Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

One Nembutsu and Universal Salvation

August 1, 2017

In Pureland Buddhism iSukhavatit is often taught that a single recitation of Nembutsu — Namo Amida Bu — is sufficient to effect one’s salvation after death. As a result of reciting one Nembutsu, one will be reborn in Amida’s realm of love and bliss, instead of being swept along blindly by one’s karma toward an uncertain rebirth after death.

This is essentially a view of universal salvation through grace. It is an eschatology that places the realization of divine truth in the future — after death — and outside of this world. Our actions are unimportant. There is nothing good or ill that we can do that will affect or effect our salvation after death.

For those who are powerless, oppressed, and suffering tremendously, this eschatology is valuable, even hopeful! It offers an escape, an end to one’s distress and grief. Since it is universal, the good and the wicked are saved indiscriminately. This is particularly important. The powerless and oppressed are often forced into livelihoods that a society considers sinful and/or religiously tainted. For those who are marginalized by society, traditional religious salvation can be denied them because of their lack of status or the socially “impure” work that they perform. Thus salvation through grace, even after death, may be the only form of salvation available to them.

Those of us who have the good fortune to live in stable countries, with our basic needs met and some level of autonomy, security, and freedom, are the rich and powerful. For us, salvation cannot come simply as a release from suffering and hardship at the end of life. We have already been saved from so much distress and deprivation that we cannot appreciate salvific grace. We still suffer, of course, but much of our suffering is existential. It is the suffering of affluence and not of deprivation.

Luxury and abundance are so normal for us that we have lost the ability to appreciation the simple and wondrous joys of life. Clean water is essential to life. We cannot go more than a few days without it. In fact, life on this planet would not exist without water. But we are so spoiled with fortune that we take for granted the water running through the pipes in our houses. For many people on the planet —even today — such easy access to water is nothing short of miraculous. Yet we are so accustomed to the availably of water that we cannot see the miracle that occurs every time we turn on a faucet. We, the materially fortunate, have lost salvation through our own discontent.

Therefore, we must work for our salvation. It cannot be found solely through quiet meditation or great feats of spiritual discipline. Our lives have harmed too many for that. Salvation requires that we make amends for the wrongs that we have committed and for the atrocities from which we have benefited.

We must find salvation through prayers that are active and engaged. Compassion is our act of contrition. It must be practiced daily. We begin by opening our hearts to the real pains and suffering of the people around us, as well as to those living across the globe. Once we have awoken to the suffering of others, our compassion will move us to action. Sometimes — most times — this is just offering human kindness and understanding. However, it can also motivate us to address some of the many social ills that cause people to suffer unnecessary pain and hardship. Institutionalized greed, hatred, and ignorance, are the sources of much suffering. They must be challenged and resisted. The world is filled with many people who have too little, while we few, the fortunate ones, have so much!

In saving those around us, we ourselves are saved. This is the path of great compassion. In creating a better world — one that is more loving, compassionate, and kind — we begin to discover that salvation lies in our very midst. It is found in the joys of others and the simple pleasures of living lovingly together. Amida’s Pureland of love and bliss, we realize, is both far away and present in all the ordinary moments of life.

One Nembutsu is all that is required to enter the Pureland. But that One Nembutsu must include all. None can be excluded. And we, the fortunate ones, must live that One Nembutsu with everyone.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Gratitude and Happiness

January 17, 2016

The first noble truth of Buddhism, which is often translated simply as suffering, actually has a richer meaning. It conveys a sense of bitterness, of unsatisfactoriness, of incompleteness. The Buddha was realistic. He did not deny the existence of happiness in our daily lives. Life is filled with many small joys: the pleasure found in a warm cup of coffee, or the happiness contained in the smile of a child, or the satisfaction we feel when we complete a task. However, all of these happinesses are tempered by transitoriness. They do not last. As such they are not a source of true happiness. No matter how good life is, there is always has an element of unsatisfactoriness.

Intellectually, we may understand the theory. Indeed, we may have heard this teaching hundreds of times. Yet, we may never have realized the truth of it experientially. As a result, we continually try to find lasting happiness in the things of the world. It is a project that is doomed to failure because stuff always comes up. Things do not go as planned. Or something is never quite right. If, for example we go out to dinner, we may not appreciate the food before us because it is either too spicy or too bland. Perhaps we are uncomfortable because it is either too hot or too cold. Or maybe we are unhappy because someone at the table is not paying enough attention to us, or too much. There will always be some little discontentment present.

The Buddha was very clear: Life is, what it is. We get sick. Things don’t work out as we planned. Stuff goes wrong or breaks or doesn’t work. There is always something that is unsatisfactory. And because that unsatisfactoriness is uncomfortable, we notice it and focus on it, believing that if we can just change that one thing, we will be happy. But it never works. Ultimately it is not the thing or situation outside of ourselves that needs changing. Rather it is we ourselves who must change. Until we recognize this fundamental truth – that the things in this world are ultimately unsatisfactory and are not source of lasting happiness – we will continue to suffer by getting frustrated and angry at the world. And since anger and frustration are in themselves not happy states of mind this compounds our suffering, our dissatisfaction, our discontentedness. No one really wants to be angry, we all prefer happiness. However, if we are not careful, if we allow ourselves to react to more and more of the unsatisfactoriness in our lives with anger, then that is what we become – angry. Not happy but angry.

There are several antidotes to the anger / frustration that arises in response to the unsatisfactoriness in life. In our tradition, the primary antidote we apply is gratitude. It does not require yogic feats of concentration, visualization, or analysis. Like many of our practices, it is easily applied to the lives of people with jobs, spouses, and children.

ThanksOne begins cultivating gratitude simply by recollecting the kindness, help, as well as material goods such as food and shelter that one has received. Ideally this should be done daily, perhaps for a few minutes before going to bed. That way one needs only reflect on the previous 24 hours. With only this very little effort, we quickly realize that we have received more than we have given or contributed. We also begin to notice and experience gratitude for many of the things that we had previously taken for granted: small kindness done by others, or something as ubiquitous as the beating of our own hearts. Often, as a result of this practice, spontaneous gratitude begins to arise at odd moments in your life, like when you take a shower and are overwhelmed with gratitude for the water that comes out of the shower head.

We can, over time, even have gratitude to people or situations in our life that have been very difficult. After all, they helped bring us to where we are today. That is the great gift of gratitude. Every moment, every unexpected turn presents us with mystery and possibility. Gratitude allows us to relax our attempts at controlling each moment. It creates the spaciousness to open to the unknown. If we are willing to surrender to the moment, to approach it with humility, knowing that we do not know everything, then in every encounter there is the possibility of awakening and experiencing profound gratitude and happiness.

Each moment is, just as it is. If our minds are filled with craving and a sense of lack, then we will never find peace or happiness. No moment will be enough. No-thing will satisfy us. We will always feel that we are lacking something and that something needs to change. However, if our minds are filled with gratitude, then each moment is gift – complete, and wonderful, and joyous.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

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

A Little Buddhism, Part 2

August 6, 2015

red-maple-leaf-in-autumn-608x544Previously I wrote a little about the Buddha’s first noble truth, Dukkha. In particular I asserted that it is important for us to use our intellect to examine these foundational teachings to see if they hold up under investigation. Without examining or grappling with the thesis the Buddha is laying out, we will not be able to cultivate right understanding or what Bob Thurman calls “Realistic Worldview.”

So, having tested the most basic level of dukkha, the frailty and unreliability of this human body, we can now go on to look at the “suffering of change.” This world is made up of almost constant change.  Day turns into night and night into day. The weather changes, the seasons change. Our moods change. The people and relationships around us change. Good friends move away, or fall out of favor, or perhaps even become antagonist. The reverse is also possible.

Change can be both a source of happiness and of sorrow. However, the happinesses which we experience are fleeting. Often what we think of as pleasure is just the temporary relief or distraction from pain. Food alleviates the pain of hunger. Rest alleviates the pain of fatigue. Relationships assuage the hurts of loneliness.

The material comforts are likewise unreliable and subject to change. No matter how much wealth or fame or power we have, we still experience discontent, sorrow and suffering. As the Buddha succinctly states, “…union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering.”

Further, wealth can be stolen or lost. Fame is fickle and fleeting. Power breeds enemies. If we rely to heavily upon these things, expecting them to make us happy, we will be disappointed. Physical comfort, cannot protect us from the sorrows of loss. Neither wealth, nor fame, nor power can buy a moment of extra life for ourself, a child, a spouse, or a relative.

No pleasure remains pleasurable. We get bored with a pleasurable experience over time. Pleasurable experiences themselves can often beome a source of suffering through over indulgence. We may also suffer when we are separated from a pleasurable experince.

Look at your own life. Change is our everyday experience. The Buddha is not indicating anything new or secret here. He is just drawing our attention to the reality of our current situation, reminding us that there is nothing in this life that is a safe and lasting refuge.

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

Gratitude

November 28, 2014

Gratitude, like some much of religious life, is a combination of practice, perseverance, and openness. Gratitude is cultivated slowly, over years and decades. It involves the daily recollection of the many things, great and small, that we receive each day. Some days the practice is easy, other days it is a struggle to be grateful. Often it can be helpful to remember that many individuals lack even the basics of food, water, clothing, and shelter. Remember also that others are suffering the ravages of war, or experiencing ill health, or perhaps mourning the loss of loved ones.

This is a good practice. However, is important to remember that “the map is not the territory.” The daily practice of gratitude, while important and valuable, is only a technique. It is not true gratitude. It is a close approximation.

True gratitude is a spiritual experience that arises as if by accident. The self, with its blue skysmall concerns, falls into the background and suddenly we are overwhelmed by gratitude. Perhaps the blueness of the sky becomes almost unbearable. Or maybe the kind words of a stranger brings us to the brink of tears. Such gratitude cannot be conjured. It arises spontaneously and does not add to our sense of self but rather strips us down to nothing as we encounter the wonder and power and mystery that is existence.

Peace, Paul

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

Giving It All Away

April 19, 2014

Generosity is essential to our lives. It is so pervasive that we often do not see it. Yet we practice generosity each time we feed our family, friends, or pets. We are generous when we spend time listening to a friend or family member. We are generous when we offer a kind word to someone. We are generous when we give our time to help others. However, we rarely stop and recognize these as generous and kind acts.

Likewise, we often do not appreciate the generosity that we receive from others: the kind words, the smiles, the work that others do. In truth we receive more than we give. Nothing that we now have has not been touched by innumerable other beings. Additionally, the very air we breath, the water we drink, the food we eat comes to us with very little effort on our part. Something as simple as the lettuce in our salad is produced by the hard work of farmers who have cultivated that variety of lettuce over hundreds years with the help of the sun, rain, and the whole living system that is the earth.

Realizing how little we do and how much we receive is to awaken a deep sense of gratitude. It can be a transformative awakening and the foundation for a vibrant and joyous religious life.To study the Saints is to understand that the religious life is about giving everything away. This may mean voluntary poverty but more likely it involves giving away our self cherishing. It is a willingness to give up clinging to our little hurts and petty vengeances. It is setting aside the score card of who has hurt and harmed us. It is embracing forgiveness and opening up the heart and striving to respond to all with love, compassion, and prayer.

The religious life is about giving our lives to and for the benefit others. In prayer, we pray not for ourselves but for the welfare of others. We perform works of kindness and mercy in response to the needs of others. We forgive, that our hearts may remain open and free. We understand that love is life, and is thus transformative. Love is the most valuable gift we can give. Thus we offer love and compassion to all: Friends, Enemies, and Strangers.

This is hard work. It takes time and perseverance. Give as you are able. Offer kind words to everyone you meet. Pray for the well being and happiness of all, especially those who have harmed you. Know that Love is limitless. The more you love the more love surrounds you. It does not mean that there will be not suffering or pain. It only means that such pain will be held within the embrace of a loving and generous heart, a heart which sees beyond the pain and suffering of this world.

Peace, Paul