer, so it's a symbiotic relationship of give and take. The problem comes, of course, when we take much more than is given and the entire ecosystem is throw out of balance, endangering all.

Another modern day environmental tenet is recycling, which, again fits snugly within the Dharma. Buddha's robes (and those of his fellow monks) where said to be fashioned from scraps of cloth found discarded and donated by generous families. They would even use scraps from the clothes of dead people donated by grieving families!! How many of us wear second-hand clothes made from discarded fabric?!! However, we don't have to adorn ourselves in tattered cloth in order to leave a soft footprint on the environment. It's a matter of repairing garments that are otherwise perfectly wearable, rather than throwing them in the trash.

Buddha also didn't have a fancy, extensive wardrobe to choose from, but rather only what was necessary. For us, today, that means buying less clothes than we need, which is not only in keeping with the middle path, but also the Buddhist ideal of balanced consumption. It also means donating old clothes, instead of throwing them in the garbage. And less garbage means a less polluted environment; thus, a healthier place to live.

In wrapping up the post, I want to come full circle back to interconnection. As Buddhists, we believe that all sentient beings are reborn upon death. Therefore, we should feel a strong commitment to leave a better world for those beings. To paraphrase a famous quote, the environment is on loan to us from future generations. Let's not ruin it for them--and us. Happy Earth Day everyone!!

~Peace to all beings~

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sleeping While it Rains.

deluge orchestra
swollen roof drain lullaby--
greenery stretches

~James R. Ure

I have found that some of the most profound lessons from meditative awareness come when I'm drifting off to sleep. It's a time when I'm aware of my breathing more than most times throughout the day. It's also a time when you aren't distracted by the television, computers or other distractions. It's just you and your breath; as each cycle of breath brings deeper and deeper relaxation. Often I crack the window to feel the cool breeze calm my tense muscles and skin; I focus on the smells of clean air pouring through.

So, last night it rained for the first time this Spring. It was a soft but rhythmic shower that filled our rain gutters with gurgling activity. As I listened to the rushing water in the darkness of night, my usually stubborn perceptions couldn't tell if it was a natural stream or a man-made one. In that moment, those perceptions gave up and fell away. In that moment, it was simply bubbling water. As my mind began to relax further, it melded with the sound of the rushing water, so that there was no difference between the water and the entity labeled "James." The next thing I knew, I was waking up.

I think haiku, and Buddhism are so focused on natural themes because the environment constantly evolves in the present moment. Nature adapts to changes without begrudging the changes. It also must balance upon a middle-ground between extremes, or the entire ecosystem will collapse. In addition, the natural world doesn't curse death or cling to life--it just is. It doesn't pass judgments upon itself or any of the sentient beings existing with it. It welcomes life just as much as death--it's just the cycle of existence.

These are all themes that are strongly weaved into the Dharma, and I think Buddha's enlightenment was unlocked in part by his time spent alone in the forests and along the streams of the wilds. So, if you feel that your spiritual practice has gone stale or discouragement has set-in, follow the Buddha's example, and try finding inspiration in nature; it is, after all, your first family.

~Peace to all beings~

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Monday, April 11, 2011

The Power of Mindfully Chosen Words.

This short clip is for anyone who ever thinks that they are alone and that no one's ever listening or cares about their plight. Despite the gray masses of drones living in a desensitized world of selfishness, there are a precious few who acknowledge the plight of those living in the shadows of an unforgiving, greedy world that has long ago left them behind. A few mindfully chosen words can go a long way toward being the change we want to see in the word; as Gandhi advised. It's not so much how much you say, as it is what you say and how you say it. Some of the most profound words that have radically altered my perception of the world have been short, simple koans from the Buddhist masters.

Knowing what to say has everything to do with being mindful of the world around us. If we are not aware of the conditions around us, and others, in each moment, then obviously it makes it difficult to understand what words the situation calls for!! Being aware allows us to go beyond the obvious and express not just what's going on but how that affects people. The sign stating that the man was blind and needed help didn't explain the entire situation. Thus, when the girl stopped and wrote the new message with mindfulness of the situation, showing people in concrete words, what it means to be blind, the perceptions of the passers-by radically changed. Thus, the power of mindfully chosen words.

~Peace to all beings~

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