Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

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

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

Cultivating the Seeds of Love

August 4, 2016

Violence continues to fill our daily news cycle. Much of the reported violence is in distant communities, both within the United States and around the world. No matter where the violence occurs—Germany, France, Turkey, Iraq, or Florida—it is always horrible and distressing. Mostly we are powerless to respond. We may live too far away. Alternatively, we may lack the skills and knowledge to be of much help during the crisis. Often all that we can do is fret and stew in anxiety, which is of little help.

It is important to remember that acts of violence do not arise out of nothing. They always have precipitating causes and conditions, which may stretch back over years, decades, and even centuries. The acts of violence that erupt today are the fruit (result) of seeds (causes) planted long ago.

Non-violenceSeed_germination (Love), likewise, does not arise out of nothing. Today’s acts of love are the fruit (result) of seeds (causes) planted long ago. Fortunately, love has causes that can be cultivated. In t
he same way that we can create conditions conducive to violence, we can create the conditions for love to arise. Each and every day, we can choose to plant seeds of love or seeds violence in the world.

Love is the desire for the well-being of others. It is radically inclusive, excluding no one. Practicing love does not require special training, equipment, or techniques. It does, however, require a daily commitment to love one’s “neighbors.” And everyone is our neighbor, whether we meet them in person or through social media. Not only must our actions and speech reflect our desire for the happiness and well-being of others, but our heart and mind must also hold our neighbors lovingly. This is a hard and humbling practice. However, over the long arc of history and even the short arc of our lives, it can be socially and personally transforming.

Over time, we will find that our lives are filled love and not hate. We will, as a result, be happier and at peace. However, these are just the superficial effects of the daily practice of love. The deep and long-term effects of our practice are virtually impossible to discern. Perhaps a kind word or look turns an individual down a better path. Maybe a loving act today plants the seed for some future good we will never see.  Only Buddhas know the full effects of our actions.

Perhaps this is the greatest challenge. Ultimately, the practice of love is an act of faith. Faith that love is more powerful than hate and violence. Faith that love will transform the world into a realm of peace, joy, and well-being, what Christians call “Heaven on Earth” and Buddhists call a “Pureland.”

Peace, Paul

Photo: Seed Germination, USDA

The Buddha was Engaged with the World

July 26, 2016

buddhist-nunsRecently I read “In Search of Buddha’s Daughters” by Christine Toomey. It is a collection of interviews with, and accounts of, Buddhist nuns – many of them on the leading edge of reform. These are stories of strong women taking courageous stands against oppressive, often abusive, patriarchal institutions.

The stories of the brutality endured by some of the Tibetan nuns at the hands of the Chinese government is sickening. In Burma and Thailand the situation is a bit better, but there are still threats, social stigmatization, and violence against women seeking only the right to fully ordain as Buddhist nuns. Women are even blocked from full ordination in some Buddhist institutions in Europe and America. Often the resistance comes from the highest levels of the monastic orders – from the senior and supposedly most mature religious practitioners.

Toomey’s book reminds us that being a Buddhist does not automatically exempt one from participating in evil or perpetuating injustice. Violence can and has been done in the name of the Buddha Dharma. Buddhist institutions are human constructs which can be the cause of great suffering for others. Institutional Buddhism can be racist, sexist, classist, etc. Gurus and Masters, no matter how enlightened they are reputed to be, have abused and taken advantage of their students.

Like any religion, Buddhism can be practiced superficially. In the same way that we can talk about the virtue of religious love without ever truly practicing love; we can practice the religious forms of Buddhism without ever being transformed by those teachings.

Stated succinctly, Buddhism is the practice of ending suffering, both our individual mental/emotional suffering and collective social suffering. As Toomey reveals in her book, sexism is a form of social suffering, a visible and outward expression of our collective ignorance. It exists in institutions, traditions, language, and world-views. It is not just personal, residing simply within the individual. Sexism has a life of its own. We as individuals live with sexism as part of our collective social and cultural reality. Like other social ills, sexism cannot be completely overcome or transformed by personal practice. If it could be, then monks who have spent a lifetime devoted to religious practice would not allow sexism to continue to be perpetuated in their Buddhist institutions.

Eliminating sexism – or racism or classism or militarism or any other social ill – requires both personal and social transformation. We need to do the personal inner work necessary to recognize our own culpability – our own ignorance. However, we also need to work in the world to transform the institutions and structures that perpetuate sexism. Unfortunately, this work “in the world” often gets dismissed in Buddhist circles. Buddhism, if we are honest, can be overly introverted. The historical Buddha, by contrast, was engaged with the world. While he certainly advised some of his students to practice in secluded spots, much of his life and that of his monks was lived in close proximity to ordinary people with jobs, families, and worldly responsibilities. The Buddha and the Order of monks advised and helped these laypeople.

Half of the Buddha’s eightfold path of awakened living focuses on how we act in the world. Creating a more peaceful and just society involves prayerful and compassionate actions of our body, speech, and mind. If our motivation is misguided, if we are driven by anger and hatred, then the institutions we create will be likewise corrupted. However, if our motivation is loving and compassionate, seeking the benefit of all, then there will be more love and less suffering in the world.

Peace, Paul

Prayer, Love, Social Transformation

May 20, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Peace, Paul

Mudita: The Joy of Joy

April 14, 2016

Sympathetic Joy is the most common translation of the Buddhist term mudita. Mudita is finding joy in the joy of others. It is spontaneous, unconditioned and unlimited. It is the joy of aliveness, of being itself. Mudita is spiritual joy.

We have all experienced mudita, most likely in presence of children. The joy of children is so pure and unbounded that it is contagious. Seeing a child engaged in joyous play, we ourselves are touched by joy. The joy we feel is not something we own. We did not produce it through our own efforts. It arises from outside ourselves. We simply enjoy the the joy experienced by another being.

laughing-buddha-figureIn Buddhism there are techniques to simulate mudita. They are valuable and can help us be more open to the arising of spontaneous joy. In their simplest form, one strives to wish others happiness and remember to celebrate others’ successes.

However, we must not mistake the map for the territory. The cultivation of joy is a close approximation but not the real thing. Since the practice is contrived, it is easy to get caught up in judging our success, or lack-thereof, in finding joy in others’ joy. We may become frustrated by the arising of negative thoughts, judgements, and jealousy – the antithesis of joy.  We may wonder how we can we feel joy in another’s success, when we are jealous of that success?

True mudita arises in spite of our imperfections and negative thoughts. Spiritual joy is a vast ocean upon which thoughts are only ripples. Negative thoughts may continue to arise but are insignificant in the presence of mudita.

Ultimately, mudita arises from beyond what we think of as self. Mudita is the nature of the measureless. It arises naturally when our hearts open to the unconditioned. When we are touched by the unconditional, we experience boundless joy in even the smallest moments of life. Unfortunately, we are usually too caught up in conditionality – planning for the future, reliving the past, judging and weighing each experience – to see the joy present in each moment.

Awakening to mudita begins by paying attention. This is why prayer and meditation are so important. They help us slow down. Through contemplation, we become comfortable with stillness and quite.

Our world is frantic, filled with information and activity. It is not a conducive environment for deep peace. Taking time – daily – to sit quietly can seem like a herculean task. Nevertheless, inner stillness – peace – is worth the effort. It allows us to see the world anew. Over time we become more capable of experiencing spontaneous joy. We begin to rejoice in the sights and sounds of nature, the joy of friends and family, or just in the joy of joy – our own or that of another.

Peace, Paul

Charity is More than Small Change

February 22, 2016

Charity is a fundamentally religious act that affirms the sacredness and value of each person. Unfortunately, Charity as a word and concept has fallen out favor in today’s society. We no longer call groups that serve the poor, the disenfranchised, and the vulnerable Charities. We do not usually think about our “giving,” to an individual in need or an organization that helps the less fortunate, as Charity.

The word, charity, comes from caritas which is the Latin translation of Agape – Love.  Thus Charity is an act of love.  Love, as it is used here, is not mere sentiment. Love is the desire for the wellbeing and fulfillment of the other. Charity, as an act of love, is unconditional. It is given to the deserving and the undeserving alike.

Charity is Love expressed through actions for the welfare of others. Without love our generous and kind acts can become a kind of transactional relationship, a social or religious duty to be fulfilled. We may expect certain “returns” for our “investment” of kindness and can be hurt  and disappointed when individuals are ungrateful, apathetic, or even unpleasant in response to our generosity.

The limited human world of birth and death, what Buddhists might call Samsara, is made up of continual measurement – quantification. We are continually judging and comparing. And, not necessarily in a useful way that can help us navigate the challenges of day to day living. Rather we are continually comparing one moment with another moment, one experience against another. It is something that rarely gets turned off and is the source of dissatisfaction. In contrast, the the bliss of awakening – the realm of the Buddhas – is found in measureless love, compassion, and wisdom.

ChenrezigLove, like compassion, affirms our relatedness with everything else. When we “are love,” there is no separation, no isolation, no aloneness. Love cannot be faked. It expresses itself through a thousand little “tells” in our being.  When it flows through us, it can lift the spirits all in its sphere of influence. In awakened beings, Saints and Bodhisattvas, love can be a powerful force that radically transforms lives.

Of course, “being love” – expressing unconditional love and compassion towards others – is not something that we, as beings limited by self-clinging, can do.  Unconditional love and compassion arise naturally as we release our tight grasp on “I-ness” as the whole of our identity. The more that we “get out of the way,” the more our lives become expressions for the measurelessness of the Buddhas.

This “letting go” can arise spontaneously. However, it is usually the result of the continual cultivation of compassion, love, and forgiveness.  These are practiced daily, through acts of kindness to friends and strangers alike, in the forgiveness of small hurts, and the recollection of, and empathy for, the suffering of others. In short, through acts of Charity. We give what we can to each person we encounter. Most of the time it is just friendship, perhaps a kind word, and most certainly a genuine wish that they be happy, peaceful, and filled with a loving heart. Because a heart filled with love is a source of joy which overflows in all directions indiscriminately.

Charity is a religious act of love. Without Charity we are stuck in a world of buying and selling, of mistrust and judgements. Through Charity we express the measureless compassion of the Buddhas. Thus the prayer of pureland Buddhists is, Namo Amida Bu! I take refuge in, or open myself to, Measurelessness of Awakening, which is the source of true Charity.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Image: Chenrezig, Bodhisattva of Compassion

Gratitude and Happiness

January 17, 2016

The first noble truth of Buddhism, which is often translated simply as suffering, actually has a richer meaning. It conveys a sense of bitterness, of unsatisfactoriness, of incompleteness. The Buddha was realistic. He did not deny the existence of happiness in our daily lives. Life is filled with many small joys: the pleasure found in a warm cup of coffee, or the happiness contained in the smile of a child, or the satisfaction we feel when we complete a task. However, all of these happinesses are tempered by transitoriness. They do not last. As such they are not a source of true happiness. No matter how good life is, there is always has an element of unsatisfactoriness.

Intellectually, we may understand the theory. Indeed, we may have heard this teaching hundreds of times. Yet, we may never have realized the truth of it experientially. As a result, we continually try to find lasting happiness in the things of the world. It is a project that is doomed to failure because stuff always comes up. Things do not go as planned. Or something is never quite right. If, for example we go out to dinner, we may not appreciate the food before us because it is either too spicy or too bland. Perhaps we are uncomfortable because it is either too hot or too cold. Or maybe we are unhappy because someone at the table is not paying enough attention to us, or too much. There will always be some little discontentment present.

The Buddha was very clear: Life is, what it is. We get sick. Things don’t work out as we planned. Stuff goes wrong or breaks or doesn’t work. There is always something that is unsatisfactory. And because that unsatisfactoriness is uncomfortable, we notice it and focus on it, believing that if we can just change that one thing, we will be happy. But it never works. Ultimately it is not the thing or situation outside of ourselves that needs changing. Rather it is we ourselves who must change. Until we recognize this fundamental truth – that the things in this world are ultimately unsatisfactory and are not source of lasting happiness – we will continue to suffer by getting frustrated and angry at the world. And since anger and frustration are in themselves not happy states of mind this compounds our suffering, our dissatisfaction, our discontentedness. No one really wants to be angry, we all prefer happiness. However, if we are not careful, if we allow ourselves to react to more and more of the unsatisfactoriness in our lives with anger, then that is what we become – angry. Not happy but angry.

There are several antidotes to the anger / frustration that arises in response to the unsatisfactoriness in life. In our tradition, the primary antidote we apply is gratitude. It does not require yogic feats of concentration, visualization, or analysis. Like many of our practices, it is easily applied to the lives of people with jobs, spouses, and children.

ThanksOne begins cultivating gratitude simply by recollecting the kindness, help, as well as material goods such as food and shelter that one has received. Ideally this should be done daily, perhaps for a few minutes before going to bed. That way one needs only reflect on the previous 24 hours. With only this very little effort, we quickly realize that we have received more than we have given or contributed. We also begin to notice and experience gratitude for many of the things that we had previously taken for granted: small kindness done by others, or something as ubiquitous as the beating of our own hearts. Often, as a result of this practice, spontaneous gratitude begins to arise at odd moments in your life, like when you take a shower and are overwhelmed with gratitude for the water that comes out of the shower head.

We can, over time, even have gratitude to people or situations in our life that have been very difficult. After all, they helped bring us to where we are today. That is the great gift of gratitude. Every moment, every unexpected turn presents us with mystery and possibility. Gratitude allows us to relax our attempts at controlling each moment. It creates the spaciousness to open to the unknown. If we are willing to surrender to the moment, to approach it with humility, knowing that we do not know everything, then in every encounter there is the possibility of awakening and experiencing profound gratitude and happiness.

Each moment is, just as it is. If our minds are filled with craving and a sense of lack, then we will never find peace or happiness. No moment will be enough. No-thing will satisfy us. We will always feel that we are lacking something and that something needs to change. However, if our minds are filled with gratitude, then each moment is gift – complete, and wonderful, and joyous.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Prayer Life

November 26, 2015

The Religious life is the life of prayer. Prayer is the continual expression of compassion in all that we do, say, and think. Prayer is the yoga of the heart. It is the interior process of “yoking” one’s heart to the unconditioned, that which is unborn, undying and beyond quantification. Hand holding malaIt is not just time spent in formal meditation or contemplation, though those times are important. Rather, prayer encompasses every moment of every day. Prayer is the kind and generous ways we think about and relate to the people around us. It is the joy we find in another’s happiness and the sorrow we feel when we see someone suffering and in pain. Prayer is the loving of those who seem unlovable. It is the willingness to care. Prayer is the desire to be a source of happiness and comfort for friends and strangers alike. Prayer is life; it moves through us with our breath and pulse. Prayer is the antithesis of, and antidote for, violence, greed, and hatred.

In our particular tradition, prayer takes the outward form of calling on, or being mindful of, or contemplating Amida Buddha (Measureless Awakening) with the phrase, Namo Amida Bu! This six syllable phase of sacred sound is a form of the Buddha. Thus to recite Namo Amida Bu is to open ourselves to the presence of the Buddha in our lives and in in life. Namo Amida Bu awakens in us a sense of the sacred. Through the Buddha we touch – are touched by -unconditional love, compassion, and joy. Through Namo Amida Bu, we begin to access the life of Prayer, which is, simply, the overflowing of love and gratitude into the world.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

In the Presence of the Buddha

October 26, 2015

This past Friday we had a gathering of our local Sangha (Community). It is a time to sit in the presence of the Buddha, chant the name of the Buddha – “Namo Amida Bu”, listen to the Dharma, and share our lives with one another. This particular night was special. It felt as if we were basking in the joyous and loving aura of a living breathing Buddha.

Garden BuddhaOf course none of us present were – or are – enlightened beings. Our practice, however, centers on remembering the Buddha and reciting the name of the Buddha. It is a very Bhakti (devotional) practice in which we are always turning the mind and heart towards the beloved – Amida Buddha.

So it is not surprising that our little Dharma Center was touched by the loving and blissful radiance of Amida. The Buddha is always present. It is we who, blinded by our self obsession, are unable to perceive the limitless compassion of the Buddha. We get caught up in our insecurities, our fears and judgements. We forget that reality is much bigger than our self-centered thoughts and the material world we bump up against daily.

Which is the whole point of reciting the name of Amida Buddha. The name is our connection to the reality of awakening – to that which is beyond birth and death. The name works on us continually – purify our mind-streams. It awakens our hearts so that we can experience Amida’s unconditional love and compassion directly. In Amida, none are unloveable – no matter how misguided. Touched by Amida’s boundless love our hearts are easily broken by the suffering of others.

The name – Namo Amida Bu – is non-other than Amida Buddha. To recite the name is to be in the presence of the the Buddha. Awakening is simply seeing that which is already present. It is nothing special. Yet in a moment of awakening, everything is changed.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul