Posts Tagged ‘Compassion’

One Nembutsu and Universal Salvation

August 1, 2017

In Pureland Buddhism iSukhavatit is often taught that a single recitation of Nembutsu — Namo Amida Bu — is sufficient to effect one’s salvation after death. As a result of reciting one Nembutsu, one will be reborn in Amida’s realm of love and bliss, instead of being swept along blindly by one’s karma toward an uncertain rebirth after death.

This is essentially a view of universal salvation through grace. It is an eschatology that places the realization of divine truth in the future — after death — and outside of this world. Our actions are unimportant. There is nothing good or ill that we can do that will affect or effect our salvation after death.

For those who are powerless, oppressed, and suffering tremendously, this eschatology is valuable, even hopeful! It offers an escape, an end to one’s distress and grief. Since it is universal, the good and the wicked are saved indiscriminately. This is particularly important. The powerless and oppressed are often forced into livelihoods that a society considers sinful and/or religiously tainted. For those who are marginalized by society, traditional religious salvation can be denied them because of their lack of status or the socially “impure” work that they perform. Thus salvation through grace, even after death, may be the only form of salvation available to them.

Those of us who have the good fortune to live in stable countries, with our basic needs met and some level of autonomy, security, and freedom, are the rich and powerful. For us, salvation cannot come simply as a release from suffering and hardship at the end of life. We have already been saved from so much distress and deprivation that we cannot appreciate salvific grace. We still suffer, of course, but much of our suffering is existential. It is the suffering of affluence and not of deprivation.

Luxury and abundance are so normal for us that we have lost the ability to appreciation the simple and wondrous joys of life. Clean water is essential to life. We cannot go more than a few days without it. In fact, life on this planet would not exist without water. But we are so spoiled with fortune that we take for granted the water running through the pipes in our houses. For many people on the planet —even today — such easy access to water is nothing short of miraculous. Yet we are so accustomed to the availably of water that we cannot see the miracle that occurs every time we turn on a faucet. We, the materially fortunate, have lost salvation through our own discontent.

Therefore, we must work for our salvation. It cannot be found solely through quiet meditation or great feats of spiritual discipline. Our lives have harmed too many for that. Salvation requires that we make amends for the wrongs that we have committed and for the atrocities from which we have benefited.

We must find salvation through prayers that are active and engaged. Compassion is our act of contrition. It must be practiced daily. We begin by opening our hearts to the real pains and suffering of the people around us, as well as to those living across the globe. Once we have awoken to the suffering of others, our compassion will move us to action. Sometimes — most times — this is just offering human kindness and understanding. However, it can also motivate us to address some of the many social ills that cause people to suffer unnecessary pain and hardship. Institutionalized greed, hatred, and ignorance, are the sources of much suffering. They must be challenged and resisted. The world is filled with many people who have too little, while we few, the fortunate ones, have so much!

In saving those around us, we ourselves are saved. This is the path of great compassion. In creating a better world — one that is more loving, compassionate, and kind — we begin to discover that salvation lies in our very midst. It is found in the joys of others and the simple pleasures of living lovingly together. Amida’s Pureland of love and bliss, we realize, is both far away and present in all the ordinary moments of life.

One Nembutsu is all that is required to enter the Pureland. But that One Nembutsu must include all. None can be excluded. And we, the fortunate ones, must live that One Nembutsu with everyone.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

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

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

Generosity in the Streets

November 28, 2016

Running errands in downtown Hilo, I came across a familiar homeless man sitting on the ground and leaning against a store front. He was heavyset with wild hair. His sixty or so year-old face showed the unmistakable signs of a long life of alcoholism. He was also wearing a the black robe of a Zen priest and being conspicuously ignored by the many people passing him by.

As I approached, I said to him, “Nice robe!” He responded by asking for two dollars, which I gave to him. After a few pleasantries, I continued on my way.

homelessThe two dollars I gave him was not going to radically change his life, but it was what he asked for and what I could offer in the moment. This small act of generosity was not something I had to consider or agonize about. Long ago I decide that my practice would be to try and give to, “all who ask.”

People are often scandalized when they see me give money to someone on the street. One person, who witnessed me doing just this, called me the next day to give me a piece of their mind. It was long lecture about the evils of giving money to drug addicts and frauds who need to just “get a job.”

What could I say? It might all be true. They may indeed take the money I give them and use it to purchase alcohol or drugs. They might be scamming me. They might also need the money to buy food, or pay for a nights lodging at the shelter, or to pay bus fare, or meet some other “legitimate” expense. And, of course, it is also possible that they may not be drug addicts, or even be unemployed for that matter.

Whatever the case, as a person of faith my religious practice is to extend love and compassion to all. Sometimes this means taking direct action to meet a need or alleviate some little suffering. Most of the time it simply means smiling, offering a kind word, a patient ear, and a generous thought or prayer for the well being and happiness of the person right in front of you.

Peace, Paul

Photo by: A McLin

Planting Pinapples, Cultivating Love

October 3, 2016

Recently I planted a dozen or so pineapple plants. To start a pineapple, you plant the top, removed during cleaning. Older plants produce multiple “suckers” that can be also planted. Over time, one or two plants can multiply into dozens of plants.

Our pineapples are descended from pineapples given to us by friends. (We have both white and yellow varieties in our garden.) It is almost certain that the friends who gifted us with our first pineapples, likewise started their pineapples from fruits given to them.

img_0348Pineapples are a type of bromeliad. As such, they do not need a lot of attention—at least in the backyard garden. They grow well, if slowly, in the little soil that is available on a volcanic island. While there are areas with deep soil on the island, we cannot afford to live in those areas. Instead, we live on a newish lava flow and have only a few inches of cindery soil that we have augmented with homemade compost in our “garden.”

It can take two or three years for a pineapple plant to bear fruit. The fruit itself takes many months to mature. Which means—to go all Buddhist on you—that when the pineapples do fruit, I—the person who planted them—will no longer exist.

The person who harvests, cleans, and enjoys the fruit will be a different person, though they probably will still be called Paul. For this person,
the fruit will be a gift—the result of genetics, environment, generosity, and some human effort. And since life is fragile, it is possible that some person—not named Paul—will be enjoying the fruits of my recent toils.

If we reflect deeply, we may recognize that all of our actions are like planting pineapples. We say and do various things today, which will bear fruit in the future. As with pineapples, our actions happen within a larger environmental context that shapes how the fruits of our actions mature.

The question to ask ourselves is, what types of seeds are we planting today? What kinds of fruits do we hope to see in the future? If it is the fruit of love, then our actions, words, and thoughts today should be loving. If it is compassion, peace or happiness, then those are the things that we need to be sowing.

To borrow from a famous but anonymous quote, “The best time to begin cultivating and practicing love is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

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

Do Good Anyway

August 15, 2016

On a recent Thursday, the non-profit that I run received a call from an older woman who needed help. She said she was living in a house without power or water, which is not that uncommon where we live. Like many others, she did not have a car. Most distressing, she said she did not have any food. I believe her exact answer, when I asked her if she had any food was, “I have a can of beans.”

There was more to her story and I spent quite a bit of time listening to all the twists and turns of how she came to be in her current situation. Whenever possible, I tried to connect her with resources or agencies that might be able to help. Mostly, I just listened. There was not much we or anyone else could do in the way of concrete action. Once someone has fallen deeply into poverty, the climb out – if it is even possible – is slow and long. This woman had, by her own admission, significant unpaid utility bills and no real way to pay them off. She was stuck.

Giving BreadThe one thing we could do is get her some food. I called several food pantries, including one that was just a mile away from this woman’s home. None of them were willing or able to deliver food to the woman’s house. In the end, I decided that we would take food from our pantry and deliver it ourselves, though her house was some distance away.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at her house with the emergency food assistance, no one was home. We tried her phone but there was no answer. We checked with her neighbors, who told us the woman had not been around in weeks. They all spoke ill of her.

Most people would be disheartened by this turn of events. Indeed, back at the office the staff challenged my decision to take food to this woman. They said that I was too nice and that people take advantage of me.

I disagreed. “Goodness” is not diminished by the harmful or unwholesome actions of others. Our job, individually and as an organization, is simply to do good. We help people by trying to alleviate their suffering in whatever way we can.  How people respond is not our concern. We simply work on adding more good into the world, in as many ways as we can.

Of course some people do deceive and “take advantage” of us. They are in the minority, but it happens. Often, such deceit is more a cause for compassion than anger. These people’s lives are in such a sad state that they feel that they need to lie or manipulate us to get something that we would freely give them.

Doing good is an expression of love. It is an act of generosity. It is not transactional. It does not seek a reward or payment, which is easy to forget in our world permeated by buying and selling. Doing good simply adds love and good into the world; nothing is taken away or lost. We are not diminished in any way through our kind and loving actions. However, the world around is improved a little with each act of generosity, of good, of love.

Peace, Paul

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

Loving The World We Touch

May 2, 2016

In today’s media-saturated world, it can feel like we are in perpetual crisis. A full panoply of suffering assaults us on every side – news of murders, wars, disease, famine, environmental destruction, social injustices, etc. Every issue is important and horrifying and overwhelming.

Unfortunately, there is little we can do to address many of these evils. They are often far removed from our field of influence, occurring in other cities, states, or countries. They can be very complex, involving whole communities or nations. What seems right to us may be wrong for others. There is rarely a solution that does not entail suffering or hardship for some of the people involved. Even small issues that arise in our own neighborhoods can be knotty messes that feel intractable.

If we are not careful, we may lose all hope. Our anger at injustice can easily turn into frustration and despair. Anger, after all, is not a source of happiness. If we go too often to the well of anger for strength and motivation, we run the risk of creating more suffering in the world.

Ultimately, what is important is how we live our lives. All of our little actions matter. It is important to live as compassionately and lovingly in the world as possible. Spiritual awakening begins when we recognize the value of each individual as well as the whole of the world around us.

The religious life – the life of prayer, meditation, study, and reflection – is a life lived deeply. It is awakening to the “relatedness” of all life. No thing is completely separate from any other thing. There is no bright line dividing ourselves from the world “out there.” In fact, living a life of prayer is a process of learning how to embrace the truth that we are in relationship with everything around us. Whether we like or dislike something or someone, does not change the fact that we are still connected with it or them in some way. Everything that we do, in every moment of every day, impacts our many immediate (proximate) and non-immediate (tangential) relationships.

Our actions of body and speech flow out of our thoughts. If we cultivate anger, then our life becomes filled with anger. If we cultivate gratitude, then we can be filled with joy and wonder at the many little miracles we encounter each day.

If we seek after successes and victories, we will be woefully disappointed. We may never see the fruit of our labors. The seeds that we worked so hard to plant may grow into something completely unexpected. Our lives are too short and our vision too limited to see all of the threads of influence in the vast interconnected web of existence.

Planet EarthWe can still work to end war and hunger and environmental degradation, but it must arise from a place of hope and compassion. We must have a vision that allows for all beings to be freed from suffering – those we love and those whom we may think of as enemies. We are all one big planetary family. Like a family, we fight with each other. In a healthy family, underneath the harsh words and hurt feelings, there is an unbreakable bond of love.

If you have doubts about whether or not our planetary family is healthy or not, turn to the texts and teachings of religion. Over and over again, we are told that love is the nature of the numinous. The way to live happy and meaningful lives together is to practice love towards all – even when we feel wronged. The way to overcome the seemingly insurmountable challenges of today is through love in action.

In our hearts we know that love works. It can transform and heal the world. The work of love begins with us. Are we willing to open ourselves to love? Are we willing to forgive wrongs? Can we work for the well-being and happiness of others – even enemies?

If we cannot sooth our own inner battles, how can we overcome the innumerable conflicts in the world all around us? Which is not to say that this is only an interior process. It is not. Love is practiced in relationships. We must get our hands dirty by practicing love towards our friends, coworkers, and neighbors. As Shantideva observes:

“There’s nothing that does not grow light, through habit and familiarity. Putting up with little cares, I’ll train myself to bear with great adversity”

If we want to transform the world through love, then we must begin by loving the little bits of the world that we touch every day.

Peace, Paul