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.

Sujata: The Buddha’s Last Teacher

January 21, 2018

January 20, 2018, marks the second anniversary of the Women’s March. On this day, let us remember and honor the woman who gave Gautama the final teachings necessary for him to become a Buddha.

That teacher was the young woman named Sujata. She found Gautama close to death, next to a small stream where he had passed out. She was on her way, so the story goes, to make offerings to a local god that lived in a particular tree.

SujataSujata found the sickly Buddha-to-be and was moved by compassion and kindness. Instead of taking her food offerings to the local god, she gave them to Gautama.

There are several versions of this story. Some say the woman was a goddess or an emanation of Tara. In the tantric tradition, Tara takes the Buddha into a celestial realm and gives him the final teachings on tantra.

In other traditions, the woman is wealthy and beautiful and petitioning the god for a husband and (of course) a male child. When she encounters Gautama, the food that she offers him — in a gold bowl no less — instantly and miraculously restores his strength and health. Further, this single meal is said to have sustained him for the next seven weeks.

I don’t like either of these stories. They are too simple, too fable-like. They remove us from the gritty reality of life with its sorrows, joys, and difficult choices.

I imagine that Sujata actually spent several weeks nursing the Buddha-to-be back to health. Remember, she found him on the verge of death. He was so weak that he had fallen into a shallow stream and nearly drowned. In addition to giving him food, she probably had to help him find shelter from the elements so he could convalesce. Maybe she brought the Buddha ointments and medicines. Perhaps she made him a fresh set of robes. She might have done all of this by herself, but I doubt it. It is likely she told her family. Together, they cared for this stranger, whom we would later call the Buddha.

As the Buddha recovered, he undoubtedly observed the care he was receiving. These people were not fleeing the world — as Gautama had — in response to encountering dukkha: difficulties, sickness, and death. Instead, they were responding to the reality of dukkha with compassion, concern, and generosity.

The young woman, Sujata, was Gautama’s great and final teacher. Until meeting Sujata, Gautama had pursued only Wisdom through his intense asceticism and yogas. However, to become a Buddha one must have both perfect Wisdom (prajna) and unconditional Compassion (karuna). Gautama, had not yet trained in compassion.

It was Sujata that gave the Buddha the teachings on Compassion. She did not give him an elaborate, theoretical teaching or complicated meditations, rather she demonstrated compassion through her actions. Her kindness changed his entire approach to the spiritual path. Without Sujata, Gautama would not have become the Buddha, both because he would have died and because his realization would never have been complete. Without Sujata’s teachings on compassion, Gautama would have been just one of many now forgotten, world-denying ascetic yogis that lived in ancient India.

We can — if we want — call Sujata a manifestation of the great, compassionate female Bodhisattva Tara. Not a magical, fairytale manifestation, but rather a real woman who lived her compassion daily. A bodhisattva that offered a dying stranger food, shelter, and kindness. A woman whose compassionate actions have been felt by innumerable Buddhists throughout history.

Peace, Paul

Social Transformation Takes Work

January 16, 2018

Taking meaningful social action is hard for churches. Yet social transformation, which is really what churches are all about, only comes through the hard and persistent work of individuals and groups.

Social transformation — creating more just and compassionate communities — begins by addressing real needs and not imagined ones. There are lots of nice things to do to help people, but whether or not these things are truly needed or even effective should be considered carefully.

Let’s look at homelessness. The way to end homelessness is to house people. It is that simple. If the goal is to end homelessness, then our priority must be housing. Everything else is secondary.

There are many groups and churches who want to do something about homelessness. They want to feel good about doing good. So they gather hygiene products for the homeless. Or they make blankets. Or they gather coats, shoes, and other basic items for the homeless. They go out on holidays and serve food to the homeless. At Christmas, they buy gifts for the homeless.

All of these are wonderful and kind acts. But if we step back, if we look at it from a distance and with honesty, we will see that none of these projects has helped end homelessness. No one has been housed. At best, these groups have helped homeless individuals be a little more comfortable while remaining homeless.

Non-profits are partially to blame for this situation. We are not willing to tell the truth about these warm-hearted programs. We are unwilling to say to churches and donors: Thank you, but those things are not helpful. They will not end homelessness. What we need from you is housing. And since a lot of homeless individuals are employed, that housing just needs to be affordable based on the realistic earning capacity of a family or individual.

Homelessness persists, at least in the U.S., because churches and social groups have not been willing to do the actual hard work of housing those who are houseless. This might involve opening up church buildings to the homeless, or pressuring lawmakers to build realistically affordable housing, or some other approach.

JizoBig social changes involve sacrifice. Homelessness persists because we, as people of faith, do not truly believe that everyone deserves a home. We are willing to accept homelessness — even the homelessness of families and children — because challenging the status quo is uncomfortable.

If we want to create a more compassionate society, then we need to take action to address real needs in an effective way. Start local. Be effective. Charity is good and important, but we also need to work for structural change. By all means feed your hungry neighbor, but then begin challenging the systems that contribute to hunger in your community.

Charity is often easier than social change. There is something immediately satisfying about feeding a hungry person, or giving a coat to someone who is cold. But if you have to do that day-in and day-out for years, it gets old. So challenge broken and oppressive systems. Charity is a Band-aid. Social change is the cure.

Churches and Faith Communities have the resources to maintain the struggle over the long haul. We have Faith and Vision. However, realizing the Pure Land — the community rooted in love and compassion —  requires action. The Pure Land arises when we do the hard and tangible work of reducing poverty, oppression, violence, racism, injustice, and environmental destruction in our neighborhoods and local communities.

Peace, Paul

Photo: Jizo Bodhisattva, a protector — especially of children

Buddhism is Compassionate Action

January 8, 2018

My wife and I don’t live in the Hawaii of postcards and movies. Our Hawaii  is often overlooked and un-photographed. It is the Hawaii where 1 in 6 residents live in poverty and close to 70% of our school age children qualify for the free or reduced lunch program.

The majority of homes in our district don’t have county water. Housing, electricity, and gas are some of the most expensive in the nation. There is limited access to basic health care. Cellular and internet service, if you can afford them, are often unreliable or unavailable.

Which is not to say that Hawaii is special in these respects. There are impoverished communities across the United States, often hidden in the shadows of wealth and luxury. There are oppressed people in every state. Racism and classism are pervasive. Ironically, in “the land of plenty,” many barely have enough to get by.

In this part of Hawaii, if you are willing to look, the reality and pervasiveness of poverty is not hard to see. It is a community that is ripe for compassionate action.

It is in this place that I have found myself working in a non-profit that helps families. As a Buddhist, who feels strongly that the heart of Buddhism is compassionate action, the work is natural.

Unfortunately, much of Buddhism in the West is focused on individual salvation, self improvement, meditation, and spiritual experiences. It is a Buddhism of privilege, focused on the sufferings of wealth as opposed to the sufferings of poverty.

Buddhism, however, offers hope to all, not just the well-off and comfortable. The historical Buddha lived in the world. He walked the countryside, visiting villages and towns. He taught the mighty as well as the lowly. The Buddha was often the last hope of the oppressed: slaves, untouchables, criminals, and women. In the Buddha, these individuals found a refuge from the oppressive social structures of the day.

ChenrezigLike the historical Buddha, we need to live the Dharma in the world. We need individuals — Bodhisattvas — willing to get off the meditation cushion and leave the dojo to do the hard, slow work of peacemaking and social justice. We need Bodhisattvas protecting the biosphere through fierce compassion and non-violence. We need Bodhisattvas organizing people and preaching against violence, while living lives of love and compassion. We need Bodhisattvas working alongside the homeless and the poor to challenge the social structures that perpetuate poverty. We need Bodhisattvas who offer refuge to the oppressed and vulnerable. In short, we need Bodhisattvas to continue Shakyamuni’s work of building an awakened and compassionate community. A community that can work together to build a Pureland in our midst. A compassionate community that can move the world away from war, poverty, and discrimination.

It is the work of many hands over many lifetimes. Each of us is capable of vowing to save (help) the people and beings around us who are suffering unnecessarily. Charity is good, but it is not enough. Poverty, violence, and racism are not individual sins, but social diseases. They are the fruit of pervasive social brokenness. They reflect our collective disordered heart that prioritizes material gain and power over love and compassion.

Thus our vow to help all is a vow of love. It is the vow is to heal our wounded and diseased society. It is a vow that extends unconditionally to all: family, friends, strangers, and enemies. Because the most broken-hearted members of society often cause the most harm and need the most love and compassion to heal. It is an almost impossible vow. It is the vow of Great Bodhisattvas. It is also an eternal vow. When we take this vow, we do not stand alone. We stand alongside the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas throughout time. This is why the simple vow of unconditional love and compassion towards all is known as the original vow of all Buddhas.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Deepening Your Practice in 2018

January 1, 2018

A New Year is upon us. It is a time of recollection and new beginnings.

2017 was a hard year. The wars in multiple Middle Eastern countries continued, without an end in sight. We came closer to nuclear war than we have in a generation. Overt expressions of racism and hatred are on the rise. And social media has become an inescapable cycle of suffering — driven by our seemingly endless greed, hatred, and fundamental ignorance.

This New Year, break the cycle. Make your resolution one that will benefit all beings. Make a commitment to deepen your spiritual / religious life.

If you don’t know where to begin, here are four concrete steps you can take:

Step 1. Schedule time every day for prayer and/or meditation. We may not recognize it, but we are all starving for silence. Prayer and meditation — contemplative silence — is the food that fuels our spiritual life.

Step 2. Spend a little time each day studying scripture — Christian, Buddhist, or other tradition. Scripture challenges our self-centered world view. It opens us up to new ways to see the world and the people in it. It offers us hope and the vision of a compassionate and loving world.

Studying scripture doesn’t need to be onerous. Read a few sentences or a short passage. Mull it throughout the day. Let it sink into your body and mind and work on you from the inside.

Step 3. Do good. Live your love and compassion through action. The world isn’t going to magically become more Just, Loving, and Compassionate. Prayer equals action. Each of us must do the work necessary to transform the world.

Look around and start local. Take action to address poverty, hunger, homelessness, oppression, racism, violence, hatred, environmental sustainability, etc. in your community. Don’t stop at Charity. Charity often only treats the symptoms. We want to heal the disease. Be proactive and work to transform the social structures that perpetuate social ills.

Step 4. Give thanks! Gratitude is transformative and healing. Many of us are awash in abundance and do not realize it. Spend a little time each day appreciating the many people and things that make life generally, and your life particularly, possible.

Change is hard. Be patient with yourself. Don’t give up. We need more compassionate and loving leaders who are rooted in deep and daily spirituality. Together, we can create a better world, a more caring and kind world. We can reduce suffering and violence and poverty. We just need to do the work and to hold tenaciously to — have faith in — the transformative power of lived love.

Peace, Paul

Buddha and Christ

December 27, 2017

Here is a re-post of a blog from four years ago. A belated Merry Christmas and Happy Bodhi Day.

Peace Paul's Blog

Buddha and Christ behold one another. Buddha gazes upon Christ. Christ gazes upon Buddha.

This wonderful picture, which was taken during a Buddhist retreat at a Christian monastery,  speaks deeply of the relationship between Christ and Buddha.  They, Buddha and Christ, are different, yet they both exist in the shared space of our world.  Because this is a Buddhist retreat, the followers of Buddha are bowing toward the image of Buddha.  This does not devalue the existence, life, and teachings of Christ. Rather it is only a shift in focus.

Likewise, if the photo had been taken from the other perspective, i.e. behind the image of Christ, with Christians at prayer before Christ, their prayer and focus on Christ would in no way diminish the life and teachings of Buddha.

Here Christ gazes over the prostrating forms and sees Buddha.  Buddha looks over the heads of the disciples and sees Christ.

Both, I imagine, rejoice in…

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The Buddha of Light

December 21, 2017

RadientLet us remember Amitabha — the Buddha of light — on this Winter Solstice. Whether we are overcome by physical darkness or emotional despair, know that Amitabha’s radiant wisdom, compassion, and love are accessible in all places and all times. Thus, Amitabha is known as:

  • the Buddha of Measureless Light
  • the Buddha of Boundless Light;
  • the Buddha of Unimpeded Light;
  • the Buddha of Incomparable Light;
  • the Buddha of the Light of the Monarch of Fires;
  • the Buddha of Pure Light;
  • the Buddha of the Light of Joy;
  • the Buddha of the Light of Wisdom;
  • the Buddha of Continuous Light;
  • the Buddha of Inconceivable Light;
  • the Buddha of Ineffable Light; and
  • the Buddha of Light Outshining the Sun and the Moon.

Do not lose hope! Open your heart to the light of awakening. Turn your mind towards the possibility of a world filled with love and compassion. Live your life inspired by that vision. Take refuge in Amitabha’s spiritual radiance. See Amitabha’s light everywhere and in everyone. Offer kindness to all. Inspire others so that they may find hope, wisdom, and joy.

Namo Amida Bu and Happy Solstice.

Peace, Paul

Radical Humility

November 13, 2017

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Being “Poor in Spirit” is often understood to mean, “being humble.”  This is not the affected humility of “polite society” with which we are all familiar. Rather, in this passage from Matthew, Jesus is describing a radical humility that opens us up to the “Kingdom of Heaven.” It is the experiential recognition that we are completely dependent upon others for our existence. Without the earth, the sea, the sky — the whole universe — we could not exist. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, are all the result of others’ work. Our body is a gift from our parents and the sustaining circumstances of life. Even our thoughts arise— usually unasked — from previous thought moments and experiences.

Radical humility deconstructs our personal and social myth of independence. It unmasks the lie of separateness! Radical humility reveals our total dependence on others.

While such a realization may be disheartening for some, within a religious context it is liberating. It is an experience of joyous gratitude, which is the heart of religious experience. All the little mundane moments of life are perceived as the gifts they are. Each moment is fresh and new. Humility allows us to rejoice in the simple pleasures of life: the air we breath, the water we drink, the love an support of friends and family. We discover Jesus’ “Kingdom of Heaven,” or Amida Buddha’s Land of Love and Bliss all around us.

What then do we do? Do we keep this joy and insight to ourselves or do we share it with others? Many choose the former. But in today’s challenging times we need people willing to live humble lives of overflowing gratitude. We need people willing to work to reify the “Kingdom of Heaven” — not through dogmatism or fundamentalism — but through loving and compassionate action. We need inspired visionaries working side by side to free the world from the evils of want, war, and discrimination.

The work begins, however, from a place of radical humility.  We start by recognizing our limitations and our dependence upon one another. No one is completely other or separate. No one can do it all. We are in this together.  Radical humility offers the key to spiritual and social transformation.

Therefore, may we all be “poor in spirit” and collectively discover the “Kingdom of Heaven,” in our hearts and in the world around us.

Peace, Paul

Bearing Witness in Hilo

September 1, 2017

At 4 p.m. on Monday, August 28, 2017, a small group of Buddhist and Christian clergy gathered near the corner of Pauahi Street and 17_08_28 Event 2Kamehameha Avenue in Hilo, Hawaii. After an opening reflection by Rev. Linda, we moved to the street to offer a prayerful response to the hate and racism that has become so visible in our nation. We held signs reading: “Racism is a Sin,” “Love not Hate,” “Justice for All,” etc.

17_08_28 Event 4As our vigil continued, we were joined by more clergy and people of faith. Our numbers grew to over forty individuals Bearing Witness to the truth of love and justice. There were Lutherans, Methodists, Catholics, Unitarians, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ, Pureland Buddhists, and others.

Across the street, counter-protesters set up graphic signs and began to spew hate and slander at our group. In addition to insults and curses hurled at the group as a whole, they taunted clergy members by name. A few counter-protesters crossed the street to challenge the people in our group and stir up confrontation.

We held our discipline. We were not provoked. We responded to the baiting and hate with patience and forbearance. All the while, drivers honked, waved, and generally expressed support as they passed our group.

17_08_28 Event 1At 5 p.m., we moved under a nearby tree for a closing benediction by a Buddhist priest.  Even in prayer, the counter-protesters harangued us with hate speech. Nevertheless, Rev. Shindo reminded us that hatred is not overcome through hatred, but only by love.

Afterwards, Rev. Eric had us link elbows in the way that clergy had linked elbows when confronting the white supremacists and nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was a simple and powerful gesture.

We must resist the evils of hate, racism, and bigotry. We cannot stand aside. Faith17_08_28 Event 3 demands action. However, we are not alone. We can go forward, arm-in-arm, as brothers and sisters, to confront the hatred and racism which is obviously growing and festering even in our East Hawaii community.

Peace, Paul