Not Just Another Mantra

October 2, 2018

Pureland Buddhists are taught that the six syllables of the Nembutsu — Namo Amida Bu — are not a mantra. But the reality is that Namo Amida Bu is indeed a mantra. Not all mantras, however, are the same. In Buddhism alone, there are an abundance of practical mantras that bestow protection, heal, increase wealth, curry favor, confer magical powers (siddhi), control spirits, etc. The Nembutsu is not a mantra like this.

NABFor devotees of Amida Buddha, the Nembutsu is a supreme invocation. It is a heart-full calling out to that which is measureless and unconditional. It is an invocation of the highest truth — that which is beyond BEYOND. It is an impractical mantra. It does not grant earthly boons. It is purely religious in its purpose and for that reason it is ultimately valuable and supreme.

Which is not to say that Namo Amida Bu is the supreme — singular — mantra. It is not. Other traditions have different mantras connected to what theologian Paul Tillich would identify as their ultimate concern. Like the Nembutsu, these mantras are impractical — without practical worldly application. They are an activity of heart and spirit. They are prayer and invocation all tied up together.

Mantras, like all the practical concerns of life, are useful. The Nembutsu, Namo Amida Bu, is not useful or practical and in this sense it is certainly not a mantra.

Peace, Paul

The Kindom of Heaven is not Conflict Averse

September 10, 2018

The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.

Matthew 13:33 (International Standard Version)

Jesus cuts to the chase. The Kingdom — or better — the Dominion of Heaven is not simply an idyllic realm set apart from this world of strife, privation, and racism. No! The Dominion of Heaven is dynamically present in the fullness of life — pleasant and otherwise.

This is a hard truth. We don’t want to suffer. We want to believe that there is a way to escape from the unpleasant parts of life. We want goodness to effortlessly and miraculously change the world so that there is no hardship and pain. But if we look at the lives of Jesus, Buddha, their Disciples, and other religious Greats we see that they often faced adversity. They had to overcome obstacles, deal with conflict, and generally work very hard to realize their vision. They also suffered — and enjoyed — fully human lives. That is what makes them extraordinary. They were completely human and vulnerable, but their lives always pointed toward the Divine.

In recent times, we have seen a number of spiritual giants arise in the midst of hardship and horror: Gandhi, Dorothy Day, HH the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Friar Maximilian Kolbe, Oscar Romero, and many others.

None of these individuals’ lives were easy. They faced impossible situations with courage, hard work, and perseverance. They embodied faith and vision in the midst of adversity. They offered hope to those who had lost all hope by tirelessly and continually showing up and fighting for the welfare of others, sometimes at the cost of their own lives.

christ of the bread linesAwakening to the reality of the Dominion of Heaven does not free us from the emotional and physical ups and downs of life. We do not cease to experience hurt, fear, or doubt. Rather, the Dominion of Heaven breaks open our hearts to the reality of unconditional and all-embracing love.

Love — Άγάπη — is the Divine Leaven. It nurtures and heals our human relationships as well our connection with all of creation. Love is the heart of the religious life.

To boldly live a life of love — even in the midst of adversity — is to embrace the reality of the Dominion of Heaven. As Saint Catherine of Siena famously said, “…All the way to heaven, is heaven.” The path is the destination.

Yes, at some future time we may enter the glorious and blissful realm of the Divine. But right now and right here we must allow ourselves to be the Divine Leaven in society. We must take up the hard and sacred work of transforming this world into a realm of love and compassion.

The Divine is radically transformative. Therefore, the work of social change will often bring us into conflict with others who are resistant to changing. As religious practitioners we cannot be afraid of this inevitable conflict. Yes, we should be aware of our motivations. We should certainly try to remain rooted in love. But we cannot allow the desire to avoid conflict stand in the way of doing what is right.

We must lead the fight for social just with love in our hearts and a deep concern for the welfare of all, even our adversaries. This is the work of love. It is not easy. But it is the way to realize the Dominion of Heaven.

Peace, Paul

The Blessing Community

August 4, 2018

On May 3rd, 2018 the Kilauea Volcanic Eruption began spewing lava and rocks into people’s backyards in Puna. Over the ensuing weeks lava flowed over houses, roads, and entire neighborhoods. Thousands were displaced.

Kilauea-volcan-fissure-8-lava-fountainThe eruption continues. There is no end in sight. Land and memories continue to be consumed by lava. People are hurt, mourning, and desperately in need of way forward, a path towards recovery.  However, you can’t rebuild during an ongoing disaster or in the middle of an active lava field.

All of this is stressful. It is stressful on the people whose houses have been destroyed, some of whom are still living in emergency shelters. It is stressful on those who live near the eruption and are dealing with bad air and contaminated water. It is stressful on government, non-profits, and churches who are called on to offer hope and help.

Hope is in short supply at the moment. Help is not. The local communities of faith, who have been working over the last few years to address family homelessness, are taking action. Buddhists, Mormons, Unitarian Universalists, Jews, Protestants, and Catholics are all working together to provide volunteers, meals, relief supplies, pastoral care, temporary shelter, housing, and more to those impacted by the disaster.

Full recovery from this disaster lies many years into the future. There are no quick fixes. Most victims will never return to their homes, which are buried in an active lava field. Victims are stuck waiting and feeling hopeless while government and others work on a recovery plan.

What hope exist is found in the inter-religious cooperation of our faith communities. Their prayerful action and deep faith provides inspiration during these difficulty times. Their willingness to set aside differences in order to respond effectively to suffering is the living reality of a Blessing Community.

Eventually, a recovery plan will come together. It won’t be perfect. Some will be able to rebuild and start anew. Others will struggle. A few will never recover.

People of faith can’t do everything. However, when they work together they can offer hope and healing — Blessing — to all, even in the most difficult of situations.

Peace, Paul

Photo: Public Domain Photo from USGS

Sinning Against Families and Children

May 28, 2018

I usually don’t write about overtly political issues which are often divisive and ephemeral. I strive to use my writing to support and inspire others in the work of building/realizing what Christ called the Basileia of Heaven, Dr King called, “The Beloved Community,” and what we Buddhists know as the Pure Land.

Today, I am making an exception.

We cannot enter the Basileia of Heaven, the Beloved Community, the Pure Land, if we ourselves cannot offer love and protection to families and children. The current administration’s policy of separating children from parents who immigrate to the US illegally runs counter to everything we know about healthy child development.  It harms children, especially the youngest and most vulnerable. It is a policy that results in broken and traumatized children. It is a form of institutionalized child abuse.

incarcerated-teddyMany Americans pride themselves on their faith and strong religious values, central among these being the importance of family. Tearing apart families, even of illegal immigrants, must be a moral issue of gravest religious concern. This is not a political issue for the right or the left. In fact, it is probably one of the most non-political issues of our time. Stated simply: Parents and children — families — should remain united.

Because this is a religious and moral issue, there should be a unified and deafening uprising of outrage and protest across the political spectrum, from the center out to farthest edges of the right and left. It should be the one issue upon which we can all find common cause. We should be united in our declaration that parents and children should remain together.

Depressingly, there does not seem to be a groundswell of moral outrage. Instead we see the usual power plays and political gamesmanship.

Have we as a people of faith fallen so far as to place political party and power over the welfare of children and the integrity of family? If we cannot protect children from the trauma and pain of losing their parents, then the value of religion is doubtful.

It is my hope that as a nation we can recognize as sinful this immigration policy that calls for the removal of children from their loving parents.

It is my prayer that people of faith — all faiths — will live up to their highest ideals and say no to this abhorrent immigration policy. As people of faith, we are called to extend hospitality and love to all, especially the vulnerable, the beleaguered, and the friendless. Children are the most vulnerable. They need our love, our concern, and they certainly need their parents.

Peace, Paul

Yet another 2018 Reboot: Big Island Lava? — Judy K Walker

May 4, 2018

My wife writes here about life in Hawaii and gives a nice update on the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occuring in our little bit of Hawaii. Peace, Paul

I know, this is supposed to be an off week for the Blog, but I thought I’d share something anyway, in case you need a break from political crazy with real world, Hawaii Island crazy. No, we haven’t had another nuke scare, but we are circling back to a popular theme… Yesterday was the first…

via Yet another 2018 Reboot: Big Island Lava? — Judy K Walker

The Power of Cultivated Beneficence

April 26, 2018

In September of 1947 Gandhi undertook a fast to address the violence in Calcutta that had killed thousands. It was only a few months before his assassination.

Ghastly communal violence verging on civil war was sweeping across India. On the heels of independence, India was being partitioned into two States, Pakistan and India. Political and social forces were fanning the flames of fear to achieve their ends. Political, social, and religious conflict became violent with some of the worst violence erupting in Calcutta.

GandhiGandhi, who had devoted his life to non-violence, was heartbroken by the bloodshed. He travelled to Calcutta to try and help quell the unrest and violence. Initially, he sought to resolve the conflict by meeting with all the involved parties. Not everyone participated and only a temporary respite from the violence resulted.

When the violence resumed, Gandhi felt that the only response left to him was a fast, unto death if necessary. Fasting was a technique he had used many times before. However, Gandhi was 79 at this point. No longer a young man, people feared for his well-being. Undeterred, Gandhi began to fast. The fast, which lasted only three days, had the desired effect. The violence ceased and did not resume. Gandhi’s fast created the communal peace in Calcutta that the government had been unable to realize through policing.

The Calcutta Fast is one of the most outstanding events in Gandhi’s remarkable life. It is almost impossible to believe that a single person could exert such a powerful pacifying influence on a community engulfed in violence and social enmity. Try to imagine someone of significance today vowing to fast unto death unless we stop spewing partisan hate. The idea is laughable. Yet this is exactly what Gandhi did in the much more volatile political climate of 1947 India.

It is undeniable that Gandhi was extraordinary. He was not born that way. He was an unremarkable, shy child and young man. The Gandhi of the Calcutta fast was created through his lifelong struggle to apply the values of Ahimsa (non-violence) and Satyagraha (Truth Force) to all aspects of life, personal and political. It wasn’t easy. He was not immune to failure, missteps, bad decisions, and ridicule. He suffered and knew the inside of a jail cell.

Mahatma Gandhi believed that his lived values exerted a tangible influence on the world. The Calcutta fast affirmed his belief. It also demonstrates for us the effectiveness of applied love and compassion.

Though we are not Gandhi, we all exert a tangible influence on the world. For most of us, our influence is small. We probably can’t stop a riot. But we have the potential to be a positive influences in our communities. In Buddhism this influence is our field of merit. And yes, there are individuals who have a negative sphere of influence. However, most of us are neutral. We are neither particularly good nor evil. We don’t realize — or don’t believe — that we are influencing and impacting the people around us through our actions, words, and thoughts. Not recognizing the potential of our simple presence, we do not proactively cultivate beneficence through love and compassion.

Gandhi’s fast was an extraordinary reminder of the power of cultivated beneficence. It provides a window onto a world radically transformed by love, compassion, and non-violence. In our cynical eyes, the creation of such a world seems impossible. People were no less cynical in Gandhi’s time. Their cynicism, however, did not stop Gandhi from demonstrating that what others thought impossible was in reality possible. Maybe it is time for us to follow Gandhi’s lead and demonstrate that love can indeed overcome hatred.

Peace, Paul

Are We the People we Want to Be?

April 17, 2018

These days my heart is broken by our national drift towards callousness. Our elected officials, the people we put in office to express our shared values and vision, are trying to make it harder for individuals to receive food assistance.

There are solid logistical reasons not to do this, and I am certain they will be articulated in the national media. However, I am more concerned about what this shift in policy says about our shared moral values.

Sharing BreadFood is one of the necessities of life. Feeding the hungry is perhaps the simplest tangible act of love and compassion that we can undertake, individually and as a nation. It alleviates an immediate and real need — hunger — and in doing so directly improves another’s life.

Feeding the hungry is an act of generosity, a universal religious value. Giving food to the hungry is one of the specific acts of love that Jesus advocated. Feeding the hungry is a Christian value.

As a nation, we have more than enough food abundance to easily end hunger in the United States. This abundance is reflected in the large amounts of food we export and the vast amount that we regularly throw out. Nevertheless, hunger persists in our nation. Working families struggle to put food on the table. American children experience hunger. Simultaneously, stock prices and market values hit record highs.

Is this truly who we are as a nation? Are we proud of the fact that in the United States 13.1 million households with children are food-insecure? Does hunger and privation alongside fabulous national wealth reflect our shared values?

Hunger in the midst of national abundance is not a moral value I can accept. Rather, I believe that as a nation we are enriched by values of generosity and concern for the well-being of our neighbors, friend and stranger alike. We are a stronger nation — literally and figuratively — when we feed all who live within our borders. We are lessened and morally compromised when we allow poverty and hunger to thrive despite our great national wealth, power, and resources.

Jesus famously said, “You will know them by their fruits.” It is time for us as a nation to look at the fruits of our actions and ask ourselves, “Are we the nation and the people we really want to be?”

Peace, Paul

Antidote to the Poison of Divisiveness

April 5, 2018

Compassion means to feel with. It is a sharing in the feelings of others. It is a heart practice. It comes from the heart and is at the heart of the religious life.

lotusHis Holiness the Dalai Lama, a tremendously erudite and agile thinker, teaches constantly on compassion. Wherever he goes, he continually reminds his audiences that everyone is alike in wanting to avoid suffering and desiring happiness. We all want to be happy. We all seek to avoid pain and suffering. This is a universal experience.

This is easy to understand. Since we, as religious people, want to be more compassionate, it can be tempting to use this understanding to practice with the intellect alone. We might try to move through the world each day thinking, “May you be free of suffering. May you find happiness.” Such thoughts are valuable. They are a good place to start.

However, the truly transformational potential of this practice is awakened by taking our own emotions -—  hurts, fears, and joys — and using them in our practice of compassion. With a little attention, we can become aware of the emotions, thoughts, and sensations that arise when our feelings get hurt, or we get sick, or we experience loss, etc.

We may also notice our aversion to these negative experiences and have an aha moment. “Oh…I really don’t want this negative experience right now.” That insight might be quickly followed by the realization that others are just like you in not wanting to feel what you are feeling.

Likewise, you can use your joy and happiness to empower your practice. When you are “in the zone” and everything seems to go smoothly, recognize it. Acknowledge your happiness. Notice what it feels like. Notice how you desire to hold onto happiness and keep it from ending. Then reflect on the fact that others are just like you in desiring happiness. This is what everyone wants. And so you contemplate, using your joyous feelings: “May you — and you — experience what I am feeling. May you be happy!”

As your compassion matures, you may be moved to try and give your happiness to others. Or you may want to take on others’ suffering. Practiced in this way, all the pains and joys of daily life are opportunities to continually contemplate our similarities with others. We are all human. No matter our station in life, age, sex, or race, we all desire happiness and seek to avoid suffering. Out of this profound realization, compassion and love naturally arise for the people we encounter on a daily basis, either in person or through the media.

Such compassion can be a powerful antidote to the poisonous divisiveness currently running through our society. Compassion includes all — lovers, friends, associates, and even enemies — who like us desire happiness and want to avoid suffering.

Peace, Paul




Awakening to the Shadow Side of Affluence

March 4, 2018

Poverty is a social disease, not an individual sin. Jesus understood this truth. The radical and untamed Jesus of the gospels was poor and disenfranchised. He lived among, taught, and healed the diseased, the powerless, the hopeless. Today, we would likely find him living on our streets ministering to the forgotten people who have no place in our society except as detritus and nuisances.

Being poor, Jesus understood poverty. Being oppressed, He understood powerlessness and injustice. Yet Jesus offered a message of hope. His way of love, if truly embraced, turns the social norms of an injust society on its head. In His realm of love, the weak and vulnerable are more precious than the powerful and successful.

In our own Buddhist way, we can understand that Jesus was a Bodhisattva — a being whose entire life was focused on the wellbeing of others. This does not challenge the Christian understanding of Jesus as the Anointed One (Christ), but rather gives us Buddhists an opportunity to embrace the working of Amida’s Unconditional Compassion in its many forms.

The Buddha Shakyamuni — the historical Buddha — was not poor. He came from a privileged social class. He had access to wealth, power, and influence. Even after Shakyamuni left the palace and became known as the Buddha, he retained connections with his former life. He was often surrounded by other disaffected members of the aristocracy, many of whom were related to him. Unlike Jesus, the Buddha Shakyamuni and his community (Sangha) were supported by the wealthy and powerful of his time. As a result, Shakyamuni and the Buddhist Sangha had an interest in maintaining the status quo.

While the Buddha certainly offered an alternative way of life — a tremendously liberating one — he did not challenge the structural violence and injustice of society in the confrontational way that Jesus did. (Remember, Jesus was executed for sedition.) The Buddha’s revolution was more explicitly internal, than the one Jesus offered.

Buddha Tending the SickThe downside of this emphasis on internality is that compassion and love, the two dynamic activities of the religious life, are often practiced in a general and non-specific way. Buddhists have compassion for all beings, but may not do anything about the suffering on their doorsteps. Buddhists vow to save all beings, but rarely challenge the social structures that perpetuate the suffering of so many.

While a vibrant inner spiritual life is important, we exist within a complex social structure. The reality is that our lives in the affluent West are environmentally unsustainable and greedy. We consume a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources, which are often acquired through social and economic systems that perpetuate poverty, violence, and discrimination.

Jesus’ life bears witness to this shadow side of affluence. As Buddhists, we can learn a lot about the world of privation and oppression from Jesus’ life. It can show us how to ground our compassion, meditation, and profound insight into the reality of the sufferings of the weak and vulnerable. Jesus can remind us that the work of Bodhisattvas is messy, uncomfortable, and dangerous. And Jesus can make us uncomfortable in our spiritual smugness when so many in the world have so little. Jesus reveals to us the brokenness of a social system that values power and wealth over life and love.

Cultivating compassion — daily — is important. Compassion, however, must be honed through tangible action. As Dostoyevsky famously wrote in the Brothers Karamazov: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” As Buddhists, we need to acknowledge our tradition’s bias towards the wealthy, educated, and comfortable. We must recognize our tradition’s tendency to cultivate a generalized compassion that is uncoupled from real world hardships and distress.

Compassion and love are relational. Jesus’ life demonstrates that compassion and love are meaningless outside of tangible actions towards real people — many of whom are hurt, confused, scared, and often difficult to be around.

Christians can learn a lot from the Buddha. However, on the issues of inequality, privation, and social injustice, we can learn much from Jesus about the need for a grassroots, compassionate awakening that seeks to radically transform society for the benefit of those who have nothing.

Peace, Paul

Universal Salvation not Individual Salvation

February 17, 2018

I spend a lot of time working with our local Interfaith group. I do this because I believe that here in the United States we need to shift the dominant religious narrative from one of individual salvation, to that of Universal Salvation.

Individual salvation, has its place. It is especially important for the powerless and oppressed. It offers hope to those who cannot change the world around them. It can provide healing to those whose spirit has been broken.

Individual salvation is a bit like money. For those who have few means, it is vital and life saving (salvific). For those of great wealth, it is often a source of self-indulgence and gluttony. For the wealthy, the principle virtue is necessarily generosity —using one’s wealth to benefit those who suffer disproportionately because they have so little.

We who are fortunate in our liberty and abundance have an obligation to work for the salvation of others. Universal Salvation is our moral imperative. To luxuriate in comfort and safety while children and others remain unfed and unsheltered is fundamentally wrong. We all know this.

The work of helping others can seem daunting. It may be hard to know where to begin. As trite as it sounds, compassionate action begins with compassionate action. It doesn’t have to be grand or perfect, it just has to happen — daily. Because really, salvation is not hard.

Mary Carrying JesusYou don’t need to be a Saint to offer salvation. You certainly don’t need a complicated philosophy or theology or soteriology. You simply need to be willing to help others. Salvation can be offered in the form of  food for the hungry, shelter for shelterless, employment for unemployed, medicine for the sick, friendship for friendless, comfort for the distraught.

Salvation is the universally welcoming spirit. It is present when we set aside judgement and discrimination and accept others just as they are. Salvation is awakening to the reality that all beings are our beloved neighbors

Universal Salvation is the life path of love and compassion. It is practiced in an ever widening circle. Proximity is key. We cannot understand those whom we do not know. We cannot offer love and assistance — salvation — to those who are unwelcome, either explicitly or implicitly, in our churches and temples.

Ultimately, all are worthy of food and shelter. All are worthy of respect. All are worthy of love. All are worthy of salvation. We simply need to be willing to share our spiritual and material abundance in order to offer Universal Salvation to all.

Peace, Paul

Image: Mary holding the broken body of Jesus.