Posts Tagged ‘Compassion’

The Pickpocket and The Saint

October 4, 2015

In Be Here Now Ram Dass tells the story of his initial training in yoga. While living in an Ashram in India he would undertake a daily routine of meditation, pranayama, hatha yoga, study, etc. His teacher, Hari Dass Baba, would come every day and teach him using a chalkboard, because Hari Dass Baba was “mouni” – silent. On one of these occasions Hari Dass Baba wrote, “If a pickpocket meets a saint, he sees only his pockets.”

When I first encountered this quote, 30 years ago at age 18 or 17, it was transformative. It immediately stuck in my mind. Memorized spontaneously. Arising over and over again through the years. This one short sentence, a short story really, teaches us how our own thoughts shape the way we experience the world. In this particular instance, the pickpocket has the great good fortune to meet a saint. Here he is, a thief by trade, who certainly must mingle with a variety of unsavory individuals who live the kind of lives that lead to suffering and misfortune, for themselves as well as the people around them. They are lives that spiral downwards.

Ramakrishna_Samadhi_1879Nevertheless, the pickpocket in our story has accumulated the meritorious karma to meet a Saint, a person that can show the pickpocket how to find real happiness, how to be a source of happiness for his family and people around him. Unfortunately, even though the pickpocket encounters the Saint, he does not see the Saint. He does not recognize the opportunity that is present in the person of the Saint. Instead the pickpocket is just looking to see if the Saint has any money in his pockets that the thief can steal. In the pickpocket’s mind, there are no Saints, only pockets to be pilfered.

The story asks us to look for the filter through which we see the world and the people around us. If our minds are filled with hate, judgment and mistrust, then that will be what we tend to see and encounter in the world. Even the most virtuous person will appear as an enemy or a threat.

However, if our hearts are filled with love and compassion, if we are continually looking for Buddha’s light and love in the world, then that is what we are likely to encounter in our daily lives. For the awakened heart, even the disheveled and dirty homeless person shines with the Buddha’s light.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Image of Ramakrishna in Samadhi. For more information about Ramakrishna read the “Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.”

Practicing Buddhism in Daily Life

September 10, 2015

I came to Buddhism out of an existential need to go beyond religious belief. I had to know, beyond any doubt, that there was more than just this material life. Buddhism was the best path for me. Over the course many years I undertook various religious practices: meditations, yogas, tantras, etc. These were practiced at various levels of intensity. Sometimes the practices were squeezed into the spare moments of a very full life. At other times I had the leisure to practice fully in a retreat environment.

Now, at age 50, such intensive formal practices seem less important. The practices still have their place and are valuable but these days my core practice is found in the moments and relationships of daily living.  How fully is the Dharma integrated into my life? Where do I encounter the limits of my compassion, joy, and love? Whom do I greet with love and whom with fear and aversion? Every time anger or frustration or desire or greed or jealousy arise, there is an opportunity for me greet them as teachers. The teaching, however, is always the same. I can either respond to these negative emotions by turning towards the Buddha, or I can continue to dance with them in in the spiraling cycle of suffering called samsara.

Of course, the basics of the Buddhist life still apply. It doesn’t work to just follow our own confused thoughts. We need a foundation upon which to stand.  We need something outside of our deluded selves to guide us. For Buddhists, it is the Buddha.  We acknowledge our confused state and take refuge in the Buddha. Having taken refuge in the Buddha we try follow the teachings he gave. Thus we adhere to the precepts. The precepts are a protection and a source of happiness. The precepts are the most basic yoga of Buddhism. They are the discipline that aligns our lives with that of the Buddhas. Our resistance to a precept or the breaking of precepts are continual sources of teaching. Without practicing the precepts, individually and socially, we will remain forever enmeshed in suffering.

The precepts help us avoid causing harm. However, we must also practice virtues such as generosity, kindness, and compassion. Additionally the practices of reciting mantras and prayers, doing prostrations, taking refuge, and continually being mindful of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are all extremely transformative. These are some of the traditional practices that generate the spiritual energy necessary to create a better life and a more compassionate world, a world in which peace and well-being are more common that war and privation.

However, it starts with our lives. We must strive to, “be the change we want to see in the world.” We must integrate the teachings of the Buddhas into our lives and try to live the values of love and compassion daily. Certainly we will fail and find ourselves wanting. Compassion and love and forgiveness are habits built up little by little over time. Start small. Forgive little hurts. Recognize the suffering of those around you. Remember that everyone has value. Strive to use your life to alleviate suffering and do good in your community. Remember, every small act of love and compassion has an impact in the world.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

For the Benefit of All Beings

August 20, 2015

 Over the last few years I have enjoyed getting back into doing Hatha Yoga. In my early 20s, when I was living on a yoga ashram, I was limber enough and strong enough to assume just about any of the yoga asanas. Unfortunately, I was not able to truly appreciate the healing power of asana. I was too young and impatient. Now, having made 50, and lost the elasticity of youth, I find asana both liberating and blissful. I am aware of asana loosening physical knots and dismantling muscle armoring accumulated over the many years of this life.

However, this practice, while wonderful and helpful, is secondary to living the religious life. The religious life is lived for the benefit of all beings. It is not a path that is overly focused on our own bliss or health or well-being, as helpful as these can be. Rather it is focused on striving to create well-being and happiness for the people and beings around us. It is about living a life that is expansive and open to all.  It is willingness to respond to pain and hurt with compassion.

We begin within our own lives, trying to minimize causing suffering and maximizing benefiting others. Thus the religious life is built on three principle disciplines: ethics, study, and contemplation. We practice ethics so that we may be a refuge and not a threat to others. We use our intellect to study the teachings of awakening so that we may deepen our faith and understanding, the foundations of practice. We continually contemplate the Buddha, so that awakening and compassion may be companions in all that we do.

The religious life, is just that – a life. It is not something that we only do on Sundays, or in the Zendo, or on the Yoga mat. It cannot be set aside or turned off. To be authentic and socially transformative, it can be nothing less than a commitment of our whole life, warts and all, moment to moment, birth to death, to benefiting all beings. 

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Refuge is the Heart of Buddhist Practice

June 12, 2015

If you have an interest in Buddhism, then you have some sort of karmic connection with the Buddha. Those who do not have such a karmic connection, simply will not encounter the Buddha or the teachings of the Buddha.

Even individuals who have a strong karmic connection with the Buddha Dharma may not become practitioners. They may instead be in a situation where they are near the Dharma. They may live close to a Buddhist temple. Perhaps they have a relative or spouse who is a practitioners, or maybe they have met Buddhists teachers or read Buddhist books.

However, for those who have a karmic connection with the Buddha and and wish to follow the Buddha, then “Taking Refuge” in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha – The Triple Gem – is the explicit act of faith. Taking Refuge in the Buddha contextualizes the “worldly,”  and much advertised, refuges of: Youth, Beauty, Wealth, Power, Prestige, Romance, Intoxicants, Entertainment, etc. While these refuges may bring some happiness or escape from suffering, they are temporary and often entail their own forms of suffering. Youth fades with age. Power breeds enemies. Prestige knows jealousy.

Taking Refuge in the Buddha is not a one time thing. It is an ongoing and ever deepening process. Refuge is the heart of Buddhist practice. If we could truly and completely take refuge then all of our actions – in body, speech, and mind –  would perfBuddha Wallectly reflect the Buddha and the Dharma. No other religious practices would be necessary. We would naturally live according to the Dharma. It would not, for example, occur to us to respond to hatred with anything other than compassion. Likewise we would not engage in harmful speech, action or thought. Such behavior would not be contrived or forced, it would arise naturally from our full and complete refuge in the Buddha.

Reflecting on our own lives we can see that we have not yet fully taken refuge. We still struggle to keep the precepts. We get caught up in the confusion arising out of the misapprehension of self as real. We often respond to the world with anger and craving instead of compassion and wisdom. We continually and habitually fall back into the fruitless search for happiness in the worldly refuges

Recognizing that we have not yet truly Taken Reguge, it is important to continually think about the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The easiest way to do this is to set aside time everyday to take refuge: Recite the refuge prayer and make prostrations to the Three Jewels. In our tradition, remembering the Buddha and taking refuge are combined in the “Nembutsu.”  Nembutsu is what might be called a pith and concise refuge prayer. It is made up of six syllables: NA MO A MI DA BU!  It means, “I take refuge in measureless awakening.” Because awakening is measureless, beyond the conceptual limitations of our deluded thoughts,  it is ever-present and thus accessible in any moment or any place. The Buddha’s radiance of perfect wisdom and compassion can be experienced in any circumstance, even if we are less than perfect ourselves. The Nembutsu becomes our continual reminder of and connection with the Buddha – Awakening – in all the activities of our life.

If you have the time and the interest, it is also valuable to read Buddhist texts and memorize short passages from these texts. Today it is easy to listen to and even watch Dharma teachings by many wonderful Buddhist teachers. The more we do these things, the stronger our karmic connection with the Buddha becomes. The more we align our life with the Buddha, the source of awakening and happiness, the more these qualities appear in our life and in the world around us.

In short, much of the suffering we experience, individually and as a society, is the result of taking refuge in something other than the Buddha.  Buddhas are, by definition, the perfection of wisdom and compassion. To take refuge in a Buddha is to renounce the things that do not reflect the awakened compassion, namely the three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance. It is these three that power the cycle of endless suffering known as samsara. They create the sufferings in our individual lives as well as drive the many social sufferings such as war, privation, and discrimination.

Taking Refuge. Aligning one’s life with the Buddha Dharma, not only brings us joy and peace but it offers those around us a way out of suffering.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

The Difficult and Humbling Buddhist Path

May 11, 2015

As Buddhists, we live our lives for the benefit of all beings. We try to alleviate suffering with our words and actions. We pray that others may do good, abandon what is unwholesome, and be liberated from suffering and the causes of suffering. At the very least, we hope to avoid adding more suffering to others’ lives. 

Living a Buddhist life in the world is difficult. Practicing compassion for those around us is hard. We are continually challenged by encounters with people who are antagonistic, mentally ill, or completely enmeshed in unhealthy and unwholesome lifestyles. Our youthful and romantic notions about our ability to transform the world are shaken as we stumble over our own shortcomings and self-centeredness. Often we ourselves are the problem. We are the ones who need saving. We begin to understand that there is no hard distinction between benefiting ourselves and others. All beings are interconnected. Love benefits all. Hate harms all. Yet we continue to struggle to practice love instead of hate, and it is painfully obvious that we are completely lost. We are incapable of effecting our own or others’ liberation.

Startled by this humbling reality, we cling to the Buddha as our only hope. We observe the precepts to benefit ourselves as well as others. We undertake various religious practices for the same reason. We cultivate compassion, not so that we will be more compassionate, but rather so that there will be more compassion in the world. 

We follow the Dharma, not for ourselves, but so that we may all awaken together. Awakening is not a goal to be obtained in the distant future. Rather, awakening is an ongoing process of living love and compassion moment to moment, encounter after encounter. In those moments of love and compassion, the Buddha’s light, which is always present, manifest in the world. We sit in the presence of the Buddha while our confused and deluded selves fade into the background.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Saints, Idols, and Good Works

February 23, 2015

“The saint does not have to bring about great temporal achievements; he [sic] is one who succeeds in giving us at least a glimpse of eternity despite the thick opacity of time.” Dorothy Day quoting Father Henri De Lubac, S.J.

I have come back to this quote over and over again this past week. I have found it both challenging and inspiring. It has challenged me, because I tend to idolize the life of “good works.”  Father Henri De Lubac is not in any way suggesting that we should not do good works. But he is calling into question our tendency to judge and value others, especially people of faith, by the success or failure of their projects.

saint-francisSaints, like the rest of us, must live their lives here in historical time, with its many challenges and demands. And it makes sense that many of them would be doing the work of resisting oppression and assisting the afflicted. But this work is only a reflection of an inner quality. The work itself, while beneficial and necessary, is not the goal.  Rather the “goal” is the life lived in deep faith.

The works in this world, successful or not, are just the temporal and transitory expression of the depth of one’s faith. They are signs pointing us towards the reality of immeasurable wisdom and compassion. The moment that we lose sight of this fact, the “signs” become idols. We get caught up in what Trungpa called “spiritual materialism.” We mistake the finger, that is pointing to the moon, for the moon itself. As Paul Tillich points out in his Systematic Theology, holiness is only holiness in so far as it negates itself in pointing to the divine of which it is the medium. The saint is a saint because his or her life points beyond themselves and towards the Truth.

Garchen Rinpoche

Being a saint is not about being perfect. Saints are human. They make mistakes. They are subject to all the many sufferings that befall humans. Most saints are hidden, unseen until we begin looking for them.

Saints take on the impossible. They see some good that should be done, and do it. They live an uncompromising religious life, even if such a life seems totally unrealistic. We, as ordinary beings, might ask how one person can make a difference?  For the Saint, however, the question might be, how can one person’s faith not make a difference? And herein lies much inspiration.

Peace, Paul

Images: St. Francis of Assisi, Garchen Rinpoche

Drought

February 10, 2015

“I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”

Matthew 25:35

It is hard to believe that here in Puna, one of the wettest places in the US, we are experiencing a drought. The roads are dusty and the grass is brittle, crunching underfoot as we walk across the yard.

Because of the isolated and rural nature of the area we live, most of us catch our own water. There is no county water coming to our homes. We bath and cook with rainwater. Which is wonderful until one faces the very real possibility of running out of water. It is not something that most people in the west ever contemplate.  Water is so abundant that we take it for granted and get frustrated instead when the internet goes down.

We cannot imagine what it would be like to go without water for a day. How much harder it is then to understand what it must be like to live where water is scarce? No water to drink or bath with. No water for washing: dishes, clothes, hands, etc. No water to cook with. No water for your crops or animals. No water for sewage. What must it be like to be parched? Few of us in the West have any idea.

In ancient times, offering water was an act of hospitality that could be life saving. The Pali Cannon is filled with accounts of people offering the Buddha water for washing and drinking. Likewise, I am certain many individuals offered Jesus water while he traveled around arid ancient Palestine.

Holding a Tea CupWater is such a simple and important gift. It is a precious and life giving resource that many in the world do not have. In the West we are blessed. The act of offering drink to the thirsty is more about hospitality. It is the act of opening our heart to another person and quenching, in some small way, their loneliness.  It is an opportunity to share in our common humanity with all of its joys and sorrows.

However, let’s not forget those who do not have access to clean water. They have as much right, and certainly as much need, of water as we ourselves do.

Peace, Paul

What is Important?

February 2, 2015

Soot and ash have been raining down on our house from brush fires ignited by the active lava flow few miles down the road. The air stinks of smoke. It catches in one’s throat and causes coughing fits. In the evenings we walk the dog to the end of the street and watch the smoke rising from the forest beyond the adjacent houses. It is not as close as it seems, but it is another reminder of the danger lurking in the neighborhood. It has been several months since the public became aware of the approaching lava – weeks and months of worry and speculation and stress with little end in sight.

Lava above Pahoa town, January 2015

We are very lucky to live near the outside edge of any possible lava flow routes. We feel the effects but do not live in fear of losing our home. Nevertheless, living under the threat of a slow moving disaster is stressful. Like being in the presence of the dying, it pushes us to look at our own lives and how we are using the very precious and limited time we have.  It is a reminder that what we carry in our hearts is all that we truly have. Displaced and robbed of all that is familiar, how will we respond? What will he hold onto? This will be the test of our faith and our spiritual practice.

Faith must be cultivated before we find ourselves in the midst of disaster and mayhem. We need to begin today, cultivating a deep and loving heart that is honed against the many little disappointments, losses, and challenges of daily life. Each day we need to set time aside to turn away from worldly concerns and open the heart with prayer, silence, and meditation. Scripture is the record of the encounter between the sacred and the mundane. Read with discernment, it can open our eyes to radical new ways to see the world. Some of the greatest religious figures of the 20th century arose in the midst of great tragedy and struggle: Gandhi, Arch Bishop Tutu, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Deitrich Bonhoffer, Dorothy Day, Aung San Suu Kyi, HH the Dalai Lama, to name just a few.

The struggles of life can seem overwhelming. Indeed, if we think that we can take them on ourselves we are doomed to failure. Death will defeat us before we make the world right and just.  With vision and faith, however, we can see beyond the limitations of this life and this world and into the reality of the endless working of compassion.

Every generous and loving act is an expression of the Buddha’s boundless compassion. The historical Buddha had nothing in the way of material goods.  All that he had to offer was his presence and his boundless compassion for the welfare of others. People and gods came to the Buddha to seek his advice and teachings because they trusted in him and the fundamental goodness he embodied.

In the midst of disaster or in the company of death, when we can no longer rely upon the material things of this life, what will we have to offer? Will we, like the Buddha, be able to offer love and compassion or will we be spiritually bankrupt, lost in our own inner turmoil, fear, and ignorance?

Peace, Paul

Photo: Hawaii Volcano Observatory, January 21, 2015

Foolish Beings

January 25, 2015

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” St. Paul

217px-Paris_Tuileries_Garden_Facepalm_statueWe are often powerless to do the good that we want to do. There is a dissonance between the lives that we live and our highest ideals, be they religious or secular. We desire to be loving and compassionate and yet the littlest things evoke thoughts of anger in our minds. We easily forgive strangers but cling to hurts caused by those nearest to our hearts. We rejoice in the troubles of others, despite our vows to bring happiness to all. We are, as the Pureland Buddhists say, foolish beings: Bombu.

Accepting our bombu nature is an act of humility. It means acknowledging our mistakes and shortcomings. It is accepting that there is a Truth bigger than our little selves. It is awakening to the unsettling reality that we receive far more than we could ever repay. That is why,as bombu beings, gratitude is our religious practice. Love and compassion are just the overflowing of this gratitude into the world. We awaken to the possibility of a life lived for the benefit of others, who have already offered us so much, even if we do not yet see it.

Peace, Paul

Photo: “Paris Tuileries Garden Facepalm statue” by Alex E. Proimos – http://www.flickr.com/photos/proimos/4199675334/. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

A Life Lived Deeply

January 6, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Peace, Paul

Photo: Wyoming_Jackrabbit