Category Archives: buddhism

Maybe if I Meditated Less…

I could post more here on my blog. 🙂  I have been thinking about doing about a million and one one things here, but just have not had time to follow through on any of them yet, so I am making a small beginning tonight.

The first thing I want to put up here is a list of meditation resources, so that people who stumble on to this page can at least get some actual benefit from it.  As a new meditator, I have basically nothing to teach, but there are lots of links to lots great material, both written and audio that I will get here.  But rather than put those resources in a post (or a series of posts) I am going to put them on a static page so they will always be accessible, for whatever that might be worth.

And speaking of pages, I will be putting up two more, but these two will actually be for you, dear reader. 🙂  Being that this is supposed to be an interactive medium, I am stealing an idea from another website.  But I am not going to link to it, and here is why. 🙂   The person was collecting stories of how and why people “deconverted” from Christianity and what they were doing now.   I won’t link to it because I don’t want to color any stories you might have.

I am going to put up two pages, and you can comment on either one or both of them.   You can tell us “What I Found” if you want to tell a postitive story of your belief system or philosophy or religion.    Or if you are in a negative frame of mind you can share, “What I Left” and say why you left behind a religion or other belief system.  All I ask it that you keep to your own story and not criticize ro flame others for their contributions.  I will reserve the right to remove comments like that and if it gets out of hand, I will take down the experiment in internet democracy. 🙂

Hope to hear from you…and I hope to begin regularly posting again as well.

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Christianity and Hypocrisy

You might think that I am going to write about the political situation here in Wisconsin where (presumably) the “pro-life” Christians voted that we should reinstate the death penalty, while also “preserving” marriage by making sure that gay people cannot have the same legal rights as straight folks in regards to their partner. If you wanted to read something like that, I am sorry to disappoint you.

In my own life, I have been quick to throw around the “H-word” and I have more than once in the run up to this election. Even though I might live in a glass house, I was somewhat secure in using that word, because we in the West have a role model for this.

Now it is true that when Jesus referred to people as hypocrites, he was calling us each to examine ourselves, to remove the log from our own eye, as it were. But it is inescapable that a running theme of the Gospels is “Jesus vs. the Pharisees.” The Pharisees were, of course, a real group within Judiasm of the time, but as with any group not all of them would show the charicature of behavoir that the Gospel writers ascribe to them. But the “Pharisees” that Jesus has a problem with are a part of all of us. Those “Pharisees” go through the motions of religious observance, but their heart does not match those motions. They are “hypocrites” because their insides and outsides do not match, or even worse maybe polar opposites. In many ways, this is simply calling a spade a spade, or at least this is the way I have seen it throughout my life.

Then I heard Pema Chodron give a Buddhist perspective on this. And frankly, I was quite moved.

She was talking about a situation where some habit was getting in the way of your spiritual growth. In Buddhism, any habit (unthinking repetition of a behavior pattern, that is) keeps you from being fully awakened. So let us just say the habit is an addiction to chocolate, just to keep things simple. She pointed out that there are basically three positions you could take in regard to your chocolate habit once you decide that it is a hinderance to you and you need to stop.

The first might be called complete faith or even enlightenment. You stop. For whatever reason, you just know what to do and you do it. Your inside and outside match perfectly and at least in this small area, you have awakened. But not many of us fall into that category.

The next position she calls “half faith.” You know you should avoid chocolate, you know it is bad for you — but that smell. The anticipation of the sweet taste! Temptation! This, says the Buddha, is also the path to awakening. If you are mindful of your struggle — even if you sometimes fail — you will bring an awakened presence to your decision to avoid the sweet temptation. In fact, you might even say that starting from this position, even with its inevitable failures, leads to a “greater” awakening than the first instance, as you have been fully aware of both the temptation and the need for restraint. Most people would not refer to someone trying so hard to “do the right thing” as a “hypocrite,” but sometimes this person’s inside and outside might not match.

The third position is less than half faith. Sometimes much less. This is a person who can, say, intellectually agree with the position that chocolate is a hinderance, but is not going to make a serious effort to actually give it up. If they intellectualize to much — that is to say, if they shoot their mouth off too much about how bad chocolate is — but eats it anyway, we have ourselves a hypocrite. And the Buddha says, this too can be a path to enlightenment.

What? Saying one thing and doing another can be a path to enlightenment? Yes, if it is done with mindfulness (remember too, that we are talking chocolate here, not genocide or something). If you are going to eat the chocolate anyway, do it mindfully. Look at the circumstances that lead you to the craving. Look carefully at the results of your “slips.” See how it feels to say one thing and do another. You can actually look at all those things about yourself non-judgementally and non-moralistically. In really examining your habit, even as you succumb to it, you may find yourself awakening — and moving to the first position.

I can’t speak for him, but I think that if the Buddha was confronted with the Pharisees, he might say something like “Your desire to serve God is admirable, and your strength in carrying out the religious observances can serve you well. But do we not serve God by serving others, as Rabbi Hillel so eloquently pointed out? How do the laws and observances help us serve our people?”

Yes, Jesus was saying essentially the same thing. But you have to admit he set sort of a trap for us. In judging the Pharisees he tempts us to judge — and therefore be judged as well. It is a trap I have fallen into far too many times.

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Where I see Buddhism Working Some More

I was listening to the audio of a retreat being led by Pema Chodron, an American who is a Buddhist nun. She says about a million interesting things, but I wanted to focus in on one of them. The Buddha himself said not to take any of his teachings on faith, but rather to check them out yourself, and this is in that spirit.

In her talk Ani Pema assures us that we have the same mind as the Buddha, the same potential for awakening. Big statement, but I think I have a bit of scientific proof (no, I don’t have the Buddha’s brain in a jar — sit down wise guy!)

Many years ago, I read in a book (sorry don’t remember at all which one!) an experience that the author had when he was able to actually see the cave paintings left behind by Cro-Magnons in what is now France. You might say he had a bit of instant enlightenment. He said that when he got into the cave and saw the paintings up close — the detail, how each mark was made, the “brushstrokes” — that he just broke down and cried. Across some 30,000 years of time he realized that the creator of this work had a brain just like his. In an instant he said, they were no longer “cavemen” or “primitive men” but just men. Fully developed humans like you see everyday. Which of course they were. And if a band of hunter-gatherers huddled together in a cave some 30,000 years ago were fully developed, imagine what you are. 🙂

I had a similar eureka moment a couple of years ago, this time with some really advanced minds. If you don’t want to read my ancient drivel, I will summarize briefly.

Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate in physics, and often recognized as a genius of the stature of Einstein, poopooed the notion that his brain was any different from anyone elses. He credited his success the opportunity to learn the background of and be given the time for working on the complex problems of physics. He didn’t say it directly, but he seemed to feel he was more tenascious than brilliant. In fact, he referred to his tenacity, the need to come back to a problem over and over again until it was solved, as a kind of insanity.

And perhaps he was right.

But I will add one Buddhist element to his “insanity.” Feynman and Einstein (and anyone else in that realm) must have had an extraordinarily clear mind in two respects. First they must have looked at the world with no preconceived notions, or as few as possible. How else can you discover something new? The second thing is that they must have been able to quiet their minds — well, their other minds — to think as they did. That is to say, I don’t know if you can work out the special theory of relativity for the first time if your mind is chattering like the rest of ours.

“How long to lunch? Why did I think that? Do my socks match today? I wonder what the weather will be like tomorrow. Did Madonna kidnap that kid from Africa? Gosh, light is really, really fast…pretty though” And on and on.  It is not so much that the thoughts are mundane, but there are so many, so unfocused…and then so many more!
The genius must enter into what is essentially a meditative state where he or she can focus on the problem at hand pretty exclusively, but also not judge the solution until it is followed to a conclusion. Many times correct solutions have been discarded by less focused thinkers in scientific history.

I can see clearly that Ani Pema is correct. We do have the same brain, the same mind as the Buddha — and Einstein and Feynman, and with training and effort we too can awaken.

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Book Review: The Power of Now

When you hear a cover version of a once popular song, it is difficult, if not impossible to know if the artist who did it was truly in love with the older song, or if it was just pure commercialism. After all,  if a song was a hit once, it probably will be again, or so the theory would go.

And this is the biggest question I am left with after listening to an audio version of Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now.

In the introduction Tolle claims to have become instantly enlightened while struggling with a deep depression. Upon saying to himself “I feel my life is intolerable,” he says he realized he must have a deeper identity, one behind his conscious mind or what he experienced as his conscious mind. And in that moment, he discovered — or rediscovered — most of the precepts of the Buddha. And perhaps he did.

On the other hand it is also possible that through some research he came across Buddhism and some other ideas and put them together into what he hoped would be a best selling cover version. I will let others be the judge of that, I know nothing of the man personally, so cannot even begin to guess, it is just a feeling I had as the book unfolded. But that does not mean the book itself is without value. Even the most cynical cash infusion cover version can also rock.

So, let us see what is in the book. The basis for his whole spiritual “system” is in fact Buddhism. In fact, if Alan Watts were still alive, he might want to talk to his lawyers about copyright infringement. But again, perhaps they were just on the same wavelength. And again, restated Buddhism is still powerful and Tolle does seem to add some ideas that are useful (and some not so useful).

The “power of now” as Tolle calls it is simply mindfulness by another name. But since Tolle asserts that your mind, or more technically your “egoic mind” is the entire problem, he certainly cannot use the word “mindfulness.” To get at the same concept he states that “you should be the silent watcher” of your egoic mind. Which sets up an interesting internal dualism that he seems to ignore. He seems to say that was have two minds, one deeper and more “real” than the other.

Tolle gets to that point by making the ego into more or less an independent organism. Which is not entirely a bad conceit. If you equate his “egoic mind” with the Buddha’s notion of the “self,” they are actually pretty close. And it is easier of thinking of dispensing of the “eogic mind” than the “self.” Treating the egoic mind as an more or less independent entity, Tolle postulates that it wants to perpetuate itself, it wants to survive. Since it evolved to solve problems, it then finds or creates problems so that its existence can be continued. Is is possible to anthropromorphise one process of the mind? Philosophically there are some deep problems with this approach, but ultimately Tolle is more interested in the psychological (though he insists on always calling it spiritual) side of Buddhism.

The eogic mind is much harsher and more dangerous than the veil of thought that Buddhists see as our normal state of affairs. The ego is a hard shell in Tolle’s theory. A hard shell that wants to solve problems, but also control, manipulate and anything else it needs to do in order to ensure its survival. Again, this has some philosophical problems, but in looking at the problems of modern, western society, also has some value as a point of view. In fact, Tolle pretty much states that all the problems of the modern world come from people making their egoic mind into their identity. And frankly, it is a point well taken. Some 30 years ago in the book I consider to be the Bible for business, Further Up the Organization, Robert Townsend constantly refers to  overdone buildings, over staffed departments and organizational dysfunctions of all kinds as monuments “to a diseased ego.” And the concept works perfectly well in both cases.

For better or worse, Tolle goes even further in creating another mental creature, the “emotional pain body.” In essence this a further corruption of the egoic mind, but this on, obviously, is focused on emotions. He says that in the same was as the ego wants problems to solve and therefore creates them, that there is something inside that wants or needs emotional pain and “feeds” on that. Anyone who has ever suffered from depression can attest to the feeling that there is some creature inside of you that seems to wants to feel worse and worse. Many writers have described depression as essentially an external force (my blue friend, as it were). The trick, Tolle insists, is to keep the pain body separate by not identifying it as “you.” Excellent advice actually. But philosophically speaking it is not necessary to create another entity, no matter how compelling. The “pain body” is a facet of the “egoic mind” which is part and parcel of the illusory self, which the Buddha described. In Tolle’s view, the head seems be getting pretty full of “beings.”

But all in all, Tolles, descriptions and prescriptions are actually pretty good, and updating the language to modern psychological terminology is good too. I think his restatement has quite a bit of value, especially for someone who may already be struggling. But this value has to be approached carefully, for there are serious problems with the system presented, and those problems feel a bit “new-agey” to me.

In my thinking, New Age “stuff” is of degraded value not because it is weird or from different sources, but rather because so much of it reflects the worst sort of “magical thinking.”  Ring a Tibetan singing bowl in just right way and you can “clear your space” of troubles.  Yeah, right.  Or as one author put it: yoga without the mediation and philosophy is just Asian gymnastics.  Not completely valueless, but not the same either.  So how does Tolle get “new agey?”

The first area is in the shortage of methodology.  Bascially he just says over and over to only “experience the present moment.”   Ummm, thanks Eckhart.  Glad to see that all that Zen training I have heard about is just a waste of time.  Maybe you can live every second in the present moment, but I haven’t been able to so far.  Yes, the Buddha could boil his teaching down to one sentence (as could Jesus, actually) but the Buddha also spent some 40 years trying to explain what that sentence meant — and how to accomplish it!

The second area of this kind of concern is the total lack of any ethical or moral dimension to his system.  Essentially Tolle skips over much of the Buddha’s Noble Eight-Fold Path.  Two folds seem plenty enough for Tolle, seven and eight only.  But to some extent, living “rightly” is necesary, if you don’t want your “mind” saying stuff to you all day.  If you have a hidden agenda, your cognitive dissonance will eventually break through your mindfullness.  The Buddha understands this, Tolle never mentions it.  Which in some ways is understandable, if your focus is more psychotherapeutic, which Tolle’s ultimately is, starting with guilt is probably not the way to go.  But as a philosophy, ethics have to be more explicitly mentioned.

Finally there is the issue that gets back to Tolle’s underlying motivation — God.  Tolle wants to call “Buddha-nature” God.  He is not the first to do so, of course.  And this gets back to my original hesitation.  Is he doing this out of a sincere belief or is he labeling it this way to help book sales?  Afterall if you disguise the Buddhist method a bit and sell it as a program to come to know your true nature, which is “God,” you have something that will sell a lot more easily in the West.  Especially in the United States right now.

My reason for cynicism is this.  Throughout the book he correctly disparages some of our misuse of religious and moral terms, feeling that they have been corrupted by incorrect use.  Mostly true.  Usually then he offers another term or phrase for what he “really” means.   When he introduces “God” into the discussion he goes to great lengths to say what God is, or actually is not.  To be fair, he does start out by trying to explain, to paraphrase the Tao Te Ching, that the god that can be described is not the real god.  But then, of course, he goes on to describe God anyway.  There is also some other “new agey” stuff about changing the consciouness of the plane and energy fields and what not, but they are easy to overlook.

Underneath it all, and to perhaps unfairly apply a label, Tolle is a Deist.  God is everywhere, in everthing, but God is “no thing.”  Which is totally fair.  But coming at the end of the book as it does, I had a different impression throughout the book.

Tolle often mentioned a person’s inner essence and such, and liked to label that “God.”  In the West, when we say “God” our mental picture is, for the most part, of the personal, supernatural being of our religions.  It feels a bit like Tolle is greasing the skids a bit by having “God” within us (which is what Christianity preaches to some extent) even if he does come clean at the end.  But ultimately the question must be asked, if you are talking about some ultimate nature of the universe, why call it “God?”  If your “God” is “no thing” then is it not so far from our common conception of “God” as to not be God?  The Buddha was much wiser, and simply refused to discuss such a thing as mere metaphysics.  Perhaps Tolle should have been too.

All in all, though it is not a book I can whole heartedly recommend, there is much value in the Power of Now.   Especially for a person who is currently hurting badly, as it has a very strong therapeutic tone.  But if you find the ideas attractive and helpful, you will almost certainly have to find other sources for method.  For that, I would strongly recommend Jon Kabat-Zinn as the best “non-Buddhist” (but only slightly) source for the introduction and application of Buddhist thought and psychology for Western ears.

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Where I See Buddhism Working…

This is actually skipping very far ahead of the discussion that I was planning, but sometimes events do actually influence my thinking. 🙂

I talked with a friend of mine today. I have never actually met her in person, just online. She strikes me as a real saint. Works as an EMT and a daycare provider. Has several kids of her own and has taken care of more foster kids than you can shake a stick at, and adopted a few. All this with a lazy slacker husband, who has not worked in a couple of years. Superhuman she is. An angel allighted on the earth.

But she is completely overwhelmed. She feels depressed and unworthy. In fact she is on medication for her “depression.” She prays and reads and goes to a Christian counselor (not that the label matters much) but still gets worse. It is a darn shame actually.

Now, don’t think for a moment that I blame “Christianity” for this, or that I think religion should cure clinical depression. But I could not help but think of the advice she might get from a theoretical Christian friend and a theoretical Buddhist one.

OK, her actual friend told her to pray more. He probably also assured her that God loves her and that her reward will be great in Heaven. I have said similar things in the past and heard them as well. The only problem is that many times it just doesn’t cut through the depression. As one of my commenters pointed out, in its most usual current form, Christianity is an exclusivist religion. I can tell you that one of the most heartbreaking feelings is when someone says or feels something like, “But what if He doesn’t?” I am sorry to say but at that point you can say, “He really does love you” all you want and all the person can see is the gates of Hell in front of them. And in most churches, Hell is very real. So a brick wall has been reached. Often times they feel that their “sins” (as my friend seems to) will keep them from heaven. Which is perhaps the very definition of depression.
Don’t misunderstand, I know there is more the Christian theology than that, and their are lots of other thoughts images and such that can be used. But the road is uphill, I am afraid. But now, let us look at a Buddhist approach.

Same sad, unworthy, overburdened person.

“My friend, you are not unworthy by any means, you are filled with Buddha-nature, your inner goodness or wholeness, or call it the grace of God if you will.”

“No, I am not, am bad, I have sinned”

“But the Buddha says that everything that is alive has Buddha-nature. It can’t be taken away or lost. You have it, snakes have it, plants have it. If it is alive, it has Buddha-nature.”

“Then I must have lost it.”

“You can lose it. It is in every living cell. It is hidden, that is all.”

“Hidden? Where? Somewhere out there?”

I’ll drop the dialogue here. 🙂 It is hidden, the Buddhist would explain, under your ego or wordly mind or some words to that effect. This is the “voice inside your head.” The one that has an opinion on everything, the one that tells you that you should do something else, should be somewhere else, are not working hard enough and so on. The problem is that you take that voice too seriously. Don’t take it seriously, it is just a bunch of thoughts, an illusion. And it is these thoughts that cause our suffering.

It was at this point that my friend interupted me and asked how she could do that, that her head was always full of thousands of thoughts, that the only way to escape them was to take sleeping pills and lapse into a chemical coma. Yes, exactly.

Depression is but an extreme case of samsara, or confusing our thoughts with reality. Thinking that the voice inside our heads is US, instead of our free and clear Buddha-nature (or natural God state, if you want to put it that way).

The Buddha taught a method for quieting those thoughts, and looking beyond the mind and seeing or at least glimpsing the underlying Buddha-nature. Now, I will not claim for one second that the Buddha’s teachings were unique or that other cultures have not discovered the same thing, because they have. But it strikes me that only Buddhism makes it a central part of their religious philosophy. Try asking your priest or minister how to meditate (not pray) . Ask them how to practice mindful watching (or mindfulness, as Tich Nhat Hahn puts it). Perhaps you will get an answer, but most likely not. Maybe even a lecture about the evils of dealing with “eastern mysticism” or something worse.

But Buddhism teaches the actual practice, step by step. How recognize a thought as it bubbles up and how to let it go, to see it as simply a small cloud in a clear sky (as one of the teachings of the Buddha says.) This quieting of the ego is a godsend (no pun intended) to the anxious or depressed person. Which pretty much describes all of us at one time or another.

I was always told in my Catholic education to seek God in the quiet places, but I was never taught how to really be quiet. It is not easy, that is for sure. I would go to those quiet places, but all I would hear was my raging ego: arguing, disputing and frankly, telling me that I was unworthy.

In Buddhist meditation and mindfulness training I am starting to find that quiet place. I have seen glimpses of the Buddha nature. I hope that my friend can find that same quiet place — either by Christian, Buddhist or by whatever means makes sense to her.

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Before Things Get Too Serious…

I spotted this on a bumper at the library. After doing a double take I cracked up.

Click for Larger Image
I went to the website for this company and found a few more nice ideas. 🙂

Inquire WithinWWBDFun

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I Like Your Christ…and Many Christians

Due to circumstances beyond my control I was walking through the hallways of my former parish on a Sunday morning.  I recognized a few faces, but did not bump into anyone that I know well or would normally stop to chat with.  The parish is predominantly white middle class and so were the people I saw.

They were all very nice, all smiles and “good mornings.”  About what you would expect at a church in a small city.  People seemed content, if a bit rushed.  The walls were, for the most part, covered with inspirational slogans from both religious and non-religious sources.  Very pleasant.

Here in America it is impossible to generalize about individual Christians, because the vast majority of people you meet are at least nominally Christian.  I have met many people of a sincere and deep Christian faith.  Most of the people in that category I like very much.  My religious friends are often selfless, giving, prayerful and generally content in life.  They often ascribe their peace of mind to their religous faith and the action of God in their lives.

And I say, “Power to them.” 🙂

I will not deny the possibility that perhaps God has in fact entered their lives and hearts, and if so, that is wonderful for them.   There is, of course a totally non-supernatural explanation.  The community of church and the faith in something beyond themselves has been found in most cultures to create a sense of happiness and committment.  In fact, this is the path of the Buddha in a nutshell.   The best aspect of most religious practices is to lose yourself in the “other.”  In Christianity it is God or Jesus, in Buddhism humanity or the cosmos.

I just find that the latter makes more sense to me.

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