Category Archives: Dalai Lama

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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The Best (and Worst) 12-12-12 I’ve Ever Experienced

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The night of 12-12-12 was a study in contrasts for me. On the one hand, I was very fortunate to be able to attend the 12.12.12 Concert to benefit Hurricane Sandy victims. If you saw any of it on TV, then you have a sense of what an incredible experience it was. The emotions in Madison Square Garden were real and palpable.

On the other hand, there was an extraordinarily challenging person standing next to me for over six hours (when she wasn’t excusing her way in front of me over a dozen times to fetch beer or whatever). Long story short: she spent much of the night invading my personal space. Perhaps you might say that it is ridiculous to expect to maintain personal boundaries during a crowded and often raucous concert. No disagreement there; I attend many concerts every year, frequently standing in general admission, and am well familiar with the experience of a tightly packed and enthusiastic crowd. I’ve done my time in the mosh pit.

But this was no run of the mill invasion of private space. It was a full on, preemptive tactical nuclear strike at my private space. The private space version of Seal Team Six storming Osama bin Laden’s compound. This otherwise pleasant woman (we chatted amiably for the first hour or so) would not stop touching me—holding my hand and lifting it up into the air, looping her arm through mine, resting her head on my shoulder. No matter how far I turned away from her, no matter how I contorted my body like a yogi, I could not escape her tentacular reach.

Did I mention that I brought my 16 year old daughter to the concert? I inched closer and closer to her on my right-hand side as I sought to escape my friendly neighbor to the left. At one very loud point in the concert (Kanye West’s lower-intestine-vibrating performance?) my daughter shouted in my ear, “What is that woman’s problem?” Actually, it sounded like, “Why do goblins hate Gollum?” But that would be a ridiculous thing to have said at that moment, even with The Hobbit opening this week. Somehow, my brain intuited her meaning.

Upshot: At a time when I should have been out of my mind with excitement at the panoply of stellar musicians performing before my eyes, my attention was being divided between the stage and the seat next to me. I wrote recently about praying for challenging people, so with that freshly in mind I offered some prayers for my grabby new friend. Except, my initial prayers came out mostly as pleas that some greater power would stop her. Praying for her necessitated thinking about what was going on with her, why she was behaving that way, what kind of suffering she had experienced and wished to be relieved of.

With everything that was going on in the arena, that was nigh on impossible. But I did elicit some personal details. She had lost her home last year during Hurricane Irene. No doubt, she can feel more keenly than most the losses that Sandy victims have endured, and that reminder must have been painful to experience. What’s more, here she was witnessing an outpouring of love and financial support to the victims of Sandy, likely making the efforts to help the victims of Irene seem paltry by comparison. As she said to me, no one helped her rebuild her home.

The focus of the prayers I offered from that point on—relief from the lingering pain of losing her home and from the reopening of fresh wounds from last year—shifted my perspective on the situation. Gradually, I felt myself relax, the tension in my back and neck melt away, as compassion for a fellow being replaced discomfort and annoyance at her behavior. I didn’t, by any means, offer myself up to be groped, but I did stop turning away from her, both physically and emotionally. I could not see how to ease her pain at that moment, but I certainly could refrain from adding to it.

In the words of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, “If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.”

Be well, my friends. Peace be yours.

Praying for Difficult People

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There are some things that we are told when young that never stray very far from our thoughts. One of those things, for me, was this: “If you feel anger toward someone, or hatred, pray for their wellbeing. From that time forward, you will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to continue feeling angry toward them, or to continue hating them.”

Many years later, I read the Dalai Lama’s instructions regarding meditating on compassion. He instructed that one should envision those who we find difficult as if they were our mother—holding up a mother as a person that we are accustomed to loving unconditionally. (In reality, the mother image may not work for everyone—think wire coat hangers and “Mommy Dearest” for instance—but one can just as easily envision them as someone else that we love without reservation, just because.) If one is a Buddhist, then one knows that in the infinite lifetimes we have lived, each person was at some time our mother, our father, our sibling, our best friend, and therefore received that type of love from us before. I find with this practice—as I did with the advice I received growing up to pray for those toward whom I feel anger—that it changes your perspective. How can you envision someone as your dearly loved one and continue to hold their difficultness against them?

I discovered the same thing on a grander scale listening to Pema Chödrön talk about tonglen. The practice of breathing in the suffering of all living beings and sending out happiness and freedom from suffering to all living beings with your exhalation builds on your altruistic nature and orients you toward compassion for everyone. It is like taking that advice about praying for difficult people, or the Dalai Lama’s instructions, to the utmost level—developing a loving relationship with everyone at the same time. It helps to establish, I think, a natural inclination toward compassion and love in all of our encounters with fellow beings.

Why don’t you give one of these practices a try today? Think of someone who has felt like a thorn in your side and pray for his or her wellbeing, for his or her happiness and freedom from suffering, for the same things you wish for yourself. Or imagine that person as your dearest loved one and pour out toward him or her, in your mind, all the love and affection you would give him or her if they were your loved one. Or take 5 minutes sitting comfortably, in silence, focusing on your breathing, and imagine with each inhale that you are taking all the suffering of every being around the world into yourself, and with each exhale you are sending back to them happiness and joy and health and love.

Maybe it won’t make a difference the first time (many people tell me it does—it took me a few times). Don’t give up right away. Keep trying, and I promise it will make a difference in your life and your relationships. I’d love to hear how it turns out—drop me a note in the comment section below. Peace and love be yours.

Love

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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…

Hate

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“God, I hate Didier Drogba.”

That is what floated to the surface of my consciousness after he scored the winning penalty kick in the UEFA Champions League final last month. I’m glad the words did not actually pass my lips. But still, it’s the thought that counts, no?

Is there any positive aspect to the word “hate”? To my mind, it is the antithesis of love, and love is the highest of callings, the calling that should be the basis of living. I was reminded by visitors to my Facebook page recently, when I wrote about anger, that good can come of anger. Further, anger in itself is not a “bad” thing, no more than joy is a “good” thing. It’s just an emotion, if a very powerful one. They were right, of course. But where is the silver lining in hate? What good can come of hate?

And how can we distinguish it these days from just run-of-the-mill annoyance, dislike, and irritation? Consider:

  • “I hate spinach.”
  • “I hate Republicans/Democrats.”
  • “I hate rainy days.”
  • “I hate the Dallas Cowboys.”
  • “I hate wool sweaters.

Maybe one doesn’t like the way wool sweaters look on them, or the way they make one itch, or the way they smell if wet. But does anyone really hate wool sweaters? I mean, they’re inanimate! They should, therefore, be incapable of instigating such an emotion, shouldn’t they?

I don’t really hate Didier Drogba. I’m a Liverpool FC fan, and he plays for Chelsea, so of course he frustrates me when he plays well at Liverpool’s expense. But I really know little about Didier Drogba, the person off the pitch. And even if I knew him intimately, what could possibly merit my hatred? Hurting me, my family, my friends? Is committing murder grounds for being hated? Multiple murders? Genocide?

I lately find myself considering the idea that I should strive not to hate anyone. But how far can I take that before it appears heretical in some manner? Is it okay not to hate child molesters, but simply to be repelled by their actions and distressed for their victims? Is it okay not to hate Osama bin Laden, but disdain his terrorist acts and feel compassion for his victims and their families? Is it okay not to hate Hitler? I think you see where this is headed.

I’m looking to the Dalai Lama’s example, specifically his attitude toward the Chinese government that has occupied his country for over 50 years, killed thousands of innocent Tibetans, imprisoned and tortured tens of thousands more, and attempted to systematically erase one of the most beautiful cultures on earth. Does the Dalai Lama hate the Chinese officials responsible for those atrocities? No. He prays for them, feels compassion for the suffering they experience that leads them to act as they do, and holds out hope that they will soon see the error of their ways.

Is he naïve? Some think so. I don’t. I see his attitude as the apotheosis of “non-hate,” to coin a phrase. Or, as it is sometimes known, love.

Impressions of the Dalai Lama

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I think it is remarkable that the sound I most associate with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is laughter. I would guess that most people would not immediately think of laughter when asked to ponder on world religious leaders. Does Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, make you think of laughter? Or Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury? But when it comes to this Dalai Lama, I immediately think of laughter.

I have been privileged to see the Dalai Lama in person twice—at the Kalachakra for World Peace in July 2011 in Washington, DC, and at an empowerment in Long Beach, California, last month. Both encounters seemed otherworldly to me. He radiates a palpable energy that enraptures the audience. Perhaps the most winning thing about him is his readiness to laugh, especially at himself.

Early in the Kalachakra he spoke directly to the native Tibetan speakers in the audience…in English. After speaking for several minutes, he realized the fruitlessness of speaking in English to persons who understood only Tibetan and erupted in laughter. In Long Beach, he began chanting in Tibetan, only to halt after a few lines to confess, in English, that he was chanting the wrong prayer. He laughed uproariously at his mistake.

It was a marvelously joyous sound both times, a laugh you might expect to hear from someone hearing a joke for the first time in his life and not quite knowing what to make of the sensation. It swept through the crowd, infecting everyone who heard it, so that all were laughing with unrestrained joy.

That willingness to laugh at himself, to not take himself too seriously despite the very serious business he has to accomplish, sets the Dalai Lama apart. He is greatly revered by many, yet his brand of humility makes him seem accessible rather than lofty.

Personally, he awakens my awareness of the Buddha-nature inside of me. I don’t know that it ever seems more tangible to me, more capable of emerging, than when I am in the Dalai Lama’s presence. I would liken it to a pilot light in a stove, always on though barely flickering—until the Dalai Lama turns up the gas and it bursts into flame. Listening to his recorded talks, reading his books, the flame comes alive. In his presence, it’s a roaring inferno.

That experience prompts me to seek two things. One, to kindle that flame in my daily life so that the Buddha-nature in me shines forth and guides my path. Two, to recognize and become enflamed by that same Buddha-nature in everyone I encounter. Because it is present in everyone, at all times, in you, in me, always now, and not just in the Dalai Lama.

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.