Posts Tagged ‘Compassion’

Awakening to the Shadow Side of Affluence

March 4, 2018

Poverty is a social disease, not an individual sin. Jesus understood this truth. The radical and untamed Jesus of the gospels was poor and disenfranchised. He lived among, taught, and healed the diseased, the powerless, the hopeless. Today, we would likely find him living on our streets ministering to the forgotten people who have no place in our society except as detritus and nuisances.

Being poor, Jesus understood poverty. Being oppressed, He understood powerlessness and injustice. Yet Jesus offered a message of hope. His way of love, if truly embraced, turns the social norms of an injust society on its head. In His realm of love, the weak and vulnerable are more precious than the powerful and successful.

In our own Buddhist way, we can understand that Jesus was a Bodhisattva — a being whose entire life was focused on the wellbeing of others. This does not challenge the Christian understanding of Jesus as the Anointed One (Christ), but rather gives us Buddhists an opportunity to embrace the working of Amida’s Unconditional Compassion in its many forms.

The Buddha Shakyamuni — the historical Buddha — was not poor. He came from a privileged social class. He had access to wealth, power, and influence. Even after Shakyamuni left the palace and became known as the Buddha, he retained connections with his former life. He was often surrounded by other disaffected members of the aristocracy, many of whom were related to him. Unlike Jesus, the Buddha Shakyamuni and his community (Sangha) were supported by the wealthy and powerful of his time. As a result, Shakyamuni and the Buddhist Sangha had an interest in maintaining the status quo.

While the Buddha certainly offered an alternative way of life — a tremendously liberating one — he did not challenge the structural violence and injustice of society in the confrontational way that Jesus did. (Remember, Jesus was executed for sedition.) The Buddha’s revolution was more explicitly internal, than the one Jesus offered.

Buddha Tending the SickThe downside of this emphasis on internality is that compassion and love, the two dynamic activities of the religious life, are often practiced in a general and non-specific way. Buddhists have compassion for all beings, but may not do anything about the suffering on their doorsteps. Buddhists vow to save all beings, but rarely challenge the social structures that perpetuate the suffering of so many.

While a vibrant inner spiritual life is important, we exist within a complex social structure. The reality is that our lives in the affluent West are environmentally unsustainable and greedy. We consume a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources, which are often acquired through social and economic systems that perpetuate poverty, violence, and discrimination.

Jesus’ life bears witness to this shadow side of affluence. As Buddhists, we can learn a lot about the world of privation and oppression from Jesus’ life. It can show us how to ground our compassion, meditation, and profound insight into the reality of the sufferings of the weak and vulnerable. Jesus can remind us that the work of Bodhisattvas is messy, uncomfortable, and dangerous. And Jesus can make us uncomfortable in our spiritual smugness when so many in the world have so little. Jesus reveals to us the brokenness of a social system that values power and wealth over life and love.

Cultivating compassion — daily — is important. Compassion, however, must be honed through tangible action. As Dostoyevsky famously wrote in the Brothers Karamazov: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” As Buddhists, we need to acknowledge our tradition’s bias towards the wealthy, educated, and comfortable. We must recognize our tradition’s tendency to cultivate a generalized compassion that is uncoupled from real world hardships and distress.

Compassion and love are relational. Jesus’ life demonstrates that compassion and love are meaningless outside of tangible actions towards real people — many of whom are hurt, confused, scared, and often difficult to be around.

Christians can learn a lot from the Buddha. However, on the issues of inequality, privation, and social injustice, we can learn much from Jesus about the need for a grassroots, compassionate awakening that seeks to radically transform society for the benefit of those who have nothing.

Peace, Paul

Universal Salvation not Individual Salvation

February 17, 2018

I spend a lot of time working with our local Interfaith group. I do this because I believe that here in the United States we need to shift the dominant religious narrative from one of individual salvation, to that of Universal Salvation.

Individual salvation, has its place. It is especially important for the powerless and oppressed. It offers hope to those who cannot change the world around them. It can provide healing to those whose spirit has been broken.

Individual salvation is a bit like money. For those who have few means, it is vital and life saving (salvific). For those of great wealth, it is often a source of self-indulgence and gluttony. For the wealthy, the principle virtue is necessarily generosity —using one’s wealth to benefit those who suffer disproportionately because they have so little.

We who are fortunate in our liberty and abundance have an obligation to work for the salvation of others. Universal Salvation is our moral imperative. To luxuriate in comfort and safety while children and others remain unfed and unsheltered is fundamentally wrong. We all know this.

The work of helping others can seem daunting. It may be hard to know where to begin. As trite as it sounds, compassionate action begins with compassionate action. It doesn’t have to be grand or perfect, it just has to happen — daily. Because really, salvation is not hard.

Mary Carrying JesusYou don’t need to be a Saint to offer salvation. You certainly don’t need a complicated philosophy or theology or soteriology. You simply need to be willing to help others. Salvation can be offered in the form of  food for the hungry, shelter for shelterless, employment for unemployed, medicine for the sick, friendship for friendless, comfort for the distraught.

Salvation is the universally welcoming spirit. It is present when we set aside judgement and discrimination and accept others just as they are. Salvation is awakening to the reality that all beings are our beloved neighbors

Universal Salvation is the life path of love and compassion. It is practiced in an ever widening circle. Proximity is key. We cannot understand those whom we do not know. We cannot offer love and assistance — salvation — to those who are unwelcome, either explicitly or implicitly, in our churches and temples.

Ultimately, all are worthy of food and shelter. All are worthy of respect. All are worthy of love. All are worthy of salvation. We simply need to be willing to share our spiritual and material abundance in order to offer Universal Salvation to all.

Peace, Paul

Image: Mary holding the broken body of Jesus.

Sujata: The Buddha’s Last Teacher

January 21, 2018

January 20, 2018, marks the second anniversary of the Women’s March. On this day, let us remember and honor the woman who gave Gautama the final teachings necessary for him to become a Buddha.

That teacher was the young woman named Sujata. She found Gautama close to death, next to a small stream where he had passed out. She was on her way, so the story goes, to make offerings to a local god that lived in a particular tree.

SujataSujata found the sickly Buddha-to-be and was moved by compassion and kindness. Instead of taking her food offerings to the local god, she gave them to Gautama.

There are several versions of this story. Some say the woman was a goddess or an emanation of Tara. In the tantric tradition, Tara takes the Buddha into a celestial realm and gives him the final teachings on tantra.

In other traditions, the woman is wealthy and beautiful and petitioning the god for a husband and (of course) a male child. When she encounters Gautama, the food that she offers him — in a gold bowl no less — instantly and miraculously restores his strength and health. Further, this single meal is said to have sustained him for the next seven weeks.

I don’t like either of these stories. They are too simple, too fable-like. They remove us from the gritty reality of life with its sorrows, joys, and difficult choices.

I imagine that Sujata actually spent several weeks nursing the Buddha-to-be back to health. Remember, she found him on the verge of death. He was so weak that he had fallen into a shallow stream and nearly drowned. In addition to giving him food, she probably had to help him find shelter from the elements so he could convalesce. Maybe she brought the Buddha ointments and medicines. Perhaps she made him a fresh set of robes. She might have done all of this by herself, but I doubt it. It is likely she told her family. Together, they cared for this stranger, whom we would later call the Buddha.

As the Buddha recovered, he undoubtedly observed the care he was receiving. These people were not fleeing the world — as Gautama had — in response to encountering dukkha: difficulties, sickness, and death. Instead, they were responding to the reality of dukkha with compassion, concern, and generosity.

The young woman, Sujata, was Gautama’s great and final teacher. Until meeting Sujata, Gautama had pursued only Wisdom through his intense asceticism and yogas. However, to become a Buddha one must have both perfect Wisdom (prajna) and unconditional Compassion (karuna). Gautama, had not yet trained in compassion.

It was Sujata that gave the Buddha the teachings on Compassion. She did not give him an elaborate, theoretical teaching or complicated meditations, rather she demonstrated compassion through her actions. Her kindness changed his entire approach to the spiritual path. Without Sujata, Gautama would not have become the Buddha, both because he would have died and because his realization would never have been complete. Without Sujata’s teachings on compassion, Gautama would have been just one of many now forgotten, world-denying ascetic yogis that lived in ancient India.

We can — if we want — call Sujata a manifestation of the great, compassionate female Bodhisattva Tara. Not a magical, fairytale manifestation, but rather a real woman who lived her compassion daily. A bodhisattva that offered a dying stranger food, shelter, and kindness. A woman whose compassionate actions have been felt by innumerable Buddhists throughout history.

Peace, Paul

The Buddha of Light

December 21, 2017

RadientLet us remember Amitabha — the Buddha of light — on this Winter Solstice. Whether we are overcome by physical darkness or emotional despair, know that Amitabha’s radiant wisdom, compassion, and love are accessible in all places and all times. Thus, Amitabha is known as:

  • the Buddha of Measureless Light
  • the Buddha of Boundless Light;
  • the Buddha of Unimpeded Light;
  • the Buddha of Incomparable Light;
  • the Buddha of the Light of the Monarch of Fires;
  • the Buddha of Pure Light;
  • the Buddha of the Light of Joy;
  • the Buddha of the Light of Wisdom;
  • the Buddha of Continuous Light;
  • the Buddha of Inconceivable Light;
  • the Buddha of Ineffable Light; and
  • the Buddha of Light Outshining the Sun and the Moon.

Do not lose hope! Open your heart to the light of awakening. Turn your mind towards the possibility of a world filled with love and compassion. Live your life inspired by that vision. Take refuge in Amitabha’s spiritual radiance. See Amitabha’s light everywhere and in everyone. Offer kindness to all. Inspire others so that they may find hope, wisdom, and joy.

Namo Amida Bu and Happy Solstice.

Peace, Paul

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