Tuesday, 30 September 2008

The Face of God (Part 2 of 2)

I came across this article which ties in nicely with what I said in my earlier post The Face of God with regards to the duality between two views or aspects of the concept of God.

The concept has two aspects (one of which in Christianity has three faces - the Holy trinity). Some theists see God as having one aspect or the other, while most Churches see one as a manifestation of the other. The two aspects of God are:


This is the more familiar concept of a personal God who feels, thinks and acts, who creates, who is jealous, who forgives, who smites enemies and who impregnated a virgin. This is similar to the polytheistic view of a personified deity as a powerful and manifested being which is 'in the world'. In Christianity, God manifests in three ways known together as the Holy Trinity - the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.


This is the mystical view of God as the ineffable, unknowable, deepest source of reality, and which in some interpretations equals the sum total of existence.

As 'The All' God would appear to be indistinguishable from the deepest principles of physics (and/or the source of them if physics is a manifestation of something deeper). Some theists adhere to this view of God alone. Advocates of such a view include the philosopher Spinoza. The Vedantic school of Hindu philosophy sees Brahman in a similar way as the ground of all being.

Interestingly, this concept of - and mystical experiences of - this All or Ultimate seem to be the place where all religions meet. The differences are in the metaphysics produced in the act of interpretation. Even poly-theistic religions tend to have a more abstract 'greater god' of some sort, of which all other gods are manifestations. Non-theistic religions and philosophers have similar ideas, for example, the concept of the Tao and Buddhist concepts like Dharmadhatu. Schopenhauer's concept of the noumenon is also related. The linguistic philosopher Wittgenstein 'talks around' a reality which cannot be spoken of: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence" and went as far as giving a positive endorsement of mysticism "Feeling the world as a limited whole -- it is this that is mystical"

Some scientists such as have similar holistic but non-theistic concepts of the cosmos, which border on or even embrace the mystical.

A human being is part of the whole called by us universe , a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.


When Hawking occasionally talks in terms of God it seems to be more in terms of a hypothetical omnipotent creator being.

And in their quests for a single unifying theory - and as a result of their research - scientists aknowledge the 'oneness' of phenomena, although this is a unity which is generally believed to be physical from top to bottom since, although science does not depend on it, there is to a large extent an unchallenged acceptance of the metaphysical philosophy of Physicalism (also misleadingly referred to as Materialism). Also this unity is to be understood primarily conceptually and mathematically rather than realised existentially.

The view of God as a symbol for the ineffable unutterable deepest reality or source of reality is easier to defend philosophically because such an 'entity' is being described largely in negative terms - it is that which cannot be spoken and about which therefore no claims can be made. Interestingly such a view of God (as the linked article above indicates) is that of a being which cannot truly be said to exist, since the transcendent cannot belong to the set of things that exist.

Some Jewish, Christian and Muslim Medieval philosophers, including Moses Maimonides and Pseudo-Dionysius, as well as many sages of other religions, developed what is termed as Apophatic Theology or the Via Negativa, the idea that one cannot posit attributes to God and can only be discussed by what God is not. For example, we cannot say that God "exists" in the usual sense of the term, because that term is human defined and Gods qualities such as existance may not be accurately characterized by it. What we can safely say is that God is not nonexistent. Likewise God's "wisdom" is of a fundamentally different kind from limited human perception. So we cannot use the word "wise" to describe God, because this implies he is wise in the way we usually describe humans being wise. However we can safely say that God is not ignorant. We should not say that God is One, because we may not truly understand his nature, but we can state that there is no multiplicity in God's being.


Compare these statements with the negative philosophy of Buddhist philosophers such as Nagarjuna.

Neither from itself nor from another, Nor from both, Nor without a cause, Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.


In the Midhyamakakirikis, Nagarjuna attacks this attempt to absolutize Buddhist praxis by utilizing a system of logic that offers negative responses to four possible alternatives. Called the catuskoti, it is often depicted in the following form:

1. It is not the case that x is Ø.
2. It is not the case that x is not-Ø.
3. It is not the case that x is both Ø and not-Ø.
4. It is not the case that x is neither Ø nor not-Ø.

Nagarjuna uses this fourfold logic against a whole series of arguments ranging from causality, the self, the aggregates, production, destruction, permanence, impermanence, space, time, motion, and so forth. Against a particular view of causation, for example, Nagarjuna applies the catuskoti and concludes that dharmas (x) are not produced (Ø), not non-produced, not both, and not neither. Or, against a particular view of motion, he applies the dialectic and concludes that motion (x) is not moving (Ø), not non-moving, not both, and not neither.


"Nagarjuna (c.150-250 CE) ... realized at a profound level the difficulties of carrying out Buddhist discourse in the medium of language, and the degree of attachment that could occur with even such subtle concepts as shunyata. Therefore he endeavored to prevent people from falling into the error of attaching to Emptiness as a "something" or as "non-existence."

He made his project an exercise in consciousness that sought to free people from being limited in thought by the linguistic options of "this or that" and "existence or non-existence." He did this by taking Buddhist philosophical terms and putting them into his formula of "neither x nor not-x." According to this formula, existence is "neither empty nor not empty," "neither samsara nor nirvana." Nagarjuna's teachings are not something new ontologically speaking, but were developments toward a more advanced logical form that can be seen in his Madhyamaka-karikas.


In these texts, he strove to stop the reification of the concept of emptiness by: (1) stressing the non-difference between emptiness and dependent origination; (2) by emphasizing the understanding of emptiness as a mental attitude which pays attention to the non-attachment to concepts and theories. That is, emptiness should not be made into a theory to be clung to (as are other philosophical and religious doctrines). According to Nagarjuna, he who does so is like "a customer to whom a merchant has said that he has nothing to sell and the customer now asks to buy this 'nothing' and carry it home."For Nagarjuna, emptiness should not be interpreted ontologically, but rather in the way of the parable of the raft: The Buddhist teaching (especially shunyata), is like the raft one constructs for the crossing of a river. Once the river is crossed, the purpose of the raft has been served. It may now be discarded.

The same is true of emptiness: it should not be held on to; one who does hold on to it will have trouble functioning in life. In this sense, emptiness could also be compared to a laxative: once the obstruction has passed, there is no need to continue taking it. Nagarjuna wrote extensively, and his teachings resulted in the formation of an Indian school called Madhyamika or the "Middle Way School."


Having their ineffable and speaking it

When debating with theists I tend to find that they oscillate between these two positions. God is treated as an existent thing in many ways - as an existent person - a moral agent with human-like attributes who performs acts and who has feelings and thoughts. This is the entity that proclaims the moral absolutes which theists use as justification not only for changing their own behaviour but at times for oppressing others and for acts of violence, in other words this is the 'fully knowable' God that enters the political arena.

When challenged about apparent contradictions in the supposed attributes of God or conflicts between those attributes and His behaviour theists often retreat their God into a 'cloud of unknowing' a place of free-form mysticism where paradox is not only permissable but a defining, positive sign of God's transcendent divinity.

Is this so different from the non-rationality of Buddhism, for example, the paradoxes of Nagarjuna or of Zen koans? I hear you ask.

Buddhism (correctly understood) does not claim to be or have an absolute truth, it can only ever be a finger that points at reality, which is ineffable. Buddhism is a provisional 'skillful means' and thus its attempts to influence the political, scientific or intellectual spheres are likely to be less absolutist and more tolerant. A Japanese Buddhist cleric historically explained the virtual absence of conflict between Zen and other sects as being due to it having no doctrine at all.

Many theists on the other hand want to have their cake and eat it. They want a God who is mysterious, transcendent, unknowable and unspeakable, yet will provide absolute support for their moral and metaphysical pronouncements. How do they get away with it? In Christianity, God is traditionally described in terms of the Trinity - the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are manifestations of God, which is nevertheless described as a unity and as 'infinitely simple'. This infinitely simple and unchanging being is supposed to be the active, willful source of all the complexity there is. It seems to me that only through a mixture of blind faith and a sort of mystical agnosticism that such a contradictory nature seems to be acceptable. These are the sorts of statements that I've heard from theists on this matter:
'God is unknowable and anything is possible with God.'
'I see and how can you know that?'
'It is possible to have partial knowlege of God'
'If you don't know what you don't know then how can you know what you know?'
'I just know.'

It is in this way that Christians emerge from their own 'cloud of unknowing' to make oh-so-confident proclamations about the nature of God and His will - to declare what is right and wrong, what is true and every so often to smite their own enemies or justify such actions.

Personally I don't have knowledge or experience of anthropomorphic or any other sort of deities and I tend to think that the ineffable is better handled by the likes of Wittgenstein "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence" and by concepts of the Tao and Buddhist concepts of Dharmadhatu and Sunyata, since the 'emptiness', relativity and provisional nature of these concepts is pre-built, well-defined and well-accepted. It's interesting to note also that neither of these indicators of the ultimate is, correctly understood, transcendent since they refer to reality itself.

In my view God is the Tao, misunderstood and as we know

The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao;
the name that can be named is not the eternal name.

This was originally published in my personal blog in 2006.
Photo courtesy of Reverend Brendan Powell Smith

Monday, 29 September 2008

The Face of God (Part 1 of 2)

Personally, I've never had a belief in God, and tended to believe that the Abrahamic (why do people say 'Judeo-Christian' and exclude Islam?) concept of God and 'His' supposed purposes were incoherent. That doesn't mean that I didn't have a strong sense of 'spirituality', it just means that I didn't attach it to a concept of an anthropomorphic creator being. It was nature/existence itself that awed me.

Some Zen teachers occasionally talk in terms of 'God' - even the iconoclastic Brad Warner sometimes does. The word is being used as a way of expressing a Buddhist idea in 'Western' terms. However, the concept used here is far from the Abrahamic concept of a separate, self-existent, supernatural and (always to at least some extent) anthropomorphic creator used by most theists. Personally I tend to think that it should be avoided to prevent confusion.

There are some people - mainly Christian-Buddhist hybrids (not sure how that works) and Christians looking for common ground who try very hard to show that Buddhism and Christianity are essentially saying the same thing. I think that ultimately there may be an element of truth in this, but I think that a great deal of damage is done to a concept such as Sunyata (emptiness) by trying to squeeze it into a God-shaped hole. I tend to think that the concept of God is, in part, derived from experiences of 'no-self' and 'oneness', interpreted as a cosmic event - a union between a discreet self (individual soul) and a discreet Absolute (Godhead). This is naive and simplistic compared with the subtlety and sophistication of Nagarjuna's concept of Sunyata and Dogen's (and others') descriptions of the relationship between relative and absolute. In Buddhism, the denial of a separate self (anatman) and a separate absolute (nirvana) are key concepts. The rest as far as I can tell is a naive search for explanations which will fit into our common-sense conceptual structure on the basis of faulty logic and blind faith.

Even putting aside all the issues of evidence and the validity of 'personal revelation', and all the problems of Biblical literalism, I find the concept incoherent. Here is a small selection of the questions I think the idea of God begs:

Why would an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being use methods of improving his creations, which required great suffering, (existence, freewill, evil, evolution) with no sign of resulting improvement?

Why would a perfect being need to create humanity let alone need its love?

Events/changes require time to occur in, so how could the creation of space-time occur before there was any time for it occur?

The usual answer to these sorts of questions is some variant of 'God works in mysterious ways', but this comes back to How do you know He works in mysterious ways?, How do you know the Bible is infallibly true?, How do you know that God exists?, How do you know (enough to make claims about it) what God is like?. Blind faith - a personal feeling of conviction isn't valid, as demonstrated by the number of people who have absolute faith in their beliefs and yet who contradict each other or who are demonstrably false and/or insane. Faith in Buddhist practice, as I understand it, is of a more ordinary sort - like the faith of a climber in his ropes. The 'intuitive knowing' described about 'enlightened masters' is something else - 'knowing' is not quite the right word and it is not knowledge of anything supernatural or metaphysical - rather, it is just being fully attentive to reality, absent of certain illusions we have about it.

I find it interesting that the less literal the interpretation of Biblical and traditional explanations of God are - the more 'ineffable' they are, the less problematic they become, because such claims are less concrete. Instead of the jealous tribal god Yahweh who lives on Mount Sinai and smites the enemies of Israel, God becomes a cosmic source or principle beyond space and time, almost equivalent to the deepest laws of physics. A consequence of this is that the more anthropomorphic supposed 'purposes' of this entity start to become absurd. 'God is the unknowable source, the will of nature, the very ground of all being...and He hates gays.'

If God is a synonym for the deepest principles of physics, what word is left for a hypothetical being who answers prayers, intervenes to save cancer patients or helps evolution over difficult jumps, forgives sins or dies for them?
Richard Dawkins

I came across this excerpt and really enjoyed it. I know that 'Zen talk' can seem pretty bizzare so I've added my interpretations of what Seung Sahn said.

After one of the Dharma Teachers was finished with his introductory remarks, he asked those congregated to direct their questions to Zen Master Seung Sahn, Soen Sa Nim. One of the visitors asked if there was a God.

Soen Sa answered "If you think God, you have God, if you do not think God, you do not have God."
[God and the absence of God are mental constructs]

"I think that there is no God. Why do I have God if I think God?"

"Do you understand God?"

"No, I don't know."

"Do you understand yourself?"

"I don't know."

"You do not understand God. You do not understand yourself. How would you even know if there was a God or not?"

"Then, is there a God?"

"God is not God, no God is God."
[Apart from our mental contruction there is inherently no God or absence of God. Alternatively - the Ultimate (God) and nothingness/absence of inherent nature/interdependence are the same. ]

"Why is God not God?"

Holding up the Zen stick, Soen Sa said "This is a stick, but it is not a stick. Originally, there is no stick. It is the same with God for originally there is no God. God is only name. The same is true of all things in the universe."
[Conventionally sticks exist, but ultimately they do not, for their nature is dependent. The same is true for God.]

"Then is there no God?"

"The philosopher Descartes said, 'I think therefore I am.' If you do not think, you are not, and so the universe and you are one. This is your substance, the universe's substance, and God's substance. It has no name and no form. You are God, God is you. This is the 'big I,' this is the path, this is the truth. Do you now understand God?"
[All things (including 'God' and 'no God') are ultimately of one substance. Is this God? It cannot be named.]

"Yes, I think that there is no God, and I have no God."

"If you say that you have no God, I will hit you thirty times. If you say that you do, I will still hit you thirty times."
[By saying there is or there is not a God, the visitor is trapped by thought and language and unable to apprehend reality as it is before conceptual thought distorts it. Reality is not found at either of these extremes but in a non-conceptual 'Middle Road' between them. The threat of violence is just gentle encouragement.]

"Why will you hit me? I don't understand. Please explain."

"I do not give acupuncture to a dead cow. Today is Tuesday." replied Soen Sa.
[This is a waste of time. Forget all that abstract stuff - this is reality].

I just found this short little piece, which I also like:

Zen Master (to student): Do you know God?
Student: I don't know
ZM, Do you know Buddha?
Stu, I don't know
ZM, Do you hear the waterfall?
Stu, Yes
ZM, Just That.
[Forget your ideas about God or Buddha - the sound of the waterfall is the real 'God'/'Buddha' ie. ultimate reality, not some idea about something transcendent but reality itself]

This was originally published in my personal blog in 2006.
Photo courtesy of Reverend Brendan Powell Smith

Buddha on the Cross and Jesus under the Bodhi Tree

I was raised in a strict Catholic household and embodied with a strong sense of Christian tradition and culture. When I was about 8 years old, I remember this new student that came to our class, public school obviously, who was the son of some immigrants from Nepal. I made fast friends with the boy and before long we were talking and playing every day. I asked him which church he went to, to which he replied, none as he was Buddhist. He explained a little bit about this character Buddha to me and I just reckoned Buddha was a friend of Jesus.

Being 8 years old, I was prone to saying things in certain situations that were not, shall we say appropriate. One Sunday, after Mass, Father Cosby was greeting the congregation as they walked passed the doors to the parking lot. I tugged on Fathers gown and without hesitation I asked "Was Buddha there when Jesus was killed Father?" The smile on his face melted like an ice cube in an oven, his face turned blood red, and I swear I could feel his coal black eye's behind his coke bottle glasses eating a hole through my skull. I was ushered out the door quickly by my mother, and I never did get an answer from Father Cosby.

I spent the rest of the day relegated to my room and I sure was angry at this Buddha fellow.

Dr. Marcus Borg is a fairly controversial figure in the Christian community, considered a fairly liberal voice in the progressive Christian movement. Dr. Borg has made many comparisons between Christ and the Buddha and has attempted to show them as living traditions and bridge the gap between the two cultures.

Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings uncovers the shared wisdom of two of the greatest spiritual teachers of all time by placing quotations from their teachings side by side to illuminate their similarities. Let's start by talking about the historical parallels between the lives of Jesus and Buddha.

One of the big similarities is that both Jesus and Buddha, around age 30, have a dramatic religious experience that transforms them and launches them into their public lives as teachers and ultimately founders of religious traditions -- even though I do not see either one of them as seeking to found a religious tradition. For the Buddha, [this transformation] comes in the form of an enlightenment experience under the Bodhi Tree which is clearly a mystical experience of some kind. And for Jesus, it is his relationship with John the Baptizer who, according to authors of the New Testament, seems to have functioned essentially as the spiritual mentor of Jesus. Jesus undergoes what William James might have referred to as a "conversion experience" at age 30 -- not conversion from Judaism to something else -- but a conversion within a tradition where religious energies become the very center of your life. According to the Gospels, Jesus has a vision at his baptism which is a paranormal experience certainly and then goes on this wilderness quest which is a classic example of a vision quest or quest for enlightenment. Both Jesus and Buddha have transforming spiritual experiences that they each sought after. And ofcourse, the other huge parallel is that both Jesus and Buddha become teachers of an enlightenment wisdom.

The whole Article can be found here.

He isn't the only one to try and draw the traditions of the two spiritual men closer together. The famous Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book 'Living Buddha, Living Christ' attempts to persuade the two communities to come to some common spiritual ground. Hanh describes how the two religions are more alike than most think when pushed down to the core foundations of both.

To me, religious life is life. I do not seee any reason to spend one's whole life tasting just one kind of fruit. We human beings can be nourished by the best values of many traditions. (pg.2)

It is good that an orange is an orange and a mango is a mango. The colors, the smells, and the tastes are different, but looking deeply, we see that they are both authentic fruits. Looking more deeply, we can see the sunshine, the rain, the minerals, and the earth in both of them...If religions are authentic, they contain the same elements of stability, joy, peace, understanding, and love. The similarities as well as the differences are there. They differ only in terms of emphasis. Glucoise and acid are in all fruits, but their degrees differ. We cannot say that one is a real fruit and the other is not.(pg.111)

Jesus told us to love our enemy. ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ This teaching helps us know how to look at the person we consider to be the cause of our suffering. If we practice looking deeply into his situation and the causes of how he came to be the way he is now, and if we visualize ourselves as being born in his condition, we may see that we could have become exactly like him. (pg. 83)

People kill and are killed because they cling too tightly to their own beliefs and ideologies. When we believe that ours is the only faith that contains the truth, violence and suffering will surely be the result.

THICH NHAT HANH, Living Buddha, Living Christ

I think, in our Western Buddhist tradition, it is important to cultivate these bridges between not only Christianity but all other religions that find at their core peace, understanding and the pursuit of truth. However, I think it is just as important that we as Buddhists do not let the fundamentals of our practice to become too diluted or distracted from our core teachings. The key is not conversion to either, but an understanding and respect for both.

I know this topic is not only controversial, but has been touched on by many others on both sides of the discussion. How do you see the modern Buddhist community reaching across the street into other religious communities?

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Is there a place for verbal abuse in Buddhism?

Zen author Brad Warner is as well-known for his colourful insults as he is for his teaching of Zen. His writing is funny, entertaining and often insightful, but his interpretation of what constitutes true Buddhism is narrow and exclusive, rejecting the vast majority of what goes by the name of Buddhism in the West and in Asia. Those who teach some version of Buddhism that he regards as 'phoney' are subjected to all sorts of insults and mockery. His latest volley of attacks on Genpo Roshi for example mock his Big Heart Circle retreats as Big Fart™ Circle. In the past he has publicly referred to other Buddhist teachers as 'butt-buddies' and a student who left a retreat early as an 'asswipe'.

The lineage I practice with (Deshimaru Soto Zen) is closely related to Brad's and I've never seen this sort of behaviour or attitude anywhere else. People can be quite direct sometimes and they tend not to put on pretenses, but I've not seen anyone act or encourage others to act in this way. The attitude I'm familiar with is non-dogmatic and inclusive with emphasis on open-minded, open-hearted, non-judgemental observation and responsible behaviour.

Zen monks don't observe the full Vinaya precepts, they keep to a much smaller set of ten precepts. The sixth precept is generally translated as 'Do not criticise others'. Brad Warner will have made a solemn vow to keep this precept. Interpretation of precepts vary from teacher to teacher, but the explanation I was given would certainly have excluded Brad's behaviour. According to Brad it only means that you shouldn't criticise others behind their backs or criticise them for not following the precepts. In response to criticism, Brad said:

...the precepts are only to be used as a guide to gauge our own behavior — not the behavior of others. I said this before but I cannot stress it enough. When the precepts are used to judge the behavior of others we're back into the same sick game every religion plays where we are the morally righteous and the unbelievers should change their ways. Buddhists must never be like that.
....It's also absolutely un-Buddhist to point at another person and say that person is breaking the precepts. You cannot know what the precepts are to someone else. Trying to insist that others live up to your interpretation of the precepts is a recipe for misery anyway.
This rings true, but surely it's also absolutely un-Buddhist to mock and slander other people too? The precept is to encourage us to be non-judgemental not used as a shield to protect us from people who are accusing us as being judgemental. This sort of thing becomes a vicious circle. The best thing is to avoid slandering people in the first place.

I think that constructive, open-minded criticism can be healthy in that it exposes our views to the experiences, and analysis of others. However, criticism that is attached, and narrow-minded can be like an intoxicant that increases egotism, intellectual vanity and hostility, all of which are forms of clinging and delusion. Also, not criticising others is a good 'house rule' for maintaining social harmony in the place of practice, which itself helps with the practice.

The justifications that Brad Warner gives for acting in the way that he does is that he is exposing false teachings and that this is how he really feels and that to act differently is 'phoney' and that being phoney is the same as being a hypocritical charlatan or that being phoney leads to repression and passive-aggressive behaviour. This isn't Buddhism as taught either by Buddha or Dogen. This sort of argument can be used to justify pretty much anything. There's no support for the idea that not acting out all our anti-social impulses ie. acting as a socialised human being leads to greater harm later on. He is placing 'authenticity' ie. his attachment to 'punk' credibility above any harm he does other people. Unsurpisingly his blog comments section is full of conflict - with people challenging Brad's controversial teaching and others attacking those who criticise him.

Some of his defenders argue that Dogen himself criticised others quite heavily, comparing practictioners of Nembutsu (chanting the name of Amida Buddha for salvation ie Pure Land Buddhists) to 'croaking frogs'. Well, firstly Brad isn't Dogen - he doesn't have the understanding of Dogen to be able to arbitrate what does and doesn't constitute 'True Buddhism'. Secondly, while Genpo Roshi does advocate a controversial new method he isn't suggesting we chant for enlightenment. Third Dogen's criticisms, even in the context of the religious conflict and competition of Japanese Buddhism are significantly milder and more reasonable than Brad's.

The Zen way is neither amoral nihilism nor is it repression. It means at least trying to live according to the precepts and taking the Bodhisattva vows sincerely. Things like selfishness, vanity and arrogance are not rationalised as 'authentic' they are faced as part of our practice. How do these delusions arise? And why do we cling to them? By releasing the tight grip of the personal mind we can naturally understand other people better and treat them with kindness.

I’ve Anticipated my Expectations

When asked to talk about a substantive teaching that is relative to the everyday, modern person, without hesitation, I firmly say “Anticipations and expectations.” Many times our experiences of what we encounter in our everyday world are shaped by our pre-conceived notions; weather based on someone else’s experiences or on some commonly held belief. How many times can you remember saying, “Yea that was much better/worse than I thought it was going to be!”

Personally, it is difficult for me to render up some memory of an event that had met every expectation that I had placed on it before that event even occurred. How we end up feeling about something and how things end up turning out in life are always relative to everything else, the things we can see and the things we can’t. When we take a moment to reflect on this fact, we can easily see how this is true. Yet it is a stark, unforgiving fact we forget time after time.

In the trivial type events of our lives, going to see a movie, seeing a concert or watching a sporting match, our anticipations and expectations become nothing more than a guide to talk about the experience and some measure the event. What we fail to see is that our mind creates these expectations and anticipations for every sort of encounter in our everyday world. Moment after moment we find ourselves pleasantly surprised or inversely frustrated and let down, since this entangled mesh of the mind’s future never really turns out to be so true.

Imagine, we place these kinds of anticipations and expectations on things such as other people’s feelings, emotions and actions. We place labels such as love and hate, create bias and bigotry, view good vs. evil and see them all as right or wrong. Can you see how confusing and turbulent the world can seem and how quickly it can become so unsatisfactory and frustrating? In Buddhism, these terms are known as Karma, Samsara and Dukkha.

The up’s and down’s of life are always going to remain with life, no matter how hard we try to create some state of unchanging perfection. Indeed, the harder we try to stop our mind’s turbulent reactions and thoughts, the more ‘dukkha’ we inevitably encounter. Perhaps, if we can just begin to slow down, take a moment, breathe and remind ourselves to keep these anticipations and expectations in an honest perspective, maybe we can start to find some relief. An open mind expressed into any moment is ready for any eventuality that is encountered.

GO REDSKINS!! KICK THE COWBOY’S ASS THIS WEEK!!!!!................bet ya didn’t expect that or the kitten picture, did ya?

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Quantum Physics and the Oneness of Reality

Physicists over the past 100 years have stumbled across some of the most bizarre and intriguing phenomena created in laboratory experiments. Today, some of these experiment phenomenas are still simply unexplainable by scientists and remain some of the most controversial cosmic mysteries. Many theories have been extended to try and put this mysterious nature of reality into some nice neat equation and interpretable parity. As of yet, reality hasn't been willing to be captured by simple ideas that can be placed into some epic textbook of everything. Perhaps, as Buddhists, we have a slightly different take on this weird and strange thing they call the nature of reality.

The Double Slit Experiment (Explanation)

So, just the act of being present and watching matter, changes the entire course of it's behavior? Interesting, isn't it?

Quantum Entanglement - (Explanation)

Wait! Physicists are saying that all matter and energy that 'is' and constitutes reality aren't really separate and distinct objects? So the change of one part in some aspect affects everything else in the universe?

The exotic oddness doesn't stop here!

The Brain, Creation, Realization and Time Reversal Symmetry
(Partial Explanation)

When we start to watch our mind and the world around us, moment by moment, with the honest eye of a scientist, it is possible to start to understand all of these absurd and outlandish phenomenas that science can't put into a simple textbook explanation or equation. Have no illusions, what we begin to understand can be frightening to some at first, but nevertheless, cosmically and universally profound.

Buddhism, in a relative sense, can begin to bridge this gap between science, religion and philosophy. Science is beginning to see that we must study the mind and its workings in conjunction with studying natural phenomena. We are very fortunate to live in this moment, to be part of this great evolution of spiritual thought and scientific endeavor. Its no miracle to see these things if we watch and are mindful of the nature of transiency. In fact, I think miracles aren't luck or divine or mystical, just dependent arising.

"The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. The religion which based on experience, which refuses dogmatic. If there's any religion that would cope the scientific needs it will be Buddhism...."
~Albert Einstein

The Livelihood of Greed and Wisdom

Its no secret the financial markets of much of the world, especially in the United States, are tipping dangerously close to a modern day global crisis. Inflation is soaring, unemployment is rising and currency is being devalued faster than a VHS tape of Hee Haw at a flee market. No question that some poor government policies and a looooong leash given to investment firms and banks via deregulation have created a quagmire of worthless debt and a spidering earthquake of financial instability.

Greed is such a powerful force. Like a Heroin addict in a poppy field, greed will leave a highway of destruction through the hearts of the most righteous men. Money and power can drive us to do such selfish and shameful actions, we can get blinded by want, unmindful of those it affects. The only thing that trickles down from the top is pain, suffering and despair. Weather does not discriminate again the homeless man and hunger does not wait for payday.

What we do in our lives, the livelihood we choose, affects everyone and everything in some fashion. Even today, especially these events of the last couple of weeks, remind us that what we choice to make our money at still holds great importance in our practice. This does not mean we need to renounce money and material things or good paying jobs. It means we, as Buddhists, need to be mindful of greed and the golden mouse trap of treasure it offers.

We should enjoy the abundance earned by our hard work and the material comforts this modern world offers, as long as we are mindful. Go to Orlando, see that giant damned mouse and play Put-Put in Bermuda shorts and knee high socks, but remember to be mindful. Live in this world knowing what we do is not ultimately separate from all things, even from a family left homeless in Kansas City, Missouri or a single mother of three struggling to feed her family tonight in Dublin, Ireland.

"There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid that others might pick them up.”
~Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Blood, Sweat and Enlightenment

Watching a good football game is fun, isn’t it? Nothing beats the excitement of seeing the game unfold play by play, sitting on the edge of our seats full of anticipation, watching each move develop. Every moment of the game, every step each player makes, every bounce the ball takes changes the course of the final outcome, and this not knowing is what makes the game so special. It wouldn’t be so fun if someone just told you the score of the game? Blue Jays 7 Rockets 3; it wouldn’t hold hardly any excitement, would it?

We even find ourselves learning every aspect of the game. The stats, each players strengths and weaknesses, the play books, the team history's and even the equipment. Hell, we can even coach it if we know enough.(or in my case blog) We love football so much because it brings some sort of pleasure so we sometimes immerse ourselves in these trivial things to keep these good feelings going.

But how can somebody truly know football if they never actually step on the field and play? We forget why we love football, we forget that it isn't numbers or stats
or players, but the joy of the event unfolding. We need to immerse ourselves in the mud and the sweet and the blood and the fierce competition to understand football at it's core level.

As students of Buddhism, it can become very easy to fall into a similar cycle. We learn the teachings and read many books and develop theory's and ideas about enlightenment and self. We talk, and blog and think about it, but we can end up losing the meaning of the way to the goal.

Dogen Zenji said "To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self."

It is indeed necessary to get some mental knowledge to help encourage us on our path. These teachings are fine road signs pointing the way, but they are not in themselves the way. As long as we are mindful of ourselves while we are talking and writing and thinking about Buddhism, it is still making for right effort. But we must never forget why we are students of Buddhism, and what our real problem is, Dukkha.

We must practice our concentration and mindfulness moment after moment, constantly making effort in this moment. Practice, practice, practice. Eventually understanding will make itself clearer and clearer. It is impossible to have a mental conception of ultimate truth so it is impossible to figure out enlightenment with our thoughts. Indeed Buddhism itself can become just another obstacle to seeing. Anything you read or hear about the Buddhist practice, this right effort is the most important lesson we will need to learn on our journey!

Isn't it time to get off the sidelines and immerse yourself in this journey? It's a choice we make in each and every moment, as it is only you who can ultimately set yourself free.

“However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you If you do not act on upon them?"


ps. I realize that American readers see the term 'football' as meaning a different sport than most of the rest of the world, 'soccer' err football err...I'm now officially confused. But anyway, hence the two pictures.

Our Tradition, Our Choice

One of the great things that I find about Buddhism is how the common thread of peace, truth and liberation of mind are present in all forms of Buddhism. Vajrayana(Tibetan being one example), Theravada, Mahayana(Zen being one example) are the 3 major schools, though there are many others. The basic principles are the most important thing, that the core teachings to do not change. It does not matter what coat of tradition you flavor it with, in fact, over the centuries, Buddhism has worked its way into the lifestyle of the culture where it sits and does not become the culture itself.

Its like flavoring water I think. You can have lemon water, coffee, tea, tonic water or anything in between. As long as the at the basic level, water is the major key ingredient, we have no problem. However, if that water becomes only a minor ingredient in the mixture, and becomes too diluted, it will not work. I study and follow a Soto Zen tradition, which has taken a most definite Western flare here in the States. It is true that I do, however, take some traditions or teachings from Theravada and Tibetan cultures. The path we each take is a very unique one, differing from person to person. However, i think it is important that we create our own traditions and values here, in Western society, as guide posts for those new to the teachings.

I see it maybe difficult for some western people to get past the traditions and hang-ups on conceived ideas about bald monks bowing to golden Buddha statues or caricatures of avenging Zen Samurai or fat happy belly rubbing Buddhas....etc,etc. This is why I think it is important, that we as Westerners find our own path. It is a great opportunity we have to build something new, that threads through the fabric of our culture, much like a yellow string sewn into a black shirt.

Here in America, especially, the teachings of Anatta(emptiness of self) are very difficult for many to understand. Its just my opinion of course, but where we raise our children based on pride and with a strong sense of self, breaking down the illusion of self is much more difficult than in many Asian cultures where ego is not as ever present. We drive our big trucks, climb the corporate ladder and revel in our pride. This is obviously a generalization, relative to all other things, but if we can find a new way, using the strengths of what we do have, conceptual understanding and breaking things down to see how they work, maybe we can break through the ignorance of ego......slowly.

My 7 year old son saw the Dalai Lama on the TV a few days ago, pointed at him then pointed at me. I said to him, "He is a Buddhist man, Tibetan, but he is me and you as well. Zen and Tibet, same thing, just different flavor of man" To which he quickly replied, "No! TV! Turn to Blue's Clues!."

Is the idea of creating and building our own way of Western/Progressive Buddhism(in a very real and tangible sense), realistically possible?

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Life Lessons

While driving home this morning, I noticed this fairly attractive woman, driving in her car beside me, constantly peering into the rear view mirror fixing up her makeup. It occurred to me what a wonderful thing it would be if we, as a society, could put so much effort looking it our mind and inward as we do worrying about our outward appearance. What a sacred mirror this would be to be able to reflect our mind and thoughts as it reflects our superficial features!

"How can I be happy?
How can I avoid pain?
Why do I even exist?"

I don't see that we ask the wrong questions, but we are looking the wrong places for the answer. In our western culture, we constantly impress the notion 'its all about appearances'. "Maybe if I could be a little better looking, or make more money or drive a nicer car, maybe I can be accepted by others. This will bring some happiness." As we get older we see through our experiences how silly a notion this becomes. Wisdom tells us through our life lessons that we aren't finding the answers to these questions outwardly.

I've been married twice, divorced twice. In my younger days it seemed so important for me to be in a relationship. I thought another person could somehow create happiness, fill those blank spots in my life. I never was happy by myself to begin with and I felt so incomplete. In the end, it only caused more pain and confusion for myself. As in medicine, you can't cure an infection by eating ice cream; You can't find answers by being in a relationship with another person. A relationship can be a beautiful, wonderful thing if both people enter in, unattached to these ideas that I so naively clung to.

How can we, as Buddhist students and teachers, bloggers and community members, begin to show these life lessons to others in our modern world without falling into some sort of 'religious dogma'? It is said that when the student is ready a teacher will appear. How can we make our appearance more obvious without being so evangelical?

Maybe we can show others that this sacred mirror is already built right inside ourselves, if we just payed close enough attention.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Put up your Dukkha's

The first noble truth of the Buddha Dharma isn't so, well, shall we say set in stone in the Western world. Usually, the first truth is stated as 'life is suffering', and much of the time this is the first teaching many in the West are exposed to when asking about Buddhism. It rings a cord for sure, especially those that aren't in a great and wonderful place in their lives. In fact, I'd go as far as saying that many Westerns are drawn to Buddhism for the first time because it offers a grain of truth and a chance of hope in lives that are on a rather painful cycle. This is how I came to study Buddhism myself. I can't say I see many Westerns, happy and cheerful, to so eagerly identify with this first truth when put in this way.

However, once we begin to look closer we can see that 'suffering' does not encompass all in what the Buddha was pointing too. We soon see many variations of the first truth, just some of which are:

Life is unsatisfactory.
Life is turmoil.
Life is despair.
Life can suck.
Life is death and loss.
Life is confusing.
Life is ....

To the teachings about the first noble truth Buddha Gautama said this:

"Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha."

I think it is important in Progressive or Western Buddhism that we do keep some of these Sanskrit words, because at first, to many new to Buddhism, they truly have little to no meaning. Dukkha is so much more (and less) than suffering, and new practitioners can begin to fill the empty meaning of this word with what they struggle with in there everyday lives. When we discuss the teachings we begin to talk about labeling and naming the objects in the world and how these labels ultimately can cause some pain because all things change. Our minds attach to these labels, then repel in horror once this thing is now that thing. Our minds continually work in adjusting and remaking the world we live in.

How would you talk about or explain what Dukkha is?

So, those new to Buddhism, yes, life is suffering....but "come and see for yourself."

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Time, Good Riddance

Tick Tock, Tick Tock. Time. Our modern lives revolve around it. I schedule it down to the last minute of my day. I'm on a timetable, a timeline, a time crunch and when I'm out of time I am borrowing time. These events in my life I measure by seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years and decades. I spend so much time worrying about time I lose track of time.

We have seasons, cycles, terms and millenniums. All this measure of time, to measure all sorts of events all so we can use our time more wisely. There is a time for everything weather it's the best of times or worst of times. Time is money, we are told to value time, to make the most of time because we don't want to waste time!

Hurry up and wait, hurry up and get in line, hurry before we miss it. But time creeps along. Time flies as time waits for no man.

My modern life is enslaved around time. I look to the past to predict my future. I sniff the sweet air of tomorrow and feel the bitter cold of yesterday. What if, only if....

What if time isn't really real?
What if time is merely a concept?
What if time is just an object of mind?
What if time is nothing more than a measure of change?

But...... I spend so much time thinking about time. If time is merely some illusion of my mind...then what do we really have?

Allow me to take this moment to think about it.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Heart of the Matter

Yesterday, the new Large Hadron Collider, a high energy particle accelerator, was switched on a tested for the first time. It ushers in a new era of human scientific endeavor, in a quest as old as man himself, to find the true nature of ourselves and our Universe. The Holy Grail of the upcoming tests is the search for an extremely controversial particle element called the Higgs boson. Believed by some to be the particle that gives all mass to matter, a building block of all that exists, it has been dubbed "The God Particle". If found, it would complete what in science is called the Grand Unification theory, which unities the 4 known basic energy forces.
(Thanks to cpd314 and http://1.bp.blogspot.com/ for this image!)

In the last 200 years, science has taken magical leaps in discovering the true nature of mass and matter, not by looking outward, but by looking deeper inward, peering increasingly smaller and smaller. In the early 1800's science was able to identify the atom, thought at first to be the smallest particle of matter. Shortly after, Physicists found that the atom was made up of yet smaller particles called protons, neutrons and electrons. During the middle part of 20th century, not satisfied that these particles were the true makeup of matter, scientist continued to look inward, and after a series of amazing leaps in technology, quarks were discovered to be the base elements of these protons, neutrons and electrons. Just like a Matryoshka doll, every time a box was opened, they found yet another box.

I think as Buddhists, our effort should be like that of these scientists, continually looking inward, for the true nature of what makes me.....well "me". At first we see emotions, then after sometime and some effort, just by watching we can see these subtle thoughts that bring about these emotions. Then, deeper into our practice, we can study how these thoughts arise. But I think its important we keep looking for the "I" inside ourselves, even if some teachings talk about the emptiness of self, it should be our goal to still find it. Even after all attempts yield yet another Matryoshka doll, we should make all effort in this moment to keeping looking, keep searching. Along with the keen eye of a scientist, an honest motive is imperative if we are to see what is true as true.

This honest motive is sometimes called a pure heart. As Westerners, we already have a sense to dig into the workings of all things to see how they operate, and we should use this talent the best we can. Even though we may not know it, as long as we are honest with ourselves, with a pure motive, we can begin to see ultimate truth and what is really at the Heart of the Matter. No doubt, if you are reading this, you already have that pure heart.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Why Buddhism, why now?

I sit at my desk day after day, head swirling with thoughts, randomly strewn about like dirty clothes on a child’s room. I have bills to pay when I get home. My coworker is humming again! What am I going to have for lunch? Is tonight my kid’s baseball game? Endlessly, all day, these thoughts invade my mind. How can I or anyone ever find peace!

A Zen master asks us what it is we seek.

Lama Gyurme once said that Buddhism is part Religion, part philosophy and partly a way of life. It is a Religion in the sense that it is important that the original message of the Buddha stays undiluted, a philosophy in the sense that Buddhism is a broad school of philosophical and conceptual thought and a way of life in the sense that it is meant to help right here and right now in each and every one of our lives.

I am not interested so much in the first two but I am very interested in the latter. It does not matter what beliefs you have or what religion you are. This is not about belief or even about God, but rather seeing the world and ourselves with a very honest and keen, almost scientific eye.

But why, what's in it for me?

Well, you can begin to go through life fearless; Fearless in the face of change, in the face of others aggression and yes, fearless in the face of death. We can learn to smile at those that harm us, extend a hand to those that lash out at us and learn to walk this earth with a compassionate heart.


Not by belief in any ideal or teaching, but with an open heart and open mind, begin to see the true nature of our existence. See for yourself life is change and recognize our minds reaction to this change. All suffering arises with in us, all turmoil is based on the inimitable truth that everything changes and nothing can be grasped. With kindness and compassion to yourself, you can learn to become unattached to these material things that will never persist, and simply begin to watch how this ride we call life unfold.

What it is we seek? Perhaps we can find out together.

The Buddha once said, “You are strong, you are young. It is time to arise.” In our modern world, it is rare that one follows the path of the awakened.....but it is no less true today then it was 2,500 years ago. "So....Arise!"

(A thank you to the webmaster of this blog for allowing me to be a contributor!)