Category Archives: Christianity

Happy Friday the 13th!

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Is there anything you’re doing differently today because it’s Friday the 13th?

I wonder where the line is drawn between faith or belief, on the one hand, and superstition, on the other. I mean, some of the things we believe in are as difficult to prove or establish in fact as “superstitions” like broken mirrors, black cats, walking under ladders, and lucky numbers. Despite the many cracks I have stepped on, my mother  never had any spinal problems, let alone a broken back. Yet, what proof do I have of the resurrection of Jesus, the parting of the Red Sea, or the reincarnation of lamas?

I’m not looking to start a debate about what beliefs are “real” and which are not; really I’m not. Rather, I’m trying to point out in my own feeble way that there is no profit in asserting that one person’s beliefs are correct and another’s are not, or that one’s faith is superior to another’s. The Buddha challenged his followers to not take his word for it, but to test for themselves and believe their own eyes. Ultimately, I think that is what most people do—their beliefs are founded on what they have seen and experienced. Only the strongest beliefs can long survive not being confirmed in some manner, at least occasionally.

My beliefs may be different from yours, but I think that’s because my experience has been different. I don’t have any more evidence now than I did when I was a Christian that Jesus was the son of God. Consequently, how could I doubt that belief, even though I’m now a Buddhist?

And here’s a point I come back to quite often: Who is to say that our seemingly different beliefs are mutually exclusive? As a Christian, I viewed unexpected and against-the-odds healing as evidence of the existence of God, of divine intervention. My explanation now is not much different, though I don’t envision God as a single omnipotent being. The “evidence” of a divine spark that inhabits all living beings is undeniable, in my opinion and based on what I’ve seen and experienced. (The image of a gigantic, elderly man with a long grey beard and hair never appealed to me at any time, to be honest.)

Can I prove it? Not easily. Certainly not up to my standards as an academic and researcher. It actually might be easier for me to make a case for misfortune following me when I spill salt and forget to toss some over my shoulder. Or the negative effects of Friday the 13th.

(Note: My apologies to the couple at the table behind me; I never realized salt traveled so well!)

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Dharma Digest, Vol. 1, No. 1

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A collection of recent posts on the Dharma Beginner page at www.facebook.com/dharmabegin

Laissez-Faire v. Micromanagement

“Life is a thing that mutates without warning, not always in enviable ways. All part of the improbable adventure of being alive, of being a brainy biped with giant dreams on a crazy blue planet.” – Diane Ackerman

Achieving a balance between laissez-faire and micromanagement is tricky. We accept that change is a fact of life, inevitable, and remind ourselves that the more detailed the plan we construct, the more likely it is to go awry. A life that follows strictly along a meticulously laid out plan is illusory.

Some degree of planning and preparation is necessary, though, isn’t it? Eating healthy requires real planning, I find. Being a vegetarian adds to the challenge. So where do we draw the line between obsessive attempts to control life and flitting about on the wind without any direction?

Perhaps it is at the point, still hard to discern, when “planning” one’s life becomes “attempting to control” it. (I say attempting, because I don’t believe we ever reach a point at which we are truly in control of life.) The practice I try to embrace is “flexible” planning—don’t make your plans rigid, but leave room for the unexpected (which, if past is prologue, really should be expected) and be ready to adjust. Expect things not to turn out as planned. Or, minimize your expectations, and thereby minimize disappointment. Not always easy for me to accomplish, but I’m working on it.

The Common Thread

“There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it.” – George Bernard Shaw

I have long held an ecumenical view of religion, and never believed that my religion was any better than anyone else’s. My belief was that god, the higher power, whatever you call it, manifested itself differently to different people, in ways that were meaningful and understandable to them. But underlying all of the surface differences, they were constructed on the same basic foundation.

True, in their attempts to live out their religions, some people go astray and lose sight of the sameness of everyone, the inextricable connectedness of all beings. That does not, however, diminish the fundamental similarities of the various religions as they were originally conceived. One may try to establish that their way is the right way, their view is the correct view, but the things they do to distinguish themselves, to make themselves appear unique, in my opinion lead them away from the universal shared values of love and compassion.

Flexibility of Mind, Body and Spirit

“I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.” – Everett McKinley Dirksen

A yoga teacher was making a point about achieving balance by keeping flexibility and ease in poses, and avoiding rigidity. While the students were in tree pose (standing on one leg, other leg bent at the knee with the sole of the foot against the upper thigh of the standing leg, arms raised straight above the head), the teacher wandered the room, lightly poking the students on the shoulder. The students that were rigid, with locked knees and clenched jaws and gritted teeth, would teeter and drop out of the pose. The students that maintained ease in their pose, who were not overly rigid, teetered…but then regained their balance.

Have you ever been in a tall building and felt it sway? If buldings were not designed with flexibility that allows them to move in the wind, they would risk collapse. It’s not much different with us. If we go through life inflexible, unable to deal with anything less than our imagined ideal, we are destined for pain, suffering, and eventually collapse. The ability to adapt to the vicissitudes of life, to “roll with the punches,” to “bend in the breeze,” is essential to the presence of mind needed to progress toward enlightenment.

Human-ness and Saintliness

I read a quotation from the Dalai Lama’s brother about the Dalai Lama’s fascination with technology and invention as a child. His brother said the Dalai Lama’s favorite invention was super glue, second only to the invention of the stuff that removes super glue.
Reading that, I was reminded of the thing I love most about His Holiness: his human-ness. He is, without a doubt, an incredibly special person. And he is just a person, like you and me. He often refers to himself as just a simple monk, which he really and truly is. And yet, he also is so much more.

Two of my great spiritual inspirations have been Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. Obviously, they were two amazing people. But what first attracted me to them was how they were both very human, with all the frailties that come with being human. I read each of their autobiographies (The Seven Storey Mountain and The Long Loneliness, respectively; I highly recommend them) as a young man and was amazed by how flawed Thomas and Dorothy were, how matter-of-factly ordinary, how much like everybody else. Their extraordinary accomplishments and the example they set for me were all the more remarkable in light of their human-ness. I couldn’t believe that these amazing, saintly people were little different from me. That never fails to encourage me

I Didn’t Seek It, But I’ll Take It

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About a year ago I began this blog as one way to actively think about the path I was walking. For over 40 years I had walked a spiritually fulfilling path as a Christian, until realizing a couple of years ago that, somewhere along the line, I had stopped being a Christian and had become a Buddhist. Now I was walking an even more spiritually fulfilling path, though one far less familiar to me.

A lot of questions presented themselves to me and it seemed at times like I was feeling my way around in the dark. So I started blogging as part of my attempt to seek answers. It also occurred to me that I was probably not the only person seeking to answer those same questions. There might be a few people out there who would benefit from reading what I’m thinking, and it would be great to connect with those people and walk the path together.

Not long afterwards, I decided to create a page on Facebook with the same name, Dharma Beginner, as an extension of the blog and, primarily, to publicize its availability. My intention had been to post notices when new material was available on the blog, and perhaps the occasional quotation or link to a relevant online article. What happened next was wholly unexpected.

As of today, the Dharma Beginner page has 18,592 likes. That’s roughly 18,500 more likes that I would have predicted. So, an error of just 20109 percent, or slightly better than the accuracy of my NCAA basketball bracket.

This was not what I bargained for. This page has taken on a life of its own. In fact, I have been blogging only about once a month on average, but I am posting just about every day on the Facebook page. The regular visitors to the page seem to enjoy my blog but are obviously returning for other reasons given the infrequency of my blogging.

The regular visitors formed a beautiful little community right under my nose and without me noticing at first. Our virtual sangha, as I like to call it, has the same cast of characters as any in-person community. There are the gurus, as I think of them, the really experienced and knowledgeable people who can always be counted on to offer the perfectly apt quotation or to answer a baffling question. Thank goodness someone at the page knows something, because it’s not me!

There are the wallflowers who keep coming back but lurk in the corners, soaking up the experience while they shyly remain silent except for the occasional peep. Keep coming guys and gals and don’t feel pressured to speak up if you don’t want to. Just be there, because I love knowing that the page feeds you.

There are the hurt, those whose past experiences with organized religion have left them scarred and hypersensitive. My heart breaks for them and my compassion kicks into overdrive. I hope that they find some solace when they visit the page and are helped to recognize that happiness is within their grasp.

There are the debaters, ready to pounce on a point and beat it to a bloody pulp. I don’t know what I’d do without them, because they remind me that mine is not the only point of view and, quite often, their knowledge and passion puts me back in my place.

What there are, more than anything, are myriad people grateful for what they find at the page—which is amazing to me because I feel grateful for their presence. I am enriched by their many different voices and their common search for peace and happiness. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without them.

And this brought me up short recently. It began to dawn on me that I had a responsibility to the visitors to the page. I had been continuing my very low-key, minimally-responsible approach, posting the occasional quotation or article. But what happens when I go away, or simply am too busy to post? It doesn’t go unnoticed. People get worried about me. More importantly, people come looking for inspiration, a good word or two, encouragement, and see nothing new. I have given them a reason to expect such things, and sometimes I don’t deliver. Maybe they go away disappointed and never come back. Gosh, I hope not.

It occurs to me that, even though I can’t see the members of this community, it is a community nonetheless. One that I created and, therefore, am responsible for and to. If taking the Bodhisattva vows means that I have dedicated my life to aiding others in their search for enlightenment (and it does), then this is clearly one of the ways I have chosen to do so. Do I feel like I am upholding my vow in this regard? Not so much.

The issue has to do with much more than providing for new posts while I’m away on business or vacation, though. It has to do with taking risks, putting myself out there, and opening myself up to whatever may come. Just posting quotations and links to articles incurs very little risk. (Though, every time I refer to Chogyam Trungpa or Mother Theresa I set off a maelstrom! Can you say “polarizing individuals”?). My approach has been quite safe from criticism, quite safe from someone disagreeing or saying that I’m flat out wrong, quite safe from steering someone wrong and living with the consequences.

But more and more I find people reaching out for help publicly on the page and directly to me in private. Am I not responsible for helping them find an answer? I believe that, as the creator and maintainer of the page, I am. It is not a responsibility I sought, but I find that I am grateful for it and willing to embrace it.

I once heard one of my personal heroes and mentors, Bishop Walter Dennis, address a group of layreaders—people who read the Bible lessons to the congregation during church services. He emphasized the importance of preparation and taking the task of the layreader seriously by saying, “When you read the lessons, it may be the first time that someone has ever heard the scriptures, or it may be the last time they ever hear them because they will enter heaven before attending church again.” What an awesome responsibility! When it comes to this Facebook page, is it really any different? It could be the first time a visitor has ever read the Dharma or it could be the last time. Do I not owe it to them to provide something worthy of such occasions? I believe I do.

The denizens of Dharma Beginner may have noticed recently that my offering of quotations has come with some additional thoughts attached. That is me putting myself out there, expressing what the quotation says to me. That is me taking a little risk by exposing what I know and—more often—what I don’t know, opening myself up to disagreement, to the possibility that I will offend, to the chance that someone will read what I wrote and “unlike” the page, never to return. That would pain me indescribably, but I believe the potential gain, for the visitors and for me, to be far greater.

For a time now, I have been talking with my therapist about feeling called to do something different with my life, to set aside what I do now professionally in order to pursue a career helping other people spiritually. It’s a scary proposition: I’m very good at what I do now (as a researcher and author on government finance), I’m respected and well-known nationally within my particular industry, and I make a decent living. I have no idea if I’d be any good at being an author and speaker on spiritual matters, or whether I could support myself and my family doing so. So I’ve decided to take a small step in that direction, a toe dipped in the water, and the Dharma Beginner page is the base of operations from which I’m going to start doing that. I’ve been using the Twitter account associated with the page (@dharmabeginner) more often. I’m thinking about writing some things to submit to other web pages and magazines. I hope you’ll stick with me and continue to lend me your thoughts and opinions and support and friendship. Because it means so very much to me, and because I am so very grateful for it. Thank you.

Happy Lent!

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Happy Lent!

Granted, it’s not the happiest of times in the Christian calendar. The Lenten tunes in the Episcopal hymnal are singularly dirge-like. “Forty days and forty nights, thou wast fasting in the wild…” Zzzzzzzzzz…

But growing up, I learned to actually “celebrate” the season, much as I would celebrate Christmas or Easter, though with obviously different undertones. Whereas one might celebrate the latter two seasons joyously, Lent is perhaps more appropriate celebrated quietly, piously. It is a time, nonetheless, for celebrating life and the divine spark that inhabits it. There are different aspects of our spirituality, of our relationship with our higher power, but all are worthy of being celebrated and experienced to their fullest.

I was taught that, when giving something up for Lent, one should choose something that is truly a sacrifice. For instance, I would never have the slightest problem giving up cauliflower. Giving up sweets or television, though, truly felt sacrificial (at least from my admittedly middle-class, suburban perspective). Eating fish on Fridays felt like the cruelest form of torture (especially if the fish were in a form other than sticks!).

I am grateful for the parish priest who challenged us to make our sacrifice permanent—to consider Lent not a temporary exercise, but the beginning of a lifelong habit. Even more importantly, in my mind, I learned to take something on during Lent, in addition to or instead of giving something up. One might institute a new healthy practice, like walking or meditating, incorporating it into their daily life during Lent and then continuing well beyond Easter morning.

Toward the middle of the Easter Vigil, the church service that takes place on the eve of Easter Sunday, it is traditional for worshippers to ring bells during the singing of the Gloria. It is a part of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, signaling that moment in the proceedings as the transition from Lenten sobriety to Easter gaiety. (Hooray, we can sing “alleluia” again!) It is tempting to view the raucousness of the ringing bells and booming organ as a celebration of the end of dreary Lent but, in fact, it is a celebration of Christ’s victory over death and the beginning of new life.

The notion of Lent as a time to improve upon our spirituality is one that we can seek to emulate, regardless of spiritual or religious affiliation. This is a good time for all of us to consider doing something new, or something more, or something differently, with an eye toward making a permanent change for the better in our lives. Ring your bells, toll out the news that you are rejuvenated and ready to pick up the pace as you walk the spiritual path.

Happily Heathen

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Heathens. Godless ones. Terms that didn’t so much scare me when I was a Christian but saddened me. My God was such an important, constant presence in my life that I could not imagine how one could live without God, any god. I knew that God was always with me, beside me, inside me. I could speak with God any time I wished. I could listen for God speaking to me. Wouldn’t people who didn’t believe in God be completely lost, alone, forsaken?

When I stopped going to church several years ago, and even after I recognized that I had become Buddhist, that sense of Presence didn’t just go away. Though I wasn’t quite sure what it was anymore, I still felt it, and was glad, comforted, safe. I had ceased praying to this lifetime companion—well, let me rephrase that. Intercessory prayer, seeking the intervention of that Presence in my life and others, had ceased. But I was still enjoying it, benefiting from having the Presence around me. In other ways, I was still speaking to it, still praying as I understood it, which was a vastly more multifaceted form of communication than simply asking for things. And I was still offering prayers for those in needs, for guidance in my own life, though I no longer had any idea who I was sending those prayers to.

I can’t say for certain that I’ve figured out what is going on with me in this regard, but I have had a hunch lately. I think that what I am sensing, what I previously referred to as God, is the universal interconnectedness of all beings. The constant Presence is the sense of my connection with everyone, of being one with all and leaving me and them behind. I believe that when I am feeling down, solitary, that I am slipping into dualism and sensing a disconnection from the universal whole. And the prayers that I offer now are not seeking an omnipotent being to swoop in on a fiery chariot and act on my behalf or for another’s sake. They are a sharing of concern, of need, of a particular kind of energy that resonates with the universal whole and calls on it to heal, aid, support its constituent parts.

Clearly, I have a lot more thinking and meditating to do on this subject, but I put these newborn thoughts out there in the hope that it will help lead me further along the path. Thanks for reading and walking with me for the past few minutes. Peace and love and wholeness be yours.

P.S. If “trading in” god for the new-agey universe thingy makes me a heathen, then light a bonfire so I can strip down and start dancing. I embrace it.