Thursday, 20 August 2009


Hello all,

Since this is my first post on Progressive Buddhism as a contributor I figure I should introduce myself and explain a little of how I became involved with Buddhism. First off I have a Bachelors Degree in Philosophy and I am currently attending film school; right in the middle of a two year diploma program. I actually started my post secondary education as a Management student thinking that a career in Human Resources would be the best career for me. Thanks to a particularly competent high school teacher, who commented that I had a very philosophical outlook on things, I decided to take Philosophy 1000 as part of my general studies requirements. I lasted about a month as a management student and by semester two I had officially switched my major to Philosophy.

Such a move raised an important question from those around me: “what are you going to do with a degree in philosophy?” Admittedly this is a valid question. After all I had given up on a degree that would ensure a solid middle management position, nice salary, and likely some decent benefits for the real world life I would soon be exposed to. But there was something about philosophy that captivated me and since I have never been one to follow the crowd I decided to go with something I’d enjoy. Turns out my decisions was right, I discovered I had a talent for philosophy as well as a particular dislike for “normal” jobs. I honestly had no idea what I was going to do with a philosophy degree, but I knew that it was something that I enjoyed and felt that it fit with who I am.

Growing up in a particularly non-religious home I was never really directly exposed to religion but through the media and people I met in life I was well aware of the role it plays on the world stage. Since philosophy encourages one’s thirst for knowledge I began taking religious studies course to find out all I could about this strange phenomenon I had only experienced through others. I found the academic approach taken to be particularly efficient when it came to illustrating where each tradition came from, what they believed, and why they believed it in that particular way. We made our way through all the Abrahamic Traditions and it was all pretty interesting, but once we got to Buddhism things changed for me.

A funny thing happens when you place religions side by side and analyze them rationally and objectively. Anything you had been skeptical about before hand becomes more pronounced, irrational logic becomes blindly obvious, and any doubt regarding whether or not your own beliefs will coincide with a religion is erased. Now, it wasn’t at this moment that I became a Buddhist, still not exactly sure if I’m a full-fledged Buddhist yet, but it seemed I had found a set of beliefs that was consistent with my own. I ended up taking every Buddhist related course my university offered, including a graduate level course where we had to come up with a new perspective on Buddhism.

Since then I have been constantly reevaluating my beliefs as a Buddhist, attempting to figure out if it’s appropriate for me to identify with this particular religion. I am not someone who believes that anyone one set of beliefs will bring us “truth,” actually believing such a thing would be contradictory to who I am. I am a philosopher; I love learning new things and firmly believe that true knowledge comes from many different sources. When you shut your mind to a set of beliefs you shut your mind off to any knowledge that system may offer you. At the very least you shut your mind off to a source of experience in your life.

Thinking about this with respect to Buddhism led me to a rather comforting conclusion. Buddhism doesn’t require you to be a completely devoted and unyielding follower, it encourages learning and experience. One needs only to listen to one of the many Buddhist leaders to know that Buddhism has a lot to offer, but you need not shut your mind to other systems to benefit from Buddhism. Knowing this I began to identify with the religion to the point when people inquired about my beliefs I would identify with Buddhism. It is a system of beliefs that is more consistent with my own beliefs than it is different because of this it makes sense for me to identify with it.

I hope this gives you an idea of where I’m coming from and the approach I take to Buddhism and Buddhist topics. I am glad to be here and look forward to discussing the progressive form of Buddhism this blog represents.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Reciting the Metta Sutta in solidarity with the monks of Burma

Last Wednesday was Metta Sutta Day in Burma. However, the government there has clamped down on the traditional chanting of this sutta because of it's association with the protests there in 2007.

As an act of solidarity, Rev. Danny Fisher has recorded himself chanting the sutta and has put it on YouTube in the hope that others will do the same in a viral video campaign.

All you'll need is a web-cam, digital camera or microphone, the sutta (above) and access to YouTube. Please join in if you can.

Friday, 7 August 2009

gently holding the idea of death

scrodinger's cat is a thought experiment in which a cat is theoretically inside a box, and has a 50-50 chance of being dead or alive. this, to work as a metaphor for something in science which would otherwise be difficult to explain - how can something be a wave and a particle at the same time?

the idea of a thought experiment is to explain a real life scenario which would not be carried out, so no cats are harmed!

in this case, the thought experiment encourages us to hold the idea of life and death as possibilities - illustrating the wave/particle business in quantum physics. but, for me, the schrodinger's cat experiment resonates with the idea of meditating in part to make a good life, and in another part to make a good death. and, further, the exercise of holding both the idea of life and the idea of death in awareness at the same time.

here is a clip where the experiment itself is explained

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Review: Zen - ("Dogen, The Movie")

This isn't a full review, just a quick recommendation really.

'Zen' is a drama based on the life of Japanese Zen Master Dogen. Overall, I enjoyed it very much. Beautifully shot and well acted, although for me it was let down slightly by a couple of CGI scenes, especially one where Dogen attains enlightenment and flies into the sky on a huge lotus flower. I also suspect that much of the character drama and many of the characters were invented to create a story that works as a movie. There is a scene in which a Dogen advises a woman with a dying child to visit the every household in which no one has ever died. This is a parable I've heard attributed to both Buddha and Jesus, but not Dogen. It is peppered with some of Dogen's sayings - enough to get a flavour of his teachings.

It wasn't easy for me to get hold of a copy - I had to get it imported from Hong Kong, but for me it was a must-see.


The preview is here: Zen

And there is a more substantial review here: Religious film lacks thrill of temptation

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Amongst White Clouds

Another video. This one is a documentary about hermit monks and nuns iving in the remote mountains of central China. The scenery is stunning and it has a wonderful stillness to it. It's great to see that this ancient tradition continues to survive.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Sickest Buddhist

Bit of an abrupt change of tone here. But I thought you guys might appreciate this video by Arj Barker of Flight of the Conchords fame.

Sickest Buddhist from GenerateLA on Vimeo.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Impermanence and suffering: Our story

Can I share something with you all?

My wife suffers with anxiety. We've been trying for a child for about a year. She is afraid that she'll never be able to have one. She miscarried in January and again in April. Many people have no idea what miscarriage can be like, thinking of it as nothing more than a 'heavy period'. In fact, it can really be a bereavement. Now she's pregnant again, which is great in a sense, but in another means a great deal of stress and worry for her - especially during this early period.

My role, of course, is to give her whatever support I can. And mostly this means listening and being there for her. My own practice has helped me tremendously. As a Zen Buddhist and someone learning to teach MBCT of course I've suggested meditation, but she can't - the silence and doing nothing makes her feel anxious - perhaps she feels too strongly that she has to 'try to relax', I'm not sure. But anyway she's not inclined to keep trying and it's not beneficial for me to pressure her.

She is sympathetic to the 'Buddhist approach' and gets some benefit from listening to the wisdom of Edward Brown (SFZC), Pema Chodron and Ekhart Tolle. Yoga, pilates, the gym and having a dog also help.

After losing her pregnancy symptoms the second time, she had a scan but had to wait for another 12 days for a second scan to confirm it. That period was possibly the most difficult period of her life. Even though she has a great career, and a loving family and plans for the future, she found it so intensely distressing that she was contemplating suicide.

After we confirmed the second miscarriage, she had a breakthough. She realised that she couldn't go on like that and at some level she decided that things had to change. She simplified her life as much as possible and decided just to stop ruminating about the past and future so much and live more in the present. It was borne of sheer necessity but influenced by Buddhist thought, and Ekhart Tolle too.

My brother-in-law also found Eckhart Tolle helpful while he was splitting up with his wife (he now does Soto Zen practice). And he gave her some valuable 'spiritual' support at that time too. One of my Soto Zen teachers cited 'The Power of Now' as one of his favourite Zen books even though it's not technically Zen. I also quite like it myself, although there are parts about the evolution of consciousness that I'm happy to leave.

For me the fundamental principles of Buddhism are universal and different approaches suit different people. Something that occured to me was that perhaps 80%+ of the population would benefits from applying these principles to the way they live and yet 95% of the population are put-off by the trappings of traditional Buddhism. This is why I started to study Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. And hearing face-to-face how MBCT is helping people with chronic depression and other problems - people who would never practice Zen - just reinforces this view.

I'm all for ways to make these principles accessible for people who wouldn't go near a traditional Zen dojo.

Thanks for listening.

_/\_ Justin