Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Cultural Adaptation of Buddhism

In a comment to my post on Religious Traditions and Community, Pastor Jon raised an important question:
I am curious how much the practices of your group have been molded to accommodate western culture, and how much they remain authentic to their Korean tradition. For example, is it normative for groups like yours to meet on Sunday?

I found this such an important topic that my response deserved its own post:

I want to start this essay by stating that I feel it's very important for Buddhism to adapt, to a degree, to Western culture. To not adapt would be tantamount to hypocritically contradicting Buddhism's views toward, and use of, skillful means in conveying its teachings. I will return to this point later.

Let's first approach Jon's question from the viewpoint of my temple's monastic order--the group that has dedicated their lives to Buddhist practice. In this aspect, our temple almost identically adheres to native Korean Zen temple practices. While not privy to every detail of their lives, I have experienced the daily routine of my temple. The percussive beat of the moktak wakes temple residents at 5 am. A quick shower is followed by morning exercise, the morning bell chant, 108 prostrations, chanting, and seated meditation. Work practice--gardening, cleaning, cooking, etc.--comprise a portion of the rest of the day, as does sutra study and meditation, seated and walking. The evening bell chant, prostrations, chanting, and meditation end the day. This same routine is followed by native Korean temples, such as the one at which our head priest was ordained, throughout that nation. (I'd also like to note that the Japanese Zen temple to which I belonged before joining my current temple also practiced identically to its parent temple organization in Japan.)

In terms of our Sunday schedule, I don't know the Korean custom for lay services. That being said, I think this is one of those areas in which cultural adaptation is so important. In Journey to Mindfulness, Bhante Gunaratana explains that in the rural Sri Lankan village in which he grew up, the villagers visited their Theravada Buddhist temple daily. He wrote about how he woke each morning to his parents changing sutras in Pali. Again, this is Sri Lanka, not Korea, and a Theravada sect, not a Mahayana Zen sect, but in our society, very few people--sadly--have that kind of devotion to their religion. People in my culture are not, generally speaking, willing to sacrifice many of the things they love to follow such a time-consuming devotional routine. That does not mean, however, that we cannot benefit greatly from Buddhist teachings. Actually, I think it is imperative for the health of our culture to embrace practices such as those contained in Buddhism--our lives tend to be so hectic and over-scheduled that mindful meditation and a focus on developing compassion for all others is a vital necessity.

Given the work schedule of our culture, it is convenient to schedule group services for Sunday, as we have done. While I cannot verify whether there are Zen services in Korea on Sundays, I can confirm that the activities in which we engage at the services--reciting the refuges, chanting, and meditation--are primary practices in all Korean Zen temples. Additionally, many of our chants are actually in Korean (with English translations available for our study, of course).

For those who are more dedicated to their practice, we have twice-weekly membership sittings. These include additional practices performed in Korean Zen temples, including prostrations, additional chants, walking and seated meditation, and interviews. For the truly devoted, my temple has designated times for congregants to come for work practice. Plus, as is common among Korean temples (and I'd imagine most other temples and churches), members are always invited to come to the temple whenever they wish to meditate, study, do prostrations, etc.

Back in the 5th century BCE, the Buddha preached regularly the necessity of skillful means on the path to Awakening. Because of the nature of the path, the teachings must meet each person where they are at in their life and must convey the Dharma in a manner from which the person can benefit (it is completely senseless, for instance, to explain the multi-faceted layers of Dependent Arising when a person is struggling with acting toward others out of loving-kindness and compassion). In my culture, to get people to sit in silent meditation for an hour is already a monumental achievement. Therefore, to offer a Sunday service, even if such a practice is not normally followed in Korea, is a skillful means of giving people the opportunity to experience the benefits of Buddhist practice for themselves.

Notice that we never change the key practices--meditation, prostrations, chanting, etc. What changes, adapts, evolves, is the means by which we make the practices available to as many people as possible so that they can see for themselves if Buddhist practice fits their disposition in this life. Even if it doesn't right now, they may return to Buddhism later in their lives, recalling their exposure to it. We even have several Christian congregants who have realized the necessity and benefit of regular meditation and, hence, regularly attend our services and trainings. For those who develop greater levels of devotion, the opportunity is there for advanced practices, as have been available in Korea for millenia.

In adapting to Western culture in this way, the pioneer monks who brought Buddhism to the West performed the most skillful, and most compassionate, act possible. Just as the Buddha, 2,500 years ago, taught his disciples how they, too, could Awaken fully, these pioneer monks gave us in the West this same gift. The Buddhist approach may not be right for every person in this lifetime, given the innumerable dispositions and attitudes of people today, but I can think of nothing our culture needs more than the message of peace, mindful living, and love taught by the Buddha.

Thanks, Jon, for such a thought-provoking question!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Interfaith Blog Event #3: Religious Traditions and Community

Welcome to the third 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:
Within your religious traditions, what rituals and/or traditions give you a sense of connection to your fellow congregants, beliefs, and communities? What actions do you take to ensure the stability of those connections? Do you feel that the connections that have been made are sufficient for your spiritual and/or religious needs?

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

In the 4th century CE, Buddhism was introduced to Korea by a Chinese monk. Buddhism quickly flourished in Korea, and traditions quickly developed, some dating back to the inception of Buddhism in the 5th century BCE. These traditions still live in our temples today, thanks to the line of teachers that has ensured their continuity.

Every Sunday, my temple hosts two services, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon. During our standard Sunday morning service, we sit in seated meditation, followed by a short session of chanting and recitation in which we mindfully take refuge in the Three Jewels of the Buddha (our perfect inner nature), the Dharma (the teaching and path to recognizing our true nature), and the Sangha (the community of beings with whom we live). The recitation is followed by another seated meditation, after which we listen to a Dharma talk by one of our priests.

Our Sunday afternoon service is different. It begins with a seated meditation, followed by a recitation in which we take refuge in the Three Jewels. We then mindfully chant & sing a very simple verse, "Ma-Um," which means, "My mind is Buddha." Singing is followed by a question and answer session.

While these two services have very different atmospheres, two commonalities emerge--the taking of refuge in the Three Jewels, and meditation. I believe these two "rituals" give the primary sense of connection among our congregants.

Meditation has many different flavors. Some methods focus on concentration through counting the breath. Other methods are more analytical, examining such topics as emptiness, impermanence, or any number of other areas. Still other methods are based on generating and sustaining loving-kindness and compassion. Meditation is a very personal endeavor, with each person working on the aspect of the path that he or she needs to at that time. How, then, can the practice of meditation function as the primary means of community and connectedness?

The answer lies in the depth of wisdom contained in the seemingly simple formula of taking refuge in the Three Jewels. We say, "I go for refuge to the Buddha. I go for refuge to the Dharma. I go for refuge to the Sangha." Each of the refuges is simultaneously operative on several levels. When I take refuge in the Sangha, at the most basic level I acknowledge the shelter and protective value of community. Slightly deeper, I remind myself that my temple's community is there for me. Deeper still, I recognize that the entire world of beings is my protector because each plays a vital role in my life--family and friends nurture, protect, and love me; strangers and other "neutral" beings serve to educate me and provide me with opportunities to meet new people and act compassionately, lovingly, and mindfully; enemies challenge me to overcome my anger, greed, and hatred, giving me the opportunity to learn patience, love, and compassion for all. Thus all beings deserve my utmost respect, compassion, thanks, and blessing.

At the deepest level, that simple sentence, "I take refuge in the Sangha," represents the truth that my community is not different from me--I am not fundamentally different, or separate, from other beings, sentient or insentient, in the world. We are all of the same basic nature, Buddha-nature. One person may understand this truth intellectually. Another person may argue against it ontologically. But once a person personally experiences this truth, it is clear and authentic. The experience is intimate, immediate, spontaneous, and obvious, like feeling a sneeze coming on--you just KNOW when you're going to have to sneeze, there is no doubt about it, and nobody can really explain to you the feeling of having to sneeze. You have to experience it for yourself to know it.

This truth of inter-being, expressed in the third refuge, is the reason why group meditation is such a powerful communal practice. In row upon row of cushions, we sit, meditating on the aspect of the path that is right for us at that very moment, and the energy of the community truly unites us into a congregation, as we all share a common goal: to develop altruism and wisdom to the utmost degree.

The truest experience and development of community paradoxically occurs on retreat. I say paradoxically because our Buddhist retreats are marked by silence. Shorter retreats are comprised of intensive, repeated meditation sittings and walking meditation, interspersed with silent meal preparation and mindful eating. Longer retreats include silent work practice, such as mindful cleaning, gardening, and sewing, and interviews with the head priest. (Yes, you do get to speak during interviews. :) ) Retreats provide the ideal mixture of solitary and communal meditation--you sit in communal meditation like during services, but the intensive repeated sessions and silence often lead you toward much-improved mindfulness and invaluable insight. And the feeling of unity, of inner connection, of true inter-being, of the congregants is unmistakable.

In order to ensure the stability of these connections, we need only to practice in a group setting. Group meditation can never, and is not meant to, replace solitary practice. However, when performed in conjunction with a regular solitary meditation practice, group services and retreats not only develop our capacity for altruism and insight, but also foster the deepest levels of community and oneness among the congregants. The connections I have established in this way are more than sufficient for my spiritual needs, and in speaking to my fellow temple members, that feeling is nearly universal. I have heard story after story at my temple from members who had struggled spiritually, physically, and emotionally under other religions, who have since found in Buddhism the spiritual connectedness of community, discipline, happiness, and emotional and physical health that they could not find anywhere else. Therefore, it is my fervent wish that more people begin Buddhist practice and personally experience the truths that become self-evident in such practice, bringing a level of true happiness, mindfulness, and peace to this country that has been eroding for years.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

-- Robert Frost

I've always loved this poem by Frost. So short; such a simple structure. Yet it conveys such depth of experience. Frost's message reminds us of the Buddhist principle of impermanence. Just as the beautiful gold of dawn ends, so all conditioned things in this world end. This wonderful Thanksgiving day spent with family will end. Therefore, I am immensely thankful for the time I was able to spend with my family yesterday, and the time I will be spending with my fiance's family today.

1-Minute Contemplation: What do you take for granted? Said another way, what is there that you assume (often unconsciously) will last forever? Take a moment to identify something or someone in your life that you don't appreciate fully, and locate within you the assumption that must underlie such a lack of appreciation--that this thing or person will always be there. Find the experience within that will allow you to personally realize that this thing or person IS impermanent. Allow the unfettered thankfulness that you have been suppressing to arise naturally from your experience of impermanence.

I thank you, personally, for reading my blog.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

In honor of our beloved turkey, please visit Farm Sanctuary's Adopt-a-Turkey Project and adopt your own turkey so that these precious animals can enjoy Thanksgiving with a sumptuous feast just as we do!

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Inner Freedom - A Quote

"On the other hand, if we do not practice [concentration and turning the mind away from its obsessions], we no longer remember the meaning of vimutti--a meaning that is not confined to a word, but is the experience of being freed from inner torment and thus, as a result, from the torment of one's own difficult, even addictive behavior patterns which are driven by unbearable mental states. If you think this description is excessive perhaps you have not observed yourself closely enough. If you watch yourself through any given day, observing the arising of desire and dislike, the sequence, say, of distraction, impatience, fantasy, dismay, and self-judgment, you will begin to understand that the ordinary mind is caught up in a rapid-fire sequence of mental states a large proportion of which is truly difficult to endure, and drives you to take whatever actions you believe will bring relief. We take this situation for granted, but when the possibility of vimutti, or inner freedom, can be borne in on us, we will understand completely why inner freedom is considered the most beautiful of all mental states." (The State of Mind Called Beautiful. Sayadaw U Pandita. 2006. Pg. 13.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Poem from Ko Un: Winter Journey

From Ko Un ("Buddhadharma," Fall 2006):
Winter Journey
How can you make it through winter
without knowing the fragrance of winter wind?

Dreams of that fragrance
are utterly unknown
to frogs, and snakes

Utterly unknown,
and that's the place you'll reach in the end.

Utterly, completely unknown!

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Monday, November 13, 2006

90,000 Subtle Gestures

It is said that there are 90,000 "subtle gestures" to practice in Buddhism.

In Zen, every single thought we have, every single act we perform, every single statement we make, should be made such that we are mindful of the thought we are choosing to have, mindful of the act we are choosing to perform, mindful of the statement we are choosing to make. We've all had the experience of driving or walking along and suddenly realizing we have no idea where the last 20 minutes have gone. But less obvious are the daily chores you perform. Take showering, for instance. I know I can coast through my morning shower completely oblivious to everything. Sometimes it's too such a degree that I have no idea where the last 10 minutes went. But more often, I'm thinking about something else and yet am still somewhat conscious of the routine I'm following.

In true Zen practice, however, we are mindful of every single act. When my practice is strong, when I am washing my hair, I know with every ounce of my attention that I am washing my hair. When I am lathering the soap, I know with every ounce of my attention that I am lathering the soap.

The question is, why shouldn't I just enjoy letting my mind wander around while I shower? What's the point of joyfully enforcing such strong mindfulness? In Buddhism, the highest goal is to penetrate through our habitual delusion and see our true nature. How can we possibly attain this awakening if we cannot even maintain mindfulness on washing our hair? Mindfulness of all our actions IS our spiritual practice because when I am washing my hair, my true nature is "the washing of hair." When I drink tea, my true nature is "drinking tea." When I am dicing apples, my true nature is "the dicing of apples."

You might say, "Oh, I get that. I understand how that works." Or you might say, "That doesn't make any sense to me." It is my own personal experience that when I have been able to attain even the slightest glimpse of this truth (not intellectual knowledge or understanding, but true personal realization of this wisdom), the freedom, the joy, the clarity of mind I experienced was so great as to be indescribable. Mindfulness is the key to Awakening.

The 90,000 subtle gestures are the 90,000 different thoughts and actions you perform every day that give you the opportunity to think and act mindfully. Each of these 90,000 subtle gestures is a blessing, a stepping stone toward Awakening for the benefit of all beings.

EDIT (11/13/06): I just read a post over at The Journey that discusses mindfulness as discussed in Matthew 6:25-33. While we may disagree philosophically about the nature of the universe, the spiritual importance of mindfulness, living in the present, transcends such polarities.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Purview of Buddhism is the Mind of Living

The purview of Buddhism is the mind of living.

Books abound with Buddhist philosophy. Walk the aisles of your local bookstore and you'll find shelves of books discussing Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, Chan teachings, and dissections of the sutras. These books aren't Buddhism. Buddhism has no Bible, no book that expounds the Truth for its adherents. To be a Buddhist is to experience life, in all its wonder, in all its pain, in all its beauty, in all its horror. There is suffering in life: people die, people lose their jobs, predators hunt, and kill, their prey. There is complete joy in life: puppies are born, children dress up in adorable Halloween costumes, people embrace in loving relationship. To be a Buddhist is to recognize, honor, and be thankful for EVERY SINGLE EXPERIENCE, pleasurable, painful, or neutral.

All those books on the shelves do nothing but point at our lives and beg us to remove the filter we maintain between what we think of as our "selves" and the lives we lead in the world. In the Heart Sutra, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara proclaims, "All dharmas [objects, events, and beings] are defined by emptiness, not birth or destruction, purity or defilement, completeness or deficiency." [1] This teaching isn't a sermon proclaiming the Word. When we read this line, it hooks itself in our minds and impels us to look at all objects, all events, everything in our lives, with fresh eyes. It implores us to experiment, to test our views of everything, at all times. In the words of Suzuki Roshi, we train to keep Beginner's Mind at all times. In the mind of a beginner, everything is new and fresh, and the beginner is open to all experiences, all teachings. In contrast, the mind of the expert is closed off to fresh viewpoints, trapped in seeing all things in terms of his past experiences rather than what is presenting itself in this very moment.

The purview of Buddhism is the mind of living. All of our practices have a clear purpose--to remove the filter we continuously erect that prevents us from seeing all things, including ourselves, as they really are, in all their majesty, in all their painful reality. "[We] take refuge in the [Perfection of Wisdom] and live without walls of the mind." [1] We train our minds to live.

[1] Heart Sutra. Translated by Red Pine. 2004

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Integral Options Cafe: Sogyal Rinpoche on Karma

As posted by Bill at Integral Options Cafe, this was worth a repost because it's so clear, so logical, and so empirical.

Today's Rigpa Glimpse of the Day:
Is karma really so hard to see in operation? Don’t we only have to look back at our own lives to see clearly the consequences of some of our actions? When we upset or hurt someone, didn’t it rebound on us? Were we not left with a bitter and dark memory, and the shadows of self-disgust? That memory and those shadows are karma. Our habits and our fears too are also due to karma, the results of our past actions, words, and thoughts. If we examine our actions, and become really mindful of them, we will see that there is a pattern that repeats itself. Whenever we act negatively, it leads to pain and suffering; whenever we act positively, it eventually results in happiness. ~ Sogyal Rinpoche

Monday, November 06, 2006

What is Truly Skillful Teaching?

The heart of Buddhist training, and its brilliant effectiveness, lies in the use of Upaya, or skillful means. The Buddha gave many teachings in his day to many people of different levels of ability to comprehend and put into practice his teachings. Instead of presenting set "lectures," the Buddha taught each person according to his means. Some people's mental disposition and past experiences allow them to understand and improve their practice through direct Wisdom teachings--to these people the Buddha taught at an "advanced" level, framing the teachings in terms of emptiness and our inherent Buddha-nature. For others, such an approach would leave them behind, unable to improve their, and others', lives through the Buddha's teachings. To these people, the Buddha taught in a more directly practical manner. For example, to those whose dispositions were such that they could comprehend direct Wisdom, the Buddha may have explained the manner in which karmic influences affect our lives, and how to apply wisdom and compassion in all of our actions. To those for whom such teachings would fail to point them toward their own Awakening, the Buddha may have taught them the Five Precepts to guide them in their lives.

This isn't some judgmental approach that proclaims a certain class of people as "better" or more advanced than others. Rather, it is the ultimate expression of compassion and wisdom, the BEST thing the Buddha could do for that person at that time in their particular circumstances. The Buddha taught that each of us has the ability to Awaken to the fullest extent, and out of his perfect compassion, he guided each person with whom he spoke toward their own Awakening at whatever level they were capable of benefiting.

Any honest look at the world around us, and the people with whom we live, clearly shows that there is no single approach to life that will "work" for everyone. I have many Christian friends who, in their hearts, "know" that faith in Christ is in the best interest of every single individual on the planet. However, a number of my experiences in life have directly contradicted what Christians believe is True (e.g. I have directly experienced some level of interbeing and non-self, which Christianity strictly opposes). Therefore, Christianity clearly does not "work" for me; it does not model my experiences of the world, and I find several teachings in its most holy book to be 100% unethical (the denouncement of homosexuality comes to mind). I would be forced to lie to myself and others if I attempted to follow its teachings. Note that this isn't meant to bash Christianity. In terms of skillful means, Christianity does "work" for many people and is therefore an important guide by which many people live their lives. This is simply a personal example of skillful means in my life.

1-Minute Contemplation: Is there someplace in your life in which you used unskillful means in relating to others? Maybe a friend of yours required gentle compassion and you chose to use "tough love." Or maybe you tried to forcefully persuade somebody to your view, when a more gentle "guiding" approach would have been what they truly needed to hear. Contemplate this situation for 1 minute. How might you have acted more skillfully?

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Altruism as Essential Spiritual Practice

"So in a sense we could say that the practice of generating and cultivating the altruistic intention is so comprehensive that it contains the essential elements of all other spiritual practices." [1]

In Buddhism, we train in ethics, in concentration, and in wisdom. An aspect of wisdom is to see through our motives to discern whether we are acting out of altruism or veiled greed, in other words ethically or unethically. Concentration is the tool required for such penetrating insight.

Shantideva writes,
As long as space endures,
As long as sentient beings remain,
Until then, may I too remain
And dispel the miseries of the world. [1]

It is the deepest, most important, part of our practice as Buddhists to generate this pure altruistic intention for every single thought we have, every single action we perform, every single word we say. We awaken in the morning with the intention to help all beings (note how this is not limited to humans!) in everything we do. We lie down to sleep, thankful for every moment during our day in which our thoughts, words, and actions were altruistically based, and repentant of every instance in which we acted out of greed, hatred, or delusion. There is no judgment, only sorrow over the harm we caused others by our noncompassionate action, and a further vow to dispel the sufferings of every single being with whom we come in contact. In the morning, we begin anew, vowing to base every moment of our lives on compassionate wisdom.

1-Minute Contemplation: Before you go to bed this evening, take 1 minute to contemplate your thoughts, words, and actions throughout the day. Were they based on compassion and love? Or were they based on your selfish ego? Maybe your intent seemed compassionate but a little probing reveals that it was simply veiled greed. See the harm you caused others through your egotistical acts and vow to base every action, every thought, on compassion and love. Leave a note for yourself so that in the morning, you remember to rededicate yourself to pure compassionate action in every moment of the day.

[1] Transforming the Mind. His Holiness the Dalai Lama. 2000.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Scribe Jamboree: November 3, 2006

Welcome to another week of Scribe Goodness!

Two good posts over at peregrinatio:

1. A quote of a poem called "Fundamentalism".

2. A great post on Why Read Dawkins or Dennett, two of my favorite writers. Why, oh why, must Dawkins damage his amazing pedigree of biological writing by writing so ineptly on religion?

Angela-Eloise at Blogickal posted a beautiful photograph she took at sunset.

There was a good post over at Arbitrary Marks entitled Henry Neufield on atheist-Christian discussion which excerpts from, and links to, a deeper discussion on the issue.

Over at The Wild Hunt is a very enlightening post about Samhain.

Over at thinkBuddha, Will writes about Emmanuel Levinas and the influence he has had on Will (and where Levinas's phenomenological theories have shortcomings).

Finally, over at the journey is an interesting post entitled The God of War, about views of the Judeo-Christian god.

Have a great weekend everyone!

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