Posts Tagged ‘Buddha’

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

Love: Turning the World on Its Ear

March 19, 2017

Metta is the Pali term for love. In Buddhism, love is not the sentimental emotion we are so familiar with in the West. It is simply the heartfelt desire for the wellbeing of another. Metta has much in common with the Christian concept of  (Άγάπη) Agape.

Extending love or metta to those around us has a long history in Buddhism. It is said that the Metta Sutta (Discourse on Love) was given by the Buddha Shakyamuni to a group of monks that were on retreat in a particularly dismal forest filled with thugs and criminals as well as evil spirits, ghosts, and demons. Naturally, the monks were scared. They sought out the Buddha and asked for permission to go to a different forest retreat, preferably one that was not haunted.

The Buddha denied their request. Instead he gave them instruction on how to practice love. Admonished, the monks returned to the forest and practiced metta as instructed. Over time, the thugs either left the forest or converted to Buddhism. The demons and spirits were pacified and became protectors of the Dharma.

The Buddha’s admonishment to practice love in the places we find unpleasant, and towards the people who make us uncomfortable, is very relevant in today’s politically charged environment.

I think the Buddha understood that the monks in the above story were actually pretty safe physically. He certainly wouldn’t have put them in harm’s way. It is also likely that he knew many of these monks came from the upper classes of society. They had been raised with privilege, protected from many of the hard realities of the world. Though they had embraced the Buddha’s teachings, they still carried their aristocratic arrogance and prejudice. They expected deference and respect. They certainly weren’t in the habit of relating to or needing to rely upon people whom they previously considered “unclean” and beneath them.

Like these monks, we too have prejudices. We judge. In judging we trap ourselves in a world filled with haves and have-nots, likes and dislikes, self and others. Judgement and prejudice isolate us from the world and the people all around us. It skews our vision. Instead of seeing a world filled with beauty and novelty, we see only our own — often negative — judgements.

The way out is love, as the Buddha, and Jesus for that matter, clearly understood. Love takes us beyond our “selves.” It breaks us free from the suffocating stranglehold of judgement. Through love we touch and are touched by the divine. Love enables us to see the world as it truly is — wondrous and sacred.

Amida Buddha’s Pureland is realized in moments of unconditional love. The Divine breaks in upon us when we extend ourselves beyond the protective confines of  “me and mine” and embrace our neighbor as Christ or Buddha.

Practicing metta and living a life of love turns the loud and conflict ridden world on its ear. Love offers welcome to friend, stranger, and enemy alike. Love takes us beyond ideology and dogma. It transcends social “norms” of  rich and poor, clean and unclean, conservative and liberal.

Practicing love does not require special initiations or secret religious teachings. Love simply takes time, perseverance, and an openness to a radical transformation our hearts.

We can start today by extending love to the people who are around us. Tomorrow do the same. The day after that do likewise. Day after day, continue to love everyone and slowly the hates and hurts in our heart will be replaced with love, compassion, and understanding. We will find happiness and peace. It is also likel that the world around us will have changed for the better.

Peace, Paul

Hugging Buddhas

September 12, 2016

“In this world, hatred is not overcome by hatred. Hatred is overcome by love. This is an unending truth.” – The Buddha

Universalism, a belief in universal salvation, arose out of a Christian understanding of an all-loving and omnipotent God. Such a God, so the thinking goes, will save all people no matter how they act in life. Both the good and the evil are saved.

This God is very much like the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who love all, have compassion for all, and work for the salvation of all. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas do not deal in judgement and damnation. They understand that violence and hatred cannot be overcome by more violence and hatred. Rather, breaking this endless cycle of suffering occurs through love. It is only through the awakening of love that one’s heart is radically transformed.

Those whose hearts are unawakened live in Samsara. It is a vast wheel of existence upon which one finds rapturous heavens, agonizing hells, and everything in between. As long as our hearts remain unawakened, we rise and fall, life after life, through the various pleasures and pains of different existences. It is something that we experience, on a lesser scale, in our current lives filled with different highs and lows.

chenrezigAwakened-hearted beings live in Nirvana because their entire beings are love. Their world is not divided into love and hate; there is just love. There is simply the desire that all find happiness. The religious life is, therefore, the pursuit of  salvation for all. It is the life of love and compassion, expressed through our actions, words, and thoughts.

There is a wonderful section in the Longer Pureland Sutra where the Buddha Shakyamuni is describing to Ananda the different Buddhas in Amida’s realm of awakened bliss (Sukhavati). He states that some Buddhas have an aura that extends a fathom, some a league, some two leagues, etc. A fathom is the length of one’s arm span. Shakyamuni is indicating that the light of some Buddhas only extends to the people they can hug. That seems small. And yet, how wonderful it is that there are hugging Buddhas.

May we all be so fortunate as to be transformed into hugging Buddhas, who share their unconditional love and compassion directly and immediately with those we encounter every day.

Namo Amida Bu.

Peace, Paul

Non-Violence: The Path of Love

March 28, 2016

It is important to remember that love and compassion are far more powerful than violence, during this time of war, terrorism and bombastic political speech. If violence were all-pervasive, the human race would not have survived this long. Humans continue to thrive because we are willing to work together. We have found ways to resolve conflicts without bloodshed and killing. We even help those who are weaker than ourselves. Humans survive because non-violence is the norm and violence is the exception.

Violence is, of course, horrible and needs to be resisted. However, violence does not arise in a vacuum. Violence is almost always the result of other violence. Violence begets violence. If we fight violence with even worse violence, we just perpetuate the seemingly endless cycle of violence fueled by fear, revenge, and trauma. We cannot perpetrate violence in the form of invasion, warfare, and continual bombing and not expect the result to be more violence. Violence cannot, ultimately, be overcome by more violence.

Violence is only overcome through the long slow process of love, compassion, forgiveness, and cooperation. These are the values of religion. As people of faith, we are the ones that can lead our communities, countries, and the world in finding another way to overcome conflicts fueled by hatred and violence. We must have the courage of our convictions and say no to war, militarization, and exaggerated patriotism. We can show the world that love and compassion offer a way to break the cycle of violence.

saint-francisSilent prayer is not enough. We need to pray with our actions. As St. Francis reportedly observed, “There is no point in walking somewhere to preach, if our walking is not also our preaching.” As religious people, we can offer the world a way out of violence. First we need to have faith that an end to violence is possible. The Buddha shows a path leading out of violence. Christ does as well. If we follow the paths set out by many of the great religious teachers, earth can become a “heaven on earth,” a realm of peace and understanding.

We start wherever we are: practicing forgiveness and love towards all, daily, and offering little and big kindnesses towards the people around us. When the opportunity arises, we can, with an abundance of compassion, share that we find talk of violence in its many forms – racism, bigotry, sexism, hatred, etc. – unacceptable. We can likewise express our disapproval of acts of violence. We can also work on projects that offer alternatives to some of the many forms of violence in our society.

The practice of love and compassion is endless. Enemies are finite. When we face “enemies” we recognize that our love is imperfect, limited. Like our enemies, we are sometimes moved by anger. Like us, our enemies are people with lives, and loves, and fears. In many ways, we are not that different from those we call enemies. We all want happiness, security, and the freedom to live out lives fully. It is only our limited ability to love, which is the result of our spiritual ignorance, that enables us to see another as an enemy. If we were spiritually awake, then our love would include everyone and none would be seen as enemies.

Thus religion is the practice or training in love. It is the continual cultivation of the desire for all beings to be truly happy. This is what the Buddha and Christ both taught. Happiness is not found in material things, though having the necessities of life is important. Happiness is found in the care of others and in the deep sense of being held, loved, and at peace.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Image: St Francis

Traditions and Beyond

March 20, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Proclaiming the Vision of the Pureland

March 8, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Namo Amida Bu!

Manifesting the Compassion of the Buddhas

January 27, 2016

Non-violent social transformation – the work of creating a world in which compassion and love are more abundant than greed, hatred, and ignorance – is the outward expression of the inner life of prayer, meditation, and contemplation. It is, to paraphrase Dorothy Day, “the process of building a new society within the shell of the old.”

Buddhism, especially institutional Buddhism, has a reputation for quietism and other-worldliness. This is certainly not always the case, but it has enough truth that in the West there has been a move to identify and texually and philsophically support a socially engaged or social justice ethic within Buddhism. This is valuable work. For surely the world needs more people, committed to non-violence and compassion, working for concrete and real change. Our cultivation of compassion on the meditation cushion is tempered and honed in the difficult relationships of daily life.

Personally, I like Mahatma Gandhi’s idea that his life has been a series of “experiments with truth.” I think that we can borrow this idea as a guide to applying the Buddhist Dharma to social issues. We cannot hope to find a definitive Buddhist text to tell us what is acceptable regarding social action. No. The Buddha is a teacher, giving instructions that we must apply to the living of our own lives. He is not telling us what to do but rather showing us a path that we need to explore ourselves.

Central to this path, especially in the Mahayana, is the cultivation of compassion, which is informed by ethical restraint, mental cultivation, and penetrating insight (prajna). Ideally, at first, we learn about these and train in them under the close guidence of a teacher. However, after a period of time we will finish our training. We have learned the basics.

Inspired by the Buddha, guided by the Dharma, and supported by the Sangha we begin to test our skills and awakening in the world. There is no one right way to do this. For one person it may involve feeding the hungry, for another person it might mean campaigning for the rights of animals.  The community of practioners – the Sangha – and the precepts are our reality check. If we find that our work requires killing, or stealing, or lying, then perhaps we are on the wrong path. Likewise our Sangha members may challenge us and question our actions, forcing us to look at our life and actions from different perspectives.

AvalokitesvaraOur vow is to save all beings.  Our compassionate response to suffering arises out of the natural awakening of that vow in our hearts. As our vow and practice matures, we become the upaya (skillful means) of the Buddhas. We are in the world offering a warm smile to the frustrated grocery clerk, or a pair of hands to catch a child that has wandered too far afield and needs to be returned to its parents, or a patient ear for a grief stricken relative.

The key, however, is that the Buddha’s compassion must be expressed in the world in real and concrete ways. We cannot wait for others to act, to fix a problem or address a need. We have a personal responsibility to act, to respond, to make sacrifices to create the world we want to see.

Compassionate action in the world, is both the path and the goal. On this path we hold to and rely on the precepts. We cannot alleviate suffering if we create more suffering with our actions. Not only should we avoid negative speech, but we must find ways to value those around us, especially those who are our enemies. We must be willing to save everyone, not just the people we like. The Buddhas compassion extends to all.  Which is not to say that we need to accept or agree with people who are acting in harmful ways. Certainly not. For they harm not only the people around them, but harm themselves as well.  However, we must avoid villainizing opponents, enemies, and antagonist. Rather we should strive to see them with the eyes of compassion, recognizing that they are just like us in wanting happiness and trying to avoid suffering.

The religious practice of social engagement is the practice of embracing the world as our teacher. Each encounter and each difficulty shows us the limits of our compassion. They provide opportunities for us to learn and grow.  Through Engaged Buddhism life becomes the laboratory in which to experiment with the practice of love and compassion.

Transformation, both of ourselves and of society, takes time and patience. We cannot practice compassion towards the perptrators of great evils if we are not yet able to forgive our neighbor or co-worker. As Shantideva says: “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.”

Begin the practice of Engaged Buddhism wherever you find yourself at the moment. There are suffering people around us every day. There are injustices and marginilized people in every community. Look around. Often the help that is needed is small. Yet it is through these small acts of kindness that we manifest the unconditional compassion of the Buddhas in the world.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Practicing Buddhism in Daily Life

September 10, 2015

I came to Buddhism out of an existential need to go beyond religious belief. I had to know, beyond any doubt, that there was more than just this material life. Buddhism was the best path for me. Over the course many years I undertook various religious practices: meditations, yogas, tantras, etc. These were practiced at various levels of intensity. Sometimes the practices were squeezed into the spare moments of a very full life. At other times I had the leisure to practice fully in a retreat environment.

Now, at age 50, such intensive formal practices seem less important. The practices still have their place and are valuable but these days my core practice is found in the moments and relationships of daily living.  How fully is the Dharma integrated into my life? Where do I encounter the limits of my compassion, joy, and love? Whom do I greet with love and whom with fear and aversion? Every time anger or frustration or desire or greed or jealousy arise, there is an opportunity for me greet them as teachers. The teaching, however, is always the same. I can either respond to these negative emotions by turning towards the Buddha, or I can continue to dance with them in in the spiraling cycle of suffering called samsara.

Of course, the basics of the Buddhist life still apply. It doesn’t work to just follow our own confused thoughts. We need a foundation upon which to stand.  We need something outside of our deluded selves to guide us. For Buddhists, it is the Buddha.  We acknowledge our confused state and take refuge in the Buddha. Having taken refuge in the Buddha we try follow the teachings he gave. Thus we adhere to the precepts. The precepts are a protection and a source of happiness. The precepts are the most basic yoga of Buddhism. They are the discipline that aligns our lives with that of the Buddhas. Our resistance to a precept or the breaking of precepts are continual sources of teaching. Without practicing the precepts, individually and socially, we will remain forever enmeshed in suffering.

The precepts help us avoid causing harm. However, we must also practice virtues such as generosity, kindness, and compassion. Additionally the practices of reciting mantras and prayers, doing prostrations, taking refuge, and continually being mindful of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are all extremely transformative. These are some of the traditional practices that generate the spiritual energy necessary to create a better life and a more compassionate world, a world in which peace and well-being are more common that war and privation.

However, it starts with our lives. We must strive to, “be the change we want to see in the world.” We must integrate the teachings of the Buddhas into our lives and try to live the values of love and compassion daily. Certainly we will fail and find ourselves wanting. Compassion and love and forgiveness are habits built up little by little over time. Start small. Forgive little hurts. Recognize the suffering of those around you. Remember that everyone has value. Strive to use your life to alleviate suffering and do good in your community. Remember, every small act of love and compassion has an impact in the world.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

For the Benefit of All Beings

August 20, 2015

 Over the last few years I have enjoyed getting back into doing Hatha Yoga. In my early 20s, when I was living on a yoga ashram, I was limber enough and strong enough to assume just about any of the yoga asanas. Unfortunately, I was not able to truly appreciate the healing power of asana. I was too young and impatient. Now, having made 50, and lost the elasticity of youth, I find asana both liberating and blissful. I am aware of asana loosening physical knots and dismantling muscle armoring accumulated over the many years of this life.

However, this practice, while wonderful and helpful, is secondary to living the religious life. The religious life is lived for the benefit of all beings. It is not a path that is overly focused on our own bliss or health or well-being, as helpful as these can be. Rather it is focused on striving to create well-being and happiness for the people and beings around us. It is about living a life that is expansive and open to all.  It is willingness to respond to pain and hurt with compassion.

We begin within our own lives, trying to minimize causing suffering and maximizing benefiting others. Thus the religious life is built on three principle disciplines: ethics, study, and contemplation. We practice ethics so that we may be a refuge and not a threat to others. We use our intellect to study the teachings of awakening so that we may deepen our faith and understanding, the foundations of practice. We continually contemplate the Buddha, so that awakening and compassion may be companions in all that we do.

The religious life, is just that – a life. It is not something that we only do on Sundays, or in the Zendo, or on the Yoga mat. It cannot be set aside or turned off. To be authentic and socially transformative, it can be nothing less than a commitment of our whole life, warts and all, moment to moment, birth to death, to benefiting all beings. 

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

A Little Buddhism, Part 2

August 6, 2015

red-maple-leaf-in-autumn-608x544Previously I wrote a little about the Buddha’s first noble truth, Dukkha. In particular I asserted that it is important for us to use our intellect to examine these foundational teachings to see if they hold up under investigation. Without examining or grappling with the thesis the Buddha is laying out, we will not be able to cultivate right understanding or what Bob Thurman calls “Realistic Worldview.”

So, having tested the most basic level of dukkha, the frailty and unreliability of this human body, we can now go on to look at the “suffering of change.” This world is made up of almost constant change.  Day turns into night and night into day. The weather changes, the seasons change. Our moods change. The people and relationships around us change. Good friends move away, or fall out of favor, or perhaps even become antagonist. The reverse is also possible.

Change can be both a source of happiness and of sorrow. However, the happinesses which we experience are fleeting. Often what we think of as pleasure is just the temporary relief or distraction from pain. Food alleviates the pain of hunger. Rest alleviates the pain of fatigue. Relationships assuage the hurts of loneliness.

The material comforts are likewise unreliable and subject to change. No matter how much wealth or fame or power we have, we still experience discontent, sorrow and suffering. As the Buddha succinctly states, “…union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering.”

Further, wealth can be stolen or lost. Fame is fickle and fleeting. Power breeds enemies. If we rely to heavily upon these things, expecting them to make us happy, we will be disappointed. Physical comfort, cannot protect us from the sorrows of loss. Neither wealth, nor fame, nor power can buy a moment of extra life for ourself, a child, a spouse, or a relative.

No pleasure remains pleasurable. We get bored with a pleasurable experience over time. Pleasurable experiences themselves can often beome a source of suffering through over indulgence. We may also suffer when we are separated from a pleasurable experince.

Look at your own life. Change is our everyday experience. The Buddha is not indicating anything new or secret here. He is just drawing our attention to the reality of our current situation, reminding us that there is nothing in this life that is a safe and lasting refuge.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul