Posts Tagged ‘faith’

Social Transformation Takes Work

January 16, 2018

Taking meaningful social action is hard for churches. Yet social transformation, which is really what churches are all about, only comes through the hard and persistent work of individuals and groups.

Social transformation — creating more just and compassionate communities — begins by addressing real needs and not imagined ones. There are lots of nice things to do to help people, but whether or not these things are truly needed or even effective should be considered carefully.

Let’s look at homelessness. The way to end homelessness is to house people. It is that simple. If the goal is to end homelessness, then our priority must be housing. Everything else is secondary.

There are many groups and churches who want to do something about homelessness. They want to feel good about doing good. So they gather hygiene products for the homeless. Or they make blankets. Or they gather coats, shoes, and other basic items for the homeless. They go out on holidays and serve food to the homeless. At Christmas, they buy gifts for the homeless.

All of these are wonderful and kind acts. But if we step back, if we look at it from a distance and with honesty, we will see that none of these projects has helped end homelessness. No one has been housed. At best, these groups have helped homeless individuals be a little more comfortable while remaining homeless.

Non-profits are partially to blame for this situation. We are not willing to tell the truth about these warm-hearted programs. We are unwilling to say to churches and donors: Thank you, but those things are not helpful. They will not end homelessness. What we need from you is housing. And since a lot of homeless individuals are employed, that housing just needs to be affordable based on the realistic earning capacity of a family or individual.

Homelessness persists, at least in the U.S., because churches and social groups have not been willing to do the actual hard work of housing those who are houseless. This might involve opening up church buildings to the homeless, or pressuring lawmakers to build realistically affordable housing, or some other approach.

JizoBig social changes involve sacrifice. Homelessness persists because we, as people of faith, do not truly believe that everyone deserves a home. We are willing to accept homelessness — even the homelessness of families and children — because challenging the status quo is uncomfortable.

If we want to create a more compassionate society, then we need to take action to address real needs in an effective way. Start local. Be effective. Charity is good and important, but we also need to work for structural change. By all means feed your hungry neighbor, but then begin challenging the systems that contribute to hunger in your community.

Charity is often easier than social change. There is something immediately satisfying about feeding a hungry person, or giving a coat to someone who is cold. But if you have to do that day-in and day-out for years, it gets old. So challenge broken and oppressive systems. Charity is a Band-aid. Social change is the cure.

Churches and Faith Communities have the resources to maintain the struggle over the long haul. We have Faith and Vision. However, realizing the Pure Land — the community rooted in love and compassion —  requires action. The Pure Land arises when we do the hard and tangible work of reducing poverty, oppression, violence, racism, injustice, and environmental destruction in our neighborhoods and local communities.

Peace, Paul

Photo: Jizo Bodhisattva, a protector — especially of children

Bearing Witness in Hilo

September 1, 2017

At 4 p.m. on Monday, August 28, 2017, a small group of Buddhist and Christian clergy gathered near the corner of Pauahi Street and 17_08_28 Event 2Kamehameha Avenue in Hilo, Hawaii. After an opening reflection by Rev. Linda, we moved to the street to offer a prayerful response to the hate and racism that has become so visible in our nation. We held signs reading: “Racism is a Sin,” “Love not Hate,” “Justice for All,” etc.

17_08_28 Event 4As our vigil continued, we were joined by more clergy and people of faith. Our numbers grew to over forty individuals Bearing Witness to the truth of love and justice. There were Lutherans, Methodists, Catholics, Unitarians, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ, Pureland Buddhists, and others.

Across the street, counter-protesters set up graphic signs and began to spew hate and slander at our group. In addition to insults and curses hurled at the group as a whole, they taunted clergy members by name. A few counter-protesters crossed the street to challenge the people in our group and stir up confrontation.

We held our discipline. We were not provoked. We responded to the baiting and hate with patience and forbearance. All the while, drivers honked, waved, and generally expressed support as they passed our group.

17_08_28 Event 1At 5 p.m., we moved under a nearby tree for a closing benediction by a Buddhist priest.  Even in prayer, the counter-protesters harangued us with hate speech. Nevertheless, Rev. Shindo reminded us that hatred is not overcome through hatred, but only by love.

Afterwards, Rev. Eric had us link elbows in the way that clergy had linked elbows when confronting the white supremacists and nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was a simple and powerful gesture.

We must resist the evils of hate, racism, and bigotry. We cannot stand aside. Faith17_08_28 Event 3 demands action. However, we are not alone. We can go forward, arm-in-arm, as brothers and sisters, to confront the hatred and racism which is obviously growing and festering even in our East Hawaii community.

Peace, Paul

Cultivating the Seeds of Love

August 4, 2016

Violence continues to fill our daily news cycle. Much of the reported violence is in distant communities, both within the United States and around the world. No matter where the violence occurs—Germany, France, Turkey, Iraq, or Florida—it is always horrible and distressing. Mostly we are powerless to respond. We may live too far away. Alternatively, we may lack the skills and knowledge to be of much help during the crisis. Often all that we can do is fret and stew in anxiety, which is of little help.

It is important to remember that acts of violence do not arise out of nothing. They always have precipitating causes and conditions, which may stretch back over years, decades, and even centuries. The acts of violence that erupt today are the fruit (result) of seeds (causes) planted long ago.

Non-violenceSeed_germination (Love), likewise, does not arise out of nothing. Today’s acts of love are the fruit (result) of seeds (causes) planted long ago. Fortunately, love has causes that can be cultivated. In t
he same way that we can create conditions conducive to violence, we can create the conditions for love to arise. Each and every day, we can choose to plant seeds of love or seeds violence in the world.

Love is the desire for the well-being of others. It is radically inclusive, excluding no one. Practicing love does not require special training, equipment, or techniques. It does, however, require a daily commitment to love one’s “neighbors.” And everyone is our neighbor, whether we meet them in person or through social media. Not only must our actions and speech reflect our desire for the happiness and well-being of others, but our heart and mind must also hold our neighbors lovingly. This is a hard and humbling practice. However, over the long arc of history and even the short arc of our lives, it can be socially and personally transforming.

Over time, we will find that our lives are filled love and not hate. We will, as a result, be happier and at peace. However, these are just the superficial effects of the daily practice of love. The deep and long-term effects of our practice are virtually impossible to discern. Perhaps a kind word or look turns an individual down a better path. Maybe a loving act today plants the seed for some future good we will never see.  Only Buddhas know the full effects of our actions.

Perhaps this is the greatest challenge. Ultimately, the practice of love is an act of faith. Faith that love is more powerful than hate and violence. Faith that love will transform the world into a realm of peace, joy, and well-being, what Christians call “Heaven on Earth” and Buddhists call a “Pureland.”

Peace, Paul

Photo: Seed Germination, USDA

Faith and The Way of the Bodhisattva

February 9, 2016

There are two books that I dip into on an almost daily basis. One contains the shorter and longer Pureland sutras. The other is Shantideva’s, The Way of the Bodhisattva. The Former is epic in its depiction of Amitabha’s valiant vows creating a vast realm of awakening and bliss attainable by all. The latter is a collection of contemplations and meditations to loosen our clinging to self and the world that we believe to be so substantial.

Twenty-Five_Bodhisattvas_Descending_from_Heaven,_c._1300Superficially, these texts seem worlds apart. The Way of the Bodhisattva provides a set of pretty straightforward techniques and trainings in how to cultivate the qualities of a Bodhisattva. It contains chapters on Bodhicitta, Awareness, Vigilance, Patience, Perseverance, Meditation, and other important Bodhisattva practices.

The Pureland sutras, on the other hand, recount a fantastical story that defies rational understanding. They tell the story of a Buddha who lives far to the West and whose compassion and motivation are so pure that he/she has been able to create a realm in which even the most unworthy of individuals can become Buddhas.  Further, the Wisdom and Compassion of this Buddha is so vast that, “There is no place where it cannot be known.” The name of this Buddha is Amitabha (Measureless light), or alternatively Amitayus (Measureless life), or just Amida Buddha (Measureless Awakening).

According to the Pureland sutras, all that is required of us as practitioners is faith in and continuous recollection of Amida Buddha. Doing so ensures our rebirth in Amida’s pureland, where we will eventually become Buddhas. In this life, such recollection of Amida Buddha awakens in us awareness of our connection with the unconditional compassion, deep wisdom, and boundless joy of the Buddha.

Thus we enter the Pureland, and by extension the Dharma, through faith in the Buddha. Faith is not belief. Faith arises as the result of contemplation, examination, and experience. Faith must be reliable, something we can depend on when all else is lost. And to be reliable, our faith in the Buddha must be tested and confirmed by personal experience over time.

Deep faith allows us to let go of “self” centered concern for personal salvation or spiritual perfection, and focus instead on the well-being of others. It is faith in the Buddha that enables us to take up the Bodhisattva Vow to “save all beings.” Faith in, and recollection of, Amida Buddha allows us to participate in the collective expression of Amida Buddha’s measureless compassion. This is the Wisdom Mind-Heart of the Buddhas – Bodhicitta: the desire to free all beings from suffering and the causes of suffering.

This is important. Because if we take up a text like The Way of the Bodhisattva, with the wrong motivation, then we may be confused as to why we are practicing. We may think that we are cultivating patience, for example, so we can become less angry. However, Bodhisattvas cultivate patience not so that they will be less angry, but rather because anger is a barrier to helping others.

We must be careful to avoid making spiritual practice a type of work, a goal oriented practice that we undertake to become better people. The religious life is not about perfecting our personalities. It is, rather, the process of opening. It is the loosening of our death grip on what we believe to be our Self and embracing the Buddha. If we have faith in the Buddha, then awakening and compassion will work through us despite our limitations, flaws, and shortcomings.

If we rely on the Buddha and seek to benefit of all beings, then The Way of the Bodhisattva is an invaluable tool and resource. However, we must be mindful of our motivation. Why are we studying a text like The Way of the Bodhisattva? Do we want to engage in practices primarily to fix ourselves and make us nicer people?  Or do we want dive deep into the ocean of Awakening that is Amida’s Measureless light and become prisms through which that light is refracted in to the world around us?

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Bodhisattvas are the spiritual heroes of the Mahayana. They have dedicated themselves to the wellbeing of others.

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

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

Creating a More Compassionate Society

December 9, 2014

peter_maurinIn this last month of the year, I have found myself dipping back into the writings of Dorothy Day. I am rereading parts of her autobiography, “The Long Loneliness.” She and Peter Maurin and the Catholic Worker continue to inspire and shape the way I understand what it means to live a religious life.

Being a Buddhist myself, some of the Catholicism does not resonate. Nevertheless, the fundamentals of striving to live a life rooted in faith and love and forgiveness are solid. The emphasis on voluntary poverty, non-violence, and a willingness to take personal responsibility for effecting positive change in the world are as relevant today as they were when the Catholic Worker was founded in 1933.

Watching the grotesque theater that passes for politics, it is clear that politicians are not going to be able to address the serious issues facing us today. There is just too much money and power to be had by protecting the status quo: A world of greed and hatred.

We, individually and in small groups, must find ways to live lives that value and promote peace and compassion. The seeds of a more compassionate, a more loving, and more peaceful tomorrow are found in the accumulation of innumerable little daily actions, words, and thoughts. It is found in how we treat our neighbors. Do we speak kindly and compassionately about others, or do we engage in gossip and vicious speech? Do we think about those who are difficult, or have wronged us, with compassion and forgiveness or anger and impatience?

This is the hard long term work of creating a more compassionate society. Of course it is not enough to be satisfied with our own inner transformation. We must also do the important work of creating a better world by, “Resisting oppression and assisting the afflicted.” This is where the rubber meets the road. To end war, or end hunger, or protect children from harm and exploitation, we must be willing to work towards these goals in real and concrete ways. We ourselves may not see an end to war or poverty. But if we adhere to non-violence, compassion, and love as our method, we will find the goal is already present in the work that we do.

Life is short. Tomorrow may never arrive. Today, let’s begin to live compassion filled lives so that our children may grow up in neighborhoods, cities, and societies that are free of war and privation.

Peace, Paul

Photo of Peter Maurin care of Jim Forest

Love is an act of Faith

October 20, 2014

In a recent blog post, I shared the wonderful woodcut from Fritz Eichenberg entitled “Christ of the Breadlines.” It is a powerful and moving piece of art that inspires and challenges me to try and encounter each person I meet with love and compassion. Though coming out of the Catholic Worker tradition, this picture is an image of what Mother Theresa called, “Christ in his distressing disguises.” It is a romantic depiction of what it means to recognize the intrinsic or sacred value of each human being. Certainly we would like to think that we could see the effulgent Christ, or Buddha for that matter, within each person, no matter how dirty, dysfunctional, dishonest, or seemingly unlovable. However, as Dostoyevsky points out, and Dorothy Day was fond of quoting, “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” We all imagine that we want to be able to love everyone, until we understand the cost of that love. To love all, we must be stripped our of selfness, our revulsion, our judgement. The practice of love is an act of faith. To strive to love all unconditionally is to be humbled and humiliated, daily, by own selfishness and imperfection. Faith allows us to continue to love in spite of our shortcomings and failures.

Love and Hope

September 30, 2014

christ of the bread lines

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace, Paul

Photo: Christ of the Breadlines by Fritz Eichenberg

Seeing Fear

September 1, 2014

If you make a habit of cultivating daily periods of silence in your in your life, through meditation or some other practice, you will inevitably discover that fear is the motivation for much that you do. Not the roaring terror of imminent death but rather the low simmering fear that is insecurity. It is a fear so familiar and “comfortable” that most people never notice it at all. They only see fear as fear in situations where the heat gets turned up by events in the world around us and the subtle fear becomes terror.

I found myself in just such a high heat situation while lying in bed at night, in a small, some might say primitive, cabin, riding out Hurricane Iselle. Having grown up in New Orleans, I was familiar with Hurricanes. I had been through a few near misses. I had seen the devastation. However, I had never been through the eye of a Hurricane, which, it turns out, is a completely different beast. In the center of the storm the wind consistently rages at or above hurricane force of 75 miles an hour. It is loud and relentless. The house vibrates as it sways and flexes in the wind. Debris constantly pelts the house on all sides. On top of the raging noise of the storm one also constantly hears the roaring of much stronger gusts of wind moving along the ground, accompanied by the pop and crack of shattering trees. It is a primordial sound. It is the sound of death in the form of some impossibly large winged creature devouring all in its path. The roof ripples and screams under the onslaught and adrenaline floods the blood stream. This cycle repeats for hours upon end and one is complete exhausted by stress and fear.

Fortunately, it has been my practice for some time now to recognize mind states, such as this one, as an opportunity for self examination. Recollecting my practice, I looked deeply at the fear. Why was I afraid? It was not a long contemplation. Once I peeked below the sensory overload, it became immediately apparent that what I was afraid of was death. More specifically, that I, Paul, would end. With this bit of insight came the recollection that I am going to end at some point anyway. None of us can escape death. Further, and perhaps more significantly, I am not that important. What is important is the degree to which I am transformed by love and compassion. The rest, the “things” of this life, are fleeting. They are the result of living in this particular body, in this particular time, in this particular country. As soon as the body dies, those things will cease to be valuable.

I found this insight, for some reason, comforting, and I soon dropped off to sleep. Later I awoke to the storm raging overhead, and decided to relocate to the relative safety of the bathroom. However, the worst of the fear was gone. I was able to sleep, on and off, throughout the remainder of the storm.

Of course, I still have fear. Foolish, I know. I certainly have not learned to truly love others, to offer compassion and understanding before judgement. Nevertheless, I have faith that if I keep walking along the path, trying to recollect the Buddha and the Dharma, that at some point Love and Compassion will replace fear.

Peace, Paul