Thursday, 16 July 2009

Zen: The Boot Camp

Zen. It’s a word so much bandied about, in our Western culture, with often so little understanding that it has come to mean, to paraphrase the Red Queen, whatever we want it to mean. Most of us agree, though, that its many associations encompass a special kind of discipline of mind, a special kind of formal perfection in all things material, and an acknowledgment of the irreducible enigma of human existence.

Now learn about Zen as it is practiced in the training monastery at Eiheiji in Kaoru Nonomura’s book, Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple, originally published in Japanese in 1996 and recently translated into English—(and not to be confused with Elizabeth’s Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love.”) Nonomura, renamed Rosan for his life as a Zen monk trainee, chose to drop out from the Tokyo business rat race at the age of thirty in order to find deeper meaning for his life, and signed up instead for a demanding existence of hard work, spiritual practice and self-denial at Eiheiji. As we find out from his story, he got more than he bargained for.

I have always admired what I have known about Zen, but I have honestly never warmed to it. Rosan’s experience helps me to understand why. To describe Eiheiji as boot camp does too much honor to the US Marine drill sergeants, who seem positively avuncular by comparison with these monks. Subjected to a daily regimen of constant physical, verbal and emotional abuse, sleep deprivation, and illness-inducing dietary insufficiency, the trainees at Eiheiji are required to perform every task to perfection or risk the kicks, beatings and tongue lashings that rain down upon them at the slightest deviation from accepted standards.

The rules are written down in the 13th century text by Dogen, the founder of Zen Buddhism. They are prescriptive down to the last detail and cover everything from washing the face and use of the toilet to the sounding of each bell and gong—and there are many of these at Eiheiji, each sounded for a differently prescribed occasion at a differently prescribed moment in the day. The rules are also inflexible. They must be learned and followed. Infraction is punishable, and punished without mercy. The same with procedures for cleaning, sitting, serving, eating… A new trainee may not make eye contact with an older one, but hurry past with eyes averted and hands clasped in respect. Eye contact, even inadvertent, is rewarded with an immediate cuff and a shouted rebuke.

Rosan’s narrative in this short book is as crisply detailed as the monastery’s rules, following the day-to-day physical existence of a trainee and describing the rituals and practices with such precision that we are drawn in to feel actually present and engaged ourselves. We feel the hard edge of the winter’s cold and the incessant pain in legs and knees that accompanies motionless sits that last for days on end. There comes a point when you begin to wonder, in all this insistent physical detail, where the spirit enters into this religious life—and then you remember that, for the Zen practitioner, the spirit is precisely IN the physical detail. It’s a matter of surrendering the distractions of self and the self’s needs, and paying unwavering attention to what is there—even if only the blank surface of the wall in front of you—or to the task at hand. “Eat Sleep Sit” provided me with an experience as close to Zen as I’m ever likely to come.

As a footnote to this reading, I happened to tune in to "Nova" last night on the television, and found myself watching a marvelous episode, Secrets of the Samurai Sword. It's a fine reminder of the symbiosis between Zen practice and others aspects of Japanese culture. In the sword-making process, strict attention to detail and observation of ritualistic detail, from the preparation of the steel to the honing of the sword's edge, assures a quality unmatched in any other part of the world. Distinctions between craft and art vanish in this process, as do traditional distinctions between matter and spirit. In the context of our culture of mass production and mass consumption, the patience, focus, and insistence on perfection leave the viewer awe-inspired and nostalgic for a time when such qualities were valued.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Buddhism Bad! More Misconceptions about Buddhism

You know this whole Western vs non-Western Buddhist thing really is just a back drop to a bigger issue of ignorance by some people who don't know what Buddhism really is. For me, I'd rather stop fighting with my friends for we are all Buddhists, just simple Buddhists without qualifiers at the end of the day. If we disagree on practice or tradition, it is something we can work through, but with this kind of ignorance "Buddhism Bad!" we need to stand together as one tradition, regardless of race, culture or practice. People really do believe this shit, and hopefully, we can be a helpful force to spread some truth about what Buddhism really is all about.

(edit: Sorry, I had to add a couple of the funnest and saddest quotes from this article.)

There are no criteria for anger within Buddhism. You are never supposed to be angry. You just stay calm, and focus on your own inner peace. Buddhism doesn't even have moral criteria. The ten commandments has no correlative in Buddhism. Everything just is. If someone chops your leg off, your job is to remain sanguine. If someone kills a child, try to see everything as transience, and stay in the groove. There are no jeremiads in Buddhism. Say om again and get on with nothingness.

Tibet itself was once a martial nation before Buddhism came, but it's become a bunch of marshmallows sitting around on pillows.

Therefore, Buddhists don't have a journalistic tradition. Even if they did have one, they wouldn't have any newspapers, because freedom of the press doesn't exist in any Buddhist countries. We used to have freedom of the press, at least, in the Protestant west, but now that Buddhism and Marxism have combined to wipe out our intellectual class and turn them into followers of the Pied Piper, I don't expect much from that sector any longer.

If so, why hasn't anybody done a report on the evils of Buddhism, and how it turns its practitioners into mental marshmallows? Maybe when you are doing the research, you turn into such a marshmallow you can't finish the report.

Ok Thank you Jack for reminding me about this scene from Ghostbusters!! Very appropriate given the comments above. LOL

So in honor of this rather ill-informed individual, here is a list, in no particular order, of commonly held misconceptions about Buddhism and Buddhists that I have heard and seen over the last few years from many not familiar with the teachings. Feel free to add your own.

1. Buddhism is about lapsing into some tranquil black hole.
2. All Buddhists are vegetarian and don’t drink alcohol.
3. All Buddhists are pacifists and non-violent.
4. Enlightened Buddhists have supernatural powers and live in a different reality.
5. With enough good Karma one can acquire enlightenment.
6. All Buddhists believe in literal reincarnation.
7. People that take psychedelic drugs can experience nirvana.
8. Buddhism is a nihilistic religion.
9. Buddhists believe the Buddha is a God and is worshiped as such.
10. Good Buddhists shouldn’t have opinions, hold judgments or express emotional feelings.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Buddhism may need a Plan B

The latest Buddhist Geeks podcast is an interview with Zen teacher Norman Fischer who argues in favour of secular and therapeutic expressions of Buddhist wisdom, such as Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. This obviouly ties in closely with what I was discussing in my recent posting Mindfulness Based Therapy and Buddhism

As Buddhism transitions to the West, we see that it is doing so in a couple different ways. Some forms look more like their original Asian roots, while others are secular and non-Religious in their presentation. Zen teacher Norman Fischer, an early 2nd generation teacher in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, calls the more traditional forms part of "Plan A" and the more secular forms, "Plan B."

In this interview we discuss with Norman the importance of Plan B approaches, like Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction. We also discuss his personal experience teaching Plan B at places like Google. Finally, we explore how the livelihood of trained and competent meditation teachers may relay heavily on Plan B approaches.

For anyone who isn't already a subscriber to Buddhist Geeks - I thoroughly recommend it.

Monday, 13 July 2009

bare knowledge and repeated mindfulness

Yesterday I went to a dharma day inspired by the Satipatthana Sutra at London Buddhist Centre. It was a really great day, rich inspiration for practice. The previous day i listened to this reading of the Sutra from this page (second one down - also with links to three alternative translations from different scholars) several times. It is really lovely to listen to, and I am listening to it again now. 'New technology' is hardly news, and technology for recording and listening to the human voice has been around for a while, but this access we have now to dharma and meditations is absolutely unparalleled, and I continue to be struck by the astounding implications - you can have world reknowned teachers talking to you in your own home, and if you want to hear the talk again, you can! This is a mutation on the contemplative life which simply could not have existed at all before the last very few years. Of course, this also means there is an active world wide sangha, again, at a previously unimaginable level. We live in very particular times.
All the better to apprehend the very simplicity of teachings. Here, in the Satipatthana Sutra we are assured that with 'bare knowledge and repeated mindfulness' we have enough material to take our practice all the way.

Digham va assasanto digham assasamiti pajanati digham va passasanto digham passasamiti pajanati: = "He, thinking, 'I breathe in long,' understands when he is breathing in long; or thinking, 'I breathe out long,' he understands when he is breathing out long.

Our day was a mixture of talks and practices, I won't attempt to document it all, but there were two things beyond the Sutra itself (yes, still listening to it!) that are particularly in my mind to write about. Ratnachuda led us in an unusual version of Metta Bhavana. In the FWBO we learn and practice Metta Bhavana alternately with mindfulness of breathing from the beginning, it is not seen as either an optional or an advanced meditation, but one to be engaged in from day one (or day two!) Usually we are reminded that we chould choose for our difficult person someone we have a minor irritation with. Being foolish, I had taken a bit of a detour for the past year or so and had chosen to use someone very difficult for me, and had reached a point where it really wasn't Metta i was practicing, but a kind of harmful masochistic clinging. One day recently I simply couldn't engage with it at all. I had reached an impasse. I thought of 'only' doing myself, and then I thought of just taking the instruction to use an easier person more seriously. I am not sure why I had dismissed the idea of working just with myself so quickly, and I am indebted to Ratnacuda for leading the meditation in this way otherwise I might never have experienced it. He suggested thinking of the part of yourself that you find easiest as your easy person, and working through to a part of yourself that you are less happy with as your difficult person. I found it really productive and healing, and I would certainly use it again. What was I doing using someone I find so harmful in my meditation? What does it say about the Metta I have been offering myself?
The whole day went in to the evening, with Mitra ceremonies and a Puja, but I was never going to last that long, and I was really tired (I have fibromyalgia and get very tired) and I was just thinking of going home when Dhammarati arrived. Because of my illness there are lots of order members who I don't know because I rarely go to LBC in the evenings. So, even though I spend a lot of time there, there are still plenty of people I don't know. I have to admit now, that I do not remember the name of the order member I was talking to when he arrived, but they knew each other and she introduced us, and he shook my hand. His presence was of an order that I thought, ok, let me just stay for this one last talk. And I am very glad I did. He talked very plainly about the Sutra, and about practice. Very insightfully. And he brought the day together in it's conceptual simplicity; everything you need to know to practice, you probably already know. You just need to do it deeper.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Wandering Dhamma

I have started my own blog and wanted to let the readers of Progressive Buddhism know about it! I will still post to Progressive about my ideas about Buddhism in America/modern Buddhism but I have my Wandering Dhamma blog for my research interests.
I was awarded a Fulbright to research meditation retreats in Thailand so that is what I will be doing next year, starting next month. I will post to Wandering Dhamma about my experiences there but will be doing a few posts before I leave.
I hope everyone will take a look!
Here is the link:

Friday, 10 July 2009

How to Evangelize a Buddhist.

I know this is some material that's been spread around the Evangelical web for sometime, and they do take this seriously, but nevertheless, its some pretty amazingly misinformed stuff. I'm sure a lot of you have been exposed to this before, but I couldn't help myself. If you haven't read it yet, enjoy!

Bridges For Evangelizing Buddhists
Truth about Buddhists

Some brief snip-its:
The gospel can be appealing to Buddhists if witnessing focuses on areas of personal need where the Buddhist belief system is weak.
Riiiiight, a belief system. You are very correct, a belief system is weak.

Suffering: Buddhists are deeply concerned with overcoming suffering but must deny that suffering is real.
If suffering isn't real, then was my first marriage just an illusion?

Meaningful Self: Buddhists must work to convince themselves they have no personal significance, even though they live daily as though they do.... Each person is made in Gods image with an immortal soul and an eternal destiny.
I don't need to work at convincing myself that I'm insignificant, my ex-wife reminds me of this everyday. I'm curious, if God made us in his image, then, as Voltaire said, did we not return the favor?

Future Hope: The hope of nirvana is no hope at all - only death and extinction.
Crap, you're right! If I find 'hope in death', then this is a shitty religion I am following.

Moral Law: Because karma, the Buddhist law of moral cause and effect, is completely rigid and impersonal, life for a Buddhist is very oppressive. Under karma, there can be no appeal, no mercy, and no escape except through unceasing effort at self- refection.
Hell that's not the definition of Karma, that's life in New Jersey. (Sorry all my New Jersey friends, I was born there so I can make a little fun :-)

Merit: Buddhists constantly struggle to earn merit by doing good deeds, hoping to collect enough to break free from the life of suffering. They also believe saints can transfer surplus merit to the undeserving.
Hey guys, I got my merit badge in snoodling and apparently that isn't a good deed. Any saints out there willing to transfer some surplus merit to me, please?

Desire: Buddhists live a contradiction - they seek to overcome suffering by rooting out desire, but at the same time they cultivate desire for self- control, meritorious life, and nirvana.
I'm curious, how does one root out desire? Cause I live next to a Chipolte and I'd really like to know cause those burrito bowls are costing me a fortune and I lack any self control.

When witnessing to Buddhists avoid terms such as "new birth," "rebirth," "regeneration," or "born again." Use alternatives such as "endless freedom from suffering, guilt, and sin," "new power for living a holy life," "promise of eternal good life without suffering," or "gift of unlimited merit."
Ohhhh I like it! "New Power of Eternal Good Life with Unlimited Merit" Christ, is this some kind of game show or a religion?

Understand Buddhist beliefs enough to discern weaknesses that can be used to make the gospel appealing.
Because pointing out peoples flaws is a very Christian thing to do, right?

While using bridge concepts, be careful not to reduce Christian truth to a form of Buddhism. Buddhism has been good at accommodating other religions. Do not say "Buddhism is good, but Christianity is easier."
Yea, and definitely under no circumstances should one say "Buddhism is good, but marijuana is better."

Ok, I'm done, I'm all out of really lame jokes about this.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Should a Buddhist ever Resort to Violence?

In my previous post here, concerning Michael Jackson, several people posted some very emotional and heartfelt comments, none less valid than the others. In these comments I could definitely feel the entire range of emotions, as one of this blogs own contributors so very eloquently pointed out in his comment. I think it is something that many humans who feel these types of emotions in real life, like anger, pride or hate, may find themselves involved in violent incidents and confrontations. One of the comments on the post asked what all this, being anger towards Jackson's alleged child molestations, had anything to do with Buddhism. I think violence, on a basic personal level, is a very important topic for all Buddhists (and non-Buddhists alike). I see from these two observations a question that asks; should a Buddhist ever resort to violent measures?

In this relative world, we will all encounter situations or people that will illicit from us emotions such as angry, hate and fear; all emotions that have the potential for a physical outburst or violent reaction. Fortunately, most of us are capable of preventing those emotions from extending that far, but sometimes, the people we face will push us to our limits of compassion and understanding. Growing up in an abusive household, I know the pain and scars left behind by violence, but after many years, through mindfulness of my thoughts and emotions I have been able to let go of a lot of the hate and anger and even find some compassion. Many of you too have also conquered hate towards another person and been able to forgive and show compassion. I think this gift of compassion is a gift we give ourselves, not the ones who hurt us.
"Forgiveness is primarily for our own sake, so that we no longer carry the burden of resentment. But to forgive does not mean we will allow injustice again."
~Jack Kornfield

However, does the understanding or expression of compassion always mean non-violence? Can a violent act be an expression of compassion? I think in some rare cases, based on the circumstances of the act, yes, violence can be an act of compassion. In this world, there will always be a few people incapable of compassion, empathy or understanding, whose only motivations are the obtainment of the objects of their desire. I believe in psychology they are commonly referred to as sociopaths. Just as we would help a person out of a burning house, so we should help a person being the victim of violence from another person, even if it takes violence itself to end it. When I talk about being the victim and helping by using violence, I am talking about seeing the actual act of aggression being perpetrated right then and right there, and not as in some form of reprisal. In my opinion, turning a blind eye and not helping, as so many people do these days, is sometimes the uncompassionate thing to do. I know I would not hesitate for one instant if I saw a woman being raped or a child being abused, that I wouldn't place myself in between the attacker and the victim, even if that meant using force. Sometimes the only words a man with a knife will listen to are the words from a man with a gun.

That said, I don't think violence should ever be taken lightly or used in a vigilantly sense. The Buddha said "In this world hate never yet dispelled hate, only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible." And I couldn't agree more with that statement. I detest violence, but in rare cases violence can sometimes be the only means to end a particular violent event. But in no way will the use of violence add to the understanding and compassion between humans, and this, I think should be our first priority. What do you think?

(ps These scientology ads here are a great example of a cult.)

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Forgive thy Sins?

I’ll be completely upfront, this is of course just my opinion, but I am somewhat sickened and disturbed by the amount of people praising Michael Jackson, the media circus surrounding his death and the concert being held in his honor. To me, the evidence and amount of allegations of his pedophilia were pretty solid, yet there are so many that have gladly looked past these horrific past transgressions to toss admiration and kudos to the memory of this man.

The parents of some of the children, who allowed there kids to sleep over with Jackson are partly to blame, and no one can argue that Jackson had somewhat of a difficult life living in the constant limelight of fame, but at the end of the day, sexual molestation of children, no matter what the circumstances is repugnant and despicable. Time and again, the psychological problems that children of sexual abuse suffer later in life has been documented quite substantially by the scientific community. This is not about some petty crime, but about a crime that has lifelong lasting effects on the victims.

For us Buddhists, what responsibility do we have to speak our minds in these cases, to point out the disturbing actions of others? I’m not talking about pointing out the actual crimes, as I think that it is quite apparent that we have the same responsibility as anyone else to report these types of crimes, but more in a moral sense, of peoples past crimes and forgiveness of these ‘sins’? We all have things in or past we aren’t proud of, and we all have been the victim of a crime at some point were we have forgiven the offender; but to hold a concert in some kind of twisted homage to this pedophile, to me, crosses a line of not only good taste but also somehow says if you are famous and make lots of money, somehow the standards of decency don’t apply to you. What do you think?

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Joining - a problem and a process

The very act of joining a group can bring up ethical issues.

The philosopher, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ when writing about Adolf Eichmann during the Nazi war crimes trials. She said that Eichmann had followed a moral philosophy but had failed to grasp a particular point in the philosophy he claimed to adhere to - in Kant the ‘legislator’ (of right and wrong) is the moral self, Eichmann had surrendered this self and had replaced it with the dictums of Adolf Hitler - and ’just followed orders’.

When we ask to become Mitras (as distinct from Order Members which is a rather separate journey of it's own) we are warned about the ‘FWBO Files’ and we are confronted with the question ’are we joining a cult?’

In a way this does us a favour. What do we hope to achieve by ’joining’? Eichmann was a ’joiner’, Arendt observed, and he wanted to belong so badly that he joined the SS. If our goal is to have answers on a plate and to never have to think again then what we join and what the intentions of the organisation we are joining could have real consequences for ourselves and for others around us. And if that abnegation of self is our intention then do we belong in the FWBO? If not that, then what is our intention? And what people are we exposing ourselves to? After all, what if our own motives are good, and we are conscientious but we are about to surround ourselves with unquestioning followers of orders?

The strongest safety valve within this organisation, from my perspective as it stands right now, is the key role of creativity in the interpretation of the idea of the ’middle way’. this is interpreted less as a doctrine to be followed without question, and more as a way of thinking which invites us to, and ultimately requires us to, think for ourselves. Not just once, or on one occasion, when joining, but at as many subsequent occasions from thereon in that ever exist. This cultivation of awareness is more of a journey than a goal, since it can never be simply arrived at as long as we are alive, indeed, as long as we draw breath. (Incidentally, Arendt has something to offer us here. She posits an alternative view of the idea of doubt to Cartesian either/or style of doubting. Her style of doubting suggests ‘supposing this could be otherwise’ which is slightly different in texture to I believe this OR that.)

At the same meeting with the Mitra Convenor where we are told about the FWBO files we are also given a printed sheet with the five precepts, and we discuss what those precepts mean to us.

The Precepts

I undertake to abstain from taking life.
I undertake to abstain from taking the not-given.
I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct.
I undertake to abstain from false speech.
I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants.

The Positive Precepts

With deeds of loving kindness , I purify my body.
With open-handed generosity, I purify my body.
With stillness, simplicity and contentment, I purify my body.
With truthful communication, I purify my speech.
With mindfulness, clear and radiant, I purify my mind.

On the basis of this discussion we are invited to take part in a Mitra ceremony at which we will make offerings which symbolically honour the three jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

So this is the short, largely symbolic journey between not being a Buddhist, and being a Buddhist. Or at least, a Mitra. Somewhere along the way we discover that this also involves Mitra Studies, which turns out to be FOUR YEARS LONG! This feels like rather a commitment.

So we begin our studies. And we discover that meditation and ritual are not the only activities that play a part in gaining insight, but that there is something, actually regarded as a practice, called ‘talking the dharma’.

In reality, this journey cannot be measured and is neither short nor long. Each individual’s experience of this initial phase of the journey will have something in common but also be in some way unique, since it requires a series of turning points in our thinking that motivates us to take those steps.

If we think of ‘life as a story’ there has to be a turning point. In fiction, this is usually a reversal of fortunes which has subsequent consequences. It must be believable that the event could happen to the character, and yet must alter the course of events initially set up in the story. Aristotle calls this ’turning point’ device ‘peripeteia’ (and in modern Greek this means ‘adventure’) so it is not surprising that so many of our own personal stories lead us to something that feels like a reversal to some of us, and it is equally unsurprising that we identify with the story of the Buddha’s own journey.

It strikes me, as I write this, that my own discomfiture at the content of the reading for term one, which draws to a close now, has been transformed by the practice of this ‘talking the Dharma’. As I read over the material I remember thinking week by week that the content was a bit badly written and weak, and that it was frustrating that it was neither a primary text nor a high culture secondary one. I suppose I wanted it to be more like ’study’. Now that I look at it again, immediately, I am drawn in, within a couple of paragraphs, because having ’talked the Dharma’ I now know something of what is meant by this rather self effacing phrase, and the weight of what is being said in the text feels more centred and real to me, rather than being ’just’ a rather long passage of writing which I was not sure of.

I would also like to go back to this idea of what is a cult, and talk a little bit about the idea of not being so heavily invested in opinion. It could appear that dropping strong opinion is the opposite of what I have said about cultivating and maintaining a strong moment by moment awareness, and yet the way that I experience it is that I am not without opinion, but now I am more interested in experience than opinion, and that actually opinion itself is a little addictive and about developing or projecting something which in this culture is highly valued - a strong personality. Meanwhile, it seems that in Buddhism
personality itself is a contested field and something to soften on rather than to build up. In what way is this not in danger of being cultish, I wonder? I think what might be helpful to ask is; What if we apply Arendt’s version of doubt and suspend our strong belief in personality and wonder if perhaps the cult of personality is not worth questioning itself?

My project, here, has been to describe something of what it is like to begin this journey. In Mitra Studies, we have had many conversations over the past ten weeks or so, some of them rambling, all of them valuable. This has been consciousness raising within a working and workable framework, and I can feel myself growing in a different way than I have done in other kinds of study.

There is an interest in sociology, in a Marxist construction called ’cultural reproduction’. It is a simple idea with extensive application, and it is relevant to the thoughts I started with here. Marx says that within any culture that is able to continue there are the means to reproduce that culture, and that this is as true in human cultural forms as it is in nature. The theorists who have talked about this have used various metaphors to describe how this works, but in short, the point is that if you create a social group where the rules are hard and fast and questioning is discouraged or punished then you create the conditions for homogeneity, or the culture of sameness, which can ultimately become fascist. Meanwhile, if you create a system within which questioning and difference can be contained as part of that system then you create conditions under which difference is as it is, (and this is called, for the sake of comparison, ‘heterogenic’ - the metaphors are borrowed from science). In either instance, the conditions for this reproduction must be maintained for that culture to be reproduced.

I suspect that I would not be as interested in Buddhism if I were not in a modernised Sangha, but as it stands, my own journey has taken me towards and into the FWBO and my experience of it has been both of gentleness and strength in a form which I am able to comprehend, respect, and grow within.

“The Lay Life and the Monastic Life: No Fundamental Difference?”

In this blog recently we have been discussing some big questions within Buddhism in the West. We have been focusing on such topics as the role of Asian culture within Buddhism, the possibility of ‘getting to the essentials’ of Buddhism, and the role of mindfulness meditation within Buddhism. Another big issue that is becoming more and more prominent is the changing role of the laity in relation to monastic communities.

I have read many Buddhist memoirs, Buddhist magazine articles, essays and blogs that have recounted a major theme in Buddhism in the West since its inception: there is no fundamental difference between the lay and monastic life. This is also fundamentally a critique of the monastic institution. Especially in American culture, there exists a dominant Protestant worldview where service to the world is emphasized over staying in a monastery. This discourse and the rhetoric surrounding it can be found in current articles of Buddhist magazines from prominent lay teachers and especially from former monks and nuns explaining why they have now chosen to live the lay life. They explain that they felt selfish living in a monastery, not interacting with and helping people in the world. They felt there were artificial boundaries in the monastery and artificial schedules. Lay life in contrast, offers the possibility of more service to the world, more ‘real life’ experience practicing mindfulness, as well as an advantage for teaching to other members of the lay community. They argue that lay people can relate better to other lay people and understand the challenges of daily life.

Because of this predominant lay critique of the monastic institution, there has been a response from the monastic community. However, this is a minority voice and is harder to find. Bhikkhu Bodhi, American monk in the Theravada lineage, and Thubten Chodron from the Tibetan tradition, have been the most prominent authors writing about the relevance and role of monks for Buddhism in the West. Some monastics and a few lay people argue that having monastic communities in the transfer of Buddhism to the West offers a challenge to mainstream, capitalist societies. The existence of monasteries demonstrate an alternative lifestyle. Other arguments emphasize how Buddhism in the West should cause the monastic institution to become more flexible, to adjust some of the rules and ‘cultural trappings’ (back to this issue again) of the ancient tradition of monasticism. These monastics argue that the institution should become more flexible and accommodate to Westerners’ needs. They should be more open to the ordination of women and allow for monks and nuns to be more active in the world.

This is a summary of some of the research I have been doing on this topic. These are the main arguments surrounding this conversation. So, who is right? Will the lay tradition and its critique of monasticism continue to dominate? Should monasticism change to accommodate to Western sanghas? Or should it remain the same and offer its relevance as a challenge to mainstream society?


Saturday, 4 July 2009

Political Activism and the Buddhist

Since it is the Fourth of July, Independence Day here in the United States (as all you non-Americans from around the world probably know from our enormous and sometimes rather loud and flamboyant pride we take in it: as my Canadian girlfriend says) I thought it was a good opportunity to talk a bit about politics. These days, at least here in the US, it is hard to separate out our own personal spiritual philosophy from the political climate around the nation. Unfortunately, centrist politics has gone the way of dinosaur; more and more extremist views on both the right and the left have garnered the ear of many voters. It is easy to push these hot button topics and scream them into a megaphone loudly to evoke an emotional response, as so many of the talking heads brilliantly do these days. But to engage in constructive and consolatory discussions about actual things that effect the lives of people on a daily basis is all but nearly impossible. The voices of reason and compromise have been all but drowned out by those on both sides by those who believe their position to be without fault and infallible to other viewpoints. As modern Buddhists, we all probably have pretty strong feelings, one way or another about the important issues of the day, and I think it is of utmost importance for us, not to stand by the sidelines, sitting on our cushions, but to actively and constructively engage in the political discussion not only of our individual countries but in the world as a whole.

Today there are no less than 10 major military conflicts and dozens of smaller violent engagements currently ongoing. Most of these conflicts involve the poorest and most destitute countries on the planet, with the most defenseless and impoverished populations the largest victims of the most brutal atrocities. HIV/AIDS continues to devastate sub-Saharan Africa with an infection rate of between 25-40% of their entire population. Common diseases that are quite curable or treatable, such as malaria, tuberculosis and dysentery still wrack and destroy millions of people each year, whose only real obstacle is a lack of access to medical care and inexpensive medications. In our thirst for an ever-expanding need for energy, we have resorted to bio-fuels which have had the unintended consequence of causing global food shortages and a growing famine. These are but a short list of great world crises that will soon come calling on us for answers, and not the other way around.

Fortunately, we are finding out the fate of all other people and the fate of our environment are completely and totally entangled with our own. While we may gain much needed comfort in our practice for ourselves in this life, we must not forget all the suffering that continues to plague this Earth. For many of us, the end of suffering not only for ourselves but those around us, is a goal of our practice, and I don't see this as such a bad thing. The end of suffering can start in the voter's booth or with an outspoken voice or with a simple kind deed; perhaps our voices must not crackle or flail in a way that causes further divisions or rifts among those that disagree, but speak of unity, cooperation, understanding and reconciliation. We must reach out to all sides, to all people - even with those who may have another vantage point, to bring about some real change, some new ideas and a new direction to the ultimate destiny of our humanity.

This is neither a liberal thing nor a conservative thing; neither a religious thing nor a non-religious thing, it is simply the decent human thing to do.

While I don't usually link back to organizations, I would encourage all of you to take a look at

Friday, 3 July 2009

Draw the Buddha In Four Easy Steps!

I thought this was really uncanny! Try it for yourself.

Grab a pencil and a blank sheet of paper (8 1/2 X 12" is best).


1. Draw a circle in the center of the page. Size doesn't matter...just make it as perfect as possible. Colour it in.

Draw small horizontal lines around and through the circle. Don't get too crazy with this one.. Simple is better.

3. Draw some sort of border around steps 1 and 2.

4. Put your pencil down, take a deep breath, and realize a true Buddha has no form.

I am fascinated by how much form is misinterpreted and the importance is overestimated. How often do non-Buddhists know only Budai and Gautama Buddha to be Buddhist figures? Even more many think they are the same?

Now take a look at what you've drawn.

Should be something like this.

Wasn't what you expected, was it? It obviously has form, but it also doesn't have form, when you are thinking you are drawing a preconceived notion.

This is the perfect way for me to illustrate Progressive Buddhism. It is not what I thought it was going to be. I let the illustrations fall away, and learned what the true teaching was.

I realized the Buddha has no true form. Buddha became personal.

So personal, in fact, that I may actually become one.

Be well!


Thursday, 2 July 2009

The Danger of Cults to Buddhism

A kind reader here, commented on my previous post, and provided some links concerning the organization she belongs to, The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO). In her comment, she made the observation that some people had classified the FWBO as a cult, and was worried about the label tarnishing their credibility and reputation. I looked into a few different sources concerning this particular organization, and while I saw nothing that I would say classifies it as a cult, I don’t believe I could make an informed judgment either way as I don’t know all the ins and outs of it. I’ll let those who know far more about that particular circumstance that wish to comment, answer those questions. But, nonetheless she brings up a great point in her comment. What exactly are cults and what is their relationship to Buddhism?

Since cults do tend to proliferate more in the religious, philosophical and metaphysical types of organizations, I think it is something that is very important for us, as Buddhists, to discuss and understand better. There have been countless cults, both past and present, that have sprouted and thrived on the exploitation of both the innocent as well as the willing. Cults, especially those that pose serious harm and danger are not indigenous to only the West, but have appeared all around the world as well. In general, they tend to follow a more theocratic nature, often espousing different variations of existing traditions, but also can extend to the more bizarre and wacky cosmic flavor. Some of the more famous ones involving mass suicide/murder, such as the 900+ deaths in the 1977 Jim Jones Peoples Temple Cult in Jonestown, Guyana or the 1997 suicide of 39 people of the Heavens Gate cult here in the United States, were more about charismatic leaders who were mentally disturbed or twisted. However the harm most cause aren’t of always the spectacular or deadly type, but fall under the far more common category of human greed, either monetary or sexual in nature.
Those using the mask of Buddhism as a pretense to exploit people, has and does occur and Buddhists are not somehow immune to this phenomenon. Cults operating under the guise of Buddhism are probably much more common than one may suspect, and have involved people claiming to be reincarnations of Buddha, enlightened Arhats or mystical sages. As Buddhists here in the West, I think it’s important to be vigilant of those opportunistic organizations that pop up from time to time, as I see Buddhism in the West is in state of constant flux and change. The use of the word cult when referring to any organization is indeed very powerful and can place sometimes unfix-able marks on the reputations of those endeavors in the public eye. Unfortunately, there are those who may have nothing more than a strong opposition to a certain view of a group and will use the word incorrectly, purely as a weapon to discredit and dismiss an entire organization. So what constitutes the difference between a cult in terms of an enterprise set up for the sole purpose of exploitation of people and other organizations, that just may have beliefs or views that would fall outside the traditional scope of what society may deem appropriate?

Firstly, what isn’t a cult? Just because an organization teaches or expresses rather unorthodox viewpoints, differing from what society deems traditional or conventional, does not make for a cult. If an organization is run by a person that has an egocentric, offbeat or even just a very charismatic personality, does not mean it is a cult. If people freely partake in somewhat bizarre or odd rituals and behavior, this does not in itself make for a cult. There are probably a lot of organizations that we may find offensive or ‘cultish’, but that does not necessarily make them endeavors aimed at harming or exploiting people.

Now, what does constitute a cult? I see it as something that’s purpose, whether directly or indirectly seek to benefit inappropriately from exploiting people either monetarily or sexually; or perhaps can just include a very convincing charming person who wants nothing more than to garner some type of God-like admiration or worship from the members, and these can certainly be the most dangerous. It has a lot to do with motive, who’s benefiting, who’s paying and what is the underlying intention of the organizations leaders. If you look closely, you will probably notice the common thread that runs through most cults is the basic truth that a few will ultimately benefit at the expense of many others.

You might be a cult if:

If bizarre rituals are required by members, including any type of sexual act in order to fulfill some teaching or favor, then it is a cult. If large amounts of money or material items are required to gain favor, or to learn some teaching, then it is a cult. If the 'leader' claims to be a messenger from God or be some infallible prophet or some other mystical cosmic force, then it’s a safe bet it’s a cult. If they have 'secret' teachings or different levels of rank only obtainable through money or other types of personal consideration, and these secrets aren't open to scrutiny, then its probably a cult. If they're main concern is to maintain allegiance to one or a few 'leaders' despite the needs of its followers, then it’s probably a cult. If wisdom, understanding and compassion are not given freely, with no strings attached, (with the possible exception of the request for nominal voluntary donations), then it probably is a cult.

We must, as individuals, not relinquish our own good judgment or common sense in place of someone else’s viewpoint. Our individual and personal authority is the ultimate and final word on all matters in our lives; it is ourselves, and only ourselves that must guard our own dignity, possessions and well-being. It is imperative to explore, understand and ask as many questions as one can before involving oneself in an organization that may seem even a bit off the beaten path. This is why it is so important, so utterly and dramatically important that we find our own way, even through the guidance and teachings of others that we all do want and need.

I think Buddha himself expressed the greatest advice possible, when on his deathbed he said:
“Be a light unto yourself, betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast to the Truth. Look not for refuge to anyone but yourselves.”

Google ads

Some of you may have noticed that I've decided to try adding Google ads to the blog.

Within a couple of days these should become more relevant to the blog subject matter - Buddhism.

If this starts generating money I think I'll give it to a charitable and/or Buddhist cause.

Let me know what you guys think of it.