Love: Turning the World on Its Ear

March 19, 2017

Metta is the Pali term for love. In Buddhism, love is not the sentimental emotion we are so familiar with in the West. It is simply the heartfelt desire for the wellbeing of another. Metta has much in common with the Christian concept of  (Άγάπη) Agape.

Extending love or metta to those around us has a long history in Buddhism. It is said that the Metta Sutta (Discourse on Love) was given by the Buddha Shakyamuni to a group of monks that were on retreat in a particularly dismal forest filled with thugs and criminals as well as evil spirits, ghosts, and demons. Naturally, the monks were scared. They sought out the Buddha and asked for permission to go to a different forest retreat, preferably one that was not haunted.

The Buddha denied their request. Instead he gave them instruction on how to practice love. Admonished, the monks returned to the forest and practiced metta as instructed. Over time, the thugs either left the forest or converted to Buddhism. The demons and spirits were pacified and became protectors of the Dharma.

The Buddha’s admonishment to practice love in the places we find unpleasant, and towards the people who make us uncomfortable, is very relevant in today’s politically charged environment.

I think the Buddha understood that the monks in the above story were actually pretty safe physically. He certainly wouldn’t have put them in harm’s way. It is also likely that he knew many of these monks came from the upper classes of society. They had been raised with privilege, protected from many of the hard realities of the world. Though they had embraced the Buddha’s teachings, they still carried their aristocratic arrogance and prejudice. They expected deference and respect. They certainly weren’t in the habit of relating to or needing to rely upon people whom they previously considered “unclean” and beneath them.

Like these monks, we too have prejudices. We judge. In judging we trap ourselves in a world filled with haves and have-nots, likes and dislikes, self and others. Judgement and prejudice isolate us from the world and the people all around us. It skews our vision. Instead of seeing a world filled with beauty and novelty, we see only our own — often negative — judgements.

The way out is love, as the Buddha, and Jesus for that matter, clearly understood. Love takes us beyond our “selves.” It breaks us free from the suffocating stranglehold of judgement. Through love we touch and are touched by the divine. Love enables us to see the world as it truly is — wondrous and sacred.

Amida Buddha’s Pureland is realized in moments of unconditional love. The Divine breaks in upon us when we extend ourselves beyond the protective confines of  “me and mine” and embrace our neighbor as Christ or Buddha.

Practicing metta and living a life of love turns the loud and conflict ridden world on its ear. Love offers welcome to friend, stranger, and enemy alike. Love takes us beyond ideology and dogma. It transcends social “norms” of  rich and poor, clean and unclean, conservative and liberal.

Practicing love does not require special initiations or secret religious teachings. Love simply takes time, perseverance, and an openness to a radical transformation our hearts.

We can start today by extending love to the people who are around us. Tomorrow do the same. The day after that do likewise. Day after day, continue to love everyone and slowly the hates and hurts in our heart will be replaced with love, compassion, and understanding. We will find happiness and peace. It is also likel that the world around us will have changed for the better.

Peace, Paul

Necessary Silence

February 5, 2017

Silence is not a luxury. It is a necessity. When we are silent, the continual stream of thoughts fall into the background, momentarily freeing us from our self obsession. We awaken to the preciousness of life. In the silent fullness of the moment, we find profound peace.

We cannot find real silence by shutting out the world. We are connected with the world, not independent of it. The noise of the so-called world “out there” always finds a way into our life.

thornsOur situation is similar to that of the misguided ruler in a well known story who pierces his foot on a thorn. Enraged by the pain, he demands that all roads and paths be covered with leather. It is an idea which is both horrifying and understandable. The world is filled suffering (thorns) and we naturally want to avoid suffering. Not only do we experience the various physical and mental sufferings that arise from the world around us, we also experience suffering from the continual onslaught of stimulation, commentary, and fear that is part of our smartphone era.

In the story, the King has a wise advisor who suggests an alternative to covering the roads with leather. He tells the King that he and his citizens can take responsibility for protecting their own feet by covering them with leather.

We, like the King, can protect ourselves from the thorns of life by protecting our minds with meditation or prayer, practices that quiet and focus the mind. These are not the prayers filled with words and petitions, but the spacious prayer of deep listening. It is meditation that allows us to open fully to each breath, each heartbeat, and the interconnectedness of life.

This is the domain of the mystic, the “professional pray-er”. We, as people of faith, must become mystics. The world needs us to be knowers and practitioners of inner silence and peace. We can then offer peace, silence, and hope to those who are lost in the noise of turmoil and angst.

This is the gift we bring to the world, a balm to soothe the fretful mind. The world is filled with words and and busy-ness. Silence and stillness are rare. Few people encounter true silence, within themselves or another.

It is in this silence that the divine moves most obviously. Faith arises in this silence. Unconditional love likewise arises in the heart that is properly ordered and at peace.

If you have not yet found a way to enter into silence, seek out a teacher of prayer or meditation. They don’t need to be famous or exotic or “perfect.”  It should be someone whom you can trust. Learn from them. Practice their technique or method regularly. Be patient. Slowly, over time, you will begin to allow yourself to experience real silence. You may even be amused to discover that it was you yourself who was standing in the way of awakening and peace.

Start today. Silence your phone. Turn off the TV. Shut down your computer. Find a comfortable sitting position and spend few minutes paying full attention to your breath. Don’t get distracted by thoughts. They arise in the same way that sounds arise—naturally. Sounds are not you. Thoughts are not you. Take a vacation from thinking and worrying and planning and just be with your breath. Watch it and learn its subtleties and sensations. Repeat daily. Share your inner peace widely!

Generosity in the Streets

November 28, 2016

Running errands in downtown Hilo, I came across a familiar homeless man sitting on the ground and leaning against a store front. He was heavyset with wild hair. His sixty or so year-old face showed the unmistakable signs of a long life of alcoholism. He was also wearing a the black robe of a Zen priest and being conspicuously ignored by the many people passing him by.

As I approached, I said to him, “Nice robe!” He responded by asking for two dollars, which I gave to him. After a few pleasantries, I continued on my way.

homelessThe two dollars I gave him was not going to radically change his life, but it was what he asked for and what I could offer in the moment. This small act of generosity was not something I had to consider or agonize about. Long ago I decide that my practice would be to try and give to, “all who ask.”

People are often scandalized when they see me give money to someone on the street. One person, who witnessed me doing just this, called me the next day to give me a piece of their mind. It was long lecture about the evils of giving money to drug addicts and frauds who need to just “get a job.”

What could I say? It might all be true. They may indeed take the money I give them and use it to purchase alcohol or drugs. They might be scamming me. They might also need the money to buy food, or pay for a nights lodging at the shelter, or to pay bus fare, or meet some other “legitimate” expense. And, of course, it is also possible that they may not be drug addicts, or even be unemployed for that matter.

Whatever the case, as a person of faith my religious practice is to extend love and compassion to all. Sometimes this means taking direct action to meet a need or alleviate some little suffering. Most of the time it simply means smiling, offering a kind word, a patient ear, and a generous thought or prayer for the well being and happiness of the person right in front of you.

Peace, Paul

Photo by: A McLin

Who is our Neighbor?

October 28, 2016

I am a bit of a religious geek. I enjoy studying religion and reading a wide variety religious texts in diverse traditions. Thus, I recently found myself reading some of the writings of St. Augustine.

St. Augustine quotes as passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans where Paul says, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” Obviously, St. Paul is referring to the Jesus teaching to, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

good_samaritan_wattsThe question that follows naturally is, “Who is our neighbor?” Jesus is asked just this question in the Gospel of Luke. He responds with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It is a very compelling exchange between Jesus and the questioner, because ostensibly the questioner is asking about how he can “inherit eternal life.” The answer Jesus evokes from the questioner is, “Love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Of course, for Jews living in Jerusalem at that time, there were a lot of purity rules. There were people who fell outside the Law and thus were not considered one’s neighbor. So the questioner asks, “Who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus launches into the parable of the the Good Samaritan.

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’”

Now if you are like me, and went to Sunday School and attended a lot of Church, you know that the parable of the Good Samaritan is often taught in a very moralistic way, which is unfortunate. It misses the heart of what Jesus is teaching us. It is not a moral to be learned, but instead a profound insight into a spiritually rich life of love.

At the end of the parable, Jesus ask the questioner, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The questioner responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus then instructs the man to, “Go and do likewise.”

Jesus does not identify any particular group as neighbors. He does not give a long list of who is a neighbor and who is not. Rather, he points out that if one has compassion—Mercy—in one’s heart, then everyone is potentially one’s neighbor. Our neighbors are determined not by outside circumstance but by the love in our hearts. Love is how we, to use the biblical phrase, “inherit eternal live.” Without love for others, we are spiritually dead.

Love of neighbor is the forge in which the love of God is honed. Any hate or dislike in our heart limits our ability to love God. Hate makes it impossible to love God with “all of heart..and all of our mind.” It divides the heart against itself. Our flesh and blood neighbors show us the fullness—or lack thereof—of our love. If we cannot love our neighbor or, alternatively, be neighborly towards all, then our love of God cannot be “full hearted.”

Jesus is reminding us that the spiritual life is a matter of the heart. “Eternal Life” is inherited by those whose hearts are so consumed by love that hate cannot find a foothold. When love is complete—perfected if you will—“Eternal Life” exist in each and every moment.

Thus the path to “Eternal Life” is the daily practice of love towards friends, family, strangers, and enemies; all of whom are neighbors to the one whose heart if filled with love.

Peace, Paul

Photo: By George Frederic Watts – A collection of Symbolist art postcards, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2919777

Planting Pinapples, Cultivating Love

October 3, 2016

Recently I planted a dozen or so pineapple plants. To start a pineapple, you plant the top, removed during cleaning. Older plants produce multiple “suckers” that can be also planted. Over time, one or two plants can multiply into dozens of plants.

Our pineapples are descended from pineapples given to us by friends. (We have both white and yellow varieties in our garden.) It is almost certain that the friends who gifted us with our first pineapples, likewise started their pineapples from fruits given to them.

img_0348Pineapples are a type of bromeliad. As such, they do not need a lot of attention—at least in the backyard garden. They grow well, if slowly, in the little soil that is available on a volcanic island. While there are areas with deep soil on the island, we cannot afford to live in those areas. Instead, we live on a newish lava flow and have only a few inches of cindery soil that we have augmented with homemade compost in our “garden.”

It can take two or three years for a pineapple plant to bear fruit. The fruit itself takes many months to mature. Which means—to go all Buddhist on you—that when the pineapples do fruit, I—the person who planted them—will no longer exist.

The person who harvests, cleans, and enjoys the fruit will be a different person, though they probably will still be called Paul. For this person,
the fruit will be a gift—the result of genetics, environment, generosity, and some human effort. And since life is fragile, it is possible that some person—not named Paul—will be enjoying the fruits of my recent toils.

If we reflect deeply, we may recognize that all of our actions are like planting pineapples. We say and do various things today, which will bear fruit in the future. As with pineapples, our actions happen within a larger environmental context that shapes how the fruits of our actions mature.

The question to ask ourselves is, what types of seeds are we planting today? What kinds of fruits do we hope to see in the future? If it is the fruit of love, then our actions, words, and thoughts today should be loving. If it is compassion, peace or happiness, then those are the things that we need to be sowing.

To borrow from a famous but anonymous quote, “The best time to begin cultivating and practicing love is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

Peace, Paul

Hugging Buddhas

September 12, 2016

“In this world, hatred is not overcome by hatred. Hatred is overcome by love. This is an unending truth.” – The Buddha

Universalism, a belief in universal salvation, arose out of a Christian understanding of an all-loving and omnipotent God. Such a God, so the thinking goes, will save all people no matter how they act in life. Both the good and the evil are saved.

This God is very much like the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who love all, have compassion for all, and work for the salvation of all. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas do not deal in judgement and damnation. They understand that violence and hatred cannot be overcome by more violence and hatred. Rather, breaking this endless cycle of suffering occurs through love. It is only through the awakening of love that one’s heart is radically transformed.

Those whose hearts are unawakened live in Samsara. It is a vast wheel of existence upon which one finds rapturous heavens, agonizing hells, and everything in between. As long as our hearts remain unawakened, we rise and fall, life after life, through the various pleasures and pains of different existences. It is something that we experience, on a lesser scale, in our current lives filled with different highs and lows.

chenrezigAwakened-hearted beings live in Nirvana because their entire beings are love. Their world is not divided into love and hate; there is just love. There is simply the desire that all find happiness. The religious life is, therefore, the pursuit of  salvation for all. It is the life of love and compassion, expressed through our actions, words, and thoughts.

There is a wonderful section in the Longer Pureland Sutra where the Buddha Shakyamuni is describing to Ananda the different Buddhas in Amida’s realm of awakened bliss (Sukhavati). He states that some Buddhas have an aura that extends a fathom, some a league, some two leagues, etc. A fathom is the length of one’s arm span. Shakyamuni is indicating that the light of some Buddhas only extends to the people they can hug. That seems small. And yet, how wonderful it is that there are hugging Buddhas.

May we all be so fortunate as to be transformed into hugging Buddhas, who share their unconditional love and compassion directly and immediately with those we encounter every day.

Namo Amida Bu.

Peace, Paul

Do Good Anyway

August 15, 2016

On a recent Thursday, the non-profit that I run received a call from an older woman who needed help. She said she was living in a house without power or water, which is not that uncommon where we live. Like many others, she did not have a car. Most distressing, she said she did not have any food. I believe her exact answer, when I asked her if she had any food was, “I have a can of beans.”

There was more to her story and I spent quite a bit of time listening to all the twists and turns of how she came to be in her current situation. Whenever possible, I tried to connect her with resources or agencies that might be able to help. Mostly, I just listened. There was not much we or anyone else could do in the way of concrete action. Once someone has fallen deeply into poverty, the climb out – if it is even possible – is slow and long. This woman had, by her own admission, significant unpaid utility bills and no real way to pay them off. She was stuck.

Giving BreadThe one thing we could do is get her some food. I called several food pantries, including one that was just a mile away from this woman’s home. None of them were willing or able to deliver food to the woman’s house. In the end, I decided that we would take food from our pantry and deliver it ourselves, though her house was some distance away.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at her house with the emergency food assistance, no one was home. We tried her phone but there was no answer. We checked with her neighbors, who told us the woman had not been around in weeks. They all spoke ill of her.

Most people would be disheartened by this turn of events. Indeed, back at the office the staff challenged my decision to take food to this woman. They said that I was too nice and that people take advantage of me.

I disagreed. “Goodness” is not diminished by the harmful or unwholesome actions of others. Our job, individually and as an organization, is simply to do good. We help people by trying to alleviate their suffering in whatever way we can.  How people respond is not our concern. We simply work on adding more good into the world, in as many ways as we can.

Of course some people do deceive and “take advantage” of us. They are in the minority, but it happens. Often, such deceit is more a cause for compassion than anger. These people’s lives are in such a sad state that they feel that they need to lie or manipulate us to get something that we would freely give them.

Doing good is an expression of love. It is an act of generosity. It is not transactional. It does not seek a reward or payment, which is easy to forget in our world permeated by buying and selling. Doing good simply adds love and good into the world; nothing is taken away or lost. We are not diminished in any way through our kind and loving actions. However, the world around is improved a little with each act of generosity, of good, of love.

Peace, Paul

Cultivating the Seeds of Love

August 4, 2016

Violence continues to fill our daily news cycle. Much of the reported violence is in distant communities, both within the United States and around the world. No matter where the violence occurs—Germany, France, Turkey, Iraq, or Florida—it is always horrible and distressing. Mostly we are powerless to respond. We may live too far away. Alternatively, we may lack the skills and knowledge to be of much help during the crisis. Often all that we can do is fret and stew in anxiety, which is of little help.

It is important to remember that acts of violence do not arise out of nothing. They always have precipitating causes and conditions, which may stretch back over years, decades, and even centuries. The acts of violence that erupt today are the fruit (result) of seeds (causes) planted long ago.

Non-violenceSeed_germination (Love), likewise, does not arise out of nothing. Today’s acts of love are the fruit (result) of seeds (causes) planted long ago. Fortunately, love has causes that can be cultivated. In t
he same way that we can create conditions conducive to violence, we can create the conditions for love to arise. Each and every day, we can choose to plant seeds of love or seeds violence in the world.

Love is the desire for the well-being of others. It is radically inclusive, excluding no one. Practicing love does not require special training, equipment, or techniques. It does, however, require a daily commitment to love one’s “neighbors.” And everyone is our neighbor, whether we meet them in person or through social media. Not only must our actions and speech reflect our desire for the happiness and well-being of others, but our heart and mind must also hold our neighbors lovingly. This is a hard and humbling practice. However, over the long arc of history and even the short arc of our lives, it can be socially and personally transforming.

Over time, we will find that our lives are filled love and not hate. We will, as a result, be happier and at peace. However, these are just the superficial effects of the daily practice of love. The deep and long-term effects of our practice are virtually impossible to discern. Perhaps a kind word or look turns an individual down a better path. Maybe a loving act today plants the seed for some future good we will never see.  Only Buddhas know the full effects of our actions.

Perhaps this is the greatest challenge. Ultimately, the practice of love is an act of faith. Faith that love is more powerful than hate and violence. Faith that love will transform the world into a realm of peace, joy, and well-being, what Christians call “Heaven on Earth” and Buddhists call a “Pureland.”

Peace, Paul

Photo: Seed Germination, USDA

The Buddha was Engaged with the World

July 26, 2016

buddhist-nunsRecently I read “In Search of Buddha’s Daughters” by Christine Toomey. It is a collection of interviews with, and accounts of, Buddhist nuns – many of them on the leading edge of reform. These are stories of strong women taking courageous stands against oppressive, often abusive, patriarchal institutions.

The stories of the brutality endured by some of the Tibetan nuns at the hands of the Chinese government is sickening. In Burma and Thailand the situation is a bit better, but there are still threats, social stigmatization, and violence against women seeking only the right to fully ordain as Buddhist nuns. Women are even blocked from full ordination in some Buddhist institutions in Europe and America. Often the resistance comes from the highest levels of the monastic orders – from the senior and supposedly most mature religious practitioners.

Toomey’s book reminds us that being a Buddhist does not automatically exempt one from participating in evil or perpetuating injustice. Violence can and has been done in the name of the Buddha Dharma. Buddhist institutions are human constructs which can be the cause of great suffering for others. Institutional Buddhism can be racist, sexist, classist, etc. Gurus and Masters, no matter how enlightened they are reputed to be, have abused and taken advantage of their students.

Like any religion, Buddhism can be practiced superficially. In the same way that we can talk about the virtue of religious love without ever truly practicing love; we can practice the religious forms of Buddhism without ever being transformed by those teachings.

Stated succinctly, Buddhism is the practice of ending suffering, both our individual mental/emotional suffering and collective social suffering. As Toomey reveals in her book, sexism is a form of social suffering, a visible and outward expression of our collective ignorance. It exists in institutions, traditions, language, and world-views. It is not just personal, residing simply within the individual. Sexism has a life of its own. We as individuals live with sexism as part of our collective social and cultural reality. Like other social ills, sexism cannot be completely overcome or transformed by personal practice. If it could be, then monks who have spent a lifetime devoted to religious practice would not allow sexism to continue to be perpetuated in their Buddhist institutions.

Eliminating sexism – or racism or classism or militarism or any other social ill – requires both personal and social transformation. We need to do the personal inner work necessary to recognize our own culpability – our own ignorance. However, we also need to work in the world to transform the institutions and structures that perpetuate sexism. Unfortunately, this work “in the world” often gets dismissed in Buddhist circles. Buddhism, if we are honest, can be overly introverted. The historical Buddha, by contrast, was engaged with the world. While he certainly advised some of his students to practice in secluded spots, much of his life and that of his monks was lived in close proximity to ordinary people with jobs, families, and worldly responsibilities. The Buddha and the Order of monks advised and helped these laypeople.

Half of the Buddha’s eightfold path of awakened living focuses on how we act in the world. Creating a more peaceful and just society involves prayerful and compassionate actions of our body, speech, and mind. If our motivation is misguided, if we are driven by anger and hatred, then the institutions we create will be likewise corrupted. However, if our motivation is loving and compassionate, seeking the benefit of all, then there will be more love and less suffering in the world.

Peace, Paul

Praying for Peace

June 18, 2016

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.

Prayer Vigil- GroupPersonally, 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.

Peace, Paul

Photo: Some of the members of the “Interfaith Communities in Action.”