Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Sinning Against Families and Children

May 28, 2018

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

Today, I am making an exception.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace, Paul

The Power of Cultivated Beneficence

April 26, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace, Paul

Are We the People we Want to Be?

April 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace, Paul

Antidote to the Poison of Divisiveness

April 5, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace, Paul

 

 

 

Awakening to the Shadow Side of Affluence

March 4, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace, Paul

Universal Salvation not Individual Salvation

February 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace, Paul

Image: Mary holding the broken body of Jesus.

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

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

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