Posts Tagged ‘action’

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

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

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.”

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


April 17, 2013

Karma is a term that has insinuated itself so deeply into American culture, that one can hear it at the grocery store, in the laundry matte, as well as in your local Buddhist community.  It is a term that is misunderstood and misused by Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. Which is unfortunate, because Karma, in Buddhism, is both the cause of our suffering and the means to attain liberation from suffering. It is the cause of our suffering when we cling to self, and it is the liberation from suffering when action arises out of non-self.

In is simplest form, Karma means action.  It is causal. The effect is known as the “fruit of karma.” The Buddha, being practical, focused on the former, the cause, which can be changed, and not the latter, the effect, which can’t.

Our daily actions of Body, Speech, and Mind condition our future experiences. Constructive actions tend to create constructive or positive future experiences. Destructive actions tend to create destructive or negative future experiences.

Now of course our daily actions are just one aspect of the multitude of causes and conditions that are acting on us at any given moment. Unfortunately we have almost no ability to change the majority of causes and conditions impacting us, including the results of our previous actions.

However, we do have an opportunity to influence the multitude of our daily actions of Body, Speech, and Mind.  The Buddha recommended the five precepts as the best tool for creating constructive or positive conditions in our own lives.  Practicing the five precepts helps create the conditions in which we can deepen our practice of the Dharma and ultimately awaken as Buddhas.

The five precepts are:

  1. To abstain from taking life
  2. To abstain from stealing
  3. To abstain from sexual misconduct
  4. To abstain from wrong speech
  5. To abstain from intoxication

The precepts are not just applied in a few grand moments of our lives. The precepts are to be lived and practiced in the minutia of our lives.  For if we want to change, if we want to create constructive conditions in our future experiences, then it is the little moment-to-moment actions and choices that we must change. We change how we interact with the people and beings around us, and try to align those interactions with the precepts and the Buddha Dharma.

Each moment, each interaction provides us with an opportunity to create the conditions for more suffering in the future or less suffering in the future. If we act in accord with the Buddha Dharma, which is after all not self, then we are create the conditions for positive future experiences.  The ultimate positive future experience being, awakening as a Buddha and helping beings escape from suffering and the causes of suffering.

If, however, our actions of Body, Speech, and Mind are just part of our self building project, actions that arise out of greed, hatred, and ignorance, then our future experience will tend to have more suffering.

We will fail to practice the precepts in hundreds of little ways.  To drive in a car is to take the lives of innumerable insect beings.  Because of our own limitations, we will offend some with our words, or speak words that are unkind, or speak words that are untrue. And as Gandhi pointed out, living with more than we need is to steal from those who do not have enough.  The list of our shortcomings is almost endless.

We are, after all, deluded beings.  Only the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have perfected the precepts.  We do the best we can, confessing our failures and striving a little harder each day to practice the precepts and the Buddha Dharma.

Ultimately we must take refuge, recite Namo Amida Bu, recollect that the Tathagata is the source of all virtues, and give our lives over the Buddha Dharma.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul