Saturday, September 30, 2006

Go Where There Is No Path

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson was a brilliant man and a wonderful naturalist. His essays display a calm insight that is as penetrating as the Midsummer sun. Very few people would argue that blazing one's own trail, as Emerson exhorts above, is excellent advice. But I want to examine it from another angle--can this be applied to spirituality? Are our traditional religions the only beneficial spiritualities? Or can we maximize our relationship to the world, the three great kingdoms (Plant, Animal, Mineral), and our spirit through a path of our own making?

Following a traditional religion has many advantages, the primary one being that they are philosophically sound, having evolved through cultural immersion over thousands of years. They have a certain consistency by which contradictions are rare. That, to me, is quite interesting because we have a number of traditional religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and others, and while they are built upon greatly different underlying philosophies, each is internally consistent and logical. Sometimes they're based on a slightly different system of logic than Western Aristotelian logic, but regardless, they have a logical congruity. An additional benefit of a traditional religion is its track record. These systems of belief have repeatedly proven effective for many of their followers, giving meaning to their lives and a guide by which to live.

But all is not perfect in our land of traditional religion. The primary problem of religions today is dogma. Our traditional religions provide a great backdrop for life. But all too often, followers don't expend the energy to think critically about life and the meaning given to it by their religion. Rather, they fall back on the word of their chosen religious authority figure and close their minds to real wisdom--learning to see for themselves the truth of their religion.

Emerson's quote comments wisely upon our spiritual lives. If you create your spirituality out of your experiences and the meaning YOU see in life, then you will likely have to deal with philosophical inconsistencies. But is that really a problem? I don't think so. We can never know everything from our tiny place on this tiny planet orbiting our tiny sun in one tiny arm of the spiral of our tiny galaxy. We have to learn to accept paradox. And even if you end up in a traditional religion after making your own trail, you will have discovered the truth of your religion yourself, by creating your beliefs through your life rather than accepting them as hand-me-downs from our ancient past. So I argue that Emerson's way is the only way to true spirituality, regardless of where you end up.

The people who come to religion from the outside, who choose a religion and then adopt its beliefs, are in real danger of losing the greatest thing we have on this planet--our capacity for wisdom. Blaze your own trail. Observe your life in mindfulness and see what presents itself. If nature calls to you as divine, sacred, then treat it as such. If God reaches down to you from the heavens and makes contact with your heart, grab hold of his hand and don't let go. If the wonderfully interdependent nature of all things becomes apparent to you, penetrate with unwavering insight their original nature. Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Scribe Jamboree: Sep. 29, 2006

Today's Jamboree is short and sweet. Angela-Eloise from Blogickal had a great post about the holiday of Mabon with lots of great mythology. It is well worth a read to better understand one aspect of a Pagan mythos.

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Contemplation to Restore Resolve

The state of enlightenment is totally beyond concepts. There is no joy or sorrow within it, such as being happy when one is pleased or feeling sad when one is treated badly. The state of buddhahood is beyond all of these. ... The compassion of the awakened state is beyond both partiality and distance. It is like sunshine in that it is totally unbiased. It is not that the sun shines on some countries and not on others; the sun has no concept that "I will shine on that spot and leave this one in darkness." [1]

The Buddha taught that we should not get caught up in philosophical speculation because doing so distracts us from the task at hand—whatever it is that is sitting in front of us right now. There is nothing wrong with philosophizing, per se. We should feel free to engage in such stimulating thought when that is what we choose to do. But when it begins to detract from our practice of mindfulness and compassion, then it has become harmful—unskillful— and we should abandon such thoughts and return to our practice, our training. In this way, our practice acts as our guiding light in life, our refuge, our protection. But the first Noble Truth tells us that suffering exists. Therefore, sometimes life wears on us, and our effort wanes.

Therefore, we need something to strengthen our resolve. To sustain our practice, we contemplate. Contemplation won't help us achieve wisdom or concentration, but it will strengthen our effort and faith in our practice. The quote above is perfect for such contemplation. It reminds us that we can't wrap our intellectual brains around enlightenment— it is beyond such description. Rather, we can only know it by experiencing it. Furthermore, this quote motivates us by showing us how complete our compassion can become. We need only to practice, and regardless of our current level of compassionate wisdom, we can skillfully increase it until it bursts forth from our awakened minds.

1-Minute Contemplation: Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Listen to the most obvious sounds around you. Now soften your ears and listen to the layer of sounds just below that surface layer. Now open your eyes and read the quote above. Contemplate for a minute what it means to you, or what it suggests to you. What avenues might it send you down?

[1] "Buddhadharma," Fall 2006. Excerpted from Devotion and Compassion, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Mindfulness and Experience

Therefore I tell you:
Be humble, be harmless,
Have no pretension,
Be upright, forbearing,
Serve your teacher
In true obedience,
Keeping the mind
And the body in cleanness,
Tranquil, steadfast,
Master of ego,
Standing apart
From the things of the senses,
Free from self;
Aware of the weakness
In mortal nature. [1]

There are many ways in which to live our lives. We can coast through, unmindful, and wake up on our 70th birthday and ask, "Where did my life go?" Another option is to train in mindfulness. But of what benefit is all that hard work? Why not just assume we're saved in the long haul, and go about our merry way? I answer that to avoid mindfulness training is to go through your life thinking about, feeling about, and never experiencing. If someone explains to you what an orange tastes like, that might be interesting, but you still don't truly know what an orange tastes like until you, personally, taste one.

Mindfulness training is like getting an infinite return on your investment. Training to be mindful of each and every thought, each and every feeling, each and every action, knowing their true nature, is hard, and sometimes frustrating. But every now and then you have a moment in which every ounce of your being in present in the moment. You see your surroundings, you hear your surroundings. You feel your surroundings. You fully experience your experience, not just think about it, or feel about it. And in that moment, you know that everything is perfect as it is, because it is as it is, now. That moment is the greatest moment you will ever experience. That experience is an infinite return on your effort. And the more you train, the more you are blessed with these moments.

1-Minute Contemplation: Notice how quickly you think or feel about things instead of experiencing them. Look at a flower. Almost instantaneously for most of us, we start making associations, or remember the roles roses have played in your life. But we almost never just see the rose in front of us—not some idealized rose with attached memories or concepts—but the actual rose right in front of our faces. Just see the flower that presents itself to you.

[1] Bhagavad-Gita, Trans. by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. 2002.

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Saturday, September 23, 2006

This is the Best Season of Your Life

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.


How many different things distract us from what is happening in our lives right now, at this very moment? How many different things pull our attention away from the people we are interacting with right now? Is thinking about your reply really more important than giving the person with whom you are speaking your undivided attention? Is worrying about your destination more important than experiencing and appreciating the journey? If you're worried about the destination, you never really experience the journey—you might as well have been asleep. There is a time to plan. Chances are that the amount of time you've already devoted to planning greatly exceeds what is necessary. So why not just stop running through all the possible scenarios and just listen to the sounds accompanying you on your journey?

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Daily Scribe Jamboree Sept. 22, 2006

There were a number of great posts at the Daily Scribe this week. I'd like to highlight two that I particularly enjoyed.

Angela-Eloise over at Blogickal wrote a great little post on Apples and their traditional correspondences. She also included a bonus apple ritual that is a great way to commune with both your friends and the natural cycles of the Earth on this great holiday of the Autumnal Equinox.

Sojourner over at A Pagan Sojourn wrote a nice post on how she celebrates the holiday of Mabon. I always enjoy seeing how others maintain and deepen their connection with the Earth, because living in the heart of a major city (Chicago), I struggle with that sometimes, and I find it to be extremely essential to my physical, mental, and spiritual health. Nothing rejuvenates me more than pausing in my busy life and spending some mindful time in nature. So I love seeing how others accomplish this.

Happy Autumn Equinox, Rosh Hashanah, and of course Happy Friday to everyone!

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Sometimes We Just Need to be Reminded

Sometimes we just need to be reminded.
Sometimes we just need to stop the train,
get off, and look
at the sunflowers alongside the tracks.
Sometimes we just need to breathe. Deeply. In.
Out. Abdomen soft.
Sometimes we just need to feel the chair under
our backside.
Sometimes we just need to look at our partner,
really see him or her again.
Sometimes we just need to be reminded.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Response to My Post on Karma

In response to my article on Karma, Alan Cook compiled a nice piece at Milinda's Questions rebutting my equation of karma and causation. I have a few short responses to several of his comments, which follow.
For one thing, the law of karma is not concerned with consequences in general, but with consequences which recoil upon the doer of the action, both in the current and in subsequent lives.
So, the author of the book Alan quotes is saying that karma equals causation applied to sentient beings. So far, it's still causality. He continues:
They especially concern its effects on the dispositions, character, passions and desires of the agent, or the creation of invisible qualities of merit and demerit which adhere to the agent. As such, the proponent of the doctrine will be as much, if not more, concerned with the invisible as well as the visible effects of a human action.
Of course. And the "invisible effect" is still an effect of a cause. He continues:
Since the central causal feature of the law of karma is moral, it is not concerned with the general relation between actions and their consequences, but rather with the moral quality of the actions and their consequences, such as pain or pleasure and good or bad experiences for the doer of the act.
But as no theistic ground exists for morality in Buddhism (see Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis for a well-written explanation of moral grounds), the "moral quality" of an action or its intent is ascertained from its effect. Hence, karma as causality is concerned with the general relation between actions and their consequences (internal, as defined in Alan's post, especially—I'll return to this point with respect to external effects later in this post). He continues:
[W]hereas according to the law of universal causation the production of effects does not depend on the intentions of the agent (except as they are causally related to actions) but on his action, the karmic relation depends upon both.
No. An action (cause) will result in an effect upon the world-at-large. An intention (also a cause) will result in an internal effect on the person with the intention. It is still causality operating within the person himself. Continuing:
[A]ccording to the law of karma like causes produce like effects. Right actions produce good consequences, wrong actions produce bad consequences. However, it is not obvious that like producing like is a characteristic of all causation.
Good and bad are value judgements. Causation is complex, as is karma. In the Acintita Sutta, the Buddha says, "There are these four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them. Which four? ... The precise working out of the results of karma is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it." Hence, the Buddha himself expressed that we cannot simplify karma to the degree of "this action will produce this particular result, in all cases." It is too complex to be analyzed in that simplistic fashion. He continues:
[T]he law of causation applies to two events or things that are temporally conjoined, whereas the law of karma states that the effects are manifested at some time in the distant future, either in the next life or in more temporally remote lives. Thus, the immediacy of the temporal relation found in the causal law is absent in the law of karma.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In the Lonaphala Sutta, for instance, the Buddha says, "There is the case where a trifling evil deed done by a certain individual takes him to hell. There is the case where the very same sort of trifling deed done by another individual is experienced in the here & now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment." Therefore, the law of karma does not specifically define the temporal relation between a cause and its effect. The effect may occur immediately, or it may occur in the far off future. In this particular sutra, the Buddha is speaking of the physical observability of an effect. Hence, an action's intent does weigh in on the person immediately, but the effect may be so minimal at that time that it does not result in an observable effect by another person until much later. Hence, there is temporal uncertainty. In pure causation, as well, the time relation may be close or far. If I punch a wall, the effect is immediate, on both the wall and myself. But as water temperatures change over the Pacific Ocean, that affects weather patterns that, a week or more later, finally reach the east coast of the United States. In pure causation, as well, time relation is uncertain. He continues:
[S]uch an emphasis on originating dispositions and intentions as determinative of moral quality implies that it matters little what we do. Consequently, with respect to our accumulation of karma it would mean we could do the most despicable acts, so long as our attitude and dispositions were correct.
Nope. There are two problems here. First, with the correct dispositions and attitudes, it is nearly impossible to act in a despicable fashion. More importantly, however, this exemplifies the major problem with the analysis herein presented by the author Alan quotes. The author is examining karma, in and of itself, isolated from the rest of Buddhist philosophy. I'll return to this point at the end, but for now, notice that if a person were capable of performing a despicable act with the most perfect of attitudes and dispositions, the effect on the "world-at-large" would be one of causing pain and suffering, which violates the other core principle of the Buddha's teachings, that of compassion for others. Truly, the Buddha defined the removal of suffering in the Four Noble Truths as his "measuring stick." Hence, to cause another undue pain is grossly flagrant of this teaching, regardless of karmic results. Alan's author continues:
According to the first, karma works through us, creating dispositions and tendencies, merit and demerit, which in turn affect our desires, passions, and perspective on the world.
In short, "merit and demerit" are descriptive terms to help form an understanding of the effect of actions. Buddhist karma is NOT a bank account into which meritorious and demeritorious deeds accumulate in the credit and debit columns.
According to the second, our karmic acts affect the instruments of our experiences, from our own bodies to the world around us. They help determine, among other things, the kinds of bodies with which we are reborn, our social status, and how other persons and things in the environment act on us. These instruments mediate properly determined karma to us, so that one can say that we deserve what happens to us. Here the samskaric account by itself is inadequate.
First, the concept that we "deserve what happens to us" is true to a degree, but not completely. First, "deserve" implies judgment, which is absent from karma. But more importantly, accrued karma affects how I view the world, and affects my perception of the world. My karma does NOT cause a hurricane to come and destroy my house. That happens due to the causes of various weather patterns, water temperatures, etc. My karma does affect my automatic response to such a disaster. But since my karma does not cause such destructive environmental effects, the samskaric account IS adequate.

Alan wrote, in conclusion:
"True, and well said, but as I read it that still doesn’t fully include the objective, phala-producing aspect of the traditional doctrine of karma."

This is the problem inherent in attempting to philosophically dissect Buddhist karma separate from the complete Buddhist teachings. The Buddhist philosophical system functions as a whole and, when separated into component parts, is incomplete. The Buddha's Four Noble Truths focus completely on the ending of suffering. This is truly the central path of Buddhism. But to discuss the objection raised by Alan above, the Buddha's teachings on compassion reflect the Buddhist view of the phala-produced effects of our actions. We know that all beings experience pain, and we know that all non-Buddhas (just about all of us) experience suffering based on that pain. Hence, it is our prime job to avoid causing others pain because we know that they will then suffer. The karmic "demerit" arises from the effect on us, internally, from our intentions. The external phala-effect of our action violates the central tenet of Buddhism—that of removing suffering from all beings.

Thanks, Alan, for such a thought-provoking post!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Thank You Guest Bloggers!

[Photo by Mike]

I'd like to offer a great vote of thanks to Angela, Jon, and Sojourner for their guest blogging efforts while I was on vacation. There was some excellent discussion generated from these posts, so if you haven't done so, read through the comments; it will be well worth your time.

The picture at the top of this post is a picture of a picture at the bed & breakfast I stayed at while I was in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. This is the second time I've stayed there, and I would highly recommend it. For those who are interested, check out General Boyd's Bed & Breakfast.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Religious Diversity

"How do you feel about religious diversity? Is diversity important, or would a single, or no, religion be more beneficial for our world today?"

Thanks Mike for this opportunity to be a guest blogger. I apologize if this entry is rather short. I have had a very long day. I am an evangelical protestant Christian, which ends up being complex set of lables that merely says I attempt to follow Jesus in my everyday life. As such, I consider myself a congenial exclusivist. I am convinced that the particular set of spiritual and practical benefits that Jesus offers are only offered by him. There simply is not any source to experience what Jesus offers to all humans, dealing with our basic human issues, other than the way he has provided which is to trust personally in him.

That being said it may surprise you to know that I encourage and accept the concept of religious diversity. I am strongly convinced that human beings must make a decision for or against Jesus on their own, personally, individuals in community, without being coerced into that decision by manipulative means or by any kind of force. Any other commitment to Jesus would not be the sincere kind of relationship that he desires to have with people. Theologians call this concept "soul competency." That means simply that we each are responsible for our own spiritual decisions before God, and that those decisions should be made freely.

I am convinced that when Jesus' teachings are presented in a "free marketplace of ideas" that he will draw to himself those who are to follow him. All that I look for is a "level playing field" on which to present Jesus' teachings and claims. A few years ago we were planning as a church to have a book discussion in a bookstore that is part of a large chain. The store decided we could not discuss the book (even though they sold the book) because it was religious in nature. The fear of lawsuits eliminated healthy conversation on spiritual issues. Another national chain book store was across the street. They figured they had a Jewish discussion group, and a pagan discussion group, so why not allow a Christian discussion group. We had an excellent time, to this day we still occasionally host discussions there, and I purchase a lot more books from them than I do from their competitor.

Spirituality can be dealt with in societies in a number of different ways. You can use the power of government to insist on a particular system, or to squelch all such conversations, but in the the end the healthiest method is to allow basic liberty to all to discuss and pursue such topics within the basic limits of human behavior (i.e. no human sacrifice). Even most of us who believe in the uniqueness of our system affirm the rights of others to pursue other systems. While in the end, exclusivists as myself believe the options will fade away in the dawn of eternity (the time for discussion eventually will end), in our temporal world we strongly support religious liberty. In fact, many of us note that often intolerant societies persecute us first.

It has been said before that one should not discuss religion or politics in polite conversation. Unfortunately, that would relegate most polite conversation to worthless small talk. Most of the things that are important to us in life are controversial, and those are the very things that I celebrate the freedom to discuss. So perhaps if you disagree with me on everything else, this one thing we hold in common: everyone should have the right to express their opinion and believe what they want to believe. Based on that simple consensus of tolerance our society was built, and it indeed is the most healthy (and from my perspective beneficial) stance for society to take on religion and spirituality today.

Thanks again for letting me take part in this dialogue, I am excited to read and respond to your comments. For more on pursuing "mere Christianity" in a postmodern urban culture check out my blog: Jesusfollowers.

Religious Diversity

Hi, I'm Angela from Bold Contemplations! Before my post, I just wanted to thank Mike for the opportunity to guest blog! I hope you enjoy all the guest posts, and hope that a thought provoking discussion will ensue!


I believe that throughout history, distinct groups of people developed the concept of god and religion in order to provide a means for explaining and understanding life’s unanswerable questions and events – historical and natural – which seemed to be out of human control. As I see it, traditional religion is indeed the “opium of the masses.” Each individual religion is the narration of a particular culture’s myth -- its interpretation of history as shaped and molded over numerous generations in response to changes in the culture’s circumstance. For this reason, it is obvious why numerous religious schools naturally developed throughout history in lieu of a single global religion.

We continue to utilize the concepts of religion and god in similar manners today. Religion is the glue that holds many people’s lives together. It continues to provide answers (albeit some arguably outdated) to many of life’s most unanswerable questions. What is the meaning of life? Why must we experience trials and tribulations? What happens when we die? Religion also continues to provide principles and tenets (again, some arguably outdated) by which a person should abide in order to live a “good” life – one that would make their god proud. Some people are extremely religious during good times and bad, while others only embrace religion in times of emotional distress and need. Religion gives many a sense of purpose in life and provides the motivation that many need to live by the golden rule (who wants to suffer eternal damnation?). Given the extremely personal nature of the emotional needs that religion addresses, many people today search for the one (or none) that they most identify with. It is for this reason that I feel that religious diversity is important as it allows everyone to find the “truth” that they feel most comfortable calling their own. Actively identifying with a religion tends to provide a sense of purpose and belonging to the believer.

Personally, I don’t believe that one must embrace a particular religion in order to live a purposeful and fulfilling life – in my opinion, a sense of spirituality is much more important (a topic for another time). Historical events (perhaps purposefully) have perpetuated the need of humans to search outside themselves for explanations of life’s events and to provide motivation to treat their fellow inhabitants of the earth with respect. As long as this continues to be true, religious diversity will be important as it will allow the needs of diverse masses to be met. However, history as well as current events have proven that religious diversity can have just as many negative implications as positive ones.

The numerous labels we continually impose on ourselves only serve to divide humanity. History has proven that humans are masters at using the differences among its members to segregate and divide itself, to perpetuate hate and prejudice. Many of the out-dated teachings of the traditional religions add fuel to this fire. The majority of wars, past and present, are rooted in religious differences and the world’s current events indicate that this trend will not end any time soon. Therefore, I believe that in order for humanity to survive and thrive, we must begin to shed out-dated traditional religions and move toward acceptance of religions and schools of thought which strive to work towards the common good of all humanity and all earth’s creatures, in addition to re-connecting humanity by celebrating and embracing our differences.

Religious Diversity

When Mike asked all of us to be guest bloggers, he proposed this question as our topic:

How do you feel about religious diversity? Is diversity important, or would a single, or no, religion be more beneficial for our world today?

Religious diversity is a tradition that goes back many years in our country's history. From Religious groups fleeing their country of origin because of persecution to the start of religious tolerance, the U.S. has a history of embracing diversity. In the last 30 years, according to the Pluralism Project, this penchant for religious diversity has become more pronounced.

I see religious diversity as an asset to society in that it creates dialogue between people of different beliefs which in turn opens doors for religious tolerance. I find that having the option to learn about other religions helps me to understand my own beliefs in a way that I wouldn't have otherwise and also helps me to strengthen my views on religious issues. When we have the opportunity to experience religious diversity, we are better able to find the system of belief that is best suited to our beliefs.

As to the question regarding whether we would be better off having just one (or no) religion, I would have to say that it would not be beneficial. Having the ability to explore other viewpoints on religion opens up the possibility to incorporate new ideas into a religious path. I believe that this prevents a religion becoming stagnant.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Guest Blogger: Sojourner

Hello! I'm Sojourner from A Pagan Sojourn. I write about a variety of topics ranging from aspect of Pagan religions to religion in general to thoughts about my own religious journey. I started my blog as a way to organize and keep track of the information that I was learning regarding Paganism. Please feel free to stop on over.

I am a non-traditional psychology student at a major university in Minnesota and currently plan to go on to grad school to obtain my PhD in cognitive neuroscience starting in the fall of 2007. Although my educational background is in psychology, I have a great interest in different religious traditions, history and perspectives.

Thank you, Mike, for asking me to be a guest blogger while you are on vacation. I look forward to this opportunity.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Interfaith Blog Event #1: Karma

Welcome to the first Interfaith Blog Event! In each installment of this series, which we're hoping to do on a monthly basis, we'll explore a single topic across three different religious traditions. I am, obviously, writing from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Jon, from Jesusfollowers Journal, will be writing from a Protestant Christian perspective, and Sojourner from A Pagan Sojourn, will be writing from a Pagan perspective.

The first topic we'll be discussing is the following:
How do you view karma, the thought that your actions in some way determine your experiences, in your spiritual path?

[Jon's Essay] [Sojourner's Essay]

Buddhism is about relationship: relationship to others, relationship to self, relationship to all sentient beings, and relationship to all insentient beings. Primary to Buddhism’s experience of relationship is what Thich Nhat Hanh terms interbeing—all of us, and by "us" I mean sentient as well as insentient beings, are interconnected. Nothing can exist without something else existing to comprise it. Thich Nhat Hanh writes,
If we look into this sheet of paper, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger's father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist. ... You cannot point out one thing that is not here—time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil. ... Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. [1]

Since everything inter-is, nothing exists in and of itself, independent of all else. Hence, everything exists based on prior causes and conditions. Interbeing forms the basis of Buddhist karma.

What is Buddhist karma? It is often summarized as "This is, because that is; this is not, because that is not." In the same way as all things come into being based on causes and conditions, all of our thoughts, actions, and feelings arise based on causes and conditions. In other words, if you're raised in a household in which your dad responds in open anger to many things, you are likely to develop the same trait. Or if you learn that feigned kindness gets you what you want, you'll repeat that behavior; and the more you repeat it, the more deeply a feigned kindness response will be embedded in your psyche. In psychological terms, you could say you learned this behavior through Skinner's operant conditioning. In Buddhist terms, you've accrued negative karma.

Karma does not imply predestination, however. Technically, Buddhist karma is nonlinear. Note, however, that by "nonlinear" I do not mean that future events affect the present in a circular fashion. Rather, present input—your current thoughts, behavior, and intentions—feed into, and thus combine with, past causes and conditions to affect the next moment. This present input makes karma nonlinear according to systems theory, as it (karma) is not based solely on past causes. The existence of the "present input" also eliminates predestination because we can affect, and even change, our next thought, action, or speech that our past would have made most likely.

In other words, in every moment, we will be predisposed to certain thoughts, actions, and speech. If we act according to this predisposition, we strengthen it (i.e. "greed begets greed"). But we also have the ability to be mindful of this process and act differently from our predisposition, or at least consciously choose to think or act or speak according to our predisposition. Hence, our present thoughts, speech, and behavior can work to support our karmic predisposition, or counteract it.

I should note here that the terms "positive" and "negative" karma have no absolute value. These can only be relative terms because with no godhead to decree right from wrong, no absolute basis exists from which to dogmatically define "good" versus "bad." The question that cries out to be answered is, therefore, how do we know which behaviors, thoughts, and speech will develop what we might call "good karma."

In short, the answer is observation and analysis. The Buddha observed for himself that certain thoughts, speech, and behaviors generally led to a decrease in suffering, both in himself and others, and to an increase in inner happiness. It was on the basis of these observations that he developed the precepts not to kill, not to steal, not to engage in sexual misconduct, not to use intoxicants, and not to lie. He did not intend for the precepts to be dogmatic rules to be followed unswervingly because, as previously noted, they contain no inherent value, good or bad, in and of themselves. Rather, he observed that when one kills, one's underlying mental state is such that one's suffering increases, in addition to the suffering clearly inflicted on the killed being. Related to this, he also observed that when killing became abhorrent to a person, that person's underlying mental state was one that reflected true inner happiness, peace, contentment, and love. Additionally, not only did this reduce the suffering of other beings (since they were not killed), it also increased others' happiness because of the manner in which our non-killing person now interacted with those beings around him, in his loving, peaceful state. Similar observations underlie the remaining precepts.

In a sense, the Buddha was an early proponent of the scientific method. He observed that all beings suffered. He developed the hypothesis that suffering could be ended and true, complete, inner happiness achieved. Then he began experimenting. He trained with many great teachers of his day, and though he found value in their Hindu thought, they did not confirm his hypothesis—they did not eradicate suffering completely, nor result in complete inner happiness. Just as importantly, they did not invalidate his hypothesis because he was successful in reducing his suffering and increasing his inner peace.

Finally, after 6 years of experimentation and testing, while meditating throughout the night under the Bodhi tree, he personally experienced the affirmation of his hypothesis. He obtained direct knowledge that suffering could be ended and true, complete, inner happiness achieved. And he directly determined the path that leads to this result.

The process of karma has been shown to exist by the great psychologists of our day. Freud showed us how our experiences in childhood directly affect our thoughts, actions, and speech in adulthood. Jung showed us how archetypes function in our unconscious to predispose us to certain responses. Skinner and Pavlov gave us the means by which we actually learn many of our responses via operant and classical conditioning, respectively. Even our everyday common sense tells us that a karmic process operates in our lives. How many times have you thought, "Oh, that runs in our family!" The Buddha, however, not only observed the functioning of karma in our lives, he also personally discovered that suffering is caused by karmic influences. Through experimentation and observation, he obtained direct knowledge that we could end our suffering and achieve total inner peace, love, happiness, and compassion. And he taught us the path so that we could achieve the same.

The Heart of Understanding. Thich Nhat Hanh. 1988.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Surprises this Week at Unknowing Mind

We've got some excitement coming up at Unknowing Mind over the next week. Wednesday's excitement I'll leave as a surprise, but over the weekend, we'll be having three guest bloggers, as I'll be on vacation through Tuesday. On Sunday, Angela from Bold Contemplations, Jon from Jesusfollowers Journal and Sojourner from A Pagan Sojourn will each post their respective thoughts on the following topic:
How do you feel about religious diversity? Is diversity important, or would a single, or no, religion be more beneficial for our world today?

So please show them a warm welcome and comment profusely! :) Oh, and visit their blogs!

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Hinduism and Transforming Feelings

After reading my post on transforming feelings, one might question, "Why is so much emphasis placed on knowing one's feelings and thoughts so intimately?" I've been reading the Bhagavad-Gita, an important book in Hindu religious literature, and came across this verse:
Thinking about sense-objects
Will attach you to sense-objects;
Grow attached, and you become addicted;
Thwart your addiction, it turns to anger;
Be angry, and you confuse your mind;
Confuse your mind, you forget the lesson of experience;
Forget experience, you lose discrimination;
Lose discrimination, and you miss life's only purpose. [1]

This verse traces through the effects of attachment, within which feelings play a primary role. Ignore, for a moment, the final step about missing life's only purpose, and consider the rest of the process. Choose any cherished possesion of yours. Think about it for a moment, then imagine you lost it. What permeates your mind upon losing the item? If you look sufficiently closely, you'll find at least a twinge of anger. It's easy to see that in any state of anger, your mind does not think clearly, awash in emotion. The rest of the verse follows clearly from here.

Looking closely at this process, where can we short-circuit it? Once your mind has reached a non-rational, confused state, it's too late, and your challenge is to plug the dam and regain your sensibilities before you do harm. We also cannot just stop thinking about sense objects. That's like telling someone with a powerful fear of snakes to hold a python for a minute and not be scared. Just as phobias are so deeply ingrained in our minds, thinking about sense objects in a manner that leads to attachment is also so ingrained.

Where does that leave us? At feelings. The initial impulse of feeling response indicates to us that the process is underway, and at this point, it is not yet so strong as to end our ability to discriminate. Of course, this won't be easy either, but it is the only link in the chain with which we can truly work directly. And working with such, we can stop the process from overwhelming us. The bonus is that as we work to discover the true nature of our feelings and their causes, we begin to see the attachment for what it is, and learn to deal with those opening links in the process indirectly through the gateway of feelings.

[1] Bhagavad-Gita. Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. 2002.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Exploration of Compassion in a World of Violence

This essay is an exploration of how love and compassion can survive and prosper in a world where violence is prevalent and accepted.

I am a relative pacifist. So I often question, "Do we even need violence? Can we live without violence? Should we, given our animal-nature?"

Most people would agree that love and compassion should be shown in most situations. But what about in an Israel-Lebanon type scenario? Hezbollah kidnaps 2 of your soldiers, how do you respond? Are peaceful, compassionate protests and negotiations viable? Or does that just encourage further incursions?

In Tibet, the Dalai Lama has always forbidden violent protests or responses to China's occupation. No further "expansion" has come of this, but is that because the rest of the world would violently oppose further takeovers by China? Or is China actually content with Tibet, and the Dalai Lama's response has maintained peace where otherwise there could have been bloodshed?

I read a story recently where a Buddhist monk was held captive in a prison in Tibet, where he was beaten and tortured, kept hungry and alone. This monk fled Tibet for India, where he met with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama asked him, "Was there ever a time you felt your life was truly in danger?" The monk answered, "In truth, the only time I truly felt at risk was when I felt in danger of losing compassion for my jailers." That, to me, is the most heroic modern story I have ever heard. But if we had a majority of people committed to compassion like this Buddhist monk, would they be overcome by those who would take advantage of them?

This makes for an interesting paradox. Christ called for a turning of our other cheek, the Buddha instructed us not to harm other beings; but if we do this, will militant, extremist factions attack us out of their own misguided self-interest? Yet these great sages were the most wise people who ever lived, and we put great faith in their teachings. We must at least consider their advice.

So what is the answer? I don't think there is an absolute, correct answer to this dilemma. Dogmatic, doctrinal answers fail us here, as they do everywhere. We must apply wisdom to, and account for the practical parameters of, the situation. Our great sages' calls for peace and love and compassion form the ultimate path, the one we try our hardest to follow. But in our current world, many extremists may take this as an invitation to further their own self-interests, territorial and cultural, uncontested. Hence, I think that violent response remains a necessity in our current world. However, that being said, I applaud the great calls for peace, the protests, and the political movements to end war and violence, because to move toward the perfect path of peace expressed by our saints, we need to apply constant pressure on our governments to end hostilities.

For example, consider Iraq. An immediate, complete withdrawal of troops would be foolhardy, as Iraq would likely plunge into civil war. However, groups are right to call for such immediate action, to keep applying pressure to end violence. It is like walking up a down-escalator. Human violence carries us down, but we need to always be walking up, lest we collapse into a hellish state where chaotic violence is the only rule. Sometimes we may slow our walk and hence drift down slowly. But as long as we increase our pace often enough, we can continue making progress toward a life of compassion and turning our other cheek.

New Member of the Daily Scribe

Please pay a visit to the Daily Scribe, an aggregator of religious blogs across many traditions. I'm proud to join Will at thinkBuddha and Gareth at Green Clouds in the Buddhism Channel. There are many great blogs here, so please check it out!

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Synthesis versus Reductionist

True understanding comes not from looking at, but from looking in. Science is often touted as our way of understanding the world around us. But is it really?

Science is reductionist. If a botanist wants to understand a tree, she analyzes the parts of the tree in isolation, the process of photosynthesis, the pattern, shape, and degree of root growth, the hydraulic system of water dispersal from roots to leaves. This undoubtedly leads to a great deal of understanding of how trees "work." But does this botanist really understand this particular tree? I don't think so. The reductionist, scientific approach, while powerful, is incapable of forging an understanding of the composite whole. Science "divides and conquers" wonderfully, but synthesizes poorly.

Poets, artists, writers—these people give us a real understanding of our world by creating a gateway through which we identify and merge with the artist's subject. We play our own role in this process as well. If you want to get to know a particular tree in your neighborhood, sit and look at it for a minute. Allow your eyes to roam over the tree, absorb its features. Feel the textures with your eyes. Do so with your hands too! Listen to the wind weaving through its leaves. Experience the tree, merge with it.

In the same way, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, "If we want to understand a person, we have to feel his feelings, suffer his sufferings, and enjoy his joy. The word 'comprehend' is made up of the Latin roots cum, which means 'with,' and prehendere, which means 'to grasp it or pick it up.' To comprehend something means to pick it up and be one with it. There is no other way to understand something."[1]

So analyze parts to understand how things work. But synthesize the whole, to really know.

[1] Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh. 1992.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Transforming Feelings

In his book Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh explains a procedure to transform our negative feelings, which I find very valuable. Here are the steps in the process:

1. Recognize each feeling as it arises. When a feeling arises, we acknowledge it. Fear is present. Anger is present. Hatred is present.

2. Welcome the feeling. Don't push it away. The way to learn about our fears, our anger, is not to repress them but to actually thank your fear, your anger, for being there for you. You've adopted them as a response for a reason, so thank them for what they do for you. Accept their presence.

3. Calm the feeling. Strong feelings can overwhelm our wisdom, so slow your breathing. "Breathing in, I calm my anger. Breathing out, I calm my anger."

4. Once the feeling is reduced in intensity, release it. Smile at your anger and allow it to depart, thanking it for visiting. Yes, really, smile at it. :) You'll be amazed at how much this helps.

5. Look deeply into the feeling, now that it is no longer overwhelming you. What is its cause? Is there an external stimulus to this feeling? What response of yours causes this feeling to arise? What internal causes are there? Ultimately, all causes are internal, as your feelings are totally based on your responses to stimuli. What effects are there to this feeling? What effect does it create in you? What effect does it have on others? Does your feeling cause suffering to others? Acknowledge it if it does.

Buddhism places great emphasis on this process because we say that our suffering is caused by us alone. Pain is unavoidable, but we habitually compound pain by our response to it, which causes us to suffer. Hence, we need a thorough understanding of our feelings, our thoughts, our actions. We can only eliminate suffering if we understand its causes.

In the book, Thich Nhat Hanh applies this process to negative feelings. However, I'd add that it is just as valuable to apply it to our positive feelings. When we are feeling loving and compassionate, we have the oppportunity to learn how we feel that way. This wisdom teaches us how to be more active participants in our lives; we can learn what causes us suffering and avoid it, and we can learn what causes us to feel love and compassion, and nurture those causes.