Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

A Life Lived Deeply

January 6, 2015

Buddha handsA new year is here. The previous year is gone. Some of us have lost friends and family over the course of the year. Others have made new friends, entered into new relationships, and seen the birth of children.  None of us has passed the year without being touched by impermanence and change.

Life is passing by so very swifty. If we are not careful, we may find ourself on the cusp of death, filled with regrets and doubts. So let’s use the turning of the new year as an opportunity to take stock of our lives. Let’s take some time to reflect and ask ourselves, have we lived a noble life? Is the world a better place, filled with more love and compassion, because of the life we have been leading?

In our heart, we already know the answers. Life is precious, sacred even. Yet most us  do not have a sense of the sacredness of life. We miss it because our lives are filled with the press and stress of the work-a-day world. There is no time for stillness, and wonder, and gratitude. Today’s world does not support such idleness.

Thus to live a life of prayer, to live deeply and embrace the sacredness of life, is to live counter to the ambient culture. Certainly it is not easy. The path, however, is clearly marked. Set aside time each day for silence and prayer. Give up anger and cultivate love as much as possible. Read and study the lives of the many great beings who have glimpsed the fundamental goodness of life. Practice generosity and kindness toward all you encounter. Keep the sacred always in mind.

Such a life has transformed whole societies. In our case, if we are lucky, through our efforts we may be able to bring a little light to someone in pain and sorrow who has lost all hope. What a wonderful gift that would be.

Peace, Paul

Photo: Wyoming_Jackrabbit

Refuge, the Heart of Buddhism

December 27, 2014

Recently I attended  a refuge taking ceremony. It was a simple affair. The participant sat holding strands of various colored ribbons attached to the Buddha image and thrice recited her refuge vows along with the entire community. Taking refuge in Amida. Taking refuge in the Buddha. Taking refuge in the Dharma. Taking refuge in the Sangha. Taking refuge in the Pure Land. Thus affirming her entry onto the Buddhist Path.

320px-Wave_Acapulco_BreakingDuring this particular ceremony the minister asked us to reflect on how we have been a refuge for other members of the community. This is a humbling contemplation because it quickly makes obvious how often we have actually failed to be a refuge to others. Life presses hard upon us all. It demands our time and energy. Thus we often only see others through the filter of our own life dramas. We cannot see or hear the other person for who they are; their unique life history, their pains, their joys, and their humanness.

Being a refuge, a shelter to others, is the heart of Buddhism. It is the perfection of compassion and wisdom. Only Buddhas can be a true refuge. Yet sometimes, the Buddha’s light shines through us and we are able to see and love another as they truly are. No pretenses, just openness to the other.

For some this openness comes more naturally than for others. We can all improve. Faith in the fundamental goodness of the universe is essential. Without this faith it is easy to lose heart, to be crushed by the ugliness of the moment.

Refuge is about going beyond one’s limited self. It is about being a friend to the friendless. It is offering hospitality to the stranger. It is providing shelter for those caught in the storms of life. Often we may find that the strangers or the shelterless are our neighbors, perhaps even our own family members. It is just that we never took the time to really notice them and ask ourselves, how we can be a refuge today?

Peace, Paul

Photo by Atruro Man at Wikimedia Commons

Gratitude

November 28, 2014

Gratitude, like some much of religious life, is a combination of practice, perseverance, and openness. Gratitude is cultivated slowly, over years and decades. It involves the daily recollection of the many things, great and small, that we receive each day. Some days the practice is easy, other days it is a struggle to be grateful. Often it can be helpful to remember that many individuals lack even the basics of food, water, clothing, and shelter. Remember also that others are suffering the ravages of war, or experiencing ill health, or perhaps mourning the loss of loved ones.

This is a good practice. However, is important to remember that “the map is not the territory.” The daily practice of gratitude, while important and valuable, is only a technique. It is not true gratitude. It is a close approximation.

True gratitude is a spiritual experience that arises as if by accident. The self, with its blue skysmall concerns, falls into the background and suddenly we are overwhelmed by gratitude. Perhaps the blueness of the sky becomes almost unbearable. Or maybe the kind words of a stranger brings us to the brink of tears. Such gratitude cannot be conjured. It arises spontaneously and does not add to our sense of self but rather strips us down to nothing as we encounter the wonder and power and mystery that is existence.

Peace, Paul

Friends

November 3, 2014

I have been travelling the last couple of weeks. During my travels I have had the opportunity to meet new people and renew old friendships. I have hung out with like minded individuals as well as quite a few people whose views were radically different from mine. Most of these people, whether rich or poor, religious or non-religious, urban or rural, were good hearted people. They were people trying to do the right thing, based on the norms of the community in which they live.

We are all shaped by the people and social structures in which we live our daily lives. The speech and behaviour that we hear and see day in and day out, shape our own thoughts, speech and behaviour. Consciously or unconsciously, we become the things that we consume through our senses. If gossip and back biting are the norm, then we will become gossips. If we continually consume words and images of hatred, fear, and judgement then we will live lives filled with these same qualities. Likewise, if we are surrounded by words and actions of compassion, kindness, and concern for others, then these are the qualities that will adorn our lives.

As religious practitioners we must remain aware of the influence of the ambient culture on our lives. However, if our goal is to create a more loving and compassionate world, a world free of violence and oppression, then we need to make sure that we have friends whose values are in line with that goal. We also need to strive to align our own conduct of Body, Speech, and Mind with the values of compassion and non-harming so that we can be a friend and support to others striving to live world transforming lives rooted in love and compassion.

Peace, Paul

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.

Love and Hope

September 30, 2014

christ of the bread lines

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” St. Paul

 

Here in Puna, on the Big Island of Hawaii, we seem to be transitioning from one disaster into another. In August, Hurricane Iselle pummeled the Puna district. No lives were lost, but many lives were disrupted.

Now, we are watching, waiting, and stressing as a snaking flow of lava works its way down from the volcano towards the populated areas of Puna.

There is very little to be done except make plans to evacuate and help those who will be displaced. Against volcanic lava, the living life blood of Madame Pele, we are powerless to protect peoples’ houses, businesses, and livelihoods. Loss and suffering are the nature of this world.

Adversity, such as this, can bring out the best and the worst in people. Hopefully, those of us who have rooted ourselves in a religious practice can respond with compassion and forgiveness. It is in these difficult times, when people despair and feel lost, that we, as religious practitioners, can provide support, strength and hope. Not with fancy words or religious dogma, but through compassionate action that reveals our deep concern and love for all.

There are certainly very real and concrete actions we can take to alleviate physical suffering. However, to relieve this existential angst, we must be willing to open our hearts to the fundamental, and shared, pain of human existence. The very real human experience of loss, insecurity and mortality.

It is a pain we all know. It is a pain we often try to avoid. However, if we are willing to set aside the judgements and fear and the stories we tell ourselves about others. If we quiet the mind and still the fear inside our own hearts, then we can see each human being as they truly are: A precious being worthy of love and compassion.

Often we we fail to love each person we meet. It is an almost impossible task. But we are people of faith. We have faith that if we keep striving to love all, to hold each person dear, that slowly, over time, perhaps over life times, love will begin to leak into our lives and relationships despite our flaws and imperfections. And at the right moment, when faced with someone who is lost and in need, that spark of love may be just enough to awaken the faintest glimmer of hope.

Peace, Paul

Photo: Christ of the Breadlines by Fritz Eichenberg

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

Giving It All Away

April 19, 2014

Generosity is essential to our lives. It is so pervasive that we often do not see it. Yet we practice generosity each time we feed our family, friends, or pets. We are generous when we spend time listening to a friend or family member. We are generous when we offer a kind word to someone. We are generous when we give our time to help others. However, we rarely stop and recognize these as generous and kind acts.

Likewise, we often do not appreciate the generosity that we receive from others: the kind words, the smiles, the work that others do. In truth we receive more than we give. Nothing that we now have has not been touched by innumerable other beings. Additionally, the very air we breath, the water we drink, the food we eat comes to us with very little effort on our part. Something as simple as the lettuce in our salad is produced by the hard work of farmers who have cultivated that variety of lettuce over hundreds years with the help of the sun, rain, and the whole living system that is the earth.

Realizing how little we do and how much we receive is to awaken a deep sense of gratitude. It can be a transformative awakening and the foundation for a vibrant and joyous religious life.To study the Saints is to understand that the religious life is about giving everything away. This may mean voluntary poverty but more likely it involves giving away our self cherishing. It is a willingness to give up clinging to our little hurts and petty vengeances. It is setting aside the score card of who has hurt and harmed us. It is embracing forgiveness and opening up the heart and striving to respond to all with love, compassion, and prayer.

The religious life is about giving our lives to and for the benefit others. In prayer, we pray not for ourselves but for the welfare of others. We perform works of kindness and mercy in response to the needs of others. We forgive, that our hearts may remain open and free. We understand that love is life, and is thus transformative. Love is the most valuable gift we can give. Thus we offer love and compassion to all: Friends, Enemies, and Strangers.

This is hard work. It takes time and perseverance. Give as you are able. Offer kind words to everyone you meet. Pray for the well being and happiness of all, especially those who have harmed you. Know that Love is limitless. The more you love the more love surrounds you. It does not mean that there will be not suffering or pain. It only means that such pain will be held within the embrace of a loving and generous heart, a heart which sees beyond the pain and suffering of this world.

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

Do Buddhists Pray?

February 3, 2014

Hand holding malaWestern Buddhist, being mostly converts, avoid using the term prayer. It is a word too tightly tied to the religion of one’s upbringing. Even in the Japanese Jodo temples in the US one does not hear the term prayer. Rather the priests use the term “meditation” when they call on the Buddhas for blessings or benediction.

Personally, I think that there is a place for the word prayer in the vocabulary of western Buddhism. Buddhist around the world pray. They pray to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other spiritual beings. Prayer is a very important part of the religious life of Buddhists who follow the Dharma but recognize that they are not, nor are likely to become, Buddhas in this lifetime. They are are still caught up in the Samsara of everyday life but have a connection to the Buddha. This relationship with the Buddha is expressed through prayer.

How do we, as western Buddhists who are are not yet Buddhas, express our relationship with the Buddha? How do we express our gratitude, our yearning, and our wishes for others?

As Buddhists, we aspire to alleviate suffering through living the noble life taught by the Buddhas. Ideally this is a life of perfect wisdom and compassion. Unfortunately, we are not Buddhas. We are only followers of the way. Our lives are lived in the space between Awakening and Samsara. We hear the Buddhas call to live lives of indiscriminate compassion. Yet we continue to discriminate between friend and foe, like and dislike, pleasure and pain.

Aware of our short comings, we call out to the Buddha. This calling out is Prayer. Prayer places our relationship to the world of Samsara within the in the context of Buddha’s measureless compassion. Prayer expresses our continual recollection of the Buddha and our awareness of our own limited and deluded natures.

Prayer is not a technique. It is not mind training. Prayer is our Heart response to suffering and affliction. Prayer is opening to the limitless possibilities of Awakening. Prayer is also our aspiration to Awaken for benefit of all beings. Prayer is the Dharma expressed through our compassionate actions in the world.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul