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

Buddha and Christ

December 27, 2017

Here is a re-post of a blog from four years ago. A belated Merry Christmas and Happy Bodhi Day.

Peace Paul's Blog

Buddha and Christ behold one another. Buddha gazes upon Christ. Christ gazes upon Buddha.

This wonderful picture, which was taken during a Buddhist retreat at a Christian monastery,  speaks deeply of the relationship between Christ and Buddha.  They, Buddha and Christ, are different, yet they both exist in the shared space of our world.  Because this is a Buddhist retreat, the followers of Buddha are bowing toward the image of Buddha.  This does not devalue the existence, life, and teachings of Christ. Rather it is only a shift in focus.

Likewise, if the photo had been taken from the other perspective, i.e. behind the image of Christ, with Christians at prayer before Christ, their prayer and focus on Christ would in no way diminish the life and teachings of Buddha.

Here Christ gazes over the prostrating forms and sees Buddha.  Buddha looks over the heads of the disciples and sees Christ.

Both, I imagine, rejoice in…

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The Buddha of Light

December 21, 2017

RadientLet us remember Amitabha — the Buddha of light — on this Winter Solstice. Whether we are overcome by physical darkness or emotional despair, know that Amitabha’s radiant wisdom, compassion, and love are accessible in all places and all times. Thus, Amitabha is known as:

  • the Buddha of Measureless Light
  • the Buddha of Boundless Light;
  • the Buddha of Unimpeded Light;
  • the Buddha of Incomparable Light;
  • the Buddha of the Light of the Monarch of Fires;
  • the Buddha of Pure Light;
  • the Buddha of the Light of Joy;
  • the Buddha of the Light of Wisdom;
  • the Buddha of Continuous Light;
  • the Buddha of Inconceivable Light;
  • the Buddha of Ineffable Light; and
  • the Buddha of Light Outshining the Sun and the Moon.

Do not lose hope! Open your heart to the light of awakening. Turn your mind towards the possibility of a world filled with love and compassion. Live your life inspired by that vision. Take refuge in Amitabha’s spiritual radiance. See Amitabha’s light everywhere and in everyone. Offer kindness to all. Inspire others so that they may find hope, wisdom, and joy.

Namo Amida Bu and Happy Solstice.

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

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

Shepherds and Sheep

May 30, 2017

Growing up in a Christian household I knew well the language and imagery of Shepherds and Sheep. Jesus was our Shepherd and we were his sheep. The same imagery was applied, to a lesser degree, to the Pastor of the Church. We, the members of his congregation, were the flock that he tended, cared for and protected.

The Shepherd symbol was so pervasive and normative in my youth that I never gave it a second thought. In fact, I don’t even think that I was aware that it was a metaphor.

That changed when a young Christian Pastor pointed out that, “Shepherds smell like sheep.” He made this statement in a discussion about the difficulties that churches inevitably encounter when they welcome the homeless into their facilities. Understandably, no church wants to have to deal with difficult people and situations.

Unfortunately, life and people are complicated. If we want to help house the homeless, then we cannot separate ourselves from the messiness of life. People are homeless for a variety of reasons. Housing can be expensive and hard to find. A period of bad luck and unexpected expenses can land individuals and families on the street.

There are certainly homeless individuals who suffer from mental illness and/or disability. There can also be substance abuse issues. A handful have been homeless so long they can’t imagine being housed. Homelessness, especially chronic homelessness, is complicated.

“The homeless” are people just like us. Their lives are filled with both joys and sorrows. Like us, they are driven by hurts, emotions, and motivations that are buried deep in the mind. They may react, as we also often do, to people and situations in ways that are contrary to their best intentions and beliefs.

christ of the bread linesHousing the homeless means getting to know the people who are are homeless as people. Unique. Human. Challenging. It may involve sharing meals, entering into conversation, or just listening.

It is important, however, to remember that shepherds, no matter how they smell, are not sheep. No one seeing a herd of sheep would mistake the shepherd for the sheep. Nevertheless, to be effective, the shepherd has to live among his/her sheep. The shepherd cannot delegate shepherding. He/She cannot create a non-profit whose mission is ensuring that no sheep “goes astray.”  No. Being a shepherd means tending and nurturing sheep with our own hands. It involves getting dirty and stinky, as well as sharing in the fullness of the life of sheep: birthing, nursing, protecting, and burying.

If we, as religious leaders and people of faith, are akin to shepherds — and I think there is value in the metaphor — then the question is do we, “stink of sheep?”  How protected from adversity and unpleasantness have we made our spiritual lives and churches? Who are the “lepers” in our life and our community? What uncomfortable work have we have delegated to others?

All us will answer this question differently. We each have different callings. The work and mission of each church will differ. We are, however, capable of doing more than we think we can. The first step is a willingness to get our hands dirty or, in the words of my Christian friend, “smell like sheep.”

Peace, Paul

Compassion is Challenging

April 1, 2017

I often write about the importance of cultivating love as a spiritual practice. This is natural. I was raised in a Christian household in a dominantly Christian country. Love is the spiritual value at the heart of Christianity. It informs how we interact with those around around us —Love of neighbor. It dictates how Christians relate to God: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul.” It also defines Jesus’ incarnation and ministry. He is continually pointing us beyond our limited and parochial love towards the vastness of divine love.

Love, however, is primarily an outward flowing thing. We can love others without being transformed by them or gaining an appreciation for their situation and struggles. In some Christian theologies, therefore, it is possible for God to love us completely without being changed or affected by our sufferings and joys.

Compassion_GraphicCompassion is a different matter. Compassion means to “suffer-with.” Having compassion means understanding and sharing in the suffering of another. Even our most hated enemy, for example, doesn’t want to get sick. Like us they experience emotional ups and downs, get frustrated, experience anger and happiness, and generally share in the entire panoply of life. While we may disagree with or even oppose their actions, compassion allows us to recognize that they, our enemy, are not fundamentally other.

Compassion is the spiritual expression of our interconnectedness. We are connected to and therefore affected by the people and beings around us. Compassion affirms this interconnected reality through our courageous willingness to enter into mutually transforming relationships with others. Compassion is responsive. Our compassion responds to the people and situations we encounter. Since those situations are not of our making, compassion opens us up to new possibilities, new understandings, and new ways of living in the world.

When we “suffer-with” others, we instinctively want to alleviate the pain and suffering of the other person. The familiar analogy is that of our own bodies. If we touch a hot stove, we instantly take action. We recoil! If we have been burned, then we seek medical attention or apply a soothing ointment.

Often, unfortunately, there is little we can do to alleviate another’s pain. If they are hungry, we can, of course, try to feed them. But in the relatively affluent West, suffering is often less concrete and more existential. In these situations the best we can usually do is recognize another’s “pain.” We can see them for who they are: precious beings struggling to do the best they can.

Compassion is challenging for many of us today. We are caught up in the outrage and anger of the current political environment. We tend to objectifying political opponents as “fundamentally other.” This objectification is both un-true and lacking in compassion. If we truly live in an interconnected world, then our political opponents cannot be intrinsically or objectively bad (evil). They may have a different vision for the future. Their ideology may be diametrically opposed to ours. They may be woefully misguided. The may act in harmful ways. But they are still human. Their lives are filled with many of the same sufferings and joys that we ourselves experience.

Because politicians often have power and privilege, we can be resistant to allowing ourselves to feel compassion for them. It is much easier to generate compassion for the downtrodden and persecuted who lack even the basics of life. It is hard to be compassionate towards the powerful, who have material security and luxury. Nevertheless, the rich and powerful are suffering as well. They have succeeded materially but still experience discontent and dis-ease.

As with the practice of love, it is important to practice extending compassion to specific people in specific situations. We need to use our hearts, imaginations, and life experiences to help us appreciate the reality of another’s difficulties.

The most natural place to cultivate compassion is in our own daily lives. We can open ourselves to the joys and sorrows of the people and beings we encounter everyday. We do not need to “like” or “agree-with” a person in order to have compassion for them and their particular situation. We simply need to recognize that they too are suffering.

Compassion takes courage. Once we have seen into another’s life and tasted their sufferings, we are forever changed. We respond to them and to the world differently. Over time this transforms the way we live and how we view our work. Specific goals are contained within the much bigger goal of: Ending suffering in all its forms! In the rough and tumble world of politics, our goal is to alleviate suffering, even for those individuals whose words, policies, and actions create and perpetuate suffering in the world.

Peace, Paul