Tuesday, 31 January 2012

An Apologist For Meditation

This is a proposition that meditation can be a part of realizing our interconnectedness and that it remains a mission critical practice for our global welfare. Even if our world or our personal consciousness is transformed, it will remain a critical discipline to maintain. While some ways of knowing and social systems may seem far advanced, these systems exist in a web. Viewing this web from only one point of view where the other threads seem to intersect will mislead some of us into reasoning that what is good for one intersection of the web is good for all intersections. A meditative practice can help us transcend the local nature of our observations.

Part of my discovery of Buddhism and Eastern mysticism came through a teen-age curiosity of subatomic sciences and their parallels to Eastern thought through the Tao of Physics. The book certainly provided a broader point of view than the comparative religion studies in my parochial school. The advances in physics are so profound that the experimental outcomes regarding the existence of Higgs particles have stadium side seating in the press. Their existence and implications have even received preemptive denialism in fundamentalist circles. I persist in hope that scientific advancements will somehow lead to a transformation in a global way of thinking that eliminates warfare and oppression, but I find myself in the here and now where that is not the case.

While advancement in any field can be exciting, we still have the task of advancing a sound moral philosophy through how we treat others and ourselves and achieving balance. The implications of fanaticism not only impact our global welfare, but our well being as individuals. We have countless examples of how advances in science have not lead to spiritual revolutions, but are more readily adopted in warfare, marketed technology and economic systems. We even have a recent proposition from an AMA publication that vaccinations be made mandatory for the greater good. Some propose that the publication of this point of view reveals a fanaticism coming from scientific circles and that its implications should be thoroughly examined within the context of the Nazi movement and it’s use of science. Whether or not one considers this a valid point, it is possible for extremism to arise from any school of thought.

There will continually emerge countless calls to action for each of us to find non-violent ways of defending our selves and balancing out oppression, fanaticism, and the social systems from which they emerge. These systems exist either formally, informally, or as an unintended by product of our social constructs. We are faced with formulating non-violent responses to our current and immediate circumstances. This sometimes means eliminating fear, the influence of propaganda, our preoccupations with the material world, and our ideas of the self. Achieving a sate where we can focus on our interconnectedness can highlight the role of meditation.

It is often stated that meditation can bypass critical thinking. Some of us, like myself, can see this as a healthy thing in a constructive context. There are others who propose that it is dangerous. Meditation has been studied by science, marketed by business, and has been preached against in some religious circles. There is a lot that plays into the mythology surrounding meditation and those who engage in the practice. It is a remarkable way of knowing accessible for anyone and is a practice I would encourage even for non-Buddhists, but there is no universal perception on what meditation actually accomplishes or what it should accomplish. So I have to clearly affirm that this is only based on my personal experience.

Our institutionalized science, based on critical thinking, has made profound discoveries but has methodological limits. Philosophy, sometimes institutionalized in law, is rooted in critical thinking, but alas, a review of philosophy can reveal that deductive reasoning can result in radically contradictory outcomes on paper and in real life. These are just examples and not a condemnation or catalog of ways of knowing. Each of those referenced have made tremendous contributions, but we are still left with our individual roles in this world as interconnected beings and how we engage.

I began meditating as part of a mindfulness practice. To my beginning mind, the outcomes of mindfulness outweigh any other consideration as to how to behave in a society. In spite of what I had been told growing up in the South, I wasn’t worshiping idols or a god or a historical figure. I was on a long way to recognizing that I had the potential to escape the cycle of suffering that I identified with the self. Once I connected the ripple effect of my own actions in my little pond to my personal suffering, I was able to realize that all of our ponds are connected and the ripple effects of our actions have global consequences. As I am only restating conclusions thousands of years old, this is just an example of how a meditative practice came to influence me and helped me realize the impact of clinging and craving.

Our collective craving and clinging are indeed interconnected and our personal actions have a global impact. This idea was implanted in me intellectually many years before today by Buddhist thought, but in recent time it became a personal experience. What was once an ancient idea to me has resulted in a personal call to action not only to transform how I treat my body, mind and spirit, but also to carefully examine my impact on the greater world and transform my behavior accordingly. I concluded that I did not exist in isolation and that patterns of self-defeating behavior resonated beyond the self. The discovery of one spoke of the wheel through personal experience can indeed be related to the personal discovery and realization of the others.

Across civilizations there was a point where science, religion and philosophy were intertwined. In some cultures they still are. Consider the cosmological implications of Darwin, Copernicus, and Galileo that some traditions refute even today. While the debate on the root cause on climate change is in progress, there are even perplexing claims that the climate is not really changing at all. This is merely an acknowledgement that we are in a modern era where many view these three threads that often intersect, as separate and conflicting truths, but were once imperceptible as different and seemingly one-dimensional. One defense of some schools of thought arising from these threads is to deny the evidence arising other schools of thought and to enforce a one-dimensional state. To deny any thread is to deny the web.

Given that absolute clinging to one way of knowing seems to result in denying the other ways of knowing, I can only reference Thich Nhat Hanh to effect reconciliation, “For a Buddhist to be attached to any doctrine, even a Buddhist one, is to betray the Buddha”. I have to note to non-Buddhist readers that this betrayal doesn’t necessarily point to only the historical Buddha, but also to the Buddha that is in all of us including non-Buddhists. This therefore extends the behavioral manifestations of our beliefs and knowledge to all people today and future generations.

We are at on odd point in space time as observers in the universe, to where our material observations have lead us to understand that all the galaxies are moving away from each other at an ever increasing rate. We have propositions that the net energy of the universe is zero. This has lead for some to further propose that the universe could have indeed come from nothing. There are popular views as to our current cosmology that include propositions of dark energy and dark matter, but there are also opposing views in scientific circles that our fundamental assumptions of gravity may lead us to errant conclusions about this. These are truly exciting debates that reflect advancement in knowledge, but alas, we are still in the here and now.

There may be a point in the future where an intelligent species, equipped with our scientific methods and technology could possibly conclude that the only galaxy in existence is the one they live in. This is because the light from all other galaxies will never reach their observatories while the unrevealed galaxies continue to hurtle away faster and faster. The implications of this on any theory of everything would be profound.

This illustrates a point. No matter how rigorous we are in methodology and reasoning, there are limits to both philosophy and science based on our senses. We must include the here and now from our meditations and our interconnectedness in any revelation for global action. When reasoning exclusively depends on observations from our five senses and instrumentation to extend these senses, it brings to light that other ways of knowing which bypass critical thinking of material observations are either of great value, or a threat to a point of view.

It is quite possible that a future society could come up with a mathematical abstraction that does explain their observations and predictions to their satisfaction. They would have a unified theory. The conclusions nonetheless will simply be incomplete because they are unable to falsify the idea that they are the only galaxy in existence. I would invite the proposition that we are beholden to the same limitations because we are in many ways this future society. Adoption of a single construct, be it social, economic, religious, scientific, or philosophical, even if it appears thorough, predictive and comprehensive to our five senses, will inevitably result in a denial of the entire web. It is understandable that meditation is perceived as a threat to those who exclusively subscribe to one point of view because the outcomes transcend our local and material observations.

While I tend to embed many calls to social action that do not involve sitting, I want to balance out these calls to action. Meditation is critical and it is equally a valid call to action. It can give a context to our material observations that govern our social world and personal reality. It is a way of knowing that has been utilized for an unknown period of time and it is sometimes challenged and diminished in modern times. For me, the goal is to have this way of knowing not only in a sitting position, but as I go about in the world, to have a balance between the electronic signals my senses transmit to the brain and what arises when these signals are diminished. There is not only hope for our future, but for the here and now. One way for a complete beginner like myself is to strive to touch the here and now and to be driven by compassion. This can be facilitated through meditation.

We have to maintain and pass on a practice and tradition that connects the inward world with the outward world. Even if the outward world achieves some perceived state of unification, we are still left with the nature of clinging and craving in an individual level that will manifest between individuals and institutions. It is easy to look through history and find that many social catastrophes have been rooted in greed, lust for power, and fanaticism.

Some seem to be so perplexed by the persistent impact of personal craving and clinging, that they can only explain its cumulative impact in terms of a persistent, global, and intentional social conspiracy. I more readily accept the explanation of the cumulative impact of karma out of balance. It can sometimes seem overwhelming as if it to approach us like a tidal wave or an upcoming asteroid. We can sometimes feel paralyzed by the impact of our personal or social decisions. Even if we feel annihilated by cause and effect, personally or socially, we are still left with the task of escaping the cycle of suffering for others and ourselves. To feed craving and clinging, our awareness is the subject of competition, not only by the natural world and addictions, but also media, technology, and propaganda. What is the reward for devoting our consciousness to these things but more clinging and craving? Again, I am only restating ideas thousands of years old, but now it is personal experience and meditation has helped me shape those experiences. This is why I am sharing this proposition.

There are many resources that we are all familiar with on the secular benefits of meditation. I leave you with a few artifacts of some schools of thought. You might conclude that these are meant to capitalize on fear. Their presentation seems to be constructed to make people fearful of some forms of practice by selectively quoting science to advance their point of view without a constructive balance.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Progressive Buddhism is Engaged Buddhism

Happy New Year! On behalf of the Taego Order Overseas Parish, and with the explicit permission of my honored Teacher the Venerable Dr. Jongmae Kenneth Park, Bishop of the Overseas Parish, it is my pleasure and honor to post up my first entry on this blog site. I hope in the year to come, I can post up some interesting topics for the audience that follows this blog, and I thank the blog moderator for accepting me as a writer here.

Please kindly note, that any opinions I post on this site, are my own opinion only, and must NOT be construed as the official position of the Taego Order.

When I first came across this blog site, I was immediately intrigued. The notion of 'Progressive Buddhism' is interesting to me because, I feel it describes my own perspective on the Buddha-Dharma. In our times, the word 'Progressive' has become synonomous with left-leaning political action, so the integration of my political inclinations with my spiritual practice, seems natural and appropriate to me.

But if we consider the teachings of the Buddha-Dharma carefully, it seems very clear that the Buddha discouraged political affiliation or factionalism. The Buddha taught that when we support a particular political agenda, we are plunged straightaway into the world of false views and dualism: Hot and cold, good and evil, up and down, left and right, Democrat and Republican. For this reason, many Buddhist practitioners are wary of political engagement.

However, not all practitioners feel as though these injunctions must be dogmatically and narrowly interpreted, myself among them. Like some aspects of the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha were a product of his time and place. For example, I am a married monk, and the Order I serve-- the Taego Zen Order of Korea-- is one of the few Buddhist Orders in the world that permits married clergy. Here is one aspect of the teaching that has been updated for our times. Another example might be the Precept for monks not to sit on high chairs, which is obviously less relevant in Western culture than in Asian culture. And so forth. There are other examples as well.

Buddhism emerged in a time and place where our modern notions of participatory democracy simply did not exist. 'Politics' in the Buddha's time meant 'Monarchy' and 'dynastic factionalism.' The Buddha could not imagine a political system where common folk could vote. Therefore, if one is to strictly and literally interpret the Dharma-- like some Christians do with the Bible-- then we end up with a belief system that would basically require Buddhists to drop out of participatory democracy.

But most Buddhists I know are not literalists (that would not be 'Upaya' or 'Skillful Teaching'), and as anyone who has spent any time in a western Zen center will tell you, a majority of western Buddhists seem to be political progressives.

Yet this is certainly not the case in Asia. In many Asian societies, the Buddha-Sangha is decidedly conservative in their social and political affiliations. Likewise, these are societies with little historical tradition of democracy, until fairly recently (in the 20th century). If the truth be told, the Asians are just as new at this business of integrating Buddhism with Democracy, as the westerners are.

So if we look closely at the Asian Buddhist experience with democracy, what we find is a fairly high level of political engagment. In fact, the very concept of 'Engaged Buddhism' emerged from the anti-war and politically active career of Thich Nhat Hanh. He was protesting the Vietnam War and the destruction of his country. "You cannot meditate when bombs are falling outside" he once said. Likewise, in Tibet a substantial number of monks have been arrested by the authorities for protesting Chinese rule, and in Burma the Buddha-Sangha has emerged as the primary nexus of resistance against the brutal military junta that rules the nation. So even in the Asian experience, we find that Buddhist monks, laymen and women are resisting oppression in our times.

It is therefore clear that in Asia, Buddhists stand against injustice and (more importantly) are willing to take action against it. This is why I find the idea that Buddhists must not be politically engaged to be incomprehensible, the equvalent of saying that we must not respond to the injustices around us. I did not sign up to ignore injustice.

This is also the reason why most western Buddhists seem to be politically left-leaning. Buddhism teaches us to see clearly, without delusion, so naturally many Buddhists apply this to the democratic political landscape around them. And what do we see? Here in the States, we see that both principal political parties are beholden to Wall Street; but it is also clear that one party has an agenda that is anti-science, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, nursing greivances and favoring policies that re-distributes income and wealth upwards. This looks like injustice to me.

So can a Buddhist be a political conservative? If by 'conservative' we merely mean someone who subscribes to market economics, the answer is yes. But increasingly, in our times simple market economics are also associated with the ugly agenda noted above, so my sense is that a politically conservative Buddhist, would have to engage in some amazing mental gymnastics in order to reconcile that agenda, with the compassionate nature of the Buddha-Dharma.

In the end, that is what attracts so many westerners to Buddhism: the compassionate nature of the Buddha's teachings. And that is why the notion of 'Progressive Buddhism' is NOT an oxymoron, because at its core the concept of 'Progressive Buddhism' is really just 'Engaged Buddhism,' which in turn is-- in my opinion-- inherent in the teachings of the Buddha-Dharma.

The Greek philosopher Plato once said, "Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber." And less compassionate, I might add. Is this not clear by now to every Buddhist?

I am a Progressive Buddhist, and I am not alone. I look forward to being part of this blog in the year to come, and once again I wish you all Happy New Year.