Category Archives: Christianity

Mirror, Mirror

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Have you ever tried to look at yourself in the mirror without judgment? I mean, simply observe your reflection without commenting in your mind on what you see? It’s really hard, isn’t it?

The actual reflection is the real you – everything else you think about what you see is unreal. The things that we think when we view the reflection – old, ugly, fat, skinny, pimply, undeserving, bad, monstrous – are the stories we layer upon reality. They’re not real, but we act and live as if they are.

I heard a story recently about a landmark house whose original owners made their sons paint the inside walls as punishment for misbehaving. When the home was restored not long ago, more than 50 layers of paint were found on those walls and had to be peeled away, layer by layer.

One of the goals of meditation and mindfulness is to find the real person inside of us. The real person is the original, unpainted wall – but throughout our lives we have added layer after layer of self-judgment so that the real person is no longer visible. We have convinced ourselves that we are bad, that we do not deserve good things, that we have earned our suffering and do not deserve to be free of it. We have labeled ourselves gluttons, liars, perverts, thieves, cheaters, and many other unpalatable titles. But those are not who we are – they may describe things we have done, but they are not us.

For example, almost everyone lies at one time or another – that does not make one a “liar.” Liar is a label we attach to ourselves because – as astounding as it is to grasp – it is simpler for us to believe that we are incapable of telling the truth than it is to wrestle with the notion that being a natural human being and lying are not mutually exclusive. We are so hard on ourselves, so quick to judge ourselves (far quicker than we are to judge others, and that’s pretty quick), that it is easier to accept the delusion that we are inherently bad than it is for us to accept that we sometimes do things we would prefer not to do. The healthy path is to show remorse and to make amends when we have hurt another person; the path we more often take is the one of self-recrimination, self-loathing, and self-punishment.

Through a practice of meditation and mindfulness, we strip away the labels and judgments that we have laid upon ourselves, slowly but surely, until all that is left is the true person beneath. At the same time we are stripping away those falsehoods, we learn not to add any more layers, concoct any more stories, apply any more labels. We learn to treat ourselves with compassion, to love ourselves – the true selves that are buried beneath dozens of layers of untruths we tell ourselves.

The common translation of the Summary of the Law has Jesus saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if we loved our neighbors the way we really “love” ourselves, we wouldn’t be doing them any favors. We often treat others far better than ourselves, are more willing to show them compassion, to cut them a break, to give them the benefit of the doubt, than we are ourselves.

What many of us really need to do is to learn to love ourselves as we love others. When we learn to do that, then our ability to love others and act compassionately toward them will grow by leaps and bounds.

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Religion v. Science

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I have never understood the notion that religion/spirituality and science are incompatible or, according to some, antithetical. It came up recently as I read this article by Cristof Koch in The Scientific American, “How does meditation actually work?

Why do some people deny incontrovertible scientific evidence because it appear, on its face, to disagree with religious teachings? Look at what happened to Copernicus and Galileo for asserting that the sun, and not the earth, sat at the center of our solar system. Or consider people who firmly assert, even in 2013, that the earth is only about 6,000 years old. Some very religious people view scientists as heathens or devils.

On the other hand, why are some scientists obsessed with disproving religious dogma and waving it around as if it were definitive proof that there is no higher power, no gods? Is the wonder of their discoveries not satisfaction enough, that they need to tear down the beliefs and faith of others? Some scientists view the religious as delusional simpletons.

Neither the religious nor the scientific is correct in their views of one another. Their views contain tiny kernels of truth leavened with a ton of animosity and distrust. Some proponents of science criticize the faithful for believing in things they cannot see, yet scientists do the same thing, don’t they? No one can actually see an atom; many scientific discoveries are based on mathematics rather than tangible truths. But that doesn’t mean they’re not right on the mark. Likewise, proponents of religion undermine themselves by perpetuating dogma that has no basis even in their own scripture (for instance, the Roman Catholic belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary).

One of the things I cherish about His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, is his view that science and spiritual practice are compatible. He is a great spiritual figure with a sizable scientific curiosity. My understanding is that he considers science capable of explaining and, in some cases, proving what has been accepted for centuries among spiritual practitioners – for instance, that meditation is physically, mentally, and emotionally beneficial. I think I may also assert that he believes that some natural phenomena are too immense to be grasped simply through science, that there is something bigger at work, profounder, and perhaps ultimately imponderable.

Many people of my generation learned their science and religion more or less simultaneously. I struggled as a child to reconcile the things I learned in science class with what I was reading in The Bible. Was the world created in 6 days or did it start to form 4.5 billion years ago? Did we all descend from Adam and Eve or from apes? Who was a young child to believe?

I’m much older now and still have not “solved” the conundrum. My own adult views are neither exclusively scientific nor religious. Some religious teachings are, to my mind, evidently symbolic, yet there are other things in The Bible that I believe could be possible, even if they defy scientific verification. The existence of life as we know is, as far as I’m concerned, too improbable to have occurred without some kind of cosmic guidance. Do I believe there is an omnipotent being looking and dressing like Gandalf the White who created life instantaneously out of the void? No. But I also think the odds are way, way, way too long that beings as advanced and intelligent and capable and wondrous as humans, whales, and cats could have come to be all on their own. It simply defies logic, I think. It also makes me feel enormously uncomfortable to consider that, if one little thing a billion years ago had occurred slightly differently, none of us would be here.

I’m comfortable with being labeled a scientific religious, or a religious scientist. Actually, I’m most comfortable not being labeled at all. I simply wish to be, to both understand and believe, to both prove beyond a shadow of a doubt and to accept on faith. I’m complex that way.

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Meditation, Mindfulness, and the Issue of Race

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Jaweed Kaleem writes on the Huffington Post about the growth of racially based meditation groups in and out of the Buddhist community in the U.S. (“Buddhist ‘People Of Color Sanghas,’ Diversity Efforts Address Conflicts About Race Among Meditators”). He describes one such group: “This class of Buddhist meditation was for beginners, tailor-made for minorities. … No whites were allowed.” The participants in the group – and others like them – were led to take this step because they felt excluded from the broader community, especially in areas like Seattle that are not racially diverse.

This is an issue for many religions and practices, not just meditation and Buddhism. It is fraught with contradictions. In my opinion, anything that can help people learn a practice of meditation and mindfulness is welcome, even these racially based groups. However, Kaleem gets to the heart of the controversy when these groups are not just meditation-oriented, but also ostensibly Buddhist: “One of the prime focuses [of Buddhism] is on letting go of any attachment to the individual self. The aim is to be one with the wider spiritual world in the pursuit of harmony, and ideally, that includes going beyond skin color differences.”
I am concerned that there are people of color who feel excluded from the larger community of meditators. In the short run, these race-based groups may be a reasonable solution, which may be why some prominent Buddhist leaders have endorsed them. But I think the answer, in the longer run, is to address what the broader community is doing – intentionally or unintentionally – that makes people of color feel uncomfortable or unwanted. At the same time, we need to ask people of color why they feel excluded because it is difficult for me to accept that practitioners of meditation and mindfulness would actively seek to exclude anyone. It is not that people who live mindfully are necessarily better people, or are completely free of bias – it is just that I don’t know how anyone can practice meditation and mindfulness and continue to view those around them as “different” from themselves. Perhaps I am naive or too wishful.
I believe these tings because I do not think dividing into groups based on “distinctions” such as race is ultimately consistent with meditation and mindfulness practice. I see unity as a natural outgrowth of living mindfully because I believe that mindfulness means seeing things as they really are – and in “reality,” we are all one, indivisible, connected, inseparable.

Be Present with Love

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“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” ~ Buddha

I think that of all of the Buddha’s teachings, this may be the most important, the linchpin to all of the others. Mindfulness leads to right action, right thought, right speech, right livelihood, and so on. One might venture to say that they could not be practiced without first being mindful.

The way in which this teaching intertwines with the Buddha’s other teachings reminds me of what Jesus said when asked which of the Ten Commandments was the most important: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” In other words, every Judeo-Christian teaching derives ultimately from those two—love God, love your neighbor.

From a Buddhist perspective, loving God translates, I think, to an all-powerful respect and love for creation. Loving one’s neighbor is the equivalent of the Buddhist teachings about loving all creatures in the manner that you would love your mother and showing unfettered compassion for them. In fact, Jesus equates loving God and loving oneself and one’s neighbor by saying “the second [commandment] is like [the first]…” Loving God/creation is tantamount to loving your neighbor; loving your neighbor is, in effect, loving God/creation.

“And who is my neighbor?” Jesus was asked. “Everyone,” he answered. I believe the Buddha would agree.

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All I Do Is Talk Talk

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“Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.” ~ Buddha

For much of my life I’ve been a talker—an incessant talker. When I was a kid, my dad would say I “suffered from verbal diarrhea.” Okay, he was still saying it when I was an adult. It was an apt description.

I could talk a blue streak. I was often quite funny, and occasionally squeezed in something meaningful. But 99 percent of what I said might charitably be called “babble”—and that might be a generous estimate of the worth of what I had to say most of the time.

It has taken me a long time to learn judiciousness when it comes to speaking—truthfully, I’m still learning. The process has moved along in stages—learning first to choose my words with care, to say much with few words. Then, learning that silence can speak volumes and is often preferable to speaking. More recently, learning to put speaking aside in favor of listening.

And I mean really listening, paying attention to the person speaking, being present for them and mindful of their words and their “non-words”—the things they’re not saying. What I used to think was listening was really me paying half-attention while figuring out the next thing that I was going to say once I could cut in.

I think that what the Buddha called “right speech” sometimes is best put into practice as no speech. I think that “I’m here for you, my friend” or “Go on, I’m listening”—and then being silent—is far preferable to any advice I might conjure up on a moment’s notice. Saying nothing sometimes says everything.

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Love

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[An all new feature: you can listen to the Dharma Beginner blog! Whoopee! Click here for Dharma Beginner’s Audio Blog]

My last blog post considered hate, musing about whether it is possible to live without it. I marveled at how casually it is used in everyday speech (does anyone really hate spinach?). And I attempted to make the case for “non-hate”—love.

But I find that love is a complicated concept as well. Or, maybe I am making it more complex than it needs to be. It’s been known to happen.

It seems to me that the word “love” is thrown around as frivolously as “hate”:

  • “I love peanut butter.”
  • “I love my new car.”
  • “I love the Mets.”
  • “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

The word is used with a casualness that robs it of its meaning. Can you really love peanut butter? I mean, it’s one of my favorite foods, but…it’s food. Would I put my life on the line for peanut butter? Sacrifice for it? Work for its freedom from suffering? Of course not. So how can I really love it? Because those are the things you do for love.

When we so readily say “love” when we actually mean “like a lot,” or “enjoy,” or “find pleasure in,” what does it really mean when we tell our significant others, our children, our parents, “I love you”? Gee, thanks…you put me on a par with your Subaru…

How do we answer the call to show love to all beings? Do we even know what that means? I’ve struggled with this a lot lately, as I’ve been wrestling with hate. In that last blog post, I shared my ponderings about whether it is okay not to hate people who have committed heinous acts, like Osama bin Laden and Hitler. I’ll refrain here from exploring the companion question, which is if it is possible to love everyone, even people like that. Let’s save the opening of that Pandora’s box for another time.

So I will return to the question of what it means to love. I don’t think it requires approval of a person’s actions, or liking them, or wanting to be close to them. I think it means feeling compassion for them as beings who suffer—just like me and you—and who want to be free of that suffering—just like you and me. I think it means wanting them to be free of their suffering, even wanting to be the instrument of that freedom.

I mentioned in that last blog post the example of the Dalai Lama’s attitude toward Chinese government officials. He certainly does not condone any of their atrocities, but I have heard him say that he has compassion for them, is concerned for them, and wishes them to be free of their suffering. My interpretation: he feels love for them.

Is there a difference between showing or feeling love for someone and loving them? Perhaps, but I think it is razor thin, maybe just semantics.

In my mid-twenties I was testing what I perceived to be a calling to the priesthood. The rector of my parish asked me to deliver the sermon at Sunday Mass every so often during that time. One such Sunday, the topic of my sermon was love. The sermon lasted 45 minutes and I had barely scratched the surface! The groans from the congregation were audible and frequent. I promised myself I’d never try to bite off a topic that broad again. Oh well…

What a Difference a Year Makes

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A little less than a year ago I wrote here about how I learned a life lesson about disappointment. I had traveled across the country to see the Dalai Lama for the first time and to participate in an initiation he was conducting. His physicians asked him to rest an extra day before traveling from Tokyo to California and as a result he missed the event. I spent one night angry, sad, and disappointed, and then spent the next day begin taught about humility, compassion, and real suffering and disappointment.

I knew right away what an important event that was, and one year later I can confirm that it was life-changing. For one thing, my practice shifted in tone and pace. I stopped being in a hurry to reach enlightenment. I began to focus on the present moment and where I was on the path at that time, rather than craning my neck to see what was coming up around the bend. I learned to appreciate what I was doing and experiencing at any given moment, instead of counting up the things I’d done or the things I wanted to do. I stopped trying to accumulate experiences and knowledge (though, to be honest, I haven’t stopped collecting books—my love of reading and learning continue to overpower my will and overtax my shelves).

I also started to get over myself. As deeply spiritual as my life has been at many times, both as a Christian and a Buddhist, I think I sometimes have been a tad too impressed with myself. Despite feeling somewhat lost exploring my path as a Buddhist, I still managed to inflate my spiritual self-importance. I was a bit too proud of the new spirituality I was developing, of the experiences and knowledge I was collecting like baseball cards and comic books (I should write sometime about The Green Lama).

A few months later, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC, to attend the Dalai Lama’s conducting of the Kalachakra. I had difficulty trying to decide whether to go, so soon after the humbling I received in California. Was I succumbing again to the temptation to hit a spiritual home run? I seriously doubted my motivations at the time. In the end, I went, and it was a phenomenal decision.

When I received word late last year that His Holiness would be returning to Long Beach to “make up” the initiation he missed, and was invited by the event host to return free of charge, I wasn’t sure if I should go. The experience of the Kalachakra  would be very hard to top. And although Gaden Shartse Thubten Dargye Ling would be comping me the event tickets, I’d still have to pay for the flight, hotel, meals, rental car, and so on. I was ready to pass. Then my boss asked me to attend a conference that he and I alternate going to; this was supposed to be his year. The conference was in Las Vegas, practically all the way to California, it was the same week as the Dalai Lama’s return to Long Beach, and my employer would be paying for the flight out to Vegas. I realized I was being led back to California; who was I to kick against the goads.

I got chills when I drove into downtown Long Beach Thursday evening, past the convention center where the Dalai Lama was supposed to appear last year, by the Westin where the humble Khen Rinpoche shamed me for my “disappointment” and the wise Robert Thurman put my feelings into perspective. When I checked in at the Courtyard, the desk clerk said he was switching my room to move me away from a large group of noisy young boys. My new room number was 619, which looks an awful lot like a yin-and-yang to me. I took it to be auspicious.

Two days later, as I type this, I am still processing the experience of see His Holiness again and participating in the initiation. I’ll write about it soon. In the  meantime, here are a few fuzzy photos I took with my phone. Hopefully, there are some better ones on my camera.

Namaste. Peace be yours.