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.”

Awakening to the Fullness of Life

June 5, 2016

“This food is a gift of the the whole universe: the earth, the sea, the sky, all sentient beings. In this food is much joy, much suffering, much hard work. We accept this food so that we may follow a path of practice and help all beings everywhere.”

The sacred is present in each moment. Prayer is our ongoing and active relationship with the sacred – with life. While prayer can take place at set times and places, it is not limited to the chapel or meditation hall. The whole of our lives are potentially prayer, filled with wonder, gratitude, and contentment.  Prayer awakens in us spiritual joy (ananda), which is often evoked by even the most mundane of tasks.

Such was my experience as I made Jelly from our abundant harvest of Lilikoi, also known as Passion Fruit. It is one of the fruiting vines that thrives in the few inches of soil that covers the hardened lava in our neighborhood. We have tried to grow many types of plants, in all sorts of raised beds and containers, but only a few flourish without constant attention and fussing over. Even bananas, one of the more prolific plants in our area, don’t do well in the shallow soil.

Making JellyIn the kitchen – bursting with gratitude – I sang and chanted while working. I was aware that these exotic fruits were a precious gift and that I was participating in the fullness of life by making jelly – heating the juice, cleaning the jars, measuring, etc. I found that all of life was present in the kitchen. The making of jelly had become a prayerful act of gratitude, honoring the gifts that nature had so freely given.

We cannot survive without food. Yet it is easily taken for granted in a society of great abundance like the U.S. We forget how fortunate we are and overlook the working of the elements or the human sweat and suffering that is in every bite of food. We do not appreciate how entirely dependent we are on other beings and the whims of nature for our very survival. Each morsel of food is truly a “gift of the whole universe.” It is a gift that often goes unnoticed.

Prayer helps us notice these small gifts of life. Prayer delights in the ordinary, the beat of our heart, the movement of our breath, the way soap bubbles cling to a freshly washed plate, or the cheerful chorus of frogs at night. Wonder and sacredness abound in the prayerful life.

The Zen saying goes, “Before enlightenment chop wood carry water, after enlightenment chop woodLilikoi Jelly carry water.” Enlightenment is awakening to ordinariness, which – it turns out – is not ordinary at all. It is not something we get or achieve or find somewhere else. Enlightenment is found in the many little moments of everyday life.

Prayer, which is a less grandiose term than enlightenment, is simply awakening into the fullness of life, which may be found in something as simple as making jelly on a Saturday afternoon.

Peace, Paul

Prayer, Love, Social Transformation

May 20, 2016

As a religious person who has worked for many years in non-profits that serve “the least of these,” it is abundantly clear that we cannot fix people. Each person must work out the tangles and knots in their own lives.

We can, however, respond to the people around us with love and compassion. Listening to them deeply and acknowledging their humanity, we offer what help we can. Often the specific and concrete help, though necessary and important, is insufficient. There are huge structural issues that keep people in poverty. We can and should address these social ills.

The most immediate social ill, the one that we as individuals and as faith groups can heal, is the stigma attached to poverty and lack. The “poor,” the “homeless,” and the “hungry” are first and foremost people – just like you and I. They are, to use the language of Jesus, our neighbors.

Holding a Tea CupTherefore, simply giving food to the hungry is not enough. We must love the ones we serve, expecting nothing in return. Love must be freely given, a heartfelt response to the intrinsic value of another person. Such love is a universal salve. It is the essence of prayer and has the power to heal wounds of the spirit. It can provide peace and respite to the weary and downtrodden. Collectively, it paves the way for the radical transformation of society into one based on love and compassion, in which privation is unknown.

In Christianity, this is the realization of the Realm of God. In Buddhism, it the manifestation of Amida’s land of love and bliss.

Peace, Paul

Loving The World We Touch

May 2, 2016

In today’s media-saturated world, it can feel like we are in perpetual crisis. A full panoply of suffering assaults us on every side – news of murders, wars, disease, famine, environmental destruction, social injustices, etc. Every issue is important and horrifying and overwhelming.

Unfortunately, there is little we can do to address many of these evils. They are often far removed from our field of influence, occurring in other cities, states, or countries. They can be very complex, involving whole communities or nations. What seems right to us may be wrong for others. There is rarely a solution that does not entail suffering or hardship for some of the people involved. Even small issues that arise in our own neighborhoods can be knotty messes that feel intractable.

If we are not careful, we may lose all hope. Our anger at injustice can easily turn into frustration and despair. Anger, after all, is not a source of happiness. If we go too often to the well of anger for strength and motivation, we run the risk of creating more suffering in the world.

Ultimately, what is important is how we live our lives. All of our little actions matter. It is important to live as compassionately and lovingly in the world as possible. Spiritual awakening begins when we recognize the value of each individual as well as the whole of the world around us.

The religious life – the life of prayer, meditation, study, and reflection – is a life lived deeply. It is awakening to the “relatedness” of all life. No thing is completely separate from any other thing. There is no bright line dividing ourselves from the world “out there.” In fact, living a life of prayer is a process of learning how to embrace the truth that we are in relationship with everything around us. Whether we like or dislike something or someone, does not change the fact that we are still connected with it or them in some way. Everything that we do, in every moment of every day, impacts our many immediate (proximate) and non-immediate (tangential) relationships.

Our actions of body and speech flow out of our thoughts. If we cultivate anger, then our life becomes filled with anger. If we cultivate gratitude, then we can be filled with joy and wonder at the many little miracles we encounter each day.

If we seek after successes and victories, we will be woefully disappointed. We may never see the fruit of our labors. The seeds that we worked so hard to plant may grow into something completely unexpected. Our lives are too short and our vision too limited to see all of the threads of influence in the vast interconnected web of existence.

Planet EarthWe can still work to end war and hunger and environmental degradation, but it must arise from a place of hope and compassion. We must have a vision that allows for all beings to be freed from suffering – those we love and those whom we may think of as enemies. We are all one big planetary family. Like a family, we fight with each other. In a healthy family, underneath the harsh words and hurt feelings, there is an unbreakable bond of love.

If you have doubts about whether or not our planetary family is healthy or not, turn to the texts and teachings of religion. Over and over again, we are told that love is the nature of the numinous. The way to live happy and meaningful lives together is to practice love towards all – even when we feel wronged. The way to overcome the seemingly insurmountable challenges of today is through love in action.

In our hearts we know that love works. It can transform and heal the world. The work of love begins with us. Are we willing to open ourselves to love? Are we willing to forgive wrongs? Can we work for the well-being and happiness of others – even enemies?

If we cannot sooth our own inner battles, how can we overcome the innumerable conflicts in the world all around us? Which is not to say that this is only an interior process. It is not. Love is practiced in relationships. We must get our hands dirty by practicing love towards our friends, coworkers, and neighbors. As Shantideva observes:

“There’s nothing that does not grow light, through habit and familiarity. Putting up with little cares, I’ll train myself to bear with great adversity”

If we want to transform the world through love, then we must begin by loving the little bits of the world that we touch every day.

Peace, Paul

Agape and Christian Charity

April 19, 2016

An advanced degree in religion can sometimes come in handy, as was the case when I found myself explaining charity to a group made up predominantly of Christians.

Charity comes from the Latin translation of the Greek word άγάπη  – Love.  (Άγάπη is spelled agape in English, which can also mean wide open.) Agape is the the heart of the Christian teaching. Christ taught that the nature of God is Love. Over and over again, Christ demonstrates that no one and no group is beyond God’s love. Following Christ means living, or at least bearing witness to, that divine love. Agape is lived in the most mundane circumstances as well as the most challenging. Love is practiced by bearing wrongs, turning the other cheek, healing the sick, and caring for the “least of these.” Love is “sharing the good news” of God’s love, through our actions as well as our words.

Charity is an act of divine love. It is the way we express agape – God’s love – despite our personal likes or dislikes. Christ gave us clear guidelines on practicing love, even when we are in the presence those we cannot personally love. My personal limitations, judgements, and dislikes should not be a barrier to carrying out the “works of mercy” or extending hospitality to another. If we are truly faithful, then we know that God’s love is not lessened or limited because we find someone despicable. God’s love is omnipresent. Charity is our response to God’s love. It is our willingness to love and serve everyone we encounter, simply because God loves us all.

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