Buddhism

Reflecting on Evil

Fountain of Peace, St John the Divine

By most counts I am a religion nerd. Not only is it a favorite topic of discussion, but if there is a church, temple, mosque, synagogue, shrine or ritual place of note in the area that allows visitors, I am there. So when I learned that the fourth largest Christian church in the world - the Cathedral of St. John the Divine - was in New York City, I of course had to go.

The cathedral itself was grand, Gothic, and a little too dark, but what I most remember is that just outside the building was a sign inviting visitors to stroll in the “Children's Peace Garden.” And in the center of the small garden, dominating the space, was a very large statue of the Archangel Michael, wings unfurled, sword drawn, standing over the prone and nearly decapitated body of Satan, his horned head hanging over the edge of the piece by a single bronze ligament. And I thought in horror, “Who in their right minds would put something this violent in a children's peace garden?

Reading the inscription, I understood. For the creators of this garden, peace comes when good annihilates evil. In their theology, there are good people and bad people. If you are a good person, then goodness is inherent and evil is external to you, and if you are a bad person, then evil is inherent in you. Actions are neither inherently good nor evil, people are. So killing an evil person is a good act because it reduces the amount of evil in the world. The ends justify the means. According to that theology, Michael decapitating Satan is the triumph of good over evil.

This is the same thinking, regardless of religion, that motivates religious wars and attacks. It's the thinking behind capital punishment. It's the thinking behind most murders, actually, like the many we’ve grieved this month including in Baton Rouge this morning. And if I am honest, it's the same thinking, on a smaller scale, that I revert to when someone has hurt me and my first reaction is to hurt them back. Verbally. When my desire is to say something so devastating that the person is overwhelmed and does not mess with me again.

In those moments, I have to stop and remember that from a Buddhist perspective, overcoming evil doesn't work that way. First, as the Heart Sutra says, “All phenomena in their own-being are empty.” No thing including us is inherently in and of itself anything. All things including us are conditional upon other things. (That whole interdependent web of existence.) Thus, people are neither inherently good nor evil. Whatever state we're in is the result of our conditions.

Now, emptiness doesn't mean that there is no good and evil. It's not “all relative” and “anything goes.” Rather, the focus is on actions, not people. Those actions that benefit beings are wholesome and can be considered good and those that cause harm to beings are unwholesome and can be considered evil.

The focus is on actions, or karma. In common usage, karma is often interchangeable with punishment. Sometimes, punishment and reward. In the original Sanskrit, however, the word “karma” literally means action. Simply put, karma is the consequences of our actions, all consequences of every action. We cannot take any action, good or bad, without it affecting both the wider world AND ourselves. From a Buddhist perspective, even an angel of God such as Michael cannot kill someone, even the Devil himself, without that act of violence tainting their own being, making them more inclined to violence in the future. Because of karma, the means are the ends. Thus, we cannot end evil through violence, because violence itself increases the evil in the world.

And unfortunately, that includes name-calling and insults. The only way to overcome evil is to meet it with good, to meet violence with compassion. SO MUCH easier said than done. But then I remember that the good news is, if every action we take affects our being, then when we do kind things - even if we don't feel particularly kind at the moment - it makes it easier for us to be kind in the future. Little by little, it makes us better people. We really can “fake it to make it.”

Thank You Body

Being religiously savvy Unitarian Universalists, most of you probably know that one of the core teachings of Buddhism is impermanence. All things are conditional and thus all things change. For example, people get older. When you're a kid this seems like a good thing. As an adult, not so much. (Young adults may not yet relate to this, but trust me, it's coming.) You probably also know that Buddhism teaches that attachment, or grasping - for example, not wanting things to change even tho all things change - is the cause of dukkha, the Sanskrit word that gets translated into English as suffering, or dissatisfaction.

Knowing this, I try to not be attached. I try to accept that everything changes, including us. People are born. People die. And those of us in between those two events, grow older with every day. So it is partly due to age (and partly due to inactivity) that my joints are far less flexible than they used to be. I’ve suffered frozen shoulder on both sides, limiting their range of motion, and my knees ache if I sit in half-lotus position (forget full-lotus). My eyes don't focus quite as well as they used to. I accept getting older with the intellectual understanding that aging is inevitable, unless you're dead, and thus there is no point in lamenting the changes that come with it. But while stoic acceptance of aging may mitigate dukkha, suffering, dissatisfaction, I can't say as there was any joy in that approach.

Back in February I took a day-long workshop at East Bay Meditation Center or EBMC, in Oakland. I really did not know what to expect from the class other than I admire one of the two teachers and wanted to learn from him. And he did not disappoint. But it was the other teacher, whom I did not know, whose wisdom that day was transformative.

One of EBMC's core teachings is to embody the Dharma. Literally. Reminding us that we are embodied beings. So I was not surprised when this other teacher started leading us in movement meditation. But I was a bit apprehensive about whether my body would be able move as requested.

I needn’t have worried. Using language that acknowledged our various degrees of mobility in the room, she guided us to stretch and bend, so far as we were able to, emphasizing that whatever we did was enough, asking us to be gentle with ourselves. She encouraged us to focus not on what our bodies could not do but instead on what they could and did do. And that for me caused a profound shift. I realized that, without being consciously aware of it, I’d been thinking of my body as like a machine that my mind rides around in, and machines break over time. But that way of thinking only looks at change in terms of loss, and the best you can do is to accept it. Instead, our teacher reminded us that whoever we are is in large part due to our bodies, however they are. We are continually becoming something new together.  AND, she reminded us of the things our bodies do for us that we usually take for granted.

Our hearts beat without us having to ask.
Our lungs breathe without us having to tell them to.
Stomach digests.
Liver filters.
Our bodies – right down to the individual cells - provide for us without our even thinking about it.

By the end of the meditation, I felt well-cared for, loved, and was overflowing with gratitude. For this body, my body. Instead of stoic acceptance of what it/i could no longer do, I felt JOY, in breathing, in moving, in being alive.

So.... we can't do moving meditation here, but I invite you to repeat these words in your minds:
Thank you heart, for faithfully pumping blood to every part of my body to nourish my cells.
Thank you lungs, for steadfastly drawing in life-giving oxygen and pushing out CO2.
Thank you marrow of my bones, for making the blood cells that protect me from infections and injuries.
Thank you muscles, for flexing and extending to the extent that you are able.
Thank you body.
Thank you. Thank you.

May I Become an Island

To the Buddhas residing in all directions
With my palms pressed together I make this request
Please continue to shine the lamp of Dharma
For living beings lost and suffering in the darkness of ignorance.

May I become an island for those seeking dry land
A lamp for those needing light,
A place of rest for those who desire one,
And a servant for those needing service.

When You Give, You Say You Have More Than Enough

Author: 
Thanissaro Bhikkhu

When you give, you put yourself in a position of wealth. The gift is proof that you have more than enough. At the same time it gives you a sense of your worth as a person. You're able to help other people. The act of giving also creates a sense of spaciousness in the mind, because the world we live in is created by our actions, and the act of giving creates a spacious world: a world where generosity is an operating principle, a world where people have more than enough, enough to share.

- Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Water Flows

Author: 
Thich Nhat Hahn

Water flows from high in the mountains.
Water runs deep in the Earth.
Miraculously, water comes to us,
and sustains us all.

Water flows over these hands.
May I use them skillfully
to preserve our precious planet.

Emptiness and Social Policy

The last time I was in DC, my friend Michael Roehm observed to me that UUs spend a lot of time talking about interdependency, but we don't spend much time thinking about emptiness (both are concepts in Buddhism, and related to each other, kinda like infinity and zero). I have been reminded repeatedly of the truth of his words ever since then, including today. 

This afternoon I was listening to NPR about the disproportionate expulsions of Black and Latino students from schools, and the (misguided) reasoning behind it being that if you remove the "bad" kids, that will make it easier for the "good" kids to learn.  (The article used those words, "bad" and "good," so I am using them too.)  Obviously racism is the primary driving force; how else to explain why black and brown students are thought of as "bad" for committing the same kind of infractions as white students.  But in along side the racism is this belief that people are inherently something.  Inherently good.  Inherently bad... Our social policies are based on this belief.  Hence, we focus on getting rid of the "bad" people, whether by expelling students or locking up prisoners with no attempt at rehabilitation.  (And we let "good" people off the hook with no accountability even when they do decidedly bad things, because, well, they are inherently "good" so the fact that they did something bad was just a temporary glitch, an exceptional circumstance.)  If, instead of thinking of people as inherently "good" or "bad," we focused on emptiness, then we'd see that people reflect back what they experience.  In that case, our social policy would change from that of trying to separate out and eliminate the "bad" to that of trying to create the conditions and causes that lead people to behave in more beneficial ways. 

Sakyamuni Buddha's Birthday

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Tuesday, May 6, 2014 (All day)

Kuan Yin's Birthday

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Thursday, March 20, 2014 (All day)

Mi Lo Fuo (Maitreya Buddha)’s Birthday

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Friday, January 31, 2014 (All day)

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Monday, December 8, 2014 (All day)

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