Archive for the ‘Buddhism’ Category

Touching the Limitless

August 6, 2017

“But do not ask me where I am going. As I travel in this limitless world, where every step I take is my home.”

In the above quote Dogen Zenji, the founder of the Soto Zen School of Buddhism in Japan, captures the essence of the Nembutsu — the core practice of Pureland Buddhism. Nembutsu has many forms. In our tradition, Nembutsu involves the recitation of “Namo Amida Bu.”

“Namo” represents us as unenlightened beings. This is not negative, just realistic. As much as we would all like to be enlightened, the reality is that we are caught up in various conditioned thoughts, emotions, and actions. We get annoyed, angry, impatient, etc. We are blown through life by our past actions and our continuing desire to find happiness and avoid suffering. This is fundamental ignorance.

“But do not ask me where I am going.”

Dogen’s first sentence is the “Namo” of the Nembutsu. This is not an ordinary statement. Dogen’s is not saying, don’t ask me a mundane question like, “Are youflip-flops going to the market?” He is saying instead, don’t be confused about reality. There is no “Dogen-ness” that is going.

He is indicating that if we really look within, we cannot find any SELF that is a true first cause. All that we find are moments of experience arising from/with various causes and conditions. Because we do not see/understand the reality of dependent arising in each moment, we are foolish and deluded beings.

“As I travel in this limitless world,”

In the first phrase of the second sentence Dogen reveals the nature of reality as limitless. This is the “Amida” of the Nembutsu. Amida is measureless. Amida is unconditioned, beyond the human habit of dividing, separating, measuring, and comparing. To see the world as it truly is, we must get beyond the measuring mind. Unfortunately, the mind that measures — the thinking mind — cannot think itself out of our reality conditioned by thought. Amida, the measureless, must break in upon us from “outside” and awaken us from the dream world of conditioned thought. Once we awaken, we begin to see the limitless (Amida) in even the most ordinary of tasks and circumstances.

“…where every step I take is my home.”

In the second phrase of the second sentence, Dogen brings us back to earth. It is not good to be caught up and confused by our fundamental ignorance, nor is it possible to live our entire lives “measurelessly.” We are, after all, human beings. We live and die. We eat, dream, and have lives. Our survival depends on our ability to judge, measure, and make distinctions.

Our awakening must be lived in the world. Living that awakening as a foolish and ignorant human being is the “Bu” of the Nembutsu. Nothing is changed. We still get up in the morning and have breakfast and then go to work. We do all the normal things of life. However, we have seen the Buddha. We have been touched by the reality of the limitless. We have awoken, if only briefly, from the dream of conditioned thought. We have discovered the preciousness of each moment. Thus, our lives are lived more deeply. And, hopefully, we act more lovingly in the world.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

One Nembutsu and Universal Salvation

August 1, 2017

In Pureland Buddhism iSukhavatit is often taught that a single recitation of Nembutsu — Namo Amida Bu — is sufficient to effect one’s salvation after death. As a result of reciting one Nembutsu, one will be reborn in Amida’s realm of love and bliss, instead of being swept along blindly by one’s karma toward an uncertain rebirth after death.

This is essentially a view of universal salvation through grace. It is an eschatology that places the realization of divine truth in the future — after death — and outside of this world. Our actions are unimportant. There is nothing good or ill that we can do that will affect or effect our salvation after death.

For those who are powerless, oppressed, and suffering tremendously, this eschatology is valuable, even hopeful! It offers an escape, an end to one’s distress and grief. Since it is universal, the good and the wicked are saved indiscriminately. This is particularly important. The powerless and oppressed are often forced into livelihoods that a society considers sinful and/or religiously tainted. For those who are marginalized by society, traditional religious salvation can be denied them because of their lack of status or the socially “impure” work that they perform. Thus salvation through grace, even after death, may be the only form of salvation available to them.

Those of us who have the good fortune to live in stable countries, with our basic needs met and some level of autonomy, security, and freedom, are the rich and powerful. For us, salvation cannot come simply as a release from suffering and hardship at the end of life. We have already been saved from so much distress and deprivation that we cannot appreciate salvific grace. We still suffer, of course, but much of our suffering is existential. It is the suffering of affluence and not of deprivation.

Luxury and abundance are so normal for us that we have lost the ability to appreciation the simple and wondrous joys of life. Clean water is essential to life. We cannot go more than a few days without it. In fact, life on this planet would not exist without water. But we are so spoiled with fortune that we take for granted the water running through the pipes in our houses. For many people on the planet —even today — such easy access to water is nothing short of miraculous. Yet we are so accustomed to the availably of water that we cannot see the miracle that occurs every time we turn on a faucet. We, the materially fortunate, have lost salvation through our own discontent.

Therefore, we must work for our salvation. It cannot be found solely through quiet meditation or great feats of spiritual discipline. Our lives have harmed too many for that. Salvation requires that we make amends for the wrongs that we have committed and for the atrocities from which we have benefited.

We must find salvation through prayers that are active and engaged. Compassion is our act of contrition. It must be practiced daily. We begin by opening our hearts to the real pains and suffering of the people around us, as well as to those living across the globe. Once we have awoken to the suffering of others, our compassion will move us to action. Sometimes — most times — this is just offering human kindness and understanding. However, it can also motivate us to address some of the many social ills that cause people to suffer unnecessary pain and hardship. Institutionalized greed, hatred, and ignorance, are the sources of much suffering. They must be challenged and resisted. The world is filled with many people who have too little, while we few, the fortunate ones, have so much!

In saving those around us, we ourselves are saved. This is the path of great compassion. In creating a better world — one that is more loving, compassionate, and kind — we begin to discover that salvation lies in our very midst. It is found in the joys of others and the simple pleasures of living lovingly together. Amida’s Pureland of love and bliss, we realize, is both far away and present in all the ordinary moments of life.

One Nembutsu is all that is required to enter the Pureland. But that One Nembutsu must include all. None can be excluded. And we, the fortunate ones, must live that One Nembutsu with everyone.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Walking Buddhas

June 11, 2017

When we speak of Enlightenment, we often think of the Buddha sitting peacefully under the Bodhi Tree. This Buddha is ubiquitous; found in temples, religious murals, on home altars, and even in pop art.

We forget, however, that the Buddha lived most of his life in public teaching, leading, advising, comforting, and generally responding to the messiness of life. Not everyone was a fan of the Buddha. Some people were put off by him. He had enemies. There was even a time when his “organization” was so riven with conflict that he could not resolve it and had to walk away.   

The Buddha lived a real life. It was not the romantic spiritual life of dreams. The Buddha faced and endured hardships. He understood — through his own experience — the sufferings we all experience. It was one of the things that made him so compassionate and extraordinary. Every pain and every joy was used as a means to connect with and help those around him.

Unfortunately, we have become disconnected from this Buddha. We have forgotten the Enlightened One who walks in the world and gets cut by thorns, bitten by insects, and scorned by people.

Many of our Buddhas, Saints and Teachers — our idols of Enlightenment — remain outside the world, unsullied and passive. In fact Enlightenment has become so rarified, perfect, and other worldly that it is essentially unattainable. It is a thing of myth, possible, but existing in some other time and place.

This is unfortunate. Because today we need Enlightenment to be reclaimed from the rarefied and unsullied domains of religious idealism and ground in dynamic Planet Earthcompassionate action in the world. We need Buddhas who walk in the world, Buddhas who sweat and struggle, Buddhas who respond to the very real sufferings found in the world today. We need Buddhas who feed the hungry, resist hatred, and work to protect the environment. We need our Buddhas engaged, compassionate, and very much in the world!

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

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

Mudita: The Joy of Joy

April 14, 2016

Sympathetic Joy is the most common translation of the Buddhist term mudita. Mudita is finding joy in the joy of others. It is spontaneous, unconditioned and unlimited. It is the joy of aliveness, of being itself. Mudita is spiritual joy.

We have all experienced mudita, most likely in presence of children. The joy of children is so pure and unbounded that it is contagious. Seeing a child engaged in joyous play, we ourselves are touched by joy. The joy we feel is not something we own. We did not produce it through our own efforts. It arises from outside ourselves. We simply enjoy the the joy experienced by another being.

laughing-buddha-figureIn Buddhism there are techniques to simulate mudita. They are valuable and can help us be more open to the arising of spontaneous joy. In their simplest form, one strives to wish others happiness and remember to celebrate others’ successes.

However, we must not mistake the map for the territory. The cultivation of joy is a close approximation but not the real thing. Since the practice is contrived, it is easy to get caught up in judging our success, or lack-thereof, in finding joy in others’ joy. We may become frustrated by the arising of negative thoughts, judgements, and jealousy – the antithesis of joy.  We may wonder how we can we feel joy in another’s success, when we are jealous of that success?

True mudita arises in spite of our imperfections and negative thoughts. Spiritual joy is a vast ocean upon which thoughts are only ripples. Negative thoughts may continue to arise but are insignificant in the presence of mudita.

Ultimately, mudita arises from beyond what we think of as self. Mudita is the nature of the measureless. It arises naturally when our hearts open to the unconditioned. When we are touched by the unconditional, we experience boundless joy in even the smallest moments of life. Unfortunately, we are usually too caught up in conditionality – planning for the future, reliving the past, judging and weighing each experience – to see the joy present in each moment.

Awakening to mudita begins by paying attention. This is why prayer and meditation are so important. They help us slow down. Through contemplation, we become comfortable with stillness and quite.

Our world is frantic, filled with information and activity. It is not a conducive environment for deep peace. Taking time – daily – to sit quietly can seem like a herculean task. Nevertheless, inner stillness – peace – is worth the effort. It allows us to see the world anew. Over time we become more capable of experiencing spontaneous joy. We begin to rejoice in the sights and sounds of nature, the joy of friends and family, or just in the joy of joy – our own or that of another.

Peace, Paul

Traditions and Beyond

March 20, 2016

“Mr. Shoji had a fifteen-year-old daughter named Satsu. She was smart as a tack and possessed extraordinary powers of insight. Whenever her father went to practice at Shoin-ji [temple] Sats would accompany him. She would sit from evening until dawn in a state of total absorption. Before long she experienced an enlightenment. Once her father, seeing her doing zazen on top of a bamboo chest, scolded her.

‘What are you doing!’ he said. ‘Don’t you know there’s an image of Buddha in that chest!’

Satsu’s reply astounded him: ‘Then please allow me to sit where there’s no Buddha!’”

Hakuin’s Precious Mirror Cave, Edited and translated by Norman Waddell, Counterpoint Books, 2009. Page 199

This is a wonderful story illustrating that once genuine insight has arisen, there is very little difference between various Buddhist traditions. It is story from the Rinzai tradition of Zen, but the message will resonate with Pure Land practitioners as well.

Hakuin_EkakuThough insight transcends tradition, we still need traditions. Traditions preserve and transmit the skills, techniques, and knowledge necessary for deep spiritual practice. They provide an anchor we can hold on to when our identity as a separate and independent being becomes unreliable.

People that are spiritually driven need traditions to guide us. The religious life can be difficult and we need the teachers, fellow practitioners, and guidance that can be found in a particular tradition. For a more casual practitioner, a tradition may not be necessary.

After practicing deeply in a tradition we can broaden our scope to include other approaches. This often happens naturally with mature practitioners. They draw from diverse teachings and traditions to express and deepen their understanding.

Having encountered the Buddha, the Dharma is everywhere. Until we “see” the Buddha, it is best if we follow a tradition that can show us where to look.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Proclaiming the Vision of the Pureland

March 8, 2016

In the first issue of Lion’s Roar, formally known as Shambhala Sun, teachers form various traditions are asked the question, “What is the most important [Dharma] teaching to proclaim in today’s troubled world?” Below is my response.

The most important Dharma teaching is the vision of the Amida’s purified realm of awakening (Sukhavati). It is a realm in which all of the troubles faced by us today have been overcome through the Dharma. There is no prejudice, war, or privation in the land permeated by the compassion of the Buddha.

AmidaIt may be tempting to think of Amida’s Pureland as just a myth, a story for a primitive time before the western scientific model. However, doing so would be a grave mistake. A Pureland is the natural fruit of the practice of the Dharma, both individually and collectively. The vision of Sukhavati shows us that as Dharma practitioners we are co-creators, or perhaps co-realizers, of an awakened and compassion-centric society.

Sukhavati does not only exist far to the West. It is not just a post-death destination. It is accessible in each and every moment. There is nowhere and no one that exist outside of the influence of Amida’s Pureland of awakening.

The vision of Amida’s land of love and bliss, frees us from the compulsive and often disheartening need to see immediate results from our practice. The work of awakening is beyond time. It is trans-historical. Our successes and failures in the short-run are less important than our continual opening to the Buddha.

When our heart is open to the Buddha, our actions begin to reflect the Dharma. We become capable of greater love, compassion, and courageous selfless action than we thought possible.

However, awakening to the reality of Buddhahood also means recognizing our shortcomings, our foibles, and self-clinging. We are humbled in the presence of the Buddha.

Collectively we can create the beautiful music of awakening, which is said to fill Amida’s Pureland. To do so, we need a conductor. That conductor is the Buddha. The sheet music is the Vision of the Pureland. The instruments are ourselves, with our diverse gifts, skills, and personalities.

Ultimately, the vision of Amida’s Pureland is the revelation of the world transforming power of the Dharma, as expressed through unconditional compassion for all beings.

Namo Amida Bu!

Mindful of the Measureless

March 3, 2016

Amida Buddhism is often identified as the spiritual path of “other-power.” Instead of beginning with the dynamic and strenuous yoga of self perfection, Amida Buddhism begins with acknowledging our shortcomings and taking refuge in the Buddhas – that which is other than self.

Chorten_at_Milarepas_CaveWhereas we – self clinging beings – exist in the world of measurement, comparison, and judgement; Buddhas are beyond measure. The qualities of a Buddha are likewise unconditioned. They are Dharma –  spontaneous expression of the measureless reality of awakening. As beings who measure, we cannot truly understand Buddhas or Dharma. As the Lotus Sutra reminds us, “Only a Buddha together with a Buddha can fathom the ultimate reality of things.”

Nembutsu, Mindfulness of Buddha, is the practice of remembering the measureless – the infinite openness of awakening. It is very much akin to Roshi Bernie Glassman’s “unknowing.” Except that in Roshi Glassman’s case, unknowing is something we take on, a sort of practice or training.

For Amida Buddhist “unknowing” is simply recognizing the already existent reality of measurelessness. In the presence of the Buddhas, we see that we are foolish and limited beings caught up in self clinging.

Nembutsu reminds us that we can never see the all the effects of “our” actions, nor understand the multitude of causes and conditions motivating the actions of others. Living in the world, we strive to bring as much love and compassion as possible into each moment. After that, we must let go and take refuge in the Buddhas. In the context of the measureless lifespan of a Buddha, short-term failures or successes are often not what they appear. Gandhi, for example, may have never taken up the struggle for Indian independence if he had not suffered the defeat of being thrown off a train in Maritzburg, South Africa, because he was “colored.”

Nembutsu allows us to trust in the Buddhas. It aligns our life with the compassionate activities of the Buddhas, who can work on and through us, despite of our self-clinging. Indeed, the light of the Dharma often leaks out of those who trust in the Buddhas. Our internal process, which we in the West are obsessed with, is often not relevant to the expression of measureless compassion. Did the mendicant, who inspired Prince Siddhartha to take up the holy life, know that his visit to the village would play a crucial role in the life of the Buddha to be? Was the mendicant in a good mood or a bad mood that day? Was he at peace – joyful? Was he angry or jealous or lustful? We don’t know, and it is not relevant. His presence in the village that day, no matter his mind state, was enough to set the future Buddha on the path to awakening.

Nembutsu means resting in the presence of the Buddhas. It is basking in the spontaneous joy and unconditional love that surround all Buddhas. Having felt unconditionally loved and been touched by the measureless, we can (as the Zen saying goes) “return to the market bearing gifts.”

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Photo: By Greg Willis from Denver, CO, usa (Chorten at Milarepa’s Cave) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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