Sunday, October 29, 2006

Today I am Waiting for a Bus

A Poem by Ko Un, from "Buddhadharma", Fall 2006:
Some say they can recall a thousand years
Some say they have already visited the next
thousand years
On a windy day
I am waiting for a bus

No matter what we think we know about the past,
No matter what we believe about the future
This life or the next,
Today is windy. Today we need to ride the bus.

We have two options:
Wait skillfully
Or unskillfully.
We can never experience the future
Until it becomes the present. This moment
Was the future for the infinite past
And will be the past for the infinite future.
To wait unskillfully is to disrepect your
Infinite past and your infinite future,
And wasteful of all the time you spent
Planning and thinking about
This very moment.

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Friday, October 27, 2006

Scribe Jamboree: October 27, 2006

Like the Phoenix, The Daily Scribe has risen from the ashes and flies again! I want to wish Shawn well in all his future endeavors and congratulate him on his spiritual rediscovery.

This week, Sojourner from A Pagan Sojourn writes about whether ethics are absolutely determined or are only determined by our culture, in a relative manner. I admit this is somewhat of a shameless plug since this is part of our monthly Interfaith Blog Event, to which I contributed an essay as well.

Nathan from discusses Exchanging This for That, a very interesting look into Nathan's immersion in the Christian subculture (aka the church life) and its effect on his ability to act and minister to others as a Christian.

At Decompose, Mike writes about Calvary vs. the Emergents - #4, where he delves into particular Christian views on mysticism and Eastern spirituality in the Emerging Church.

Finally, at Panthea, Grian was inspired to write about Whether God/dess Exists after reading a review on Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. (If the link to the blog post doesn't work, go to the main page and find the link in the left sidebar--the permalink wasn't working for me this morning).

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Buddhism and the Idea of God

After replying to an interesting post on Evolution Considered over at Bhikkhu's Blog, I noticed a link he provided to an essay at Access to Insight on Buddhism and the God-idea by Nyanaponika Thera.

I found this essay to clearly describe Buddhist views on theism. The author draws a nice distinction between theism and belief in a creator god, noting how the former can be seen as a type of skillful means in certain circumstances, while the latter is rejected.

I especially like the way in which the author explains that Buddhism does not deny the existence of higher planes that may, in some ways, be superior to our world and type of consciousness. These planes may be populated by beings that are, in some ways, more powerful than human beings--we may call them God, gods, deities, angels, or spirits. But of course that does not imply that they are any wiser than we. These planes probably have their rulers, as we do on our plane. As the author writes, "But like any human ruler, a divine ruler too might be inclined to misjudge his own status and power, until a greater one comes along and points out to him his error, as our texts report of the Buddha."

The end of essay is worth quoting here, verbatim:
These, however, are largely matters beyond the range and concern of average human experience. They have been mentioned here chiefly for the purpose of defining the Buddhist position, and not to serve as a topic of speculation and argument. Such involvement can only divert attention and effort from what ought to be our principal object: the overcoming of greed, hatred and delusion where they are found in the here and now.

An ancient verse ascribed to the Buddha in the Questions of King Milinda says:
Not far from here do you need to look!
Highest existence — what can it avail?
Here in this present aggregate,
In your own body overcome the world!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Interfaith Blog Event #2: Ethics, Intrinsic or Relative?

Welcome to the second 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 topic we'll be discussing today is the following:
Is there anything you consider to be intrinsically right or wrong? What grounds do you have for that conclusion? How does the concept of morality impact your everyday life?

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

Back in the 5th century BCE, Siddhartha Gautama was born in a country immersed in Hindu spirituality. B.K.S. Iyengar states, "In Indian thought, everything is permeated by the Supreme Universal Spirit (Paramatma or God) of which the individual human spirit (jivatma) is a part." [1] Later, he continues, "By profound meditation, the knower, the knowledge, and the known become one. The seer, the sight and the seen have no separate existence from each other. It is like a great musician becoming one with his instrument and the music that comes from it. Then, the yogi stands in his own nature and realizes his self (Atman), the part of the Supreme Soul within himself." [2]

As a prince, Siddhartha's education included detailed study of the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of Hinduism as revealed by the Supreme Being. But after having renounced his royal lineage to pursue the life of a monk, and training with the greatest spiritual teachers of his day, Siddhartha found that such training was highly beneficial, but it did not lead to the highest attainment--ultimate peace, Enlightenment. Specifically, Siddhartha could find nothing within that corresponded to the Atman. Rather, on the night of his Awakening, he personally experienced the emptiness of all things, that everything, and everyone, existed based upon the cumulative effect of other existing causal factors and the proper conditions within which such causal factors may operate. Hence, the animating principle of the Atman was illusory--we existed not because a piece of the great Brahma, the Creator, was injected into us by said Supreme Being, giving us a fully independent existence, but solely based on the existence of other causes.

After his enlightenment, the Buddha met up with some old friends with whom he had practiced for years. As his first teaching as the Awakened One, he taught that, as we observe the world, one thing is obvious: Suffering exists. This teaching had two components. First, it implied that because we were born, we would experience disease, old age, and death, as well as personal hardship. These "unavoidables" often lead us to experience the second component of this Truth--mental suffering. This second component of the First Noble Truth explains that these unavoidables are not suffering; suffering is our mental response to such experiences. We cause ourselves to suffer because of our response to our life experiences.

In his practice, as the Buddha removed the causes of suffering--the mental poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance--he noticed that genuine, perfect happiness arose naturally, replacing the suffering that had existed previously. As a young prince, he had experienced the pinnacle of worldly pleasures. But this new, genuine happiness completely transcended such worldly happiness. It is "The joy which is beyond the pale of the senses which reason cannot grasp." It is "The treasure above all others. There is nothing higher than this." [3] Furthermore, the Buddha observed that all beings desire happiness and avoid suffering. Therefore, combining these two insights, it was clear to the Buddha that the attainment of genuine happiness for all beings, and the removal of their suffering, was the ultimate spiritual aim.

Before examining how this aim determines Buddhist ethics, let's examine happiness. The Buddha observed that happiness comes in two forms, relative and genuine. As he experienced as a Prince, worldly happiness is relative--what makes one person happy may cause suffering to another. Consider a person out on a hot day. If the person enjoys hot weather, he will be happy. But if he does not like hot weather, then such temperatures will cause him to suffer. Continuing this example, if the person does not like hot weather and hence enters a cool bath, this will please him. But relative (worldly) happiness is also transient--if he stays in the cool water too long, he will become cold, and hence will begin to suffer.

Contrary to relative happiness, genuine happiness does not fluctuate wildly. Genuine happiness is absolute--genuine happiness to one person is genuine happiness to all people. The principle characteristic of genuine happiness is inner peace [4]. "[If] we can develop this quality of inner peace, no matter what difficulties we meet with in life, our basic sense of well-being will not be undermined." [5] No external factor can create such peace. But how can it be developed? Like everything else in life, it is dependent on causes and conditions. Hence, we must identify its causes and conditions and then cultivate said causes to bring about genuine happiness.

In the 2,500 years since the Buddha first explained these teachings, it has been experienced over and over by Buddhists that altruism is an essential ingredient of genuine happiness. For thousands of years, Buddhists have written of their experiences with altruism--that not only do altruistic actions cause others happiness and reduce their suffering, they also make the altruistic person's life meaningful and happy, and reduces that person's suffering. In summary, therefore, we have discussed the following:

  1. We have observed that all beings desire happiness and avoid suffering.
  2. The Buddha experienced genuine happiness and gave us the path to attain such happiness ourselves.
  3. Altruism is an essential ingredient of genuine happiness.

By merging these three observed truths, we can develop a statement of Buddhist ethics: "An ethical act is one which does not harm others' experience or expectation of happiness." [6]

This definition raises an obvious concern: how does one determine whether an act will harm another's experience or expectation of happiness? Before we consider this question, however, let's apply this definition to isolated examples of the Five Precepts, the traditional guidelines of Buddhist ethics, to gain a better understanding of how to make practical use of this definition. The first precept is "Do not kill." Obviously, killing another being harms that being's experience of happiness and its desire to avoid suffering. Furthermore, it harms the killer's experience of happiness because, regardless of the worldly feelings of exhilaration that the killer may experience, penetrating insight always discovers the ultimate suffering to one's self that killing causes1. The second precept is "Do not lie." If a person needs to know the truth about something, a lie prevents them from knowing that truth and, hence, they suffer (albeit potentially unknowingly). Lies also harm the liar because he can begin to become entangled in his web of lies, and hence he suffers. The third precept is "Do not steal." Stealing inflicts suffering on another due to their loss. It increases suffering for the thief as well because it enhances the growth of the seed of greed in the thief's mind. The fourth precept is "Do not engage in sexual misconduct." The emotional damage of adultery and other such liaisons is well documented. The fifth precept is "Do not take intoxicants, or engage in their production, nor in the productions of weapons and poisons." One might not be able to stop the production of weapons in the world, but one need not exert one's own effort in their production, whose use ultimately harms many beings. Taking intoxicants is more of a preventative measure in that such use can increase the likelihood of acting unethically.

Therefore, it seems clear that the definition provided by the Dalai Lama provides an effective measure of ethical action in these "ideal" instances. However, life is much more complex than these idealized circumstances. Hence, one must ask how one can determine whether an act will harm another's happiness. Buddhism answers this question through the development of skillful means. The Dalai Lama writes,
We find that in practice, if we are not able to connect with others to some extent, if we cannot at least imagine the potential impact of our actions on others, then we have no means to discriminate between right and wrong, between what is appropriate and what is not, between harming and non-harming. It follows, therefore, that the more we could enhance our sensitivity toward others' suffering, the less we could tolerate seeing others' pain and the more we would be concerned to ensure that no action of ours caused harm to others. [7]

Therefore, it is through the development of compassion that genuine ethical conduct arises. Compassion provides the motivation for ethical conduct, as one cannot bear to harm another. But to what degree can compassion be developed? Buddhism has taught for millenia, and countless examples are described, of people developing compassion to the utmost degree, where their every act is based on their love for others. The Buddha and Jesus are probably the two greatest examples in recorded history.

If compassion provides the motivation, from where, specifically, does the ability to discern harming from non-harming actions come? Every aspect of Buddhist training leads one toward the development of correct discernment. Buddhist meditation develops concentration, which is necessary to be able to penetrate through the illusory surface of experience to know its true nature. Without highly developed concentration skills, our mind gets distracted and, hence, never reaches the true nature of phenomena. Through concentration and mindfulness, wisdom arises. This critical faculty is the key component to determining ethical from unethical actions. Buddhism also focuses on the removal of afflictive emotions such as anger, greed, and laziness, because such emotions obscure one's critical faculties, thereby reducing one's ability to discern harming from non-harming acts. (Recall how clearly you were thinking the last time you were really angry. How many times have you hurt someone through your words when seized by anger?)

Therefore, we must constantly check all of our actions and employ our critical faculties, ensuring that our actions are motivated by compassion. As stated so eloquently by the Dalai Lama,
[Have we] asked ourselves whether we are being broad-minded or narrow minded? Have we taken into account the overall situation or are we considering only specifics? Is our view short-term or long-term? Are we being short-sighted or clear-eyed? Is our motive genuinely compassionate when considered in relation to the totality of all beings? Or is our compassion limited just to our families, our friends, and those we identify with closely? [8]

He continues by admitting that, given the complex nature of our world, all possible alternatives may appear to harm somebody. "Under such circumstances, we must use our intelligence to judge which course of action will be least harmful in the long run" to the greatest number of beings. [9]

He summarizes this train of thought as follows:
The moral value of a given act is to be judged in relation both to time, place, and circumstance and to the interests of the totality of all others in the future as well as now. But while it is conceivable that a given act is ethically sound under one particular set of circumstances, the same act at another time and place and under a different set of circumstances may not be. [10]

Therefore, returning to the question posed at the beginning of this essay, there is nothing I can consider to be intrinsically right or wrong. Because of the infinite variety of situations, causes, and conditions, it seems intractable to consider any act as having inherent value that is not determined, to some degree, by surrounding circumstances. Furthermore, as the ethical system as described herein is not based on decree from a godhead, there is no ground from which to state that any action is intrinsically right or wrong.

Transitioning to the final aspect of the question that began this essay, I refer to the following statement by the Dalai Lama:
It may be worth reviewing the grounds for defining ethical conduct in terms of non-harming. As we have seen, given the complex nature of reality, it is very difficult to say that a particular act or type of act is right or wrong in itself. Ethical conduct is thus not something we engage in because it is somehow right in itself. We do so because we recognize that just as I desire to be happy and to avoid suffering, so do all others. For this reason, a meaningful ethical system divorced from the question of our experience of suffering and happiness is hard to envisage. [11]

In this passage, the Dalai Lama appears to agree with my conclusion regarding the relative nature of ethical conduct. He also makes clear the impact morality has on our everyday lives. Each and every day we attempt to act in a way that increases our happiness and decreases our suffering. Little do we realize, however, that the worldly happiness we chase paradoxically INCREASES our suffering due to its transient nature and long-term effects. Therefore, the better we learn to discern harming from non-harming actions, the happier those around us become, and the happier we become. Buddhism teaches that such training in discernment and compassion comprises the basis for all our true happiness in the world. As such, they comprise practices that we endeavor to employ in every moment of our lives. For Buddhists, therefore, there is never a single moment in time in which morality does not impact our daily lives.

1This is a topic for another essay.

[1] Light on Yoga. B.K.S. Iyengar. 1979. Pg. 19.
[2] Ibid. Pg. 22.
[3] Ibid. Pg 19.
[4] Ethics for the New Millenium, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. 1999. Pg. 55.
[5] Ibid. Pg. 56.
[6] Ibid. Pg. 49.
[7] Ibid. Pgs. 72-73.
[8] Ibid. Pgs. 149-150.
[9] Ibid. Pg. 152.
[10] Ibid. Pg. 153.
[11] Ibid. Pg. 147.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Poor Max!!

Because he hates getting brushed and won't let us trim him, our long-haired alpha cat Max went in for some much-needed grooming today to clear him of his accumulated matted hair. And as expected, he emerged looking pretty comical! :) Without further adieu, here's the new Max:

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Memories and the Present

"He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past." -Thoreau

I hold the Transcendentalists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, in extremely high regard. Reading their essays, their poems, their journals, I think they have come as close to the true nature and purpose of living as our great spiritual leaders like the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, and Jesus (among others).

In the quote above, Thoreau's point isn't the superficial interpretation that all memory is bad--he isn't part of a group labeled the Transcendentalists for nothing. :) Thoreau is blessing what Buddhists call non-attachment. It is not that we repress our memories in our practice of mindfulness in the present moment. Memories are necessary for learning, for growth: imagine trying to meditate when you can't (or won't) remember the instructions given to you by your teacher! Rather, Thoreau observed that people are obsessed with their memories. They replay painful experiences over and over in their minds, which resubmerges them in the flood of anxiety, anger, or jealousy they experienced. People are just as obsessed with pleasant memories--they relive their last vacation, a beautiful sunset, or their elation when they adopted their puppy.

The question arises, "What's wrong with this? Shouldn't I relive the painful experiences to learn from them and the pleasant ones to enjoy my life through reminiscing?" The answer to that question is yes, with reservations. Reliving painful experiences in search of growth is great, when you consciously choose to do so. Thoreau condemns the unconscious practice that we all fall into in which these memories flash across our mental screens, unrequested, and distract us from the wonder that is our present moment of life. It requires a brutally honest look into your mind to truly see the driver of these recollections.

Reliving pleasant memories is a wonderful pastime. However, if recalling that beautiful sunset of a year ago in Hawaii distracts you from mindfully experiencing the red sun descend below the horizon happening right now, today, then that memory has truly done you a disservice. Or if in thinking about when you adopted your fur-baby, and in the process you miss the adorable, inquisitive way she pokes and prods her favorite toy, you've just lost that moment.

With the manner in which he lived his life, Thoreau showed us that a truly mindful, present, experience of what is happening NOW is life's greatest gift. Choose your moments of recollection, and when you do, make them your present moment. But at all other times, don't grasp at these memories--let them go so that you can form wonderful new memories, untainted by your past.

1-Minute Contemplation: Identify a memory that is distracting you from living right now. It may be a hurtful experience you keep reliving, or a pleasant one that you now see distracts you from your real life, here and now. For 1 minute, analyze that memory. What part of it are you attached to such that it keeps arising? Find the reason inside you that will allow you to unattach yourself from this memory. Know that you can choose to return to it whenever you wish. Whenever YOU wish.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Scribe Jamboree: October 20, 2006

Welcome to the October 20th edition of Unknowing Mind's Scribe Jamboree! This is where I highlight some of my favorite posts from the past week from my fellow writers at The Daily Scribe.

Will at thinkBuddha gives us a taste of what he's teaching about The Meaning of the Meaning of Life over at Staffordshire University. Very interesting thought process here.

Dan at Yet Another Unitarian Universalist has two related posts I'd like to direct you toward. First he spoke personally about his lack of mindfulness while out on a nice walk in Autumn Watch. His issue is one many of us struggle with: how to let go of our attachment to our jobs, our responsibilities, when we're not directly working on them. He continues the discussion in Nature and City: a preliminary checklist, where he makes the observation that "City isn’t separate from Nature or divorced from Nature; rather, City is an ecosystem (or collection of ecosystems) that is a subset of wider Nature. (Corollary: humans are not separate from Nature, they are an integral part of Nature.)". He then presents us with a categorized list of reminders to help him maintain his awareness of his ecosystem. An insightful comment by Jean extends his list through focusing on sensation, our gateway to the surrounding world.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Oops! Make that Monday.

Ok, after some discussion, we're moving our posting of the Second Interfaith Blog Event to Monday, October 23, 2006. Please ignore my previous post. :)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Friday is the day!

This friday will be our second Interfaith Blog Event in which bloggers from three different religious traditions debate a single topic chosen by one of us. I represent a Mahayana Buddhist viewpoint, Jon represents a Protestant Christian perspective, and Sojourner represents a Pagan perspective. Tune in Friday for the excitement!

Monday, October 16, 2006

Is A Physical Expression of Spiritual Practice Necessary?

I've been thinking about this topic recently because I've begun to feel that something was missing in my practice. When I first started my Buddhist practice, I was concurrently training in Aikido, a Japanese martial art. While my meditation practice is stronger today than it was then, I'm finding that its effect on my life is reduced. One cause is undoubtedly a more complex life today than I had then. However, the more I examine the situation, the more I see that another primary cause is my lack of a physical expression of my practice.

In Aikido, training centers around control of one's self. Aikido is based on a sphere, with the practitioner at the center. As attackers enter that sphere, aikidoka must maintain their awareness such that they can touch, and thereby redirect--with the minimum possible force--the attacker around that sphere. When one watches high-level Aikido, it often appears as a sort of dance, with the practitioners feeling the attack and moving WITH said attack, never forcefully AGAINST it. Furthermore, Aikido trains you to feel what others are doing to you, and teaches you how to go with that flow to avoid personal injury. If you are about to be thrown, and there is no true way to avoid that, it is healthier to allow yourself to be thrown and focus on protecting yourself than to strain to avoid the throw.

The only way to succeed in such practice is to lose your ego. Ego causes you to think, "Resist! He's not going to get the better of me!" Then when you do, you sprain your wrist in the process. Without ego, you realize, "I've recognized this throw too late for a skillful counter; therefore, I must bend like the willow tree and absorb the throw, landing with minimal injury." Ego causes you to think, "Strike harder! He deserves to be hurt!" Without ego, you realize, "He is striking me out of his ego; there is no need to inflict major injury. Respond with the minimal force necessary." Beyond philosophy, however, you learn very quickly when training in Aikido that when you use muscular force, your moves are ineffective. So not only does Aikido philosophy teach these principles, the physical component provides proof. To be blunt, your Aikido will be completely ineffective and worthless if you respond to force with force, to attack with defiant resistance. In other words, Aikido acts as a physical expression of the value of egolessness, compassion, and wisdom.

Having not trained in Aikido for 5 years, I find that loss to have had an effect on my life. Such physical expression of one's practice helps to bring one's practice "out of the dojo" or "off the cushion" into everyday life. What good is meditation and Buddhist training if you leave your practice in the temple after service? The Buddha did not teach any particular physical expressions of the practice. Therefore, to me this indicates that such practices are not strictly necessary. However, in that they involve the physical body your mind inhabits in this life, I think they provide a skillful means by which to "practice in motion." Walking meditation is often touted as a great means to bring your meditation to physical activity. A lay person's life involves much motion, and if he cannot figure out how to bring a meditative mind to his actions in life, his practice will be worthless.

Therefore, I have begun studying Yoga at a highly respected studio here in Chicago, Yogaview. So far--and it's only been 2 weeks--I've already noticed an increase in my ability to carry the mental state of mindful awareness to my motion-filled life. So while I don't think such physical expression of training is required to achieve Awakening, I think if you are disposed to such practice, it can act as a skillful method to improve your practice dramatically.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Jesus Camp

The documentary itself was very well made, showing little bias towards either the Evangelical or liberal sectors. Therefore it is definitely worth watching. As to the content, it was very informative, and I came out of the theater feeling that these kids' parents do truly want the best for their children, and feel they are giving them that.

That being said, the brainwashing that is occurring in these children across America frightened me more than The Exorcist ever could. At one point, the leader of the camp stated to a Christian radio host that what children learn in their early years determines 90% (or some large percentage--I forget the exact figure) of their beliefs in adulthood, and she gave that as the reason why she focuses on children. The radio host retorted that he sees a clear distinction between learning and indoctrination, which is what she is doing to these children at their ages.

I do think that she truly cares for these children and is doing what she feels is best for them and for her vision of the world. But her actions, in my opinion, are borderline terrorism. Her fundamentalism differs from that of terrorists' only in that she does not place grenades in the hands of her legions of children; she places them in their minds.

A Different View of Spirituality

Strange that in our time there's so little interesting poetry of religious belief, especially since world events more and more are driven by belief (or the fanaticism of Eastern or Western Fundamentalism). Somebody asks me what I believe. I believe in the suspicion of transcendence, in the capacity of consciousness to imagine a transcendent order as an objective reality. I believe in my own unbelief.
(Poetry. W.S. Di Piero. October 2006.)

I just read an essay in my most recent issue of Poetry, from which the above excerpt was drawn, and found it to be a very creative approach to spirituality that I've never considered. Just some interesting food for thought, and some insight into another's view of life.

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Scribe Jamboree: October 13, 2006

Welcome to another week of Unknowing Mind's Scribe Jamboree! This is where I highlight some of my favorite posts from the past week from my fellow writers at The Daily Scribe.

First from Angela-Eloise at Blogickal, a great post on the mythology of the Harvest Moon. The moon always instills awe and wonder in me, and this year's Harvest Moon was simply spectacular in Chicago. The Goddess truly is alive in such a wondrous sight.

Second, (by the way, these are in no particular order!), Tim at Pop Occulture Blog posted a vivid excerpt from a favorite author of mine, David Abram, on Alphabet Magic. Read the entire article by Abram if you can -- it's an amazing piece of living scholarship on the animistic relationship we have developed with words.

Tim gets third billing too with his post on The Ecology of the Self. This one's based on Abram's work as well, but Tim relates Abram's writings on the true purpose of magic--ecology--to our sense of self.

Fourth, we have a good post at Arbitrary Marks on Counting the Cost of Stories and Beliefs. It's an interesting application of cost-benefit analysis to religious beliefs. At fourth and a half, I'll mention an interesting conversation in which I've been involved regarding worship in a singular setting with pluralistic beliefs. Neat viewpoints being discussed herein.

Fifth, Sojourner from A Pagan Sojourn reminds us to Take Time to Pause. Life constantly throws work at us and it's easy to fall into the trap of rushing through doing things that need doing and forgetting to stop, breathe, and come back to yourself in the moment. I'm several weeks into my first class toward my Ph.D in electrical engineering, and I'm struggling with the same thing right now. Thanks for the timely reminder, Sojourner!

Finally, I want to point you to two amazingly detailed and information-filled posts on the history of the number thirteen and of Friday the Thirteenth in particular. Reb Chaim HaQoton posts on Friday the Thirteenth, as does Angela-Eloise. Thanks for your efforts on this fun topic, you two. I never realized how much history underlies this superstition.

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Diana Mukpo on the Essence of Buddhist Teachings

In the November 2006 issue of Shambhala Sun, Diana Mukpo, the widow of Chogyam Trungpa, is quoted as saying in her new book, "Ultimately I think that this is the essence of Buddhist teachings: they are about how to live our lives, intimately, moment to moment."

This is what truly separates Buddhism from most other religions. It's also the reason why many people claim Buddhism is not a religion but a philosophy. We don't focus on the philosophical quagmire of gods, spiritual cosmology, and the "afterlife." We work with what we have at our disposal, our minds, with the goal of holding mindfulness at every point of our waking existence and acting out of complete, total, pure compassion. This isn't to say that Buddhism is without said philosophical claptrap. Great sages, including the Buddha himself, have coherently expressed these ideas to bring a "philosophical wholeness" to the religion. However, the Buddha himself taught that such musings were unfruitful. While they might be fun (I certainly enjoy a good philosophical discussion!) and educational, such intellectual exercise cannot bring us peace, bring us mindfulness, or lead us to compassionate action. Only training of the mind can bring out such skillful means.

As Diana Mukpo expressed, the essence of Buddhism is the observation that events will happen to us, some pleasant, some unpleasant, and the only thing of which we can be sure is our response in the present moment. The past has ended--while we can, and should, use it for educational purposes, it cannot help us in the immediate moment. The future is just our worried or egotistical projection of what might happen--again, while it can be used for educational purposes, it can do nothing for the "here and now." The Buddha, before his Awakening, had faith that he could achieve perfect peace, perfect compassion, perfect wisdom, through training his mind. And he did achieve perfect peace, perfect compassion, perfect wisdom, while resulted in the ultimate happiness. So that we could do the same thing he did, the Buddha taught us "how to live our lives, intimately, moment to moment."

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Effort and Critical Thinking

Josh, in a comment here, raised a good point regarding critical thinking and religion. How many of us have truly thought critically about our chosen spirituality? Critical thinking takes much effort and brutal self-honesty. But if you feel that all the hard work has already been done for you--that others have done the thinking and you just have to follow their lead--then there is little incentive to exert the effort required to think critically.

The big question is whether critical thinking about one's path is necessary. Do we even have to bother? What do our different religions say about this? Some might say it's a waste of time to think critically--you just need to believe what the "experts" tell you is true. Others might place the ultimate importance on critical thinking.

We Mahayana Buddhists, for example, see critical examination of everything as the ONLY means to freedom. One of our primary practices is the Six Paramitas (Perfections). We vow to perfect ourselves in six areas, three of which are Virya, Dhyana, and Prajna, or energy/effort, one-pointed concentration, and wisdom/insight. If we look at these together, they form a triangle of critical thinking. Effort - In every moment, we must be vigilant, exerting effort toward all of our endeavors, especially insight. We overcome all seeds of laziness--a primary obstacle to critical thinking. Concentration - Focused attention is required to burn through to the true nature of all things. Without developing concentration to the utmost degree, our mind will be too easily distracted, preventing us from seeing the Truth. Wisdom - The knowledge of our true nature, insight into the empty interbeing of all things. Without effort and concentration, our pursuit of wisdom will be in vain because we will be unable to see through false truths. And in Buddhism, we can read, or be taught, about wisdom. But until we know it, experience it, for ourselves, it is worthless knowledge. Hence, Buddhism treats critical analysis as the path to salvation.

1-Minute Contemplation: Take a recent experience in your life, perhaps one where you thanked God (or the gods) for it, or one in which you felt that you, through your Will, manifested that experience. Choose any experience that you attributed in some way to your chosen spirituality. Now, consider 3 alternate ways that this experience may have occurred that do not involve your chosen spirituality. Use other religions' beliefs as possible alternatives. For 1 minute each, truly imagine that this alternate pathway was the means through which this experience actually manifested, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes you to pretend that your chosen spiritual viewpoint is incorrect. As one example, if you attributed your success on a test to God's gift, pretend with all your heart that it was the Goddess who blessed you with such success.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Scribe Jamboree: October 6, 2006

It's Friday, and that means it's time for the Scribe Jamboree, where I provide links to some of the more interesting posts by Daily Scribe bloggers that I've read this week. So without further adieu...

There was a great post by Brother Maynard at Subversive Influence about the difficulties of conversing with a fundamentalist of any stripe. It sounds like a very interesting panel discussion that he attended. Check out Losing my (Fundamentalist) Religion? today.

Over at The Mindful Mission, Dave posted a link to the '85 Bears Super Bowl Shuffle. Having been born in Chicago and still happily living here today, I just had to point this out. :)

Getting more serious again, over at Reb Chaim HaQoton is posted a very interesting take on the Source of Addiction. What I find particularly interesting is how similar his thoughts are to Buddhist philosophy. He writes that, "all physical pleasures which feel 'good' have some bad mixed into them." Buddhism also identifies attachment (a major category of which is attachment to physical pleasures) as a primary source of our suffering. Obviously, our take on the cause of this (Adam's sin in the case of Reb Chaim, and our own ignorance in my case) differs, but the pragmatic end result is quite similar. He writes, "The Talmud says that there is a small limb in a person -- one's sense of pursuit of physical fulfillment -- which if fed grows hungry, and if starved is satisfied." Again the equivalence to attachment is quite obvious. Additionally, in this case, Buddhist karma comes into play in that feeding that small limb generates a habit-force that has significant karmic potential -- as he so aptly stated, when fed, it grows hungry, when starved, it abates.

Shawn at Lo-Fi Tribe writes what I hope is only the first in a series of posts on Notes on Ethics: Three Components of Moral Theory. I'm very curious to read further exposition of this topic, especially a deeper analysis of the various categories of ethics he specifies (utilitarian, deontological, etc.). Shawn, where did you get the categories of ethics you specified here? My initial thoughts are that Buddhist ethics appear to be most closely related to what Shawn labels Situation Ethics. However, there is also an interesting intermingling of Situation and Utilitarian ethics in Buddhist ethics, as we are always looking to minimize harm to all beings, which is slightly different from, but still highly related to, focusing on the greatest benefit to others as in Utilitarianism.

Finally, Will at thinkBuddha writes on Mindfulness, and the Enigma of Life. He gives a great description of how his understanding of mindfulness has evolved throughout his life, not to mention showing us first-hand the importance true mindfulness plays in his, and all of our, lives. Mindfulness is a topic near and dear to my heart, something I find to be of the utmost importance, and I write on it regularly. Will does a very nice job in this post. Please read it if you have time.

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