Loving The World We Touch
In today’s media-saturated world, it can feel like we are in perpetual crisis. A full panoply of suffering assaults us on every side – news of murders, wars, disease, famine, environmental destruction, social injustices, etc. Every issue is important and horrifying and overwhelming.
Unfortunately, there is little we can do to address many of these evils. They are often far removed from our field of influence, occurring in other cities, states, or countries. They can be very complex, involving whole communities or nations. What seems right to us may be wrong for others. There is rarely a solution that does not entail suffering or hardship for some of the people involved. Even small issues that arise in our own neighborhoods can be knotty messes that feel intractable.
If we are not careful, we may lose all hope. Our anger at injustice can easily turn into frustration and despair. Anger, after all, is not a source of happiness. If we go too often to the well of anger for strength and motivation, we run the risk of creating more suffering in the world.
Ultimately, what is important is how we live our lives. All of our little actions matter. It is important to live as compassionately and lovingly in the world as possible. Spiritual awakening begins when we recognize the value of each individual as well as the whole of the world around us.
The religious life – the life of prayer, meditation, study, and reflection – is a life lived deeply. It is awakening to the “relatedness” of all life. No thing is completely separate from any other thing. There is no bright line dividing ourselves from the world “out there.” In fact, living a life of prayer is a process of learning how to embrace the truth that we are in relationship with everything around us. Whether we like or dislike something or someone, does not change the fact that we are still connected with it or them in some way. Everything that we do, in every moment of every day, impacts our many immediate (proximate) and non-immediate (tangential) relationships.
Our actions of body and speech flow out of our thoughts. If we cultivate anger, then our life becomes filled with anger. If we cultivate gratitude, then we can be filled with joy and wonder at the many little miracles we encounter each day.
If we seek after successes and victories, we will be woefully disappointed. We may never see the fruit of our labors. The seeds that we worked so hard to plant may grow into something completely unexpected. Our lives are too short and our vision too limited to see all of the threads of influence in the vast interconnected web of existence.
We can still work to end war and hunger and environmental degradation, but it must arise from a place of hope and compassion. We must have a vision that allows for all beings to be freed from suffering – those we love and those whom we may think of as enemies. We are all one big planetary family. Like a family, we fight with each other. In a healthy family, underneath the harsh words and hurt feelings, there is an unbreakable bond of love.
If you have doubts about whether or not our planetary family is healthy or not, turn to the texts and teachings of religion. Over and over again, we are told that love is the nature of the numinous. The way to live happy and meaningful lives together is to practice love towards all – even when we feel wronged. The way to overcome the seemingly insurmountable challenges of today is through love in action.
In our hearts we know that love works. It can transform and heal the world. The work of love begins with us. Are we willing to open ourselves to love? Are we willing to forgive wrongs? Can we work for the well-being and happiness of others – even enemies?
If we cannot sooth our own inner battles, how can we overcome the innumerable conflicts in the world all around us? Which is not to say that this is only an interior process. It is not. Love is practiced in relationships. We must get our hands dirty by practicing love towards our friends, coworkers, and neighbors. As Shantideva observes:
“There’s nothing that does not grow light, through habit and familiarity. Putting up with little cares, I’ll train myself to bear with great adversity”
If we want to transform the world through love, then we must begin by loving the little bits of the world that we touch every day.
Prayer, Love, Social Transformation
As a religious person who has worked for many years in non-profits that serve “the least of these,” it is abundantly clear that we cannot fix people. Each person must work out the tangles and knots in their own lives.
We can, however, respond to the people around us with love and compassion. Listening to them deeply and acknowledging their humanity, we offer what help we can. Often the specific and concrete help, though necessary and important, is insufficient. There are huge structural issues that keep people in poverty. We can and should address these social ills.
The most immediate social ill, the one that we as individuals and as faith groups can heal, is the stigma attached to poverty and lack. The “poor,” the “homeless,” and the “hungry” are first and foremost people – just like you and I. They are, to use the language of Jesus, our neighbors.
Therefore, simply giving food to the hungry is not enough. We must love the ones we serve, expecting nothing in return. Love must be freely given, a heartfelt response to the intrinsic value of another person. Such love is a universal salve. It is the essence of prayer and has the power to heal wounds of the spirit. It can provide peace and respite to the weary and downtrodden. Collectively, it paves the way for the radical transformation of society into one based on love and compassion, in which privation is unknown.
In Christianity, this is the realization of the Realm of God. In Buddhism, it the manifestation of Amida’s land of love and bliss.
Awakening to the Fullness of Life
“This food is a gift of the the whole universe: the earth, the sea, the sky, all sentient beings. In this food is much joy, much suffering, much hard work. We accept this food so that we may follow a path of practice and help all beings everywhere.”
The sacred is present in each moment. Prayer is our ongoing and active relationship with the sacred – with life. While prayer can take place at set times and places, it is not limited to the chapel or meditation hall. The whole of our lives are potentially prayer, filled with wonder, gratitude, and contentment. Prayer awakens in us spiritual joy (ananda), which is often evoked by even the most mundane of tasks.
Such was my experience as I made Jelly from our abundant harvest of Lilikoi, also known as Passion Fruit. It is one of the fruiting vines that thrives in the few inches of soil that covers the hardened lava in our neighborhood. We have tried to grow many types of plants, in all sorts of raised beds and containers, but only a few flourish without constant attention and fussing over. Even bananas, one of the more prolific plants in our area, don’t do well in the shallow soil.
In the kitchen – bursting with gratitude – I sang and chanted while working. I was aware that these exotic fruits were a precious gift and that I was participating in the fullness of life by making jelly – heating the juice, cleaning the jars, measuring, etc. I found that all of life was present in the kitchen. The making of jelly had become a prayerful act of gratitude, honoring the gifts that nature had so freely given.
We cannot survive without food. Yet it is easily taken for granted in a society of great abundance like the U.S. We forget how fortunate we are and overlook the working of the elements or the human sweat and suffering that is in every bite of food. We do not appreciate how entirely dependent we are on other beings and the whims of nature for our very survival. Each morsel of food is truly a “gift of the whole universe.” It is a gift that often goes unnoticed.
Prayer helps us notice these small gifts of life. Prayer delights in the ordinary, the beat of our heart, the movement of our breath, the way soap bubbles cling to a freshly washed plate, or the cheerful chorus of frogs at night. Wonder and sacredness abound in the prayerful life.
The Zen saying goes, “Before enlightenment chop wood carry water, after enlightenment chop wood carry water.” Enlightenment is awakening to ordinariness, which – it turns out – is not ordinary at all. It is not something we get or achieve or find somewhere else. Enlightenment is found in the many little moments of everyday life.
Prayer, which is a less grandiose term than enlightenment, is simply awakening into the fullness of life, which may be found in something as simple as making jelly on a Saturday afternoon.
Praying for Peace
In response to the recent shooting at a club in Orlando, our local Interfaith group organized a Prayer Vigil. It was put together very quickly, a testament to the trust and cooperative nature of our diverse religious community.
Personally, I am a bit skeptical of prayer vigils. Often it feels as though we use prayer as an excuse for not doing the hard work of addressing social ills and injustices. If, for example, we pray for peace because we truly want peace, then our prayers must be those of action to end violence and warfare. We cannot expect peace to miraculously fall from the sky and settle upon the earth. War and violence are the fruit of human action. We, therefore, must be the ones to overcome it. No amount of wishing and praying for peace – devoid of action – will end war.
Nevertheless, as an active member of out Interfaith coalition, I joined in the planning and performance of the service. It was a simple affair, held at local church, and attended by sixty or so individuals.The names and ages of the victims were read by individual attendees. After hearing the name, the congregation responded with, “May you be at peace.” I then sounded a bell, and a candle was lit for victim named. There were music and prayers from local clergy. It was a beautiful ceremony. Though focused on the bell, caught up in details of the service, I was touched by a deep sense of peace and well-being.
Our little ceremony did nothing to address war, gun violence, bigotry, or hatred. It did, however, offer healing. Each person in attendance had been touched by the violence in Orlando. The service offered them the opportunity to share their grief with others, many of whom were strangers. In our our shared witness to the brokenness caused by violence, we – surprisingly – found solace and peace.
There is still violence in the world. But for a short time, on a Wednesday night, we were able to connect with others and find the strength and hope to live faith-filled lives in response to senseless violence and undeserved suffering.
Mindful of the Measureless
Amida Buddhism is often identified as the spiritual path of “other-power.” Instead of beginning with the dynamic and strenuous yoga of self perfection, Amida Buddhism begins with acknowledging our shortcomings and taking refuge in the Buddhas – that which is other than self.
Whereas we – self clinging beings – exist in the world of measurement, comparison, and judgement; Buddhas are beyond measure. The qualities of a Buddha are likewise unconditioned. They are Dharma – spontaneous expression of the measureless reality of awakening. As beings who measure, we cannot truly understand Buddhas or Dharma. As the Lotus Sutra reminds us, “Only a Buddha together with a Buddha can fathom the ultimate reality of things.”
Nembutsu, Mindfulness of Buddha, is the practice of remembering the measureless – the infinite openness of awakening. It is very much akin to Roshi Bernie Glassman’s “unknowing.” Except that in Roshi Glassman’s case, unknowing is something we take on, a sort of practice or training.
For Amida Buddhist “unknowing” is simply recognizing the already existent reality of measurelessness. In the presence of the Buddhas, we see that we are foolish and limited beings caught up in self clinging.
Nembutsu reminds us that we can never see the all the effects of “our” actions, nor understand the multitude of causes and conditions motivating the actions of others. Living in the world, we strive to bring as much love and compassion as possible into each moment. After that, we must let go and take refuge in the Buddhas. In the context of the measureless lifespan of a Buddha, short-term failures or successes are often not what they appear. Gandhi, for example, may have never taken up the struggle for Indian independence if he had not suffered the defeat of being thrown off a train in Maritzburg, South Africa, because he was “colored.”
Nembutsu allows us to trust in the Buddhas. It aligns our life with the compassionate activities of the Buddhas, who can work on and through us, despite our self-clinging. Indeed, the light of the Dharma often leaks out of those who trust in the Buddhas. Our internal process, which we in the West are obsessed with, is often not relevant to the expression of measureless compassion. Did the mendicant, who inspired Prince Siddhartha to take up the holy life, know that his visit to the village would play a crucial role in the life of the Buddha to be? Was the mendicant in a good mood or a bad mood that day? Was he at peace – joyful? Was he angry or jealous or lustful? We don’t know, and it is not relevant. His presence in the village that day, no matter his mind state, was enough to set the future Buddha on the path to awakening.
Nembutsu means resting in the presence of the Buddhas. It is basking in the spontaneous joy and unconditional love that surround all Buddhas. Having felt unconditionally loved and been touched by the measureless, we can (as the Zen saying goes) “return to the market bearing gifts.”
Namo Amida Bu!
Charity is More than Small Change
Charity is a fundamentally religious act that affirms the sacredness and value of each person. Unfortunately, Charity as a word and concept has fallen out favor in today’s society. We no longer call groups that serve the poor, the disenfranchised, and the vulnerable Charities. We do not usually think about our “giving,” to an individual in need or an organization that helps the less fortunate, as Charity.
The word, charity, comes from caritas which is the Latin translation of Agape – Love. Thus Charity is an act of love. Love, as it is used here, is not mere sentiment. Love is the desire for the wellbeing and fulfillment of the other. Charity, as an act of love, is unconditional. It is given to the deserving and the undeserving alike.
Charity is Love expressed through actions for the welfare of others. Without love our generous and kind acts can become a kind of transactional relationship, a social or religious duty to be fulfilled. We may expect certain “returns” for our “investment” of kindness and can be hurt and disappointed when individuals are ungrateful, apathetic, or even unpleasant in response to our generosity.
The limited human world of birth and death, what Buddhists might call Samsara, is made up of continual measurement – quantification. We are continually judging and comparing. And, not necessarily in a useful way that can help us navigate the challenges of day to day living. Rather we are continually comparing one moment with another moment, one experience against another. It is something that rarely gets turned off and is the source of dissatisfaction. In contrast, the the bliss of awakening – the realm of the Buddhas – is found in measureless love, compassion, and wisdom.
Love, like compassion, affirms our relatedness with everything else. When we “are love,” there is no separation, no isolation, no aloneness. Love cannot be faked. It expresses itself through a thousand little “tells” in our being. When it flows through us, it can lift the spirits all in its sphere of influence. In awakened beings, Saints and Bodhisattvas, love can be a powerful force that radically transforms lives.
Of course, “being love” – expressing unconditional love and compassion towards others – is not something that we, as beings limited by self-clinging, can do. Unconditional love and compassion arise naturally as we release our tight grasp on “I-ness” as the whole of our identity. The more that we “get out of the way,” the more our lives become expressions for the measurelessness of the Buddhas.
This “letting go” can arise spontaneously. However, it is usually the result of the continual cultivation of compassion, love, and forgiveness. These are practiced daily, through acts of kindness to friends and strangers alike, in the forgiveness of small hurts, and the recollection of, and empathy for, the suffering of others. In short, through acts of Charity. We give what we can to each person we encounter. Most of the time it is just friendship, perhaps a kind word, and most certainly a genuine wish that they be happy, peaceful, and filled with a loving heart. Because a heart filled with love is a source of joy which overflows in all directions indiscriminately.
Charity is a religious act of love. Without Charity we are stuck in a world of buying and selling, of mistrust and judgements. Through Charity we express the measureless compassion of the Buddhas. Thus the prayer of pureland Buddhists is, Namo Amida Bu! I take refuge in, or open myself to, Measurelessness of Awakening, which is the source of true Charity.
Namo Amida Bu!
Faith and The Way of the Bodhisattva
There are two books that I dip into on an almost daily basis. One contains the shorter and longer Pureland sutras. The other is Shantideva’s, The Way of the Bodhisattva. The Former is epic in its depiction of Amitabha’s valiant vows creating a vast realm of awakening and bliss attainable by all. The latter is a collection of contemplations and meditations to loosen our clinging to self and the world that we believe to be so substantial.
Superficially, these texts seem worlds apart. The Way of the Bodhisattva provides a set of pretty straightforward techniques and trainings in how to cultivate the qualities of a Bodhisattva. It contains chapters on Bodhicitta, Awareness, Vigilance, Patience, Perseverance, Meditation, and other important Bodhisattva practices.
The Pureland sutras, on the other hand, recount a fantastical story that defies rational understanding. They tell the story of a Buddha who lives far to the West and whose compassion and motivation are so pure that he/she has been able to create a realm in which even the most unworthy of individuals can become a Buddha. Further, the Wisdom and Compassion of this Buddha is so vast that, “There is no place where it cannot be known.” The name of this Buddha is Amitabha (Measureless light), or alternatively Amitayus (Measureless life), or just Amida Buddha (Measureless Awakening).
According to the Pureland sutras, all that is required of us as practitioners is faith in and continuous recollection of Amida Buddha. Doing so ensures our rebirth in Amida’s pureland, where we will eventually become Buddhas. In this life, such recollection of Amida Buddha awakens in us awareness of our connection with the unconditional compassion, deep wisdom, and boundless joy of the Buddha.
Thus we enter the Pureland, and by extension the Dharma, through faith in the Buddha. Faith is not belief. Faith arises as the result of contemplation, examination, and experience. Faith must be reliable, something we can depend on when all else is lost. And to be reliable, our faith in the Buddha must be tested and confirmed by personal experience over time.
Deep faith allows us to let go of “self” centered concern for personal salvation or spiritual perfection, and focus instead on the well-being of others. It is faith in the Buddha that enables us to take up the Bodhisattva Vow to “save all beings.” Faith in and recollection of Amida Buddha allows us to participate in the collective expression the Amida Buddha’s measureless compassion. This is the Wisdom Mind-Heart of the Buddhas – Bodhicitta: the desire to free all beings from suffering and the causes of suffering.
This is important. Because if we take up a text like The Way of the Bodhisattva, with the wrong motivation, then we may be confused as to why we are practicing. We may think that we are cultivating patience, for example, so we can become less angry. However, Bodhisattvas cultivate patience not so that they will be less angry, but rather because anger is a barrier to helping others.
We must be careful to avoid making spiritual practice a type of work, a goal oriented practice that we undertake to become better people. The religious life is not about perfecting our personalities. It is, rather, the process of opening. It is the loosening our death grip on what we believe to be our Self and embracing the Buddha. If we have faith in the Buddha, then awakening and compassion will work through us despite our limitations, flaws, and shortcomings.
If we rely on the Buddha and seek to benefit of all beings, then The Way of the Bodhisattva is an invaluable tool and resource. However, we must be mindful of our motivation. Why are we studying a text like The Way of the Bodhisattva? Do we want to engage in practices primarily to fix ourselves and make us nicer people? Or do we want dive deep into the ocean of Awakening that is Amida’s Measureless light and become prisms through which that light is refracted in to the world around us?
Namo Amida Bu!
(Bodhisattvas are the spiritual heroes of the Mahayana. They have dedicated themselves to the wellbeing of others.)
In the Presence of the Buddha
This past Friday we had a gathering of our local Sangha (Community). It is a time to sit in the presence of the Buddha, chant the name of the Buddha – “Namo Amida Bu”, listen to the Dharma, and share our lives with one another. This particular night was special. It felt as if we were basking in the joyous and loving aura of a living breathing Buddha.
Of course none of us present were – or are – enlightened beings. Our practice, however, centers on remembering the Buddha and reciting the name of the Buddha. It is a very Bhakti (devotional) practice in which we are always turning the mind and heart towards the beloved – Amida Buddha.
So it is not surprising that our little Dharma Center was touched by the loving and blissful radiance of Amida. The Buddha is always present. It is we who, blinded by our self obsession, are unable to perceive the limitless compassion of the Buddha. We get caught up in our insecurities, our fears and judgements. We forget that reality is much bigger than our self-centered thoughts and the material world we bump up against daily.
Which is the whole point of reciting the name of Amida Buddha. The name is our connection to the reality of awakening – to that which is beyond birth and death. The name works on us continually – purify our mind-streams. It awakens our hearts so that we can experience Amida’s unconditional love and compassion directly. In Amida, none are unloveable – no matter how misguided. Touched by Amida’s boundless love our hearts are easily broken by the suffering of others.
The name – Namo Amida Bu – is non-other than Amida Buddha. To recite the name is to be in the presence of the the Buddha. Awakening is simply seeing that which is already present. It is nothing special. Yet in a moment of awakening, everything is changed.
Namo Amida Bu!
A Little Basic Buddhism, Part 1
The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, described this world in which we live, a world bracketed by birth and death, as dukkha. It is impermanent, unreliable, unsatisfactory, subject to decay, and, as such, a source of suffering. There is certainly happiness to be found in this world but it does not last and is often mixed with suffering.
Dukkha is often broken down into three levels. Now, of course, you can read about dukkha in many places on the internet and in various Buddhist books. What I would like to emphasize here is the importance of examining critically the basic truths of Buddhism. It is not enough to just read through them and accept them at face value. We must test them. This is especially the case with the first noble truth, which is the Shakyamuni Buddha’s statement of our existential situation. If we do not find this foundational truth tenable then the rest of the Buddha’s teachings will not hold up for us.
The first level of dukkha, the most basic level, is identified as the suffering of suffering. This is what most of us would think of as suffering. Our bodies are fragile, subject to injury, disease, discomfort, old age and death. We suffer from heat and cold, insect bites, hunger, thirst, allergies, etc.
I know this seems very basic, obvious even, but it is important to examine this truth. Because if we do not really get at this most fundamental truth, it will just remain a concept with little power to transform our lives. If we do not realize this truth for ourselves, we will buy into the dominant message in the West that that physical comfort equals real happiness.
To have a right understanding of the Buddha’s message, we must ask ourselves if this body is subject to injury, disease, discomfort, old age and death? Is there anyone who has ever escaped any of these? Have I ever been sick? Have I ever been injured? Do we know anyone who has died? Do I know anyone who as been seriously ill? Could any of these happen to me?
It is not enough to just realize it intellectually, we must know truth of it in our bones. We must allow the experiential realization of our own mortality and frailty to challenge and transform us.
Namo Amida Bu!
A Little Buddhism, Part 2
Previously I wrote a little about the Buddha’s first noble truth, Dukkha. In particular I asserted that it is important for us to use our intellect to examine these foundational teachings to see if they hold up under investigation. Without examining or grappling with the thesis the Buddha is laying out, we will not be able to cultivate right understanding or what Bob Thurman calls “Realistic Worldview.”
So, having tested the most basic level of dukkha, the frailty and unreliability of this human body, we can now go on to look at the “suffering of change.” This world is made up of almost constant change. Day turns into night and night into day. The weather changes, the seasons change. Our moods change. The people and relationships around us change. Good friends move away, or fall out of favor, or perhaps even become antagonist. The reverse is also possible.
Change can be both a source of happiness and of sorrow. However, the happinesses which we experience are fleeting. Often what we think of as pleasure is just the temporary relief or distraction from pain. Food alleviates the pain of hunger. Rest alleviates the pain of fatigue. Relationships assuage the hurts of loneliness.
The material comforts are likewise unreliable and subject to change. No matter how much wealth or fame or power we have, we still experience discontent, sorrow and suffering. As the Buddha succinctly states, “…union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering.”
Further, wealth can be stolen or lost. Fame is fickle and fleeting. Power breeds enemies. If we rely to heavily upon these things, expecting them to make us happy, we will be disappointed. Physical comfort, cannot protect us from the sorrows of loss. Neither wealth, nor fame, nor power can buy a moment of extra life for ourself, a child, a spouse, or a relative.
No pleasure remains pleasurable. We get bored with a pleasurable experience over time. Pleasurable experiences themselves can often become a source of suffering through over indulgence. We may also suffer when we are separated from a pleasurable experience.
Look at your own life. Change is our everyday experience. The Buddha is not indicating anything new or secret here. He is just drawing our attention to the reality of our current situation, reminding us that there is nothing in this life that is a safe and lasting refuge.
Namo Amida Bu!
Making Friends with Our Fundamental Insecurity
No one likes to be afraid. Nevertheless, at an existential level, this is the reality of our situation. Nothing is secure. Our bodies are unreliable: subject to disease and death. Relationships change. Material things lose their value and/or decay. Emotions, positive and negative, arise unbidden. Thus insecurity continually expresses itself in various subtle and gross forms of anxiety. This anxiety is what the Buddha identified as dukka.
Our constant state of anxiety (dukkha) is painful. It changes our breathing and our heart rate, creates tension in the body, and stimulates the arising of various anxious making thoughts. Dukkha lies behind our anger, our craving, our need to be distracted. We lash out in anger when we are afraid. We try to accumulate pleasure to protect us from the pain of fear. Or we seek to escape fear through intoxicants be they substances or entertainments.
In short, because of our fundamental state of anxiety we often act in unwholesome ways that actually increase or perpetuate our insecurity and fear.
Most of the time we are unaware of the subtle level of anxiety that runs continually in our minds. We see only the symptoms: anger, jealousy, desire, and unease. We may even wonder why we are never really happy, even though we know have much to be happy about.
For Buddhists, and probably contemplatives of all traditions, one of the most difficult practices we can undertake is “making friends” with our fundamental insecurity. We cannot fix or change or get rid of it. Attempts to do so are misguided and, at best, only hide this unpleasant and spiritually crippling illness. This anxiety, this illness, is our direct and personal experience of dukkha. It arises because we misapprehend the nature of reality and reify the self as something that is truly existent, i.e. permanent, eternal, and separate.
We are so focused and identified with “our” thoughts, fears, sensations, etc., that we never see the container within which these contents, the things we mistake for our selves, are held. A container which is none other than Measureless Unconditioned Awakening.
Thus in Pureland Buddhism longtime practitioners talk about the experience of being held by, or loved by, Amida Buddha. Amida Buddha is the reality in which we swim. Like the ocean itself, Amida supports and surrounds us. To recite the Nembutsu – Namo Amida Bu – is to continually remind ourselves of the vast radiant interconnected reality of Awakening.
Namo Amida Bu!
Refuge is the Heart of Buddhist Practice
If you have an interest in Buddhism, then you have some sort of karmic connection with the Buddha. Those who do not have such a karmic connection, simply will not encounter the Buddha or the teachings of the Buddha.
Even individuals who have a strong karmic connection with the Buddha Dharma may not become practitioners. They may instead be in a situation where they are near the Dharma. They may live close to a Buddhist temple. Perhaps they have a relative or spouse who is a practitioners, or maybe they have met Buddhists teachers or read Buddhist books.
However, for those who have a karmic connection with the Buddha and and wish to follow the Buddha, then “Taking Refuge” in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha – The Triple Gem – is the explicit act of faith. Taking Refuge in the Buddha contextualizes the “worldly,” and much advertised, refuges of: Youth, Beauty, Wealth, Power, Prestige, Romance, Intoxicants, Entertainment, etc. While these refuges may bring some happiness or escape from suffering, they are temporary and often entail their own forms of suffering. Youth fades with age. Power breeds enemies. Prestige knows jealousy.
Taking Refuge in the Buddha is not a one time thing. It is an ongoing and ever deepening process. Refuge is the heart of Buddhist practice. If we could truly and completely take refuge then all of our actions – in body, speech, and mind – would perfectly reflect the Buddha and the Dharma. No other religious practices would be necessary. We would naturally live according to the Dharma. It would not, for example, occur to us to respond to hatred with anything other than compassion. Likewise we would not engage in harmful speech, action or thought. Such behavior would not be contrived or forced, it would arise naturally from our full and complete refuge in the Buddha.
Reflecting on our own lives we can see that we have not yet fully taken refuge. We still struggle to keep the precepts. We get caught up in the confusion arising out of the misapprehension of self as real. We often respond to the world with anger and craving instead of compassion and wisdom. We continually and habitually fall back into the fruitless search for happiness in the worldly refuges
Recognizing that we have not yet truly Taken Reguge, it is important to continually think about the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The easiest way to do this is to set aside time everyday to take refuge: Recite the refuge prayer and make prostrations to the Three Jewels. In our tradition, remembering the Buddha and taking refuge are combined in the “Nembutsu.” Nembutsu is what might be called a pith and concise refuge prayer. It is made up of six syllables: NA MO A MI DA BU! It means, “I take refuge in measureless awakening.” Because awakening is measureless, beyond the conceptual limitations of our deluded thoughts, it is ever-present and thus accessible in any moment or any place. The Buddha’s radiance of perfect wisdom and compassion can be experienced in any circumstance, even if we are less than perfect ourselves. The Nembutsu becomes our continual reminder of and connection with the Buddha – Awakening – in all the activities of our life.
If you have the time and the interest, it is also valuable to read Buddhist texts and memorize short passages from these texts. Today it is easy to listen to and even watch Dharma teachings by many wonderful Buddhist teachers. The more we do these things, the stronger our karmic connection with the Buddha becomes. The more we align our life with the Buddha, the source of awakening and happiness, the more these qualities appear in our life and in the world around us.
In short, much of the suffering we experience, individually and as a society, is the result of taking refuge in something other than the Buddha. Buddhas are, by definition, the perfection of wisdom and compassion. To take refuge in a Buddha is to renounce the things that do not reflect the awakened compassion, namely the three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance. It is these three that power the cycle of endless suffering known as samsara. They create the sufferings in our individual lives as well as drive the many social sufferings such as war, privation, and discrimination.
Taking Refuge. Aligning one’s life with the Buddha Dharma, not only brings us joy and peace but it offers those around us a way out of suffering.
Namo Amida Bu!
Refuge, the Heart of Buddhism
Recently I attended a refuge taking ceremony. It was a simple affair. The participant sat holding strands of various colored ribbons attached to the Buddha image and thrice recited her refuge vows along with the entire community. Taking refuge in Amida. Taking refuge in the Buddha. Taking refuge in the Dharma. Taking refuge in the Sangha. Taking refuge in the Pure Land. Thus affirming her entry onto the Buddhist Path.
During this particular ceremony the minister asked us to reflect on how we have been a refuge for other members of the community. This is a humbling contemplation because it quickly makes obvious how often we have actually failed to be a refuge to others. Life presses hard upon us all. It demands our time and energy. Thus we often only see others through the filter of our own life dramas. We cannot see or hear the other person for who they are; their unique life history, their pains, their joys, and their humanness.
Being a refuge, a shelter to others, is the heart of Buddhism. It is the perfection of compassion and wisdom. Only Buddhas can be a true refuge. Yet sometimes, the Buddha’s light shines through us and we are able to see and love another as they truly are. No pretenses, just openness to the other.
For some this openness comes more naturally than for others. We can all improve. Faith in the fundamental goodness of the universe is essential. Without this faith it is easy to lose heart, to be crushed by the ugliness of the moment.
Refuge is about going beyond one’s limited self. It is about being a friend to the friendless. It is offering hospitality to the stranger. It is providing shelter for those caught in the storms of life. Often we may find that the strangers or the shelterless are our neighbors, perhaps even our own family members. It is just that we never took the time to really notice them and ask ourselves, how we can be a refuge today?
Creating a More Compassionate Society
December 9, 2014
In this last month of the year, I have found myself dipping back into the writings of Dorothy Day. I am rereading parts of her autobiography, “The Long Loneliness.” She and Peter Maurin and the Catholic Worker continue to inspire and shape the way I understand what it means to live a religious life.
Being a Buddhist myself, some of the Catholicism does not resonate. Nevertheless, the fundamentals of striving to live a life rooted in faith and love and forgiveness are solid. The emphasis on voluntary poverty, non-violence, and a willingness to take personal responsibility for effecting positive change in the world are as relevant today as they were when the Catholic Worker was founded in 1933.
Watching the grotesque theater that passes for politics, it is clear that politicians are not going to be able to address the serious issues facing us today. There is just too much money and power to be had by protecting the status quo: A world of greed and hatred.
We, individually and in small groups, must find ways to live lives that value and promote peace and compassion. The seeds of a more compassionate, a more loving, and more peaceful tomorrow are found in the accumulation of innumerable little daily actions, words, and thoughts. It is found in how we treat our neighbors. Do we speak kindly and compassionately about others, or do we engage in gossip and vicious speech? Do we think about those who are difficult, or have wronged us, with compassion and forgiveness or anger and impatience?
This is the hard long term work of creating a more compassionate society. Of course it is not enough to be satisfied with our own inner transformation. We must also do the important work of creating a better world by, “Resisting oppression and assisting the afflicted.” This is where the rubber meets the road. To end war, or end hunger, or protect children from harm and exploitation, we must be willing to work towards these goals in real and concrete ways. We ourselves may not see an end to war or poverty. But if we adhere to non-violence, compassion, and love as our method, we will find the goal is already present in the work that we do.
Life is short. Tomorrow may never arrive. Today, let’s begin to live compassion filled lives so that our children may grow up in neighborhoods, cities, and societies that are free of war and privation.
Photo of Peter Maurin care of Jim Forest
Gratitude, like some much of religious life, is a combination of practice, perseverance, and openness. Gratitude is cultivated slowly, over years and decades. It involves the daily recollection of the many things, great and small, that we receive each day. Some days the practice is easy, other days it is a struggle to be grateful. Often it can be helpful to remember that many individuals lack even the basics of food, water, clothing, and shelter. Remember also that others are suffering the ravages of war, or experiencing ill health, or perhaps mourning the loss of loved ones.
This is a good practice. However, is important to remember that “the map is not the territory.” The daily practice of gratitude, while important and valuable, is only a technique. It is not true gratitude. It is a close approximation.
True gratitude is a spiritual experience that arises as if by accident. The self, with its small concerns, falls into the background and suddenly we are overwhelmed by gratitude. Perhaps the blueness of the sky becomes almost unbearable. Or maybe the kind words of a stranger brings us to the brink of tears. Such gratitude cannot be conjured. It arises spontaneously and does not add to our sense of self but rather strips us down to nothing as we encounter the wonder and power and mystery that is existence.
Who Will Teach Love and Compassion?
November 17, 2014
Receiving the news of Buddhist Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s ill health and approaching death, I am reminded again that no one escapes death. Life passes very quickly and we have a very short time in which to try to live healing lives of love and compassion. If we are not careful, we can miss our opportunity to live deep and faith-filled lives.
The passing of a teacher, like Thich Nhat Hanh, is a reminder that the responsibility for religious teaching is transferring from one generation to the next. Though not a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, I am acutely aware that many of my teachers have now “left their bodies.” At what point, or what age, do we begin to step into the role of teacher? It is a scary prospect to have responsibility for the care and guidance of another’s religious life. Especially when it feels as if one is just now begining to actually walk the path.
Bo Lozoff, another teacher who has passed, used to chide me by saying that we need to wake up to the fact that we are now becoming the religious elders of our community. Of course he was teasing me about getting older. However, his point was also that if we – those who have dedicated our lives to religion – do not own the role of “elder”, who is going to pass on the teachings to the next generation?
Certainly there are different levels of teachers. Many will teach in little ways by the lives they live. Others will have one or two students. Other teachers may have large followings. The numbers are not important. Rather, what is important is a willingness to help others along the path. Without teachers and guides, how will the next generation awaken to the religious life of love and compassion?
With deep gratitude I bow to my many teachers. I offer prayers for the well-being of all and pray that the light of measureless compassion may never be extinguished.
Teachers, Gurus, Guides, and Mentors
November 10, 2014
If you spend any time at all reading religious texts, you very quickly encounter the idea that in the religious life you need a teacher, guide, guru, or spiritual mentor of some sort. This is probably mostly true. It can certainly be helpful to have the assistance and guidance of someone who has some depth of experience in your chosen religious tradition. It is especially true if you would like to pursue the religious life in some depth. I know that there is a school of thought that posits that the only teacher you need is yourself, since, according to them, all the religious knowledge is contained within yourself. However, I don’t buy into that argument. It makes religion the only skill which we do not learn from others. And since we know we learn love and empathy from our parents, I am skeptical that we just intuitively know how to live a religious life. Yes, we may be born with some intuitive religious spark, but transforming that spark into the focused flame of love and faith that can “move mountains,” takes training and guidance. In short, it requires a teacher.
The teacher is important because they help you look at yourself. Of course every encounter, every experience, pleasant or unpleasant, presents an opportunity to see into your own mind. Every little personal hurt is, in theory, an opportunity to deepen our love and compassion. Most of us, though, respond, quite naturally, to pain and hurt with blame and anger. The teacher, however, acts as a mirror. Not only do they give us intellectual knowledge, teach us various religious practices, and strive to set an example of how to live a religious life, they allow us to see our own pettiness, our own insecurity and fear, our own anger and hatred. The teacher is, of course, not perfect. However, this is besides the point as long as they are living a noble and moral life. We accept the teacher as reflecting the highest light of our tradition. Their imperfections and foibles are just another opportunity to deepen our own love, compassion, and forgiveness, which is, after all, the whole point of the religious life.
Personally, I have been very fortunate to study with some amazing teachers, mostly Buddhists. Though I have also been deeply influenced by a handful of Christian leaders as well as a few yogis. I am not a particularly good student, being a bit rebellious, independent, and little full of myself. So for much of my early life I tended to move around quite a lot, studying with different teachers, for various amounts of times and at different levels of intensity.
However, as I have matured, or aged, my religious life has become more stable. My faith has deepened and I have become deeply aware of the long term nature of religious transformation. Perseverance has become the ballast of my religious life, keeping me upright, counterbalancing unexpected emotional squalls, and generally keeping me on track.
Thus, in October, I had the good fortune to join with my local religious community for a period of retreat with the Head of our Religious Order, who has also been my Religious teacher for close to 10 years. It was a wonderful experience, filled with much fellowship and a deep sharing of the religious life. Most importantly, at least for me personally, was the opportunity to renew ties with my teacher, the person I rely upon to help me continue to grow and mature in the religious life.
November 3, 2014
I have been traveling the last couple of weeks. During my travels I have had the opportunity to meet new people and renew old friendships. I have hung out with like minded individuals as well as quite a few people whose views were radically different from mine. Most of these people, whether rich or poor, religious or non-religious, urban or rural, were good hearted people. They were people trying to do the right thing, based on the norms of the community in which they live.
We are all shaped by the people and social structures in which we live our daily lives. The speech and behaviour that we hear and see day in and day out, shape our own thoughts, speech and behavior. Consciously or unconsciously, we become the things that we consume through our senses. If gossip and back biting are the norm, then we will become gossips. If we continually consume words and images of hatred, fear, and judgement then we will live lives filled with these same qualities. Likewise, if we are surrounded by words and actions of compassion, kindness, and concern for others, then these are the qualities that will adorn our lives.
As religious practitioners we must remain aware of the influence of the ambient culture on our lives. However, if our goal is to create a more loving and compassionate world, a world free of violence and oppression, then we need to make sure that we have friends whose values are in line with that goal. We also need to strive to align our own conduct of Body, Speech, and Mind with the values of compassion and non-harming so that we can be a friend and support to others striving to live world transforming lives rooted in love and compassion.
Love and Hope
September 30, 2014
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” St. Paul
Here in Puna, on the Big Island of Hawaii, we seem to be transitioning from one disaster into another. In August, Hurricane Iselle pummeled the Puna district. No lives were lost, but many lives were disrupted.
Now, we are watching, waiting, and stressing as a snaking flow of lava works its way down from the volcano towards the populated areas of Puna.
There is very little to be done except make plans to evacuate and help those who will be displaced. Against volcanic lava, the living life blood of Madame Pele, we are powerless to protect peoples’ houses, businesses, and livelihoods. Loss and suffering are the nature of this world.
Adversity, such as this, can bring out the best and the worst in people. Hopefully, those of us who have rooted ourselves in a religious practice can respond with compassion and forgiveness. It is in these difficult times, when people despair and feel lost, that we, as religious practitioners, can provide support, strength and hope. Not with fancy words or religious dogma, but through compassionate action that reveals our deep concern and love for all.
There are certainly very real and concrete actions we can take to alleviate physical suffering. However, to relieve this existential angst, we must be willing to open our hearts to the fundamental, and shared, pain of human existence. The very real human experience of loss, insecurity and mortality.
It is a pain we all know. It is a pain we often try to avoid. However, if we are willing to set aside the judgements and fear and the stories we tell ourselves about others. If we quiet the mind and still the fear inside our own hearts, then we can see each human being as they truly are: A precious being worthy of love and compassion.
Often we we fail to love each person we meet. It is an almost impossible task. But we are people of faith. We have faith that if we keep striving to love all, to hold each person dear, that slowly, over time, perhaps over life times, love will begin to leak into our lives and relationships despite our flaws and imperfections. And at the right moment, when faced with someone who is lost and in need, that spark of love may be just enough to awaken the faintest glimmer of hope.
Photo: Christ of the Breadlines by Fritz Eichenberg
September 1, 2014
If you make a habit of cultivating daily periods of silence in your in your life, through meditation or some other practice, you will inevitably discover that fear is the motivation for much that you do. Not the roaring terror of imminent death but rather the low simmering fear that is insecurity. It is a fear so familiar and “comfortable” that most people never notice it at all. They only see fear as fear in situations where the heat gets turned up by events in the world around us and the subtle fear becomes terror.
I found myself in just such a high heat situation while lying in bed at night, in a small, some might say primitive, cabin, riding out Hurricane Iselle. Having grown up in New Orleans, I was familiar with Hurricanes. I had been through a few near misses. I had seen the devastation. However, I had never been through the eye of a Hurricane, which, it turns out, is a completely different beast. In the center of the storm the wind consistently rages at or above hurricane force of 75 miles an hour. It is loud and relentless. The house vibrates as it sways and flexes in the wind. Debris constantly pelts the house on all sides. On top of the raging noise of the storm one also constantly hears the roaring of much stronger gusts of wind moving along the ground, accompanied by the pop and crack of shattering trees. It is a primordial sound. It is the sound of death in the form of some impossibly large winged creature devouring all in its path. The roof ripples and screams under the onslaught and adrenaline floods the blood stream. This cycle repeats for hours upon end and one is complete exhausted by stress and fear.
Fortunately, it has been my practice for some time now to recognize mind states, such as this one, as an opportunity for self examination. Recollecting my practice, I looked deeply at the fear. Why was I afraid? It was not a long contemplation. Once I peeked below the sensory overload, it became immediately apparent that what I was afraid of was death. More specifically, that I, Paul, would end. With this bit of insight came the recollection that I am going to end at some point anyway. None of us can escape death. Further, and perhaps more significantly, I am not that important. What is important is the degree to which I am transformed by love and compassion. The rest, the “things” of this life, are fleeting. They are the result of living in this particular body, in this particular time, in this particular country. As soon as the body dies, those things will cease to be valuable.
I found this insight, for some reason, comforting, and I soon dropped off to sleep. Later I awoke to the storm raging overhead, and decided to relocate to the relative safety of the bathroom. However, the worst of the fear was gone. I was able to sleep, on and off, throughout the remainder of the storm.
Of course, I still have fear. Foolish, I know. I certainly have not learned to truly love others, to offer compassion and understanding before judgement. Nevertheless, I have faith that if I keep walking along the path, trying to recollect the Buddha and the Dharma, that at some point Love and Compassion will replace fear.
Giving It All Away
April 19, 2014
Generosity is essential to our lives. It is so pervasive that we often do not see it. Yet we practice generosity each time we feed our family, friends, or pets. We are generous when we spend time listening to a friend or family member. We are generous when we offer a kind word to someone. We are generous when we give our time to help others. However, we rarely stop and recognize these as generous and kind acts.
Likewise, we often do not appreciate the generosity that we receive from others: the kind words, the smiles, the work that others do. In truth we receive more than we give. Nothing that we now have has not been touched by innumerable other beings. Additionally, the very air we breath, the water we drink, the food we eat comes to us with very little effort on our part. Something as simple as the lettuce in our salad is produced by the hard work of farmers who have cultivated that variety of lettuce over hundreds years with the help of the sun, rain, and the whole living system that is the earth.
Realizing how little we do and how much we receive is to awaken a deep sense of gratitude. It can be a transformative awakening and the foundation for a vibrant and joyous religious life.To study the Saints is to understand that the religious life is about giving everything away. This may mean voluntary poverty but more likely it involves giving away our self cherishing. It is a willingness to give up clinging to our little hurts and petty vengeances. It is setting aside the score card of who has hurt and harmed us. It is embracing forgiveness and opening up the heart and striving to respond to all with love, compassion, and prayer.
The religious life is about giving our lives to and for the benefit others. In prayer, we pray not for ourselves but for the welfare of others. We perform works of kindness and mercy in response to the needs of others. We forgive, that our hearts may remain open and free. We understand that love is life, and is thus transformative. Love is the most valuable gift we can give. Thus we offer love and compassion to all: Friends, Enemies, and Strangers.
This is hard work. It takes time and perseverance. Give as you are able. Offer kind words to everyone you meet. Pray for the well being and happiness of all, especially those who have harmed you. Know that Love is limitless. The more you love the more love surrounds you. It does not mean that there will be not suffering or pain. It only means that such pain will be held within the embrace of a loving and generous heart, a heart which sees beyond the pain and suffering of this world.
Other Centered Salvation March 3, 2014
As religious practitioners it is good to be aware of our motivation for practicing religion. Buddhism identifies two basic religious motivations: self motivation and other centered motivation. In the former, we are primarly interested in our own salvation. Religious practice is about ensuring our own personal liberation form suffering. Self salvation may be an assurance of our own rebirth in heaven. It might also take the form of self perfection, in which we undertake various practices or austerities to help us transcend the sufferings of existence. Self salvation can also be found in striving for a personal religious experience of release or transcendence. All of these are important and common forms of salvation. The desire for salvation from suffering can, however, also arise as a compassionate response to the suffering of others. This is other centered salvation. It is seeking salvation to alleviate the suffering of others. This altrusitic motivation is the force that motivates Saints. We can walk into any church or temple and find many good people who are practicing the way of self salvation. However, it is also likely that we will find a few people whose hearts are so on fire with compassion that they must live their lives in the service of others. In Buddhism we might call these people Bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas have vowed to save all of the numberless sentient beings. It is not a vow to save just the nice and good people. It is a prayer to save all, even those who are causing great harm in the world. It an aspiration to save all beings, whether they are animals, ghosts, demons, celestial beings, or humans. Of course, we are imperfect and deluded human beings. Our motivation tends to be mixed. Sometimes we just want to escape. At other times we are moved by concern for others. The Bodhisattva path can itself be a form of self salvation, a sort of justification of self by good works. Therefore the Bodhisattva path must be rooted in both compassion, for the suffering of others, and wisdom, which takes us beyond self. As long as we are caught up in the limitations of self centeredness, we will judge. That is the human condition: judging and comparing. To get beyond judging there must be an encounter with that which is measureless. This is the nature of religious experience. It is the arising of Wisdom. Bliss and joy are just side effects. The real power of awakening, of transcending self, is that we are overwhelmed by unconditional love and compassion. Touched by the measureless, we find the strength to persevere in the endless work of saving all beings. Those whose hearts have been awakened by the pain of others are not be content to abide in heaven while others continue to suffer. Such a life would be hell. We must get our hands dirty and strive to help all. It is not that Bodhisattvas are better than those who are content with their own salvation. Bodhisattvas are just driven to help all who suffer. The very existence of suffering beings is unbearable to the Bodhisattva. If you are called to walk the Bodhisattva path, do not think that your will end suffering with some heroic act or effort. That is the thinking of self centeredness. Humbled by encountering the measureless, we accept our limitations. We recognize that we will not be able to see or understand the fruits of our actions. Therefore we try to live in such a way that our very lives embody, in some small way, the potentiality of unconditional love and compassion. Feed the hungry. Strive to end war and hatred and violence. Work to stem the tide of greed and consumerism. Do these things because suffering is unacceptable. The way of the Bodhisattva is the way of love and compassion. Violence, greed, and ignorance are the very roots of all suffering. They are the three poisons of existence. The antidote is indiscriminate love and compassion administered consistently and with the patience of the Buddhas. Peace, Ananda
Do Buddhists Pray?
Western Buddhist, being mostly converts, avoid using the term prayer. It is a word too tightly tied to the religion of one’s upbringing. Even in the Japanese Jodo temples in the US one does not hear the term prayer. Rather the priests use the term “meditation” when they call on the Buddhas for blessings or benediction.
Personally, I think that there is a place for the word prayer in the vocabulary of western Buddhism. Buddhist around the world pray. They pray to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other spiritual beings. Prayer is a very important part of the religious life of Buddhists who follow the Dharma but recognize that they are not, nor are likely to become, Buddhas in this lifetime. They are are still caught up in the Samsara of everyday life but have a connection to the Buddha. This relationship with the Buddha is expressed through prayer.
How do we, as western Buddhists who are not yet Buddhas, express our relationship with the Buddha? How do we express our gratitude, our yearning, and our wishes for others?
As Buddhists, we aspire to alleviate suffering through living the noble life taught by the Buddhas. Ideally this is a life of perfect wisdom and compassion. Unfortunately, we are not Buddhas. We are only followers of the way. Our lives are lived in the space between Awakening and Samsara. We hear the Buddhas call to live lives of indiscriminate compassion. Yet we continue to discriminate between friend and foe, like and dislike, pleasure and pain.
Aware of our short comings, we call out to the Buddha. This calling out is Prayer. Prayer places our relationship to the world of Samsara within the in the context of Buddha’s measureless compassion. Prayer expresses our continual recollection of the Buddha and our awareness of our own limited and deluded natures.
Prayer is not a technique. It is not mind training. Prayer is our Heart response to suffering and affliction. Prayer is opening to the limitless possibilities of Awakening. Prayer is also our aspiration to Awaken for benefit of all beings. Prayer is the Dharma expressed through our compassionate actions in the world.
Namo Amida Bu!
Salvation in Many Forms
Salvation comes in many forms. For the hungry, it comes as bread. For the thirsty, it is water. For the homeless, it is shelter. For the lonely, it may be found in friendship. For those of us fortunate to have food, shelter, clothing, and friends, salvation is the awakening of the heart. It is being touched by the reality of measureless compassion. Experiencing compassion which is so limitless and total that our little self is overwhelmed and forgotten. Anyone at anytime can be saved. Both the holy and the evil can have a spiritual awakening that offers a new direction. The experience may be fleeting, possibly even unnoticed. It may reveal itself in a moment of uncharacteristic action that prevents some small harm. Perhaps it is found in a small act of kindness or love. Alternatively, the experience may be deep and transformative, leading to a new way of life. Being in the presence of holy beings, saints and people of deep prayer, often evokes a primordial memory of the reality of pervasive and limitless love. This is the power of prayer and love. It is what Mahatma Gandhi called “Satyagraha” or “Truth Force”. It is the power that Gandhi tried to employ in India’s nonviolent struggle for independence. It does not seek victory but rather spiritual transformation. Thus, for Gandhi, India’s independence struggle was an attempt to make real the transformative power of love in world. Clinging to Truth, which, for those of us who are Buddhist, might be called Bodhicitta, requires a certain level of discipline. This Discipline creates a life that is more in harmony with the Truth of Universal and indiscriminate compassion. It is a life of restraint and prayer that deeply values all life and all beings. Living such a life is not necessary for salvation. Awakening, touching that which is beyond self, is not caused by self effort. Salvation is a gift that is freely given. However, leading a life committed to compassionate action, forgiveness, and love, reduces suffering in the world and makes it easier for those around us to likewise be and do good. Peace, Ananda
The Rhythm of Daily Prayer
Lately I have been encouraging people of faith to develop a religious practice that involves daily study and prayer as well as weekly fellowship with like minded practitioners. Partly this is the result of my Buddhist training in which we constantly remember that life is precious and unreliable. None of us knows when we are going to die or face some profound suffering. Yet everyday we fill our lives with various activities, often unaware of the preciousness of human life. This does not have to be the case. The religious life is built up in little bits everyday. Inner transformation (metanoia) is the work of our daily struggle to encounter others with compassion and love. If you have not yet set aside time each day for study and contemplation, then here is a bit of inspiration. Over the course of a year, thirty minutes of prayer / mediation a day is equivalent to eleven, sixteen hour, days spent in contemplation! That is like going on a very intensive two week meditation retreat! While thirty minutes a day may seem like a lot to busy people with families, it is only two fifteen minute periods of prayer / meditation a day. Very attainable. Just a few minutes first thing in the morning and at the end of the day. The thing is, that if we are indeed people of faith, our daily business should take place around our spiritual lives. Unfortunately, often the exact opposite is the case. We try to squeeze our prayer life around the secular activities of life and then wonder why we feel unfulfilled. Though Buddhist, I have been greatly inspired by the Northumbria Christian community which has created a daily communal practice of liturgy. Members, and guest, are invited to follow their Office of Daily Prayer, no matter where they live. There is no need to abandon job and family to join the monastery, commune, or ashram. One only need join with the community in the daily rhythm of prayer. In our own little ways we can follow the example of the Norhtumbria community and begin to structure our daily lives around the daily rhythm of prayer and the living of compassionate lives. Namo Amida Bu! Peace, Ananda
Does Religion Offer Hope?
A friend recently asked me if I thought that religion had anything to do with hope? I said, “yes, and If your religion isn’t offering you hope then something is wrong.” However, as I reflected a little deeper on the question, I began to wonder how much real hope religion offers in today’s world. Certainly religion offers us, personally, much that is valuable. But does religion offer us the hope of solving the very real challenges of a world entering into the dramatic and possibly catastrophic era of climate change? As a person of faith, I would say that the answer is “yes” and “maybe”. Religion, in theory, shows us the way. Religion offers selflessness, restraint, sacrifice, compassion, forgiveness, and faith as a response to scarcity, hardship, and suffering. It offers lives lived individually and collectively in the sharing of resources and in the care of those who are suffering. Religion offers us the only real solution to a world being consumed, quite literally, by greed. The hope that religion offers the 21st century is found in the living of exemplary lives of compassion and concern for others. Religion must do the hard work of “saving souls” from the suffering and hellish future that will result from global climate change, war, and privation. If we are serious about our religious lives then we cannot turn away from suffering. We must live our vows to to save beings from suffering, not in some vague philosophical way, but now, in this lifetime, in real and concrete actions. We must alleviate suffering as it exists in its many forms today, and we must work in the world to prevent future suffering. The work of saving beings, in this lifetime and on this planet, from tremendous suffering, will require heroic acts of selflessness by large numbers of individuals. It is up to us, as people of faith, to take up the work of the saints. We cannot wait for someone else to come forward and do the work. We have the answers. All that is left is to live the Truths that we all know to be true but have been afraid to accept and put into practice. Namo Amida Bu! Peace, Ananda
Happiness: A Better New Yearʻs Resolution
There is a very famous story about the great Indian Saint Ramakrishna. He was quite orthodox and as such held to the belief that bathing in the river Ganges washed away all sins. Now to anyone watching the daily throng of devout Hindus bathing in the Ganges, and then observing their conduct after their morning ablutions, it would quickly become obvious that their sins had not been washed away. One of Ramakrishna’s visitors pointed just this contradiction out to the venerable saint. Once again Ramakrishna affirmed that the Ganges does indeed wash away sins. However, he conceded, our sins wait for us on the banks of the holy river. For Westerners, New Year’s is much like bathing in the Ganges. It is a time to wash away past sins and bad habits and start anew. We make vows to loose weight and live healthier. Maybe we strive to be nicer, or more forgiving, or generally a better person. Perhaps we aspire to accomplish some goal or project. These are all very wonderful. Yet our “sins” do not go away. The are hanging out waiting for us in the new year. Sure we push them aside for a bit, but they are persistent. After all they are fruit of our accumulated thoughts and actions throughout our lifetime, maybe even longer. They are familiar and comfortable habits, and they are really hard to change. It is not surprising then when we easily fall back into old behaviors. Some of this may be the result of overly ambitious goals. It is better that your New Year’s resolution be small and attainable, rather than heroic and unachievable. Real change occurs over long periods time. Persistence and patience, more often than not, win the day. Even the hardest stone is eventually worn down by the constant motion of water. Another challenge with New Year’s resolutions is motivation. Often our motivation is too small or misplaced. By this I mean that we are seeking happiness for our selves. Unfortunately, what we think of as our selves is really very transient. Our moods and mind change from moment to moment. That goal, which seemed laudable and attainable yesterday, seems ridiculous today. We may even wonder, “Who made such a goal?” You did, of course, or at least a previous “you” did. However, the mind has changed and it is now hard to believe that it was the same you that made such a goal. Before long your “sins”, your habitual patterns, are back in your life and no real change has occurred. What then is a solid foundation for change? It certainly is not some self building project. Yes being healthier and nicer are good things, but they are just part of your ego project which is, ultimately, the cause for all of our troubles. That which we call self is empty and unreliable. The self is ultimately not a true source of happiness. And as H. H. the Dalai Lama continually points out, we all want to be happy and avoid suffering. The cause of real happiness is found in non-self, or that which is other than self, ie. “other people”. Buddha is other than your self. Your neighbor is also other than your self. Real happiness, is found when we look outside ourselves and concern ourselves with the happiness and well being of others. This is the beginning of the practice of compassion (karuna) and love (metta) which is the heart of the Buddha’s teachings. Change from self focus to other focus is hard. Each day we must try to reflect upon the lives of others to understand their joys and sufferings. We can celebrate their joys with them and try to alleviate, or at least sympathize with, their sufferings. We will make mistakes, we will sometimes cause hurt or be unsympathetic to others. Never the less, continue to offer kindness and compassion, as best you can, to the people around you. Over a lifetime of practicing love and compassion, your life will be transformed. Your old habits, you “sins”, will have withered from lack of attention. You will be happier and will have found inner peace and meaning. More importantly the people around you will be happier for having known you. Begin today to make the world a more compassionate and happier place. Look beyond yourself and see what you can do for the people in your life. Sometimes all it takes is the right intention, and attention, to awaken to the amazing world beyond your self. Namo Amida Bu! Peace, Ananda