Posts Tagged ‘Compassion’

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

Non-Violence: The Path of Love

March 28, 2016

It is important to remember that love and compassion are far more powerful than violence, during this time of war, terrorism and bombastic political speech. If violence were all-pervasive, the human race would not have survived this long. Humans continue to thrive because we are willing to work together. We have found ways to resolve conflicts without bloodshed and killing. We even help those who are weaker than ourselves. Humans survive because non-violence is the norm and violence is the exception.

Violence is, of course, horrible and needs to be resisted. However, violence does not arise in a vacuum. Violence is almost always the result of other violence. Violence begets violence. If we fight violence with even worse violence, we just perpetuate the seemingly endless cycle of violence fueled by fear, revenge, and trauma. We cannot perpetrate violence in the form of invasion, warfare, and continual bombing and not expect the result to be more violence. Violence cannot, ultimately, be overcome by more violence.

Violence is only overcome through the long slow process of love, compassion, forgiveness, and cooperation. These are the values of religion. As people of faith, we are the ones that can lead our communities, countries, and the world in finding another way to overcome conflicts fueled by hatred and violence. We must have the courage of our convictions and say no to war, militarization, and exaggerated patriotism. We can show the world that love and compassion offer a way to break the cycle of violence.

saint-francisSilent prayer is not enough. We need to pray with our actions. As St. Francis reportedly observed, “There is no point in walking somewhere to preach, if our walking is not also our preaching.” As religious people, we can offer the world a way out of violence. First we need to have faith that an end to violence is possible. The Buddha shows a path leading out of violence. Christ does as well. If we follow the paths set out by many of the great religious teachers, earth can become a “heaven on earth,” a realm of peace and understanding.

We start wherever we are: practicing forgiveness and love towards all, daily, and offering little and big kindnesses towards the people around us. When the opportunity arises, we can, with an abundance of compassion, share that we find talk of violence in its many forms – racism, bigotry, sexism, hatred, etc. – unacceptable. We can likewise express our disapproval of acts of violence. We can also work on projects that offer alternatives to some of the many forms of violence in our society.

The practice of love and compassion is endless. Enemies are finite. When we face “enemies” we recognize that our love is imperfect, limited. Like our enemies, we are sometimes moved by anger. Like us, our enemies are people with lives, and loves, and fears. In many ways, we are not that different from those we call enemies. We all want happiness, security, and the freedom to live out lives fully. It is only our limited ability to love, which is the result of our spiritual ignorance, that enables us to see another as an enemy. If we were spiritually awake, then our love would include everyone and none would be seen as enemies.

Thus religion is the practice or training in love. It is the continual cultivation of the desire for all beings to be truly happy. This is what the Buddha and Christ both taught. Happiness is not found in material things, though having the necessities of life is important. Happiness is found in the care of others and in the deep sense of being held, loved, and at peace.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Image: St Francis

Proclaiming the Vision of the Pureland

March 8, 2016

In the first issue of Lion’s Roar, formally known as Shambhala Sun, teachers form various traditions are asked the question, “What is the most important [Dharma] teaching to proclaim in today’s troubled world?” Below is my response.

The most important Dharma teaching is the vision of the Amida’s purified realm of awakening (Sukhavati). It is a realm in which all of the troubles faced by us today have been overcome through the Dharma. There is no prejudice, war, or privation in the land permeated by the compassion of the Buddha.

AmidaIt may be tempting to think of Amida’s Pureland as just a myth, a story for a primitive time before the western scientific model. However, doing so would be a grave mistake. A Pureland is the natural fruit of the practice of the Dharma, both individually and collectively. The vision of Sukhavati shows us that as Dharma practitioners we are co-creators, or perhaps co-realizers, of an awakened and compassion-centric society.

Sukhavati does not only exist far to the West. It is not just a post-death destination. It is accessible in each and every moment. There is nowhere and no one that exist outside of the influence of Amida’s Pureland of awakening.

The vision of Amida’s land of love and bliss, frees us from the compulsive and often disheartening need to see immediate results from our practice. The work of awakening is beyond time. It is trans-historical. Our successes and failures in the short-run are less important than our continual opening to the Buddha.

When our heart is open to the Buddha, our actions begin to reflect the Dharma. We become capable of greater love, compassion, and courageous selfless action than we thought possible.

However, awakening to the reality of Buddhahood also means recognizing our shortcomings, our foibles, and self-clinging. We are humbled in the presence of the Buddha.

Collectively we can create the beautiful music of awakening, which is said to fill Amida’s Pureland. To do so, we need a conductor. That conductor is the Buddha. The sheet music is the Vision of the Pureland. The instruments are ourselves, with our diverse gifts, skills, and personalities.

Ultimately, the vision of Amida’s Pureland is the revelation of the world transforming power of the Dharma, as expressed through unconditional compassion for all beings.

Namo Amida Bu!

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

Manifesting the Compassion of the Buddhas

January 27, 2016

Non-violent social transformation – the work of creating a world in which compassion and love are more abundant than greed, hatred, and ignorance – is the outward expression of the inner life of prayer, meditation, and contemplation. It is, to paraphrase Dorothy Day, “the process of building a new society within the shell of the old.”

Buddhism, especially institutional Buddhism, has a reputation for quietism and other-worldliness. This is certainly not always the case, but it has enough truth that in the West there has been a move to identify and texually and philsophically support a socially engaged or social justice ethic within Buddhism. This is valuable work. For surely the world needs more people, committed to non-violence and compassion, working for concrete and real change. Our cultivation of compassion on the meditation cushion is tempered and honed in the difficult relationships of daily life.

Personally, I like Mahatma Gandhi’s idea that his life has been a series of “experiments with truth.” I think that we can borrow this idea as a guide to applying the Buddhist Dharma to social issues. We cannot hope to find a definitive Buddhist text to tell us what is acceptable regarding social action. No. The Buddha is a teacher, giving instructions that we must apply to the living of our own lives. He is not telling us what to do but rather showing us a path that we need to explore ourselves.

Central to this path, especially in the Mahayana, is the cultivation of compassion, which is informed by ethical restraint, mental cultivation, and penetrating insight (prajna). Ideally, at first, we learn about these and train in them under the close guidence of a teacher. However, after a period of time we will finish our training. We have learned the basics.

Inspired by the Buddha, guided by the Dharma, and supported by the Sangha we begin to test our skills and awakening in the world. There is no one right way to do this. For one person it may involve feeding the hungry, for another person it might mean campaigning for the rights of animals.  The community of practioners – the Sangha – and the precepts are our reality check. If we find that our work requires killing, or stealing, or lying, then perhaps we are on the wrong path. Likewise our Sangha members may challenge us and question our actions, forcing us to look at our life and actions from different perspectives.

AvalokitesvaraOur vow is to save all beings.  Our compassionate response to suffering arises out of the natural awakening of that vow in our hearts. As our vow and practice matures, we become the upaya (skillful means) of the Buddhas. We are in the world offering a warm smile to the frustrated grocery clerk, or a pair of hands to catch a child that has wandered too far afield and needs to be returned to its parents, or a patient ear for a grief stricken relative.

The key, however, is that the Buddha’s compassion must be expressed in the world in real and concrete ways. We cannot wait for others to act, to fix a problem or address a need. We have a personal responsibility to act, to respond, to make sacrifices to create the world we want to see.

Compassionate action in the world, is both the path and the goal. On this path we hold to and rely on the precepts. We cannot alleviate suffering if we create more suffering with our actions. Not only should we avoid negative speech, but we must find ways to value those around us, especially those who are our enemies. We must be willing to save everyone, not just the people we like. The Buddhas compassion extends to all.  Which is not to say that we need to accept or agree with people who are acting in harmful ways. Certainly not. For they harm not only the people around them, but harm themselves as well.  However, we must avoid villainizing opponents, enemies, and antagonist. Rather we should strive to see them with the eyes of compassion, recognizing that they are just like us in wanting happiness and trying to avoid suffering.

The religious practice of social engagement is the practice of embracing the world as our teacher. Each encounter and each difficulty shows us the limits of our compassion. They provide opportunities for us to learn and grow.  Through Engaged Buddhism life becomes the laboratory in which to experiment with the practice of love and compassion.

Transformation, both of ourselves and of society, takes time and patience. We cannot practice compassion towards the perptrators of great evils if we are not yet able to forgive our neighbor or co-worker. As Shantideva says: “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.”

Begin the practice of Engaged Buddhism wherever you find yourself at the moment. There are suffering people around us every day. There are injustices and marginilized people in every community. Look around. Often the help that is needed is small. Yet it is through these small acts of kindness that we manifest the unconditional compassion of the Buddhas in 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