Posts Tagged ‘faith’

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

Other Centered Salvation

March 3, 2014

As religious practitioners it is good to be aware of our motivation for practicing religion. Buddhism identifies two basic religious motivations: self motivation and other centered motivation. In the former, we are primarly interested in our own salvation. Religious practice is about ensuring our own personal liberation form suffering. Self salvation may be an assurance of our own rebirth in heaven. It might also take the form of self perfection, in which we undertake various practices or austerities to help us transcend the sufferings of existence. Self salvation can also be found in striving for a personal religious experience of release or transcendence. All of these are important and common forms of salvation.

The desire for salvation from suffering can, however, also arise as a compassionate response to the suffering of others. This is other centered salvation. It is seeking salvation to alleviate the suffering of others. This altrusitic motivation is the force that motivates Saints.

We can walk into any church or temple and find many good people who are practicing the way of self salvation. However, it is also likely that we will find a few people whose hearts are so on fire with compassion that they must live their lives in the service of others.

In Buddhism we might call these people Bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas have vowed to save all of the numberless sentient beings. It is not a vow to save just the nice and good people. It is a prayer to save all, even those who are causing great harm in the world. It an aspiration to save all beings, whether they are animals, ghosts, demons, celestial beings, or humans.

Of course, we are imperfect and deluded human beings. Our motivation tends to be mixed. Sometimes we just want to escape. At other times we are moved by concern for others. The Bodhisattva path can itself be a form of self salvation, a sort of justification of self by good works.

Therefore the Bodhisattva path must be rooted in both compassion, for the suffering of others, and wisdom, which takes us beyond self. As long as we are caught up in the limitations of self centeredness, we will judge. That is the human condition: judgeing and comparing. To get beyond judging there must be an encounter with that which is measureless. This is the nature of religious experience. It is the arising of Wisdom. Bliss and joy are just side effects. The real power of awakening, of transending self, is that we are overwhelmed by unconditional love and compassion.

Touched by the measureless, we find the strength to persevere in the endless work of saving all beings. Those whose hearts have been awakened by the pain of others are not be content to abide in heaven while others continue to suffer. Such a life would be hell. We must get our hands dirty and strive to help all. It is not that Bodhisattvas are better than those who are content with their own salvation. Bodhisattvas are just driven to help all who suffer. The very existence of suffering beings is unbearable to the Bodhisattva.

If you are called to walk the Bodhisattva path, do not think that your will end suffering with some heroic act or effort. That is the thinking of self centeredness. Humbled by encountering the measureless, we accept our limitations. We recognize that we will not be able to see or understand the fruits of our actions. Therefore we try to live in such a way that our very lives embody, in some small way, the potentiality of unconditional love and compassion.

Feed the hungry. Strive to end war and hatred and violence. Work to stem the tide of greed and consumerism. Do these things because suffering is unacceptable. The way of the Bodhisattva is the way of love and compassion. Violence, greed, and ignorance are the very roots of all suffering. They are the three poisons of existence. The antidote is indiscriminate love and compassion administered consistently and with the patience of the Buddhas.

Peace, Paul

Do Buddhists Pray?

February 3, 2014

Hand holding malaWestern Buddhist, being mostly converts, avoid using the term prayer. It is a word too tightly tied to the religion of one’s upbringing. Even in the Japanese Jodo temples in the US one does not hear the term prayer. Rather the priests use the term “meditation” when they call on the Buddhas for blessings or benediction.

Personally, I think that there is a place for the word prayer in the vocabulary of western Buddhism. Buddhist around the world pray. They pray to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other spiritual beings. Prayer is a very important part of the religious life of Buddhists who follow the Dharma but recognize that they are not, nor are likely to become, Buddhas in this lifetime. They are are still caught up in the Samsara of everyday life but have a connection to the Buddha. This relationship with the Buddha is expressed through prayer.

How do we, as western Buddhists who are are not yet Buddhas, express our relationship with the Buddha? How do we express our gratitude, our yearning, and our wishes for others?

As Buddhists, we aspire to alleviate suffering through living the noble life taught by the Buddhas. Ideally this is a life of perfect wisdom and compassion. Unfortunately, we are not Buddhas. We are only followers of the way. Our lives are lived in the space between Awakening and Samsara. We hear the Buddhas call to live lives of indiscriminate compassion. Yet we continue to discriminate between friend and foe, like and dislike, pleasure and pain.

Aware of our short comings, we call out to the Buddha. This calling out is Prayer. Prayer places our relationship to the world of Samsara within the in the context of Buddha’s measureless compassion. Prayer expresses our continual recollection of the Buddha and our awareness of our own limited and deluded natures.

Prayer is not a technique. It is not mind training. Prayer is our Heart response to suffering and affliction. Prayer is opening to the limitless possibilities of Awakening. Prayer is also our aspiration to Awaken for benefit of all beings. Prayer is the Dharma expressed through our compassionate actions in the world.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Salvation in Many Forms

January 19, 2014

Salvation comes in many forms. For the hungry, it comes as bread. For the thirsty, it is water. For the homeless, it is shelter. For the lonely, it may be found in friendship. For those of us fortunate to have food, shelter, clothing, and friends, salvation is the awakening of the heart. It is being touched by the reality of measureless compassion. Experiencing compassion which is so limitless and total that our little self is overwhelmed and forgotten.

Anyone at anytime can be saved. Both the holy and the evil can have a spiritual awakening that offers a new direction. The experience may be fleeting, possibly even unnoticed. It may reveal itself in a moment of uncharacteristic action that prevents some small harm. Perhaps it is found in a small act of kindness or love. Alternatively, the experience may be deep and transformative, leading to a new way of life.

Being in the presence of holy beings, saints and people of deep prayer, often evokes a primordial memory of the reality of pervasive and limitless love. This is the power of prayer and love. It is what Mahatma Gandhi called “Satyagraha” or “Truth Force”. It is the power that Gandhi tried to employ in India’s nonviolent struggle for independence. It does not seek victory but rather spiritual transformation. Thus, for Gandhi, India’s independence struggle was an attempt to make real the transformative power of love in world.

Clinging to Truth, which, for those of us who are Buddhist, might be called Bodhicitta, requires a certain level of discipline. This Discipline creates a life that is more in harmony with the Truth of Universal and indiscriminate compassion. It is a life of restraint and prayer that deeply values all life and all beings. Living such a life is not necessary for salvation. Awakening, touching that which is beyond self, is not caused by self effort. Salvation is a gift that is freely given. However, leading a life committed to compassionate action, forgiveness, and love, reduces suffering in the world and makes it easier for those around us to likewise be and do good.

Peace, Paul

The Rhythm of Daily Prayer

January 13, 2014

Lately I have been encouraging people of faith to develop a religious practice that involves daily study and prayer as well as weekly fellowship with like minded practitioners. Partly this is the result of my Buddhist training in which we constantly remember that life is precious and unreliable. None of us knows when we are going to die or face some profound suffering. Yet everyday we fill our lives with various activities, often unaware of the preciousness of human life.

This does not have to be the case. The religious life is built up in little bits everyday. Inner transformation (metanoia) is the work of our daily struggle to encounter others with compassion and love.

If you have not yet set aside time each day for study and contemplation, then here is a bit of inspiration. Over the course of a year, thirty minutes of prayer / mediation a day is equivalent to eleven, sixteen hour, days spent in contemplation! That is like going on a very intensive two week meditation retreat!

While thirty minutes a day may seem like a lot to busy people with families, it is only two fifteen minute periods of prayer / meditation a day. Very attainable. Just a few minutes first thing in the morning and at the end of the day.

The thing is, that if we are indeed people of faith, our daily business should take place around our spiritual lives. Unfortunately, often the exact opposite is the case. We try to squeeze our prayer life around the secular activities of life and then wonder why we feel unfulfilled.

Though Buddhist, I have been greatly inspired by the Northumbria Christian community which has created a daily communal practice of liturgy. Members, and guest, are invited to follow their Office of Daily Prayer, no matter where they live. There is no need to abandon job and family to join the monastery, commune, or ashram. One only need join with the community in the daily rhythm of prayer.

In our own little ways we can follow the example of the Norhtumbria community and begin to structure our daily lives around the daily rhythm of prayer and the living of compassionate lives.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Does Religion Offer Hope?

January 8, 2014

A friend recently asked me if I thought that religion had anything to do with hope? I said, “yes, and If your religion isn’t offering you hope then something is wrong.”

However, as I reflected a little deeper on the question, I began to wonder how much real hope religion offers in today’s world. Certainly religion offers us, personally, much that is valuable. But does religion offer us the hope of solving the very real challenges of a world entering into the dramatic and possibly catastrophic era of climate change?

As a person of faith, I would say that the answer is “yes” and “maybe”. Religion, in theory, shows us the way. Religion offers selflessness, restraint, sacrifice, compassion, forgiveness, and faith as a response to scarcity, hardship, and suffering. It offers lives lived individually and collectively in the sharing of resources and in the care of those who are suffering. Religion offers us the only real solution to a world being consumed, quite literally, by greed.

The hope that religion offers the 21st century is found in the living of exemplary lives of compassion and concern for others. Religion must do the hard work of “saving souls” from the suffering and hellish future that will result from global climate change, war, and privation.

If we are serious about our religious lives then we cannot turn away from suffering. We must live our vows to to save beings from suffering, not in some vague philosophical way, but now, in this lifetime, in real and concrete actions. We must alleviate suffering as it exists in its many forms today, and we must work in the world to prevent future suffering. The work of saving beings, in this lifetime and on this planet, from tremendous suffering, will require heroic acts of selflessness by large numbers of individuals. It is up to us, as people of faith, to take up the work of the saints. We cannot wait for someone else to come forward and do the work. We have the answers. All that is left is to live the Truths that we all know to be true but have been afraid to accept and put into practice.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

The Jesus Dharma of Love in Action

December 29, 2013

Both Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa describe their work with the poor, the disenfranchised, the sick, and the dying as, “serving Christ in his distressing disguises”. It is a provocative image. How often do we fail to see the value of, and open our hearts to, those whom we know and love? Not to mention seeing suffering strangers as Christ?

In Matthew 25: 31-46, Jesus, as Christ, reveals that the followers of Jesus will be judged based on their treatment of their fellow human beings.

It is a powerful and moving passage, not for the faint of heart. As with the Sermon on the Mount, it grounds the practice of love and compassion in concrete action: Feeding the Hungry, Clothing the Naked, Giving Drink to the Thirsty, Offering Hospitality to the Stranger, Visiting the Imprisoned. There is nothing “airy fairy” here. This is where the rubber meets the road. Either you are living your faith through love in action or you aren’t. No excuses!

Like Buddha, Christ has turned the Wheel of Dharma. He shows us the way to overcome the horrors and sufferings arising out of greed, hatred, and ignorance. Christ has revealed the Dharma of Love in Action.

It is a Dharma that we as Buddhist should pay attention to. Great Compassion does not make distinctions between good or evil, rich or poor, male or female. We, as practitioners of the Mahayana, the All Encompassing vehicle of Awakening, are the heirs of this Great Compassion. We have vowed to set aside our own awakening and bliss, to plunge repeatedly into the world of Samsara to help all beings.

If we take our vows to save all beings seriously, then our lives will refract, in some little way, the limitless light of the Buddhas. We must, however, make an effort. We must set aside our short sighted goals and desire to see results. The work of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas transpires over vast periods of time, built upon innumerable acts of kindness and compassion. We will never know the effects of the good done in our lives.

The Buddhist path, the path leading to the ending of suffering for all beings, begins with the generosity. Practicing generosity is easy.

  • Give time, care, and compassion to others.
  • Give to those who are less fortunate.
  • Give to organizations and people who are working to alleviate suffering.
  • Give your time to silent prayer and study.
  • Give your life meaning by working for the welfare of others!

Each of us plays a role in creating a world with less suffering, less poverty, less warfare, less greed. Both Christ and Buddha show us the way.

Peace, Paul

Buddha and Christ

December 26, 2013
Buddha and Christ behold one another.

Buddha gazes upon Christ. Christ gazes upon Buddha.

This wonderful picture, which was taken during a Buddhist retreat at a Christian monastery,  speaks deeply of the relationship between Christ and Buddha.  They, Buddha and Christ, are different, yet they both exist in the shared space of our world.  Because this is a Buddhist retreat, the followers of Buddha are bowing toward the image of Buddha.  This does not devalue the existence, life, and teachings of Christ. Rather it is only a shift in focus.

Likewise, if the photo had been taken from the other perspective, i.e. behind the image of Christ, with Christians at prayer before Christ, their prayer and focus on Christ would in no way diminish the life and teachings of Buddha.

Here Christ gazes over the prostrating forms and sees Buddha.  Buddha looks over the heads of the disciples and sees Christ.

Both, I imagine, rejoice in lives lived in deep faith, love, and compassion.

Namo Amida Bu!

Ananda

Rejoicing in the Birth of Holy Beings

December 19, 2013

It is a joyous occasion when holy beings appear in the world.  They turn people’s minds away from hatred and greed and open their hearts to love and generosity. They offer humanity a way out of the cycle of selfishness and violence that causes so much suffering.  Their very lives and words point us beyond our limited selves.

Therefore, we should celebrate the approach of Christmas, which marks the birth of Jesus, the Anointed One, with whom Gautama, the Awakened One, would have found much common ground. Like the Buddha, the mother of Jesus had celestial visions foretelling Jesus’ birth and greatness.  Like the Buddha, Jesus’ birth tells a lot about his message and his audience.

Unlike the Buddha, Jesus was born into a poor family in humble, i.e. impoverished,  circumstances. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, the Holy family is forced by political strife to flee to, and live as refugees in, another country. They do not return home until there is change in political leadership.

It is not surprising then when we encounter Jesus, as an adult,  hanging out with and teaching the impoverished, the oppressed, and the outcasts. His teachings and stories are grounded in the everyday struggles and experiences of a people living in difficult situations with little if any political power or social standing. The miracles that surround Jesus address concrete needs: Hunger, Sickness, Death, and Hope.

The Christian message is not the same as the Buddhist Dharma.  Nevertheless, we should honor Jesus and learn from and be challenged by his teachings.  We should appreciate similarities, praise lives lived in deep faith, and rejoice in all good that is done in the name of Jesus.

Most importantly, we should celebrate the hope and promise that the baby Jesus offers a world filled with war, poverty, and discrimination.  Jesus offers us Love: Love as a way of life and as cure for the ills of the world.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

The Awakened Heart

December 13, 2013

Personally I find the practice of Noble Speech to be one of the harder religious practices.  It is not difficult because I am running around cursing, or slandering, or gossiping. No. It is difficult because it is so easy to hurt someone’s feelings or cause pain and misunderstanding with speech.

Speech is a reflection of our thoughts. The words we choose, the phrases we use, the tones we affect, all arise out of our own insecurities and fears. Unfortunately, it is this crippling self obsession which closes our hearts to the individuals around us. It is not that we are rude or even unkind.  We are just unable to connect with others at the heart level, the level of love.

A regular, i.e. daily, spiritual discipline of prayer, study, and ethical living can go a long way to opening the heart. We cannot, however, force the heart to open.  The heart awakens in response to the call of that which is beyond self.  In our tradition Amida Buddha is that which is beyond self. The Nembutsu, “Namo Amida Bu”, is the voice of the Buddha calling to us from beyond self.

Sometimes we can hear the Buddha calling us, almost steering us on an unknown but True Course.  Other times we feel lost and can only hear ourselves calling out “Namo Amida Bu”.

“Namo Amida Bu” is the action of the Tathagatha’s measureless compassion upon our hearts and in our world.  To recite “Namo Amida Bu” is to cling to the Buddha amidst the turmoil and challenges of our daily lives.

“Namo Amida Bu” is also speech. It is Noble Speech. It is the speech of an Awakened Heart. Yet over and over again I forget the Dharma, forget the Buddha, forget all but myself and speak in ways that hurt and wound.

Namo Amida Bu!

Ananda