Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Ok, now that the work project that has kept me completely occupied for the last month has ended, I can get back to what's truly important - unpaid writing! :) Expect my posting routine to return to normal over the next couple days.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Impact of Buddhism on Everyday Life

(Cross-posted to A Pagan Sojourn)

"How has your religion changed your daily, everyday life?"

"As human beings we all want to be happy and free from misery…we have learned that the key to happiness is inner peace. The greatest obstacles to inner peace are disturbing emotions such as anger and attachment, fear and suspicion, while love, compassion, and a sense of universal responsibility are the sources of peace and happiness." (Dalai Lama)

Buddhism is a religion based upon empirical testing and observation. As the Dalai Lama notes in the quote above, the key to true happiness is inner peace. The primary manner in which Buddhism has changed my life is by showing me the means to obtain such happiness. And by that, I don't mean through pedagogic discourse but through not only giving me the tools to examine myself and my world directly, but also by making it clear that examining the world for myself is the only method by which I can discover the way to happiness--being told about it or reading about it won't get me very far.

In a sense, Buddhism has given me a toolkit with which to examine all aspects of myself and the world around me. Through application of mindfulness, I can slow down and examine the minutest aspects of phenomena. Of course, the ability to do this takes much time to develop--I certainly am not at the point of being able to be mindful to that degree--but the tools allow me to see progress for myself. What's the benefit of mindfulness of this type? As the Dalai Lama stated, anger is one of the primary impediments to happiness. As I slow myself down and look at anger as it arises, I can begin to see it for what it is--a body-less emotion that I, solely, am responsible for generating. Only with mindfulness can I avoid attaching to my anger, which prevents it from controlling me. I can then directly observe its causes, the conditions required for it appear in me, and the ultimate effect it has on my peace of mind and others around me. It is only through this method that I can see for myself the true damage that anger causes me, the effect it has on my inner peace. And it is only through this method that I can observe the true nature of anger.

This same process allows me to examine happiness in life. As the Dalai Lama stated, inner peace is the key to true happiness. But doesn't buying stuff make us happy too? Doesn't a good meal make us happy? Yes, but those happinesses are fleeting, impermanent, and ultimately unsatisfactory. How do I know this? Through mindfulness. Looking directly with penetrating insight at the feelings that arise when I buy something I really want makes it clear that this feeling is based on attachment. I see that after the initial thrill wears off, I need to buy something else to continue the "high." Is that really true happiness?

Buddhism has truly given me the tools to work with my everyday life, to see the true nature of every aspect of myself. It has given me a stronger peace of mind, and I've observed for myself the increase in happiness that comes with such inner peace. I'm thankful for coming to Buddhism when I did because it has allowed me to see for myself the things I do that are wholesome and beneficial, and the things I do that are unwholesome and harmful. It has also given me a 2,500 year old proven process to increase the wholesome and decrease the unwholesome.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Challenges of Non-Mainstream Faith

Cross-posted to A Pagan Sojourn

How do you deal with the cultural/societal challenges involved in following a non-mainstream religious path?

In my life, the challenges that have arisen due to following a non-mainstream religious path (in the US, that would generally mean not being Christian) have been of two types -- external and internal. Initially, the external challenges seemed harsher and more difficult to deal with. But I've since learned that not only are the internal challenges more important, but the external challenges are really internal challenges in disguise.

In terms of internal challenges, my main struggle is acceptance; not wishing for acceptance from others, but being accepting of other's religious choices. Buddhism is a tolerant religion that states that other religions carry value insofar as they develop your inherent beneficial qualities of love, compassion, peace, generosity, and discipline (to name just a few), and insofar as they reduce the poisons of greed, hatred, and laziness. I see adherents of other religions benefiting from them along these lines regularly. I applaud them for finding a religion that suits their makeup. But I admit that I struggle understanding how people can choose certain beliefs--in particular, monotheistic faiths--as my experiences have been so contrary, my insight so opposite, to theirs. It's my own attachment to being right; it's my internal challenge for which I train to develop insight. The seed of this attachment is difficult to unearth, but that's partly why we undertake such spiritual training.

The external challenge I faced was one of being surrounded by those of Christian faiths during times of traditional ritual--holiday meal prayers, religious weddings, etc. I quickly realized, however, that this wasn't an external challenge at all, but an internal one. It was my own insecurity acting out. Experience after experience has proven to me the validity and benefit of my own faith, and each one has helped me to realize my choice is right for me, regardless of others' choices. Now, during holiday meal prayers with family, I just feel thankful for food and family in my own mindful way--I pray in a Buddhist manner. At religious ceremonies like weddings, I practice in my own way by generating loving-kindness for the lucky couple.

I've learned that any external pressure I feel is solely a product of my own internal state, which clear insight can break right through. Such challenges have truly turned out to be a blessing because they have spotlighted areas where my practice was weak, where my views were unwholesome. Now, I am thankful for each and every one of these challenges.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Essence of Buddhism

(Cross-posted to A Pagan Sojourn)

We can represent the essence of Buddhism in several different ways. In terms of views, which is the approach I will discuss in this essay, we have what we call the Three Dharma Seals. As defined by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, "Traditionally, seal means something like a hallmark that confirms authenticity." (Shambhala Sun, January 2007. Pg. 52). These represent the views that underlie all Buddhist theory and practice. If a practice contradicts these views, it is not a Buddhist practice.

The first seal is that all conditional things are impermanent. Is there anything in our known universe or in your experience that is permanent and unchanging? We buy a new car and are happy, but that elation wears off and passes away. A family member dies and we are sad. But the sadness dissipates in strength over time. Perhaps it may never disappear, but it is always changing as we adapt to it. When we slow waaaaaay down, we can see our individual thoughts rise and fall as well. Even our sun is slowly dying, and in about 5 billion years will expand into a red giant, whose edge will reach approximately to the edge of the earth, to be followed over time by a slow decline to its end as a white dwarf.

The second seal is that all things are without inherent existence. The key word here is "inherent." The chair in which you sit exists (or else you'd be floating in mid-air!), but it does not do so inherently. By "inherently," we mean independent of all other things. If the chair existed inherently, there would be a quality we call "chairness" that we could identify, that was not dependent on any other phenomena. But look at your chair. It is composed of parts. It has legs, arms, a seat, a back. There is nothing there that you can call "chair" independent of those parts. We are no different. As beings, we have body parts, we have feelings, we have thoughts, we have consciousness. But there is nothing we can find within us that is independent of all other things. There is no independent "self" that we can point to and say, "This is independent of all other things." Everything in us is dependently arisen! Hence, we have no inherent existence either.

The third seal is that Nirvana is perfect peace and happiness. This says that our true nature is perfect peace and happiness, which is only obscured by the defilements, like anger, hatred, greed, and delusion. Hence, if we can eliminate these defilements, our natural peace and happiness will shine forth. This seal actually plays two roles. Not only does it show us that we are already perfect beings, only we just don't know it because we've hidden it beneath a fog of delusion, it also says that we can re-discover this perfect peace and happiness in our lives. And nobody can do it for us. Others can help point out the path, but only we can attain this rediscovery ourselves. I often say that Buddhism is the ultimate optimistic religion, and that is because this seal tells us that regardless of the suffering we feel, regardless of our current faults and challenges, we are truly perfect and are fully capable of realizing that perfection if we only try.

These three seals underlie all other Buddhist principles and practices. They form the basis for Dependent Arising, for mindfulness, for generation of perfect compassion and loving-kindness, for ethical training, for meditation, for generosity, for the Four Noble Truths. And what I find particularly amazing in the Buddha's teachings is that a blind faith in these seals is unnecessary and counterproductive. Rather, the practices are undertaken (perhaps initially motivated by the belief that these seals may be true), and they lead to a direct experience of these truths. Nowhere does the Buddha say, "Believe in these seals, my teachings, and you will be saved." Instead, he said, "Contemplate. Meditate. Discover these truths on your own." I find this last point to be the key essence of Buddhism. Spend your time practicing and experiencing mindfully, not studying for intellectual knowledge or playing mental philosophical gymnastics. While studying can give you knowledge, practicing will give you wisdom.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Guest Blogging at A Pagan Sojourn

This week several fellow writers and I will be guest blogging for Sojourner at A Pagan Sojourn. Four different faiths will be represented on at least three different topics. Here is the guest list:
I'll be cross posting my posts from A Pagan Sojourn to Unknowing Mind, but please stop by A Pagan Sojourn and read about all the interesting traditions represented!

Thanks to Sojourner for offering me this opportunity again.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Hawk, A Simile

From the Sakunagghi Sutta, The Hawk (Access to Insight):
Once a hawk suddenly swooped down on a quail and seized it. Then the quail, as it was being carried off by the hawk, lamented, 'O, just my bad luck and lack of merit that I was wandering out of my proper range and into the territory of others! If only I had kept to my proper range today, to my own ancestral territory, this hawk would have been no match for me in battle.'

'But what is your proper range?' the hawk asked. 'What is your own ancestral territory?'

'A newly plowed field with clumps of earth all turned up.'

So the hawk, without bragging about its own strength, without mentioning its own strength, let go of the quail. 'Go, quail, but even when you have gone there you won't escape me.'

Then the quail, having gone to a newly plowed field with clumps of earth all turned up and climbing up on top of a large clump of earth, stood taunting the hawk, 'Now come and get me, you hawk! Now come and get me, you hawk!'

So the hawk, without bragging about its own strength, without mentioning its own strength, folded its two wings and suddenly swooped down toward the quail. When the quail knew, 'The hawk is coming at me full speed,' it slipped behind the clump of earth, and right there the hawk shattered its own breast.

Watering the Seeds of Compassion

"Now think of the person sitting nearest you as your own child, and you are the mother, embracing, supporting and caring, wanting to help, being concerned." (Ven. Ayya Khema, Shambhala Sun, January 2007. Pg. 62.)

This is part of a wonderful practice of compassion taught in Buddhism. In this meditation, after settling your body and mind, you contemplate your mother, and feel the love and compassion and softness wash over you. As you sit in this field of love, you then consider yourself as the mother, and turn your attention to your child, some other person in your life. You start with friends and relatives, proceed to neutral parties, and eventually you are able to feel the love and protection only a mother has for your enemies. You bathe in this feeling of compassion and loving-kindness, seeing the nature of this wonderful mental seed, planting it deep so that it comes forth naturally in your everyday life. The more you practice in this way, the easier it becomes, and the more you find it surfacing throughout your day. Like all things, there will be ups and downs. But persevere, and water the mental seed of compassion that resides in all of us.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Interfaith Blog Event #4: The Role of Justice

Welcome to the fourth 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:
What role does justice play in the universe?

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

Justice is a flawed concept. Before we can examine why this is the case, we must first understand the depth of this word.

The word "justice" derives from the Latin word justus which, in turn, is based on the word jus, meaning "law, right." (New Oxford American Dictionary). From this etymology, the concept of jus and, therefore, justice, clearly has two underlying premises: (1) A law exists; and (2) Actions can be right (further implying that they can be wrong). For our purposes, "laws" include both societal laws (e.g. Speed limits) and moral laws (e.g. "Do not murder" and "Do not gossip"). Justice, then, is really the administration of the law.

More importantly, however, how do we intuitively view justice? To gain some insight into this question, let's step away from our wordplay for a moment. The Qabalah, more explicitly the Tree of Life, gives us a wonderful tool for this analysis. The Tree of Life is a pictorial representation of the universe that consists of three pillars, the middle of which is a melding of the two extremes of the outer pillars. These outer two pillars are named Severity and Mercy. In other words, according to this model, a continuum exists that spans the entire range between the two poles of Severity and Mercy, perfectly balanced in the Middle Pillar, the Pillar of Mildness. It seems to me that the manner in which we intuitively view and apply justice lies on this Severity/Mercy continuum. When a law is broken (or we are wronged), we view this offense with a backdrop of Severity and Mercy. Maybe we want to effect justice, which connotes punishment; or maybe we forgive the offender, showing him/her mercy. Most often, our response lies somewhere in the middle, in a merging of these two poles such that we punish the offender, but reduce our planned sentence due to some special (merciful) consideration of his circumstance.

Note that we equally apply this approach to justice in our everyday lives as well as in our social justice system. If somebody says something that offends you, what is your most probable response? Generally speaking, people respond initially with anger or defiance, and then either punish the offender in some manner ("How dare you say that to me, you *$%@!"), or forgive him, or some combination of both. Sometimes our applied punishment is even more insidious, like the dreaded silent treatment. Regardless, the common element is the backdrop of Severity/Mercy -- how severely should we punish somebody who has broken "a law," and how merciful should we be?

The debate over capital punishment is a great example of this dualistic approach. Proponents of capital punishment argue that a person who so hideously harms another as to deserve this punishment has given up his right to life. They deem that the punishment be Severe to the utmost degree. However, note that Mercy has begun to show its face in recent history, as we try to make the death as painless as possible. On the contrary, opponents of capital punishment say that we do not have the right to take life in this manner. However, most of these people still view the situation in terms of "sentencing" the criminal with the punishment he deserves. Herein lies the problem with justice.

In our dualistic manner, we see how one person harms another and therefore think he "deserves" some kind of punishment. This is a clear example of wrong view, with ego as its fundamental cause. Any time we think along the lines of "deserving," it is our ego speaking. "I deserve to be treated better" is your ego exerting its self-importance. "He deserves to sit in prison for 10 years" is solely an ego-trip--how do you know exactly what he deserves? "He murdered his neighbor, therefore he deserves to spend his life in prison" is still an ego judgment on another being. Extending this to the sphere of moral law, any God who administers justice or mercifully forgives is acting out of his/her own ego. Of course, such personification of God is inherently limited. But I feel the truth behind the wisdom still holds--applying justice and, therefore, allowing for forgiveness, is wrong view.

Right view, in contrast, consists of compassionate action and directly observable truth. In right view, we recognize that when one man has murdered another, he must be secluded from society for the safety of all. We attempt to rehabilitate the offender because all beings have the right to such fair treatment. Perhaps it will be unsuccessful, in which case that man never gets to leave prison. Perhaps it will be successful, in which case that man is released to rejoin society. In right view, we see that causes conditioned the murderer's actions and, while his actions are not condoned, there is zero judgmentalism. The murderer does not "deserve" to be punished any more than we deserve to die at the end of our lives or to be born at the beginning.

As another example, instead of applying the silent treatment when a loved one does something to us that we interpret as hurtful, right view is recognizing that the other person's actions are based on a complex of causes, which can only warrant a compassionate response. Even if they did the hurtful action "on purpose," causes and conditions in their past are still the only true offender.

Notice the difference in underlying attitude between right view and wrong view. In right view, all response is based in compassion, recognizing the true causes of all behavior. In wrong view, the dualities of Severity and Mercy, or similarly, Justice and Forgiveness, are employed by the ego in judging another's behavior. Therefore, justice is a flawed concept that only perpetuates wrong views of self, wrong views of other, and wrong views of the world in which we live. It seems logical to our minds, and does get criminals off the street, but it's really like a band-aid applied to a deep puncture wound--while the wound may seem to have been treated from the outside, deep within infection festers.

Compassionate action and right view, however, are the medicines for this wound. They treat directly the source of the problem. Instead of succumbing to ego, we ask, "What can I do to help others?" Then we go out of our way to do it. And we do it without thought of ourselves, but only of others. In the case of a dangerous criminal, we seclude them in prison for the sake of protecting others, which seems very similar to the Justice approach. But there truly is a major difference in the underlying attitude behind the same physical act of imprisoning a criminal. And this is where the strength of right view lies: in fertilizing the seeds of compassion and love in the mind, engendering true wisdom and unfettered love of others. Right View is admittedly difficult to develop, especially in our culture, but the results are worth the effort and are necessary to live a life of wisdom.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

What Is Your Focus?

In Buddhism, we speak of the Three Trainings of ethics, concentration, and wisdom. The various practices we employ all fall into these categories. Each is a necessary part of training, and neglect of one will hamper development of the others. For example, when we develop deep powers of concentration, this allows us to deeply penetrate phenomena and our natures. Without deep concentration, we'll get caught up in the flow of our thoughts and thus never attain the wisdom of our true nature.

While of course all practice truly transcends these divisions, these categories, it often helps our mind to consider them in isolation, while keeping alive in the back of our minds how practice in ethics is practice in concentration is practice in wisdom. An especially powerful way of deepening your practice is to devote a week to focus on a single type of practice. That doesn't mean you give up your already-established practice, but you devote a small, manageable amount of time to developing yourself toward whatever end you choose.

Weekly Practice Suggestion:
Pick an area of practice to which you will devote yourself for the next week. Now, recall an experience in your life that truly enlivens this area. Next, construct a simple sentence that you will use to represent your practice area. Finally, pick something that will act as a trigger, something that you naturally encounter regularly, but not extremely frequently, throughout your day. Each time the trigger occurs, take 15 seconds to let go of what you are working on, bring to mind your experience to generate a powerful feeling within you, and say the gatha--the sentence you have constructed--to yourself. Then return to what it was you were doing, letting the brief contemplation stay with you.

For example, if I chose to work on generosity this week, an event might be that I feel a tremendous flow of generosity when I think of a time I bought a special gift for my mother. I can create a gatha: "May I be generous and helpful." And for me, I hear phones ringing about 15 times per day, so that is perfect (I could also choose my incoming email alert, for instance, but that often happens in excess of 50 times per day, too frequently for this particular practice). Now, each time I hear a phone ring, I take a breath and let go of whatever I am working on. I bring to mind buying my mom that special gift and experience the wave of generosity that arises. I then remain in that contemplation for 10 seconds or so, and say to myself, "May I be generous and helpful." I then breathe, and return to my work, retaining the feeling of generosity I have generated.

What practice will you choose? Report back here in the comments section what you pick and how it goes throughout your week.