Posts Tagged ‘Buddha’

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

A Little Basic Buddhism, Part 1

July 31, 2015

256px-Earth_from_SpaceThe historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, described this world in which we live, a world bracketed by birth and death, as dukkha. It is impermanent, unreliable, unsatisfactory, subject to decay, and, as such, a source of suffering. There is certainly happiness to be found in this world but it does not last and is often mixed with suffering.

Dukkha is often broken down into three levels. Now, of course, you can read about dukkha in many places on the internet and in various Buddhist books. What I would like to emphasize here is the importance of examining critically the basic truths of Buddhism. It is not enough to just read through them and accept them at face value. We must test them. This is especially the case with the first noble truth, which is the Shakyamuni Buddha’s statement of our existential situation. If we do not find this foundational truth tenable then the rest of the Buddha’s teachings will not hold up for us.

The first level of dukkha, the most basic level, is identified as the suffering of suffering. This is what most of us would think of as suffering. Our bodies are fragile, subject to injury, disease, discomfort, old age and death. We suffer from heat and cold, insect bites, hunger, thirst, allergies, etc.

I know this seems very basic, obvious even, but it is important to examine this truth. Because if we do not really get at this most fundamental truth, it will just remain a concept with little power to transform our lives. If we do not realize this truth for ourselves, we will buy into the dominant message in the West that that physical comfort equals real happiness.

To have a right understanding of the Buddha’s message, we must ask ourselves if this body is subject to injury, disease, discomfort, old age and death? Is there anyone who has ever escaped any of these? Have I ever been sick? Have I ever been injured? Do we know anyone who has died? Do I know anyone who as been seriously ill? Could any of these happen to me?

It is not enough to just realize it intellectually, we must know truth of it in our bones. We must allow the experiential realization of our own mortality and frailty to challenge and transform us.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Refuge and Marriage

July 29, 2015

Refuge and Marriage

Taking refuge is a lot like getting married. It is a commitment to a single tradition. Before taking refuge we may have tried Christianity or Hinduism or Wicca or some other tradition. Each taught us something and added value to our lives. However, once we have taken refuge in the Triple Gem – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – we no longer need to explore other traditions. We don’t need to look elsewhere for the truth. In taking refuge we are proclaiming that we have found the Truth in the Buddha Dharma. Having found the Truth, we can now be focus all of our energy on deepening our relationship with the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Drought

February 10, 2015

“I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”

Matthew 25:35

It is hard to believe that here in Puna, one of the wettest places in the US, we are experiencing a drought. The roads are dusty and the grass is brittle, crunching underfoot as we walk across the yard.

Because of the isolated and rural nature of the area we live, most of us catch our own water. There is no county water coming to our homes. We bath and cook with rainwater. Which is wonderful until one faces the very real possibility of running out of water. It is not something that most people in the west ever contemplate.  Water is so abundant that we take it for granted and get frustrated instead when the internet goes down.

We cannot imagine what it would be like to go without water for a day. How much harder it is then to understand what it must be like to live where water is scarce? No water to drink or bath with. No water for washing: dishes, clothes, hands, etc. No water to cook with. No water for your crops or animals. No water for sewage. What must it be like to be parched? Few of us in the West have any idea.

In ancient times, offering water was an act of hospitality that could be life saving. The Pali Cannon is filled with accounts of people offering the Buddha water for washing and drinking. Likewise, I am certain many individuals offered Jesus water while he traveled around arid ancient Palestine.

Holding a Tea CupWater is such a simple and important gift. It is a precious and life giving resource that many in the world do not have. In the West we are blessed. The act of offering drink to the thirsty is more about hospitality. It is the act of opening our heart to another person and quenching, in some small way, their loneliness.  It is an opportunity to share in our common humanity with all of its joys and sorrows.

However, let’s not forget those who do not have access to clean water. They have as much right, and certainly as much need, of water as we ourselves do.

Peace, Paul

What is Important?

February 2, 2015

Soot and ash have been raining down on our house from brush fires ignited by the active lava flow few miles down the road. The air stinks of smoke. It catches in one’s throat and causes coughing fits. In the evenings we walk the dog to the end of the street and watch the smoke rising from the forest beyond the adjacent houses. It is not as close as it seems, but it is another reminder of the danger lurking in the neighborhood. It has been several months since the public became aware of the approaching lava – weeks and months of worry and speculation and stress with little end in sight.

Lava above Pahoa town, January 2015

We are very lucky to live near the outside edge of any possible lava flow routes. We feel the effects but do not live in fear of losing our home. Nevertheless, living under the threat of a slow moving disaster is stressful. Like being in the presence of the dying, it pushes us to look at our own lives and how we are using the very precious and limited time we have.  It is a reminder that what we carry in our hearts is all that we truly have. Displaced and robbed of all that is familiar, how will we respond? What will he hold onto? This will be the test of our faith and our spiritual practice.

Faith must be cultivated before we find ourselves in the midst of disaster and mayhem. We need to begin today, cultivating a deep and loving heart that is honed against the many little disappointments, losses, and challenges of daily life. Each day we need to set time aside to turn away from worldly concerns and open the heart with prayer, silence, and meditation. Scripture is the record of the encounter between the sacred and the mundane. Read with discernment, it can open our eyes to radical new ways to see the world. Some of the greatest religious figures of the 20th century arose in the midst of great tragedy and struggle: Gandhi, Arch Bishop Tutu, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Deitrich Bonhoffer, Dorothy Day, Aung San Suu Kyi, HH the Dalai Lama, to name just a few.

The struggles of life can seem overwhelming. Indeed, if we think that we can take them on ourselves we are doomed to failure. Death will defeat us before we make the world right and just.  With vision and faith, however, we can see beyond the limitations of this life and this world and into the reality of the endless working of compassion.

Every generous and loving act is an expression of the Buddha’s boundless compassion. The historical Buddha had nothing in the way of material goods.  All that he had to offer was his presence and his boundless compassion for the welfare of others. People and gods came to the Buddha to seek his advice and teachings because they trusted in him and the fundamental goodness he embodied.

In the midst of disaster or in the company of death, when we can no longer rely upon the material things of this life, what will we have to offer? Will we, like the Buddha, be able to offer love and compassion or will we be spiritually bankrupt, lost in our own inner turmoil, fear, and ignorance?

Peace, Paul

Photo: Hawaii Volcano Observatory, January 21, 2015

Love is an act of Faith

October 20, 2014

In a recent blog post, I shared the wonderful woodcut from Fritz Eichenberg entitled “Christ of the Breadlines.” It is a powerful and moving piece of art that inspires and challenges me to try and encounter each person I meet with love and compassion. Though coming out of the Catholic Worker tradition, this picture is an image of what Mother Theresa called, “Christ in his distressing disguises.” It is a romantic depiction of what it means to recognize the intrinsic or sacred value of each human being. Certainly we would like to think that we could see the effulgent Christ, or Buddha for that matter, within each person, no matter how dirty, dysfunctional, dishonest, or seemingly unlovable. However, as Dostoyevsky points out, and Dorothy Day was fond of quoting, “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” We all imagine that we want to be able to love everyone, until we understand the cost of that love. To love all, we must be stripped our of selfness, our revulsion, our judgement. The practice of love is an act of faith. To strive to love all unconditionally is to be humbled and humiliated, daily, by own selfishness and imperfection. Faith allows us to continue to love in spite of our shortcomings and failures.

Seeing Fear

September 1, 2014

If you make a habit of cultivating daily periods of silence in your in your life, through meditation or some other practice, you will inevitably discover that fear is the motivation for much that you do. Not the roaring terror of imminent death but rather the low simmering fear that is insecurity. It is a fear so familiar and “comfortable” that most people never notice it at all. They only see fear as fear in situations where the heat gets turned up by events in the world around us and the subtle fear becomes terror.

I found myself in just such a high heat situation while lying in bed at night, in a small, some might say primitive, cabin, riding out Hurricane Iselle. Having grown up in New Orleans, I was familiar with Hurricanes. I had been through a few near misses. I had seen the devastation. However, I had never been through the eye of a Hurricane, which, it turns out, is a completely different beast. In the center of the storm the wind consistently rages at or above hurricane force of 75 miles an hour. It is loud and relentless. The house vibrates as it sways and flexes in the wind. Debris constantly pelts the house on all sides. On top of the raging noise of the storm one also constantly hears the roaring of much stronger gusts of wind moving along the ground, accompanied by the pop and crack of shattering trees. It is a primordial sound. It is the sound of death in the form of some impossibly large winged creature devouring all in its path. The roof ripples and screams under the onslaught and adrenaline floods the blood stream. This cycle repeats for hours upon end and one is complete exhausted by stress and fear.

Fortunately, it has been my practice for some time now to recognize mind states, such as this one, as an opportunity for self examination. Recollecting my practice, I looked deeply at the fear. Why was I afraid? It was not a long contemplation. Once I peeked below the sensory overload, it became immediately apparent that what I was afraid of was death. More specifically, that I, Paul, would end. With this bit of insight came the recollection that I am going to end at some point anyway. None of us can escape death. Further, and perhaps more significantly, I am not that important. What is important is the degree to which I am transformed by love and compassion. The rest, the “things” of this life, are fleeting. They are the result of living in this particular body, in this particular time, in this particular country. As soon as the body dies, those things will cease to be valuable.

I found this insight, for some reason, comforting, and I soon dropped off to sleep. Later I awoke to the storm raging overhead, and decided to relocate to the relative safety of the bathroom. However, the worst of the fear was gone. I was able to sleep, on and off, throughout the remainder of the storm.

Of course, I still have fear. Foolish, I know. I certainly have not learned to truly love others, to offer compassion and understanding before judgement. Nevertheless, I have faith that if I keep walking along the path, trying to recollect the Buddha and the Dharma, that at some point Love and Compassion will replace fear.

Peace, Paul

Other Centered Salvation

March 3, 2014

As religious practitioners it is good to be aware of our motivation for practicing religion. Buddhism identifies two basic religious motivations: self motivation and other centered motivation. In the former, we are primarly interested in our own salvation. Religious practice is about ensuring our own personal liberation form suffering. Self salvation may be an assurance of our own rebirth in heaven. It might also take the form of self perfection, in which we undertake various practices or austerities to help us transcend the sufferings of existence. Self salvation can also be found in striving for a personal religious experience of release or transcendence. All of these are important and common forms of salvation.

The desire for salvation from suffering can, however, also arise as a compassionate response to the suffering of others. This is other centered salvation. It is seeking salvation to alleviate the suffering of others. This altrusitic motivation is the force that motivates Saints.

We can walk into any church or temple and find many good people who are practicing the way of self salvation. However, it is also likely that we will find a few people whose hearts are so on fire with compassion that they must live their lives in the service of others.

In Buddhism we might call these people Bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas have vowed to save all of the numberless sentient beings. It is not a vow to save just the nice and good people. It is a prayer to save all, even those who are causing great harm in the world. It an aspiration to save all beings, whether they are animals, ghosts, demons, celestial beings, or humans.

Of course, we are imperfect and deluded human beings. Our motivation tends to be mixed. Sometimes we just want to escape. At other times we are moved by concern for others. The Bodhisattva path can itself be a form of self salvation, a sort of justification of self by good works.

Therefore the Bodhisattva path must be rooted in both compassion, for the suffering of others, and wisdom, which takes us beyond self. As long as we are caught up in the limitations of self centeredness, we will judge. That is the human condition: judgeing and comparing. To get beyond judging there must be an encounter with that which is measureless. This is the nature of religious experience. It is the arising of Wisdom. Bliss and joy are just side effects. The real power of awakening, of transending self, is that we are overwhelmed by unconditional love and compassion.

Touched by the measureless, we find the strength to persevere in the endless work of saving all beings. Those whose hearts have been awakened by the pain of others are not be content to abide in heaven while others continue to suffer. Such a life would be hell. We must get our hands dirty and strive to help all. It is not that Bodhisattvas are better than those who are content with their own salvation. Bodhisattvas are just driven to help all who suffer. The very existence of suffering beings is unbearable to the Bodhisattva.

If you are called to walk the Bodhisattva path, do not think that your will end suffering with some heroic act or effort. That is the thinking of self centeredness. Humbled by encountering the measureless, we accept our limitations. We recognize that we will not be able to see or understand the fruits of our actions. Therefore we try to live in such a way that our very lives embody, in some small way, the potentiality of unconditional love and compassion.

Feed the hungry. Strive to end war and hatred and violence. Work to stem the tide of greed and consumerism. Do these things because suffering is unacceptable. The way of the Bodhisattva is the way of love and compassion. Violence, greed, and ignorance are the very roots of all suffering. They are the three poisons of existence. The antidote is indiscriminate love and compassion administered consistently and with the patience of the Buddhas.

Peace, Paul