Category Archives: Dharma

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.

Pictures and Words

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As you may know, the Dharma Beginner page on Facebook started out as a way to make people aware of this blog if they were interested in reading it. But then it took over and largely supplanted this blog, and as of this writing there are more than 53,000 people who have liked the page. So I’ve turned my attention more and more toward content intended primarily for those people, mostly shorter thoughts, quotations, and shared articles, with only occasional forays into longer blog pieces. The pictures and quotations cover the same topics I have been focusing on here, Twitter, Facebook, and iTunes podcasts: mindfulness, meditation, compassion, peace, love.

I noticed that photographs with quotations are very popular on Facebook, and tend to get shared around quite a bit. I have been trying my hand at making my own, using my photographs and my own thoughts, and they seem to have gone over well. I thought that I would offer a slideshow of some of the initial efforts here in the blog. I would welcome your feedback and suggestions about doing more of these in the future.

Peace and love be yours.

Action

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“However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act upon them?” ~ Buddha

This saying of the Buddha is quite stark, black and white, and therefore perhaps a bit extreme. Certainly, good words—read and spoken—have a positive impact on us, and thereby on the rest of creation, to which we are connected. But words fall short of their potential if they are not a prelude to action. After all, “Actions speak louder than words,” right?

The Buddha himself was no “do as I say, not as I do” leader. He definitely had a lot to say to his followers. I believe, however, that what truly inspired his followers then—and continues to inspire us today—is that the Buddha’s words were a reflection of his actions. His teaching was believable because he was already living it.

Maybe another way to approach these words is to say, “Just act rightly and don’t worry about the words.” Your actions tell the real story anyway, no matter what you say. Think of what we could accomplish if all of the time and energy currently devoted to talking were giving over instead to doing. We would certainly benefit from the additional actions, as well as from far less talk that accomplishes little, if anything, on its own.

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Change – get used to it

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“Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence.” ~ The Buddha

Natural occurrences of order are fascinating, like the way Fibonacci sequences appear in sunflowers and nautilus shells. Not only are such occurrences beautiful to look at, they are oddly comforting—evidence that life isn’t totally random and unpredictable. I think they grab our attention in part because so much of life is, in fact, disordered—if not chaotic.

But let’s not confuse these oases of orderliness with the swirling maelstrom of everyday life. If predictability in life becomes our aim, our expectation, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, frustration, and ultimately suffering. For life is motion—it is dynamic, it is constant change. Moments of calm and order can be enjoyed and appreciated for the respites they are. But, like the eye of the hurricane, they are ever-so-brief interludes in the midst of the storm.

Our expectation, if we must have one, should be change, surprises, the unexpected. Because much of our disappointment and suffering derives from just the fact that things have changed, and not even what the new circumstances are. Even changes for the better can be sources of suffering because of our intolerance for and aversion to change. Grasping for a particular time, a specific set of circumstances that no longer exists, is full of pain. Accepting impermanence, the inevitability of change, is the balm for that pain.

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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Balance

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Life can seem so delicately balanced. Events and circumstances may rush by like a river, and if we grasp at them they may topple us over. To not be carried along with the flow, to retain our balance, requires being mindful of that balance and focusing on staying in balance no matter what rushes by.

Meanwhile, all around us seek the same balance. Occasionally, one topples into another, and both collapse. Reclaiming that balance can then seem so laborious, stone laid upon stone; one cannot simply stand the pile of rocks upright again en masse.

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[photos: Dean Michael Mead]

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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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.