Archive for February, 2016

Charity is More than Small Change

February 22, 2016

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.

ChenrezigLove, 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!

Peace, Paul

Image: Chenrezig, Bodhisattva of Compassion

Faith and The Way of the Bodhisattva

February 9, 2016

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.

Twenty-Five_Bodhisattvas_Descending_from_Heaven,_c._1300Superficially, 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 Buddhas.  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 of 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 of 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!

Peace, Paul

Bodhisattvas are the spiritual heroes of the Mahayana. They have dedicated themselves to the wellbeing of others.

Contentment: The Yogi’s Wealth

February 3, 2016

In reading a collection of songs from the Enlightened Yogi Saint of Tibet, Milarepa, I was struck by the verse, “I rely on the constant wealth of contentment.” It is part of passage in which Milarepa sings about his simple life of wandering, meditating, and subsisting on whatever the wilds provide.

Milarepa_statueIt is not a life that many of us could live. And yet, the idea of contentment as a source of “constant wealth,” is compelling. I recently wrote about unsatisfactoriness as a quality of Dukkha – the first noble truth of Buddhism. No matter how much we have, or how good life is, we always experience a bit of unsatisfactoriness or discontentment.

Unsatisfactoriness is both a symptom and source of our suffering. Contentment, to the contrary, is a quality of awakening. It is a fruit of deep and ongoing meditation practice. Not the mediation practice we here about so much today, which promises peace or health or well-being or some other concrete goal. No! Contentment arises in the process of emptying and opening to the fullness of each arising moment.

It is not surprising that traditional yogis practiced contentment as one of the yoga niyamas. It is a practice which is missing fromm much of popular Hatha Yoga today. However, one does not need to live in a cave or practice heroic feats of asceticism to find contentment.  For those of us with families, jobs, spouses, children, and otherwise full lives, the simplest way to cultivate contentment is through the practice of daily gratitude.

Most of us are very fortunate in the lives that we lead. We have clean safe water to drink, enough food to eat, shelter from the elements, and so much more. Nevertheless, each day we fail to recognize and appreciate our abundance, focusing instead on what we do not have, or what we think we need to be happy.Gratitude turns that thinking on its head, and helps us appreciate the many blessings that fill our lives.

Gratitude and appreciation are the beginnings of contentment. If nothing else, gratitude will remove a bit of the edge from our perpetual discontentment, resulting in more joy in our lives.

Interestingly, in today’s consumer culture, contentment is akin to heresy. Contentment, in the contemporary mindset, is associated with stagnation and death, not a source of joy and well-being. And yet, Milarepa is telling us that contentment is the source of his wealth. Surely, we can also find such wealth in our own lives. It begins simply by stopping, by being still, and recognizing the many little wonders that fill each day, starting, perhaps, with the simple fact of our aliveness.

“All the water and drink you’ve consumed

Through beginningless time until now

Has failed to slake thirst or bring you contentment.

Drink therefore this stream

of enlightenment mind, fortunate ones.”


Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Quotes from Drinking the Mountain Steam: Songs of Tibet’s Beloved Saint, Milarepa; translated by Lama Kunga Rinpoche and Brian Cutillo