Saturday, December 15, 2007

Existence of a Personal God

What would it take for you to be convinced
of the existence of a personal God?"

A good friend of mine -- who happens to be a Christian pastor -- asked me this the other day. After giving it some deep thought, I decided to put my conclusions in writing.

While he was raising this question, my friend stated that it was easy for him to believe in a personal God because how can he not believe in someone he has personally met? This experience of "direct knowing" is the evidence to which I attribute the greatest strength -- if someone has personally experienced the effects of gravity, how can one convince him that gravity does not exist?

However, this form of evidence presents a very interesting paradox. How do we explain contradictory "direct knowledge"? In particular, I am thinking of people I have known in the past who had a direct experience of their patron god and matron goddess from their primary pantheon. I am thinking of my friend's experience of directly knowing a single personal God. I am thinking of my own direct experience of the interbeing of us all, how we are each empty of independent existence. I am thinking of Charles Darwin who, in his notebooks, noted that through his studies in the Galapagos, he directly realized that the Christian religion in which he was raised -- indeed, he had been pursuing studies to become a clergyman at the time -- was false; he knew that the existence of such a God was a delusion.

It's my feeling that this paradox itself lies at the core of our absolute nature. Our physical minds are finite. So while we can enhance our five physical senses and our sixth intuitive sense, our human minds simply cannot grasp the totality of all that is. Hence, we're all experiencing some aspect of absolute truth. But it is egotistical and delusional to believe that you can encompass the entirety of the absolute; it is similarly egotistical and delusional to believe that your "direct experience" is completely true and all other contradictory "direct experiences" are false. You cannot be inside another person's mind; hence, it is simply impossible to directly compare your internal experience to another's.

Returning to the original question of what would convince me of the existence of a personal God, my answer is: Nothing. My personal religious experiences of emptiness and interbeing lie in opposition to the existence of a personal God as defined by the Christian faiths. Furthermore, were I to have an experience such as my friend's of a personal god, that would simply be an experience of another aspect of truth, one that I feel lies on a lower organizational level than emptiness and interbeing.

Many people see our world and cannot fathom how such a place could have arisen without the influence of a Guiding Hand. I side with Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin when they share their utter awe at how nature has evolved through natural selection through the eons. A personal God is not necessary for this process to occur as we've observed, so I see no need to superimpose one over life's systems.

Many people think about the beginning of the universe and cannot fathom how it could have begun without God. The problem here is one of perspective. Our experience of time is linear -- beginning, middle, end -- and we naturally think that such a linear system must apply to the universe too. But given the span of billions of years lying between us and the big bang -- not to mention the nature of singularities in general -- we cannot know for certain what preceded the generation of our universe. One could propose the idea of a God. One could also say that there never was a beginning; generation and destruction may be cycling continuously without beginning or end.

I can hear the arguments already: "But that doesn't make any sense! How could time possibly cycle continuously without a beginning or end? Everything has a beginning. Infinite time is illogical!"

My answer to that is to ask a few counter-questions: how logical is it that time has "shape"? How logical is it that time is inextricably woven into space to form a continuum? How logical is it that an electron can never possibly be said to be at any particular location around a nucleus, but can only be said to be probabilistically located at any one point at any one time around a nucleus? How logical is it that time actually slows down as one's speed approaches that of light? My point is that many of our quantum and relativistic findings defy the limited logic of our minds. I once explained the idea of Schrodinger's Cat to my dad, who simply refused to believe it because it didn't make any sense. That doesn't make the quantum laws it illustrates any less true, though.

The fact is that we cannot know the beginning of nature. We cannot know if it has a beginning at all, regardless of what seems logical. We can conjecture all we want, but such musings are ultimately fruitless and of little use. It is infinitely more important that we accept the truth we have been lucky enough to "directly know," and accept the truth that others have been lucky enough to "directly know." It is infinitely more important to engage in whatever spiritual practice applies to your "direct knowledge," and to dedicate that practice to the benefit of all others and the world around you.

Nothing can convince me that a personal God exists. In the same way, I know nothing can convince my friend that his personal God does not exist. I'd never even dream of trying.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Arther Miller on Morality

Interesting quote:

It is impossible for most men to conceive of a morality without sin as of an earth without 'sky' ...the concept of unity, in which positive and negative are attributes of the same force, in which good and evil are relative, ever-changing, and always joined to the same phenomenon--such a concept is still reserved to the physical sciences and to the few who have grasped the history of ideas.

- Arthur Miller, The Crucible

Saturday, September 22, 2007

True Threat of Terrorism

Bill over at Integral Options Cafe posted this today about terrorism and the true threat it poses to our nation. Thanks for posting Bill!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Spirituality vs. Religion

In a recent conversation with my friend over at Jesusfollowers Journal, he had responded to a comment of mine regarding spirituality and religion with the following thought (I'm paraphrasing):

The difference between spirituality and religion is subtle, and arguable.

Actually, there is a very sharp distinction between spirituality and religion, spirituality being the much more important of the two. In order to describe spirituality, let me borrow a term utilized by C. S. Lewis. Spirituality is mere compassion, mere love, mere patience, mere forgiveness, mere harmony, mere concern for others' well-being and happiness.

"Mere" is a key term here, and the primary reason why spirituality trumps religion. The true purpose in life is to develop untainted compassion for all beings, love others as yourself, be patient, caring, helpful, and calm. Work toward others' happiness, and thereby your own happiness as well. By "mere" I mean "essence" or "nature." When one practices spirituality, one practices reaching toward the heart of true compassion, true love, true forgiveness. To be able to display mere compassion for another is not just to be compassionate toward another, but to BE compassion itself. Touching that true nature, that suchness, that essence, that mere-ness of compassion goes beyond just surrounding oneself in compassion. Instead, one becomes the heart of compassion altogether. That is the practice of spirituality.

Religion is different. Religion is concerned with faith in one tradition or another, with an acceptance of some definition of reality. The practice of religion is not necessary to the practice of spirituality. That phrase is so important, let me say it again.

The practice of religion is not necessary to the practice of spirituality.

Of course practicing the right religion for you can enhance the development of your spirituality. For people who truly practice their faith with their entire being, maintaining openness and love for others, religion enhances their compassion, their love, their patience. For many people religion seems to have the opposite effect, fostering intolerance, conflict, and aggression. The point here is that we have a matrix of possibilities:

Spiritual and ReligiousSpiritual and Non-Religious
Non-Spiritual and ReligiousNon-Spiritual and Non-Religious

I think the upper left quadrant--spiritual and religious--is the ideal, not because it is inherently better than the others (which it's not), but because people in that quadrant tend to have the greatest number of tools available to them to live well for themselves and for others. Not only can they draw on their spirituality, they can draw on the lessons of their religion to help them improve their spirituality.

The spiritual and non-religious person is in the second best position--second only due to the fact that they do not have the myths and practices of a religion to use toward developing their spiritual qualities. However, this by no means reflects on the people falling into this category. Many spiritual and non-religious people are much more compassionate, loving, caring individuals than those in the upper left quadrant.

The lower left quadrant comes next. This is stereotypically the quadrant of fundamentalists. To have religious belief, but to not have that reflect into your life as a stronger level of compassion, love, tolerance, acceptance, and patience shows that you are off-track. Any religious practice that does not result in increasing compassion, tolerance, forgiveness, love, patience, and caring is either (a) worthless and harmful, or (b) being practiced incorrectly.

The lower right quadrant is last, and stereotypically houses materialistic, egotistic individuals, people for whom caring and love are a foreign concept.

Bringing us full circle, we all must work to develop our spiritual qualities. If we find a religion that suits our nature, we can use its teachings to further our development. But if not, that's ok. We don't have to drape a mental model over reality in order to develop our spiritual qualities. We can simply practice mere compassion, mere love, mere patience, mere acceptance, and thereby touch, become, converse with, see, or merge with God--whichever of those understandings resonates with your being.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Interfaith Blog Event #7: Gender in Divinity

Welcome to the seventh Interfaith Blog Event! In each installment of this series, which we're hoping to do on a regular basis, we'll explore a single topic across five different religious traditions. I am 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/UU perspective. Jeff joins us from Druid Journal, and Matt joins us from Journeys In Between as an Evangelical Christian who borrows from esoteric movements like Wicca, Neo-Gnosticism, Yoga and Zen.

The topic we'll be discussing today is the following:
What does gender have to do with divinity?
(Links will be provided as they become available)
[Jon's Essay] [Sojourner's Essay] [Jeff's Essay] [Matt's Essay]

Before we dive into the role of gender in divinity, we need to understand divinity itself in Buddhism -- a religion without a creator god. When this life ends, our Karma conditions our next rebirth in one of six realms. The middle realm is the human realm, considered to be the most fortunate rebirth because it is especially suited for spiritual practice due to (1) human life is wonderful and happy, (2) we have the awareness and capacity to practice, and (3) we suffer, which motivates us to practice, giving us an experiential reason to practice.

The three lower levels (realms of animals, hungry ghosts, and hell beings) are less conducive to spiritual practice due to reduced mental capacity to practice and the constant bombardment of suffering. The two fortunate levels above the human realm, while realms of beauty, bliss, happiness, and long life, are also less conducive to practice because there is little motivation without suffering. These two realms are called the realm of the gods and the realm of the demigods (or devas).

These gods, goddesses, and devas -- what one might consider divinity -- deserve respect and love, just as do all other beings in all the realms of existence. In this context, gender is meaningless. Men and women can both achieve rebirth in a heavenly realm, and such rebirth can result in male or female manifestation. Gender does not convey any greater or lesser importance in the heavenly realms, just as it does not convey any greater or lesser importance here on earth, where we're all equal.

Closer to the Western mind's understanding of divinity are the numerous buddhas and bodhisattvas. Buddhas are people -- just like the historical Shakyamuni Buddha -- who attained enlightenment. There are countless such buddhas and bodhisattvas who continue to take rebirth to fulfill their vow to liberate all beings. Just like the innumerable gods and devas who, despite their fortunate lives, are still subject to the wheel of rebirth, the countless buddhas and bodhisattvas deserve our respect, compassion, and honor too. However, these buddhas, having attained the ineffable ultimate, also act as models for us to follow on our spiritual path, and we offer to them our humble thankfulness for their generosity, compassion, and wisdom.

While all buddhas have attained complete enlightenment in that they have perfected the wondrous qualities of generosity, compassion, wisdom, and love, there are several buddhas to whom we give special significance as manifestations of particular qualities of buddhahood. Of these manifestations, some are male, some are female. In that sense, gender is again meaningless in divinity in Buddhism.

In Buddhism, gender is simply a result of Karmic propensity toward a rebirth subject to the differences in gender that have evolved over the billions of years this universe has been in existence. There is no spiritual difference between man and woman. Both have, in their heart, perfect Buddha-nature, and both sexes can attain enlightenment using the gifts inherent in the evolved male and female gender dispositions.

I'd like to end this essay with a story. In an earlier universe, many billions of years ago, there lived a princess named Yeshe Dawa. Through her own personal experience, she became a devoted practitioner who took complete refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Through her practice, Yeshe Dawa developed perfect love and compassion for every single being in existence, without bias. Rather than being consumed by the luxuries of her royal family, she vowed to devote every single minute of her current and future lives toward a single goal -- the liberation of all beings. It is said that she vowed to liberate millions of beings each day before breakfast, millions more before lunch, and an additional million before going to sleep at night. Because of this life mission and the devotion with which she pursued her mission, she was called Arya Tara, which means “noble liberator.” When several religious authorities suggested to Yeshe Dawa that she work toward a male rebirth in the future, she refused. She noted that many Buddhas had already manifested as males, so she vowed to attain Buddhahood in a woman's body, and then to continuously return as a female in her quest to liberate all beings.

Through her exalted practice, Princess Yeshe Dawa became Tara, the Buddha who symbolizes enlightened activity. May we all follow in Tara's footsteps and vow to help everyone see the untainted, unsullied perfection that lies at the heart of their very being.

Thubten Chodron. How to Free Your Mind: Tara the Liberator. Snow Lion Publications. Ithaca, New York. 2005.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The World is a Level Playing Field

The Way I See It #185:
A valuable lesson I've learned from making music is to never let anyone intimidate me. Every student, celebrity, CEO, and math teacher has experienced love, loneliness, fear, and embarrassment at some point. To understand this is to level an often very lopsided playing field.
-Anna Nalick

I read this quote on my Starbucks cup this morning, and it gave me pause. There is no ultimate difference between any of us. We all want happiness; we all do our best to avoid suffering. We have all experienced the pain of loss, the bliss of love, the pull of attachment. What we need to realize is that the person sitting next to us on the train is no different from us. The high-powered businessman leading the seminar is no different from us. The homeless man sitting on the bench at the bus stop is no different from us. The world really is a level playing field. If we think otherwise, our delusion is to blame.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Interfaith Blog Event #6: Role of Faith

Welcome to the sixth 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 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/UU perspective. And as a special treat, we've added two new bloggers to our event! Jeff joins us from Druid Journal, and Matt joins us from Journeys In Between. Jeff, as I'm sure you can tell from the title of his blog, writes from a Druidic perspective, while Matt has the following to say about his perspective (copied from his blog): "[I am an] Evangelical Christian asking what I can learn from esoteric movements like Wicca, NeoGnosticism, Yoga and Zen - and what spirited wisdom Jesus may have to offer in response."

The topic we'll be discussing today is the following:
What is your view regarding the meaning and the role of faith? What importance does it play in your community and in your daily life?
(Links will be provided as they become available)
[Jon's Essay] [Sojourner's Essay] [Jeff's Essay] [Matt's Essay]

The English language is a curious thing. In this question, what do we mean by “faith?” We can speak of faith as a noun, as a synonym for religion itself. We can also consider this question in terms of the verb faith, as in “to have faith” in something. I am going to focus on the verb interpretation, and will touch on aspects of the noun interpretation.

Faith has a mixed reputation in Buddhism. It is common for Western Buddhists to eschew faith, to say that Buddhism transcends faith through critical analysis, direct observation, and testing. In the East, however, many Buddhists are falling into the same trap as many Western Christians, that of relying 100% on faith for their beliefs. Stated another way, many Eastern Buddhists (and Western Christians) are raised by their parents in a certain religion, and they are remaining in that religion throughout their lives without ever actually critically examining the beliefs that they have been effectively brainwashed with in their youth.

I argue, however, that these Eastern Buddhists have fallen away from the Buddha's true message, and that these Western Buddhists are trying to separate themselves so completely from their predominantly Christian roots that they have overshot the Buddha's true teaching and landed at the extreme of faithlessness. Buddhism truly does incorporate faith in its practice, but it is a particular kind of “deserved” faith that the Buddha taught.

The Buddha's primary teaching on faith was presented in the Kalama Sutra. In this Sutra, the Buddha said to the Kalamas, the residents of the town of Kesaputta:
So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" -- then you should abandon them.'

Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them.

Without understanding the context of the Buddha's teaching, it is easy to see how Western Buddhists can interpret this teaching as an endorsement of faithlessness. However, as I've stated many times in my essays, the Buddha always taught through the use of “Skillful Means,” meaning that he did not “preach” the exact truth (which is actually an impossible act given the conceptual nature of words and thoughts), but rather taught such that his message could be understood and implemented by his specific audience, bringing them closer to true realization. As an example, it would have been pointless to discuss the deeper nature of Dependent Arising when his audience did not yet understand or skillfully practice fundamental mindfulness. So in order to put the Buddha's teachings into context, we have to understand the Kalamas. In this Sutra, the Kalamas ask the Buddha:
Lord, there are some priests & contemplatives who come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. And then other priests & contemplatives come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. They leave us absolutely uncertain & in doubt: Which of these venerable priests & contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?

The Kalamas have been told too many “truths” and are confused as to who to believe and what to follow. Therefore, given their particular situation, the exact teaching they require to help them on the Buddhist path is to emphasize the role of personal testing of all such teachings.

In other Sutras, the Buddha spoke of the Five Spiritual Faculties, which are the primary virtues that arise as spiritual training is undertaken: faith, vigor, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. Given the well-known importance Buddhism places on mindfulness and wisdom, to put faith in the same list as these two “powerhouse” virtues really emphasizes its importance in Buddhist training.

Ultimately, what this tells us is that faith is an important practice in Buddhism, but for it to have any value, it must be applied skillfully, in conjunction with constant testing and questioning, and not unskillfully as in blind faith. All this being said, what is a skillful use of faith?

Let's consider the first Paramita (Perfection) of generosity. There are many examples of the Buddha's emphasis on the value of generosity. However, in Buddhism, one should not take these teachings as Gospel. Instead, one should initially have enough faith in the Dharma to undertake the practice of generosity for oneself. Here is where the unique approach of Buddhism really shines. If one had had complete faith in the Buddha as some divine, infallible deity, then he would be biased in his interpretation of the results of his practice of generosity, and he could never learn for himself whether generosity was truly beneficial or detrimental. But if he approaches the practice of generosity with a Beginner's Mind, open to all experiences without reservation or bias, then he can critically examine the causes and results of generosity, and can come to his own direct experience of the wisdom of generosity on the Buddhist path. At this point, faith is no longer required, as one knows for oneself the truth of the matter.

Let's take another example--the Precept (ethic) of not lying. Again, this is not a teaching we should take as infallible truth as uttered by the Awakened One. Instead, we have enough faith to test the precept for ourselves. If we had treated such a teaching as Gospel, we would be unable to see the true causes, conditions, and results of lying, due to our blind faith. Is this bad? Yes, it is, because with such faith, we will be blind to the situation in which lying is actually the least harmful, most skillful response. But in our unskewed, critical examination (approached with Beginner's Mind), we will be open to the conditions surrounding this precept, and will be better able to apply our wisdom in life situations.

I've discussed faith as an “early prerequisite” of practice, but does faith play any other role in Buddhism? Yes, it does.

Consider that Buddhism is a complete system of total life training. Particularly in our earlier stages of training, we are incapable of attending to all aspects of the path at once. Faith thus plays an important role in the aspects of the path in which we have not yet accumulated enough wisdom to act naturally out of love, compassion, and nonviolence.

As an example, you wake up one morning, walk into your living room, and notice a spider on the wall. To your eye, that's one BIG spider, and you're scared. You start to panic--you need to get that spider out of your home, fast! Your first instinct is to kill the spider. As this is your first instinct, you likely have not yet awakened to the wisdom in the Buddhist practice of nonaggression and not harming other beings. But before you smash it with your shoe, you recall the first Precept: “Do not harm, but cherish all life.” Here faith comes into play. You haven't yet attained a level of wisdom through testing that tells you in your heart that killing this creature would be an unskillful response. However, your faith in the Buddha's teaching gives you the strength to “try out” his teaching and follow his advice of non-harm, even though you don't truly know for yourself that this is the better course of action. So you capture the spider in a cup and release him outside in the grass.

In this example, faith has led you to a skillful response in a situation in which you were not yet able to foresee the best course of action for yourself. Ultimately, the purpose of Buddhist training is to point toward your true nature, and the true nature of everyone and everything around you. When you waver, Buddhist training gently guides you back onto the path of practice. Blind faith has no value in Buddhism, as it harms your practice by dulling your testing, questioning mind. Skillful faith, however, helps guide you along the path and gives you the strength to test and question and observe.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Interfaith Event Question Re: Forgiveness

Jon wrote in a comment:
I am particularly curious why forgiveness is seen as so important to Buddhists when it is peripheral (at best) philosophically to them.

I consider the answer to this question in the second half of my essay, but in short, Buddhism is a path, not a doctrinal religion. As such, it is only the benefits of a practice that define its importance to any one person, not its philosophical ground. A good example are the various kinds of meditation practice existing in Buddhist traditions. There is concentration on the breath, contemplation of koans, contemplation of hwadu, loving-kindness meditation, mindfulness meditation, meditation upon death, etc. There is no universal doctrine that says, "You must meditate on loving-kindness in order to progress spiritually." Rather, we must use the practices that work the best for us on the path. I might already exhibit a strong degree of loving-kindness in my life, but maybe I lack focus, so concentration is the ideal practice for me. For someone who struggles with showing compassion, perhaps contemplation of loving-kindness is a better primary practice.

And here is where the strength of a path becomes evident. Practices that otherwise have zero philosophical basis in a tradition may still be beneficial for other reasons to a practitioner. Consider prayer. In Buddhism, we have no creator god to which to pray. However, prayer is a practice that can still be beneficial to Buddhists. A wonderful example in the May 2007 issue of Shambhala Sun magazine instructs that before opening a new email, one can center oneself by pausing, and reciting a gatha, such as, "May I open this email and respond for the benefit of myself and for all beings." We are not asking for divine assistance in this action--there is none to be had. Rather, we are opening our hearts and our minds to loving-kindness and compassion. Through such, we can ensure that we will read and respond to this person with a mind steeped in compassion and love rather than the scattered, unfocused mindset that is often the result of the rush of everyday life. Prayer has no philosophical ground in Buddhism, as Western apologetics would say. But it has a solid ground on Eastern religious paths in that its practice results in many effects that are easily seen to be beneficial to the path we follow.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Interfaith Blog Event #5: The Role of Forgiveness

Welcome to the fifth 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 the concept and application of interpersonal forgiveness play in your spiritual tradition?
(Links will be provided as they become available)
[Jon's Essay] [Sojourner's Essay]

At one time, in a life prior to that in which he became the Enlightened One, the soon-to-be-Buddha was a Bodhisattva named Khantivadi. One day, he visited the city of Benares and sat to meditate under a tree. While he was meditating, the King passed him with his harem and, having seen the Bodhisattva, interrupted his meditation to ask him what virtue he was practicing. The Bodhisattva replied that his practice was that of forbearance. The King, of the opinion that virtuous practice was worthless and a weakness, summoned his executioner and instructed him to cut off the hands and feet of the Bodhisattva. As the executioner did so, the King asked the Bodhisattva what value his practice of forbearance was now that his limbs were being cut off. The Bodhisattva replied that his forbearance and other virtues were not in his limbs but in his mind. He extended his loving-kindness to the King. The King, angered by his failure to upset the Bodhisattva, kicked him in the stomach and left him lying, without hands and feet, on the forest floor.

Soon thereafter, the King's minister heard of the King's cruel actions and hurried to the side of the Bodhisattva. Seeing him lying in the dirt, dying, the minister bowed deeply and said to him, "Venerable one, none of us agreed to this cruel act of the King and we are all sorrowing over what has been done to you by that devilish man. We ask you to curse the King but not us." The Bodhisattva responded, "May that king who has caused my hands and feet to be cut off, as well as you, live long in happiness." Having spoken thus, he died.

(The Elimination of Anger. Ven. K. Piyatissa Thera.)

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the verb "to forgive" has the following definition: "Stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw, or mistake." In the story I related above about one of the Buddha's past lives, we saw a most extreme example of cruelty toward the then-Bodhisattva. Such cruelty easily qualifies as an "offense, flaw, or mistake." And yet, the Bodhisattva did not respond in anger, nor experience any resentfulness. Therefore, in an ultimate sense, forgiveness plays no role in Buddhism, as anger or resentfulness toward someone for an offense does not occur.

Through observation of ourselves and our true nature, we learn that anger is solely the result of deluded thinking. Why do we feel anger or resentfulness when someone offends us? We experience such feelings because we think some combination of the following: "How dare they do that to me," "They should know better," and "Why me?" Slowing down and looking deeply at your anger will reveal the obvious truth that anger arises based on these factors. But it's not just the arising of these causes, but our attachment to them, that causes anger to escalate. Let's examine what happens when we get really angry. A person does something, and immediately our minds respond by flooding our system with adrenaline and thinking, "How DARE he do that to ME!" That thought consumes our minds--we become attached. We think it over and over, which stokes the flames of our anger. Soon we are white-hot. When our practice is strong, we can notice the initial cause of anger as it arises, and immediately douse the embers, as we know through our experience and deep looking that the only result of anger is to cause harm to us and harm to others. As we perfect our wisdom, anger and resentfulness do not arise at all, as in the case of the Bodhisattva above. Therefore, without the arising of anger or resentfulness, forgiveness has no relevance, as is clear from its definition.

All that being said, however, interpersonal forgiveness plays a very important role in Buddhism. The vast majority of us still become angry or resentful of others when we are wronged. In Buddhism, we speak of the three defilements of anger, greed, and delusion. These three defilements poison our minds and are the underlying causes of all suffering and the primary impediments to true love and compassion. Therefore, it is our primary practice as Buddhists to eradicate these defilements from our minds.

Since Buddhism is a path, not a dogmatic religion, it values any practice that will help one proceed along the path toward eliminating suffering and perfecting wisdom and compassion--even if that practice must ultimately be let go of after achieving its relative purpose. Forgiveness is such a practice. Even though, as I've explained above, forgiveness has no absolute relevance (i.e. after anger and resentfulness have been eliminated from the mind), it carries extreme importance on the Buddhist path in that it helps us eliminate suffering and perfect our wisdom and compassion. In Buddhism, we use the analogy of "seeds" being planted in the mind. We respond in anger because seeds of anger have been planted by our past actions (karma). For example, as children we watch our parents respond to certain things in anger. We love and respect our parents, and thereby we plant a seed of anger in our minds. Perhaps we try responding angrily ourselves, and thereby plant another seed. Each and every time we allow a seed of anger to sprout, we also plant another seed. The further we allow anger to escalate when it does sprout, the more seeds are planted. Hence, any practice that will help us to recognize anger early in the process and arrest its escalation will help us plant fewer and fewer seeds of anger in our unconscious. Forgiveness is such a practice.

Let's examine why this is so. Let's say our spouse forgets to pay an important bill. We notice the unpaid bill on the desk two days after it is due, and anger arises because we connect the unpaid bill to a worsening of our credit rating, a late payment fee, and our spouse's irresponsibility. A seed of anger planted previously has sprouted, and we now have two choices. We can choose to attach to the "results" of the unpaid bill, and let them stew in our minds, which will escalate our anger. We will eventually confront our spouse, and our anger will make such confrontation hostile and hurtful, in addition to planting further seeds of anger that will sprout in the future. We have a second choice of response, however. We can choose to forgive our spouse for this mistake, recognizing that she did not forget on purpose, but due to stress at work or some other similar cause. When we truly forgive our spouse, our anger immediately ceases. Then when we confront our spouse, we do so out of love and compassion, rather than anger. Forgiveness, therefore, is a beautiful Buddhist practice with many wonderful results: it stops the poison of anger in its tracks; it stops the personal suffering anger causes us; it protects us from causing harm to others when we act out of anger; it trains us to recognize and transcend anger earlier and earlier in the process; it prevents us from planting additional seeds of anger; and it teaches us how to act out of pure compassion and love.

Therefore, interpersonal forgiveness is a practice with a very important role in practical Buddhism. Eventually we will reach the point at which we have eliminated anger and, hence, the need for forgiveness. But until that time, forgiveness is a spiritual practice with innumerable benefits to all beings.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Subtle Stress and Sensation

From The Strategy of a Peaceful Mind (Ajaan Suwat Suvaco. Trans. by Thanissaro Bhikkhu):
Stress, for instance, is a noble truth. It's right there in front of you. Why don't you become disenchanted with it? Because you don't see it, don't see the cause from which it comes. Or when you see the cause, you don't see its connection to stress. Why is that? Because delusion gets in the way. You see pretty sights, hear lovely sounds, smell nice aromas, taste good flavors, and then you fall for them. You get carried away and grasp after them, thinking that you've acquired something. As for the things you don't yet have, you want to acquire them. Once you acquire them, you fall for them and get all attached and entangled. This is the origination of suffering. When these things are inconstant, they stop being peaceful. They become a turmoil because they're inconstant all the time.

1-Minute Contemplation: What pretty sights, lovely sounds, nice aromas, good flavors, and sensual textures have you experienced recently? Carry yourself back to that experience. When the sensation ended, what was your experience? Look deeply at your response. There was perhaps a thankfulness for the opportunity to experience such a wonderful sensation. Was there any longing? Perhaps a twinge of "missing?" Or a very slight desire to feel the sensation again?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

He Turned His Awareness to What Was Before Him

"After crossing his legs and adjusting his body, he turned his awareness to what was before him." (Pine, 2001. Pg. 1)

After the Buddha had finished eating his meal, he sat on the appointed seat to begin his teaching to the full assembly of bhikshus and fearless bodhisattvas. Just like the first part of the first chapter I discussed here, this sentence of the Diamond Sutra is full of meaning. Before beginning his teaching, the Buddha sat cross-legged on his seat and focused simply on that which was before him. Such mental composition is a model for our actions.

The Buddha was about to convey that which is now considered to be his principal exposition of emptiness. One might say that his next act subsequent to sitting down was going to be one of the most important of his life (given the vital importance of emptiness in the Buddhist tradition). Notice that he did not fret, did not roll his mental reel to practice his speech, did not look about him haphazardly. Rather, he "turned his awareness to what was before him." This is a wonderful teaching. No matter what we are about to do, even if it is potentially the most important thing in our lives, we can do no better than to bring our attention to the present moment--in time and place--and ground our thoughts, words, and actions on this foundation.

Sometimes it is easier to remember to bring our practice to such momentous occasions than to the everyday, seemingly unimportant actions such as shopping for groceries or talking to our spouse. But if it is important to turn our awareness to what is before us prior to a very important act, it is doubly so for our common actions. Such actions provide us many more opportunities to bring our mindfulness to bear on all aspects of our lives. And if we are capable of attending to the most meaningless action with the full force of our attention, imagine how much more powerful such attention will be when applied to critical events.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Our Life is the Life of a Buddha

A synopsis of part of chapter 1 of the Diamond Sutra:
While dwelling outside the city of Shravasti, as per his usual routine, the Buddha put on his outer robe, took up his begging bowl, and entered the city. After begging for food, and eating the city-dwellers' offerings of rice, he returned to his forest home. He put away his bowl and his outermost robe, washed his feet, and arranged himself on his cushion to begin his teaching.

In the Buddha's time, monks routinely obtained their meals by begging for food from householders (non-monastics). This practice served several beneficial purposes. For monastics, this practice taught them humility. Additionally, they learned to be thankful for the food they received, and it gave them the opportunity to practice non-attachment, as they learned to appreciate whatever food was given them. Begging for meals benefited the layperson as well, who was given the opportunity to practice generosity.

At first glance, this initial chapter of the Diamond Sutra might seem to be just setting the stage for the real teaching to come. But if we view it in that way, we miss the foremost lesson of this sutra. What actions do we see the Buddha performing in this opening chapter? He gets dressed, he obtains food, he eats, he puts his possessions away after returning home, and he washes. In other words, the daily actions of a Buddha do not differ from the daily actions of any one of us!

In the Ten Oxherding Pictures, created during the Sung Dynasty (1126 - 1279) in China as a depiction of the Buddhist path, the first picture is of a person searching for the ox. He walks down a path, and the ox is nowhere to be seen. In the second through ninth pictures, he locates, pursues, struggles with, tames, and eventually rides the ox. The final picture shows the ox herder walking down a path, the ox nowhere to be seen. The first and the last pictures convey the same basic image--the same teaching as that of the first chapter of the Diamond Sutra.

Therefore, while engaging in our daily practice, we need to realize that our true nature is that of a buddha. After attaining Awakening, it is not as if we suddenly don't have to eat or wash or walk. On the contrary, our external responsibilities and actions remain the same. The difference is in the mind guiding the actions. Instead of entering the city and becoming distracted by its many charms, we notice and appreciate the wonders of the city, and avoid attaching to them. Instead of eating our meal, distracted to the point of barely even tasting the wonderful flavors of the food, we eat in mindfulness, thankful for the opportunity to eat this meal, even while engaging our companions socially. Instead of walking with our minds bouncing between current events, the way we handled a meeting with our boss, and what we plan on doing later, we walk with a steady mind, applying it toward a purposefully chosen end.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Diamond Sutra: A Study

I am beginning a focused study of the Diamond Sutra, one of the primary sutras in the Prajna Paramita wisdom literature in Mahayana Buddhism. I am going to use two translations of the text. One is by Tom Graham (originally by Master Hsing Yun) in the book, Describing the Indescribable. The other is by Red Pine in his famous book, The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom. It is my hope to spend the next several months or more focusing on successive chapters of this sutra, both from textual and experiential perspectives. I will, of course, write about my study here. I hope you enjoy the journey as much as I expect to.

A Renaissance Mind

Sorry for the lack of posts here over the last month. I haven't had much time outside of school and work to maintain a regular writing schedule. However, I have made some very interesting observations. Over the last several years, a friend and I have often discussed how we feel mentally "sluggish," compared with the acuity we maintained when immersed in engineering coursework in college.

Now, two semesters into my Ph.D. program (electrical engineering), I notice a significant difference in my mental agility. My thinking has greater clarity; I've noticed that my mental "pictures" are more focused and sharp. And I attribute this improvement to my engineering studies.

There are side effects to this work, though. As I focus more on engineering principles and analytics, the part of my mind that writes seems to be taking a vacation. Leonardo Da Vinci, that great Renaissance thinker, accumulated hundreds of journals, while at the same time generating brilliant engineering designs, painting, sculpting, etc. How was he able to tap into the parts of his mind that excelled at mathematic principles, and then paint a masterpiece and record his unique observations of the natural world?

I'd love to hear others' experiences on this topic. Have you been successful in the mental agility displayed by Da Vinci? How? Have you too noticed that it's a struggle to get seemingly disparate parts of your mind to function optimally?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

How Much is Too Much? How Much is Too Little?

Very often, we want to attain the perfect state of mind, the perfect peace. We strive to handle a situation in the perfect way. We want our relationships to be perfect, and we want our careers to be perfect. Can we attain perfection? Sometimes. For athletes, something akin to perfection is being "in the zone." It's a state in which everything seems to be moving in slow motion, and you can do no wrong. But what can we do in other areas of life? How can we seek perfection?

A better question is, "What am I doing right now?" Right now, I'm writing. Some days, words flow easily. Other days--unfortunately quite common for me over the last couple weeks--I find it very hard to write. But both of these experiences have causes; it cannot be otherwise. Logically speaking, if I could arrange it such that all of the causes that cause me to write easily and well are operating when I sit down to write, and all of the causes that cause me to feel blocked are not operative, then there is only one possible result: I will write easily and well. The Buddha taught us that we can accomplish this. We are capable of this. We just have to do the work. And the work is mindfulness.

So when we're working on a project and we're getting frustrated, mindfulness is noticing that we're frustrated, then pushing that out of the way and bringing our minds to thoughts of peace, right? Wrong. Repression does not uproot the seeds of frustration because if we repress the emotion, what have we learned? Maybe we can force ourselves to feel peaceful--that does actually work some of the time--but we won't have moved any closer to knowing the true causes of our frustration. Mindfulness is noticing that we're frustrated. Then we notice how that feels specifically in the body. We acknowledge whether the feelings are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We see them simply for what they are. We don't interpret the bodily sensations or feelings as good or bad. They are simply feelings, indicators of the frustration. By such "simple" practice--and I put simple in quotes because most of the time it sure doesn't feel simple--we will come to naturally know the causes of the frustration. Once we know the true causes, and have deeply realized for ourselves the skillfulness or unskillfulness of "frustration," we can choose to generate those causes, or avoid generating them.

When we experience anything, the question to ask is, "What am I doing right now?" When we are not being perfect, which is most of the time, we are being given a gift. We have the opportunity to look at ourselves and see what, specifically, we are doing right now, and how much of it, specifically, we are doing. And by simply observing the body, observing the feelings, observing the mind, we learn whether we are doing too much or too little. Only when we intimately know "too much" and "too little" can we follow the Middle Path.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Making Good Causes

"It's a matter of making causes. If the causes are good, the result is bound to be good, because all things are born of causes." (Being Dharma, Ajahn Chah)

1-Minute Contemplation: Look back over the last day. What happened to you? Seek to find the causes operative in your life over the past day. Rest assured that you won't find them all--life is too complex to pull that off. But to see even one when we saw none before is a step down the right path.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Why Does Time Seem to Go Faster as We Age?

"Where did the day go? Five minutes ago I was waking up at eight o'clock, and now it's nine pm and I haven't gotten a single thing done."

Why is it that life roars by faster and faster as we age? Think back to childhood. It seemed like we had time to do everything we wanted when we were children. I can't recall ever being pressed for time, nor worrying that I wouldn't be able to get a task done. In adult life, admittedly, there are many more demands for our time. Not only do we have our hobbies, but now work demands our time, as do responsibilities such as house cleaning, laundry, yard work, home repairs, and cooking. So while the number of hours in a day has not changed, the number of things we try to squeeze into our waking hours has. And yet I still have days where I accomplish responsibility after responsibility, respond to emails, read for an appreciable time, write a short essay, play a game of chess, and still have time to meditate and spend the evening with my fiance. How can we have more days like that? The answer is intention.

On those amazing days like I described above, I find that a clear intention--all too often unconsciously set--carries me through. I say "unconsciously set" because while sometimes I consciously state my intention with each new activity, many times I only notice when reflecting back on my day how intentional everything was. I observe after-the-fact that as I finished the laundry, I confidently decided to meditate for 20 minutes. After that, I resolutely chose to write for an hour.

How does this compare to a "normal" day, when we seem so pressed for time? On these days, we tend to go about our day intention-less. It's really easy to move through life without intention. We have this vague mental construct of our tasks, and as we proceed from one to the next, there is no clear delineation between them. Further complications arise in that we are usually thinking about tasks 5, 6, and 7 while we are working on task 4, and occasionally our minds drift back to task 3.

On the contrary, when we set a specific intention before beginning a task: "I will sit and write for 1 hour," this provides a structure, a frame, within which our minds can work. With resolution, we place our minds in an optimal state for completing the task in front of us. We've noted our goal, defined the specific conditions for its outcome, and know our timeframe. Given this structure, our minds are assured that once the time for this task is up, they will be allowed to think about the other tasks--this helps us be mindful and focused on the current activity. Additionally, once we have completed this task, we then set our intention for the next task, and this provides a clear boundary between activities, to which our mind seems to respond very well. This "break in the action" allows our mind to regenerate, to rest momentarily and switch gears to function optimally on the new task.

From a Buddhist perspective, such conscious intention-setting allows us to break our karmic habits and choose our next actions with mindfulness. When we allow all our activities to run together, it is extremely easy to get caught up in our habitual thoughts and actions because we haven't given any direct instructions to our mind otherwise. However, by setting our intention, we have set the stage to see our habitual responses to life and, therefore, have the ability to change our response to one we deem more skillful. Setting our intention before each activity is truly an act of mindfulness, one with immediately observable benefits. It is also an act of compassion because it gives us the space within which to examine our responses and ensure that they are motivated by compassion, not ill will. As we age, we tend to get caught up in our habitual responses. We lose the mindful curiosity of our childhood. Things are no longer "new" to our minds, and so as we gain experience, it becomes ever easier to automatically respond as we have in the past. Conscious intention-setting counteracts this tendency and gives us a tool through which to develop compassionate, mindful action.

1-Minute Contemplation: Where do you find yourself getting pulled through life, time passing you by? In what way would intention practice help in your specific circumstances? Can you resolve to set your intention in these areas, and see what effect it has on your life?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Deeply Held Belief in Nonviolence

I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday about a mutual hobby, tabletop gaming. We are both huge fans of the Lord of the Rings universe and play Games Workshop's Lord of the Rings Strategy Game. Tactics play the major role in this game, as each player controls an army comprised of units from within the Lord of the Rings mythology--elves, men, dwarves, Gandalf, Saruman, etc.--and fights a battle with their forces against the other player. To give our games some depth and meaning, however, we created a strategic world within which we play the game. In other words, it's closer to "real life" in that the results of our battles ripple through our respective Middle Earth empires. When (and if) to attack, how much force to use in doing so, what additional units to produce to strengthen our armies, where to maneuver--all of these are now important factors for which we have to account. Said another way, instead of just playing the role of a Field Commander in a single battle, we now play the roles of President, General, Defense Minister, and Foreign Relations Advisor, as well as Field Commander.

While we discussed our game and what appears to be an impending invasion of my territory by my friend, I noticed how uncomfortable I felt regarding our war. I love fighting our individual battles for the strategic challenge they present, just as I enjoy chess, Go, and other such games. But the more my job becomes "leading an empire," the more I shy away from warlike tendencies.

I think back to my college days, when I frequently played the computer game Civilization. In that game, you are charged with leading your chosen civilization from a single settler in antiquity to launching a manned spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, our nearest star, in the 21st century CE. Across this vast span of time, you can lead your civilization in an infinite number of ways, including creating and breaking diplomatic ties, choosing your form of government, forging trade routes, building Wonders of the World, and waging war. I always, always, always tried to win via diplomatic relations, and could never bring myself to wage war on the other civilizations, except under self-defense.

In Buddhism, the number one moral teaching is, "Do not harm, but cherish all life." All other ethical actions can be reduced to this one teaching--we should not lie because of the harm it can have on others as well as ourselves (we count as "all life" too!), we should avoid stealing because of the pain it causes others, etc. In November of 2005, the Dalai Lama gave a talk on the heart of nonviolence, and here is an excerpt from Stanford University's coverage of the event:

"Violence is destruction; nonviolence is construction," he [Dalai Lama] said.

But the boundaries between violence and nonviolence cannot be determined simply by observing actions on their surface, he said. An individual can use nice words to cheat or exploit another, he said. Conversely, a harsh action could be done out of compassion and the intent to protect others, he added. Limited violence can be permissible, and countering a violent action with a strong countermeasure sometimes is not only permissible "but is the right thing to do," he said.

The organized violence of war, however, is never a lasting solution, he said. Acting out of negative emotions, however natural they may be, obscures reality, he said. In today's reality, "the whole world is like one family or one body. Destroying one part of the world is like destroying yourself," he said.

War is very hard to justify, he said. It's too early to say whether the war in Iraq is right or wrong, he added. "We'll see," he said.

As I am a Buddhist, I embrace the idea of nonviolence. But in conversing with my friend, for the first time I truly observed for myself how deeply ingrained this approach to life is in me. Even in my completely unreal fantasy game, as soon as the game gave me responsibility as the leader of a people (rather than just a General in a battle without context), I felt it was completely wrong and irresponsible of me to pursue war. Even knowing this now, and knowing that our game was designed completely around giving us a reason and a context to fight our individual battles, I still struggle inwardly with any decisions involving waging war because I deeply feel that peace is always an option, and to allow events to proceed to the point where violence is unavoidable is to have failed in my job as leader. I agree with the Dalai Lama that strong countermeasures are sometimes necessary to minimize violence and harm in the long-term (WWII and Hitler being an obvious example), but it is only under extreme circumstances that this type of action is necessary.

1-Minute Contemplation: When in your life have you had the experience of seeing a deeply held viewpoint naturally emerge? Did you expect that response? Did you know it was even there? For me, I knew I had felt violence was wrong, but it had mostly been an intellectual understanding that had provided guidance for me. Until my revealing conversation with my friend. It was only then that I truly saw for myself the depth of feeling I had of the importance of peace and harmony in the world.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Respect Those Cabinets!

Buddhism is about respect -- respect for oneself, respect for one's neighbors, respect for one's enemies, respect for all animals, even respect for your kitchen cabinets. You might be thinking, "I was with you through the animals, but my cabinets!?" Yes, that's right, even your cabinets deserve your respect.

In a way, I'm using respect as a mental trick. In Buddhism we tend to talk about mindfulness, compassion, wisdom, concentration, and generosity. While I think it's obvious that respect is a positive trait, and belongs in the above group, it shows itself infrequently in Buddhist sutras. But if we take a good look at respect, we can see that it really represents an effective means to practice, particularly when applied to kitchen cabinets.

When I open my cabinet to get a glass, I can pull the cabinet open, grab my glass, and let the cabinet door slam back against the cabinet itself. Or I can open the cabinet door, remove my glass, and let the door go a few inches from the casing as I turn my attention to my next task--filling my glass. Or I can close the cabinet door carefully, holding it all the way until I gently bring it back into contact with the cabinet. Here is where respect appears. If I respect the cabinet, how will I close it? Will I allow it to slam noisily? Or will I give it the attention it deserves until closure?

Here, again, you might be thinking, "But the cabinet isn't sentient. How can I respect a cabinet? That's nonsensical!" I agree, it is nonsensical. There's really nothing a cabinet can do to earn your respect. And that's the very reason why you should respect it! It teaches you that all things deserve respect, even those things that haven't earned it. So when somebody who really annoys you enters your conversation at a dinner party, your practice of respect will bear fruit, and you will find that you respect that person despite your differences.

There's another benefit to showing respect toward your cabinets. If you respect your cabinets, you will do nothing to harm them purposefully. You will be gentle with them, maybe even loving, and this becomes a lesson in nonviolence and nonharming. Furthermore, to avoid harming your cabinets, you will close them gently, paying attention the entire time. This is a practice in mindfulness. This practice is so effective because you have immediate feedback: sound. When you slam your cabinet doors, you are immediately reminded of your transgression.

So we have come full circle. We began by observing that Buddhism centers around respect for all beings. We then chose to extend this to non-sentient objects. By doing so, we obtained the wonderful side effect of the practice of mindfulness and nonviolence. In this way, we never have to ask, "Am I going to be able to carry this practice off the cushion into everyday life?" because the practice began in the midst of everyday life! So the next time somebody asks you what you get from your Buddhist practice, you can answer with a straight face, "I respect my kitchen cabinets."

Monday, February 05, 2007

2007 Blogisattva Award Nominee

I'd like to extend my thanks for my nomination in the category of Best New Blog, 2006 in the 2007 Blogisattva Awards. There is some amazing writing represented in these nominations. Please visit Blogisattva and check out some of the nominee posts!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Sixteen Foot Buddha

"With a blade of grass, we create a golden Buddha which is sixteen feet high." (Not Always So. Shunryu Suzuki.)

I just completed a difficult work project that has occupied most of my waking hours throughout January. Throughout that process, I both struggled mightily with my practice, and also found beautiful refuge in my practice. My regular sitting practice suffered because I had to constantly work. Several days into our hardest week on the project, I was extremely close to burning out, and my body let me know it by catching a brutal 24-hour flu -- my first flu in over 10 years. It was at that point I recognized that no work project was worth my health, and yet my task would not complete itself. So I put the work I had to do aside and sat for 30 minutes.

In my meditation space, I learned a tremendous lesson.

As Shunryu Suzuki says in the quote that opened this post, "With a blade of grass, we create a golden Buddha which is sixteen feet high." The joy in life opens up for us when we can look at even the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential thing, and see something as glorious as a sixteen foot golden Buddha. In my hell-week meditation, I saw directly how I was the source of my own suffering, with my response to aspects of the project, and it was completely in my power to respond differently. I was not seeing the sixteen foot Buddha sitting right in front of me, within the task I was spending so much time on. After that, I slowed myself down and worked with a mindful awareness of myself working, regardless of the deadlines that seemed impossible to meet. And what I found was that I was more efficient, more effective, and more calm throughout the entire process. I took what life was presenting me as my practice. So while my sitting practice still suffered, I gained valuable experience seeing that there is always time and a means to practice, if only I allow myself to see the shimmering golden Buddha within each blade of grass.

1-Minute Contemplation: Take a moment and consider a recent time when you looked at your blade of grass and saw only a hair-thin stripe of plant. Looking back, having achieved some space from this event, can you see a glimpse of the glorious golden Buddha?

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.