Tag Archives: karma

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.

Are thinking and meditation incompatible?

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“It’s a very deep misconception that meditation is about making your mind blank, that it involves shutting off or pushing away things so that you can achieve some kind of deeper, more desirable state of clarity and calmness. It’s not that those deeper, more desirable states of clarity and calmness do not exist and cannot be cultivated—they can. But it is a kind of learning that in some ways is akin to falling asleep—although meditation is really about ‘falling awake.’ If you try too hard to sleep, chances are you are not going to fall asleep at all. … I like to describe the mind as being like the surface of the ocean—it’s just in the nature of water to wave. And it is part of the nature of our minds to wave as well. The mind waves virtually all the time. If you try to shut off the waves, it’s a bit like trying to put a glass plate over the ocean to stop it from being as it is. It’s not going to work very well.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn, The Power of Meditation and Prayer

I think I know exactly what Dr. Kabat-Zinn is talking about, from my own experience and from what I have heard from others who have experience both failure and success with meditation. Sometimes my meditation can leave me kind of agitated, rather than calm, if I try to fight the thoughts that arise, to stuff them down or block them out. You know, the moment you determine not to think about something, that’s all you can think about. Likewise, the moment you decide not to think at all, thoughts come streaming in from every direction! Only by accepting that thoughts arise and treating them—and myself—with compassion can I fully benefit from my meditation practice.

Pema Chodron suggests that when you notice your mind thinking thoughts, just say quietly, “Thinking,” and let the thought go. Don’t scold yourself for doing what comes naturally to your mind. I do this sometimes, and when I do I always hear the word “Thinking” in Pema’s voice, which never fails to make me smile. And smiling is the perfect medium for letting thoughts slide away easily and without labeling them as something “bad” or antithetical to proper meditation.

If a thought is persistent, then maybe I ought to pay attention to it. If I am routinely feeling a pain in my tooth, shouldn’t I go to the dentist and have it looked at? The pain may be a signal that there is a physical ailment that requires attention. If a thought keeps popping up during meditation—even when I treat it kindly, imagine Pema saying “Thinking,” and let it go—then perhaps it is something that requires attention. Why not let the thought run its course naturally and see where it leads? Following the thought to its resolution may be the only way to keep it from coming back.

As with most things, expectations play a role in meditation. If we expect to achieve an out-of-body experience, we are likely to be disappointed. If we enter meditation, though, with the expectation that thoughts will arise, with acceptance that thoughts arising is totally normal, then we can more fully benefit from our meditation practice. In my opinion, the goal of meditation is not to experience balance and peace during meditation, but rather to experience balance and peace in our lives away from the cushion. Accept that your mind may be noisy sometimes during meditation and you are more likely to reap the benefits of meditation—a life that is more mindful, peaceful and, yes, less noisy.

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.

[Now you can listen to the Dharma Beginner blog. How cool is that? You can also subscribe to the Dharma Beginner podcast through iTunes. Dharma Beginner has entered the 21st Century…]

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…

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.

Dharma Digest, Vol. 1, No. 3

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Some items recently posted to the Dharma Beginner page on Facebook, www.facebook.com/dharmabegin.

Love Thine Enemy

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

I’d like to pass along one of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve ever received: If you are angry at someone, if you think of them as your enemy, pray for them. You cannot remain angry at someone you pray for; someone you pray for… cannot long be considered your enemy. my own experience has borne this out.

Somewhere along the line I learned to practice putting myself in the shoes of those who would hurt me or make me their enemy. I usually need to let the hurt subside first, but when it has I can ask, “Why would they do this thing to me? What suffering must they be enduring that leads them to act in this manner?” Then I remember that everyone wishes to be free of suffering, friends and foes alike, and I pray that they will be free of suffering.

Sometimes I can manage to say those prayers with the sincerity of someone praying for a loved one or dear friend. Other times it takes a little more time, a little more distance from the pain. But once I pray sincerely for them, the hurt and anger melt away, and all that’s left is compassion.

How Do People Perceive Me?

“I don’t really care how I am remembered as long as I bring happiness and joy to people.” ~ Eddie Albert

I can be really hung up on how people view me now, as well what kind of mark on will leave on the world when I inevitably pass from this life. It amazes me that I still sometimes hesitate to do what is right because of thoughts about what “people” will think. Family, friends, coworkers, people… I wouldn’t know if I tripped over them – dear lord, what will they think? [insert dramatic shudder here]

In retrospect, it makes me laugh. There really should be some LOLs here. It seems so silly. Why should I care what it says on my tombstone? I’ll be dead. But in that moment, it still brings me up short. I think it’s right to take seriously what kind of world I leave behind, but not because of how I’ll be remembered for it. Because I believe it is my responsibility to leave behind as much love as I found when I entered it, and hopefully more.

Some Things I Hope We Can Agree On

“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God.” – Thomas Jefferson

God, deity, higher power, energy, universal interconnectedness, angels, protectors, anti-gremlins (okay, I made that one up) – it doesn’t matter to me what you call it. Or if you don’t call it anything. Or if you don’t even believe in “it.” I don’t care, because I believe we don’t need any particular religion to connect and to agree on a few things:

1. We respect and care for others and ourselves
2. We show love and compassion to all
3. We seek to be happy, free from suffering
4. We are committed to growing ethically, spiritually, emotionally, etc.

I’m certain the list could be longer. But if you and I can agree on just one of those, that’s a great place to start building a friendship. I’d like to think that I could build such a friendship with each and every one of you.