Sakyamuni's Mahaparinirvana Day

Sakyamuni's Mahaparinirvana Day

Sunday, March 16, 2014 (All day)

Sakyamuni's Renunciation Day

Sakyamuni's Renunciation Day

Saturday, March 8, 2014 (All day)

Buddhist Identity and the DC Navy Yard Shooter

When the news broke that the shooter who had killed 32 at Virginia Tech was Asian, I thought what many Asian Americans thought across the U.S.  “Please don’t let him be my kind of Asian.” Well, actually I prayed that he not be Chinese, but you get the picture.  This reaction was shared by many Asian Americans regardless of our political views or how we generally felt about race in the U.S. Even when it turned out that the shooter was of not of Chinese descent, that only mitigated my sense of collective shame or guilt-by-association; it didn’t erase it.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is due to the Asian tendency to think collectively. You are never just your own person.  What you do, how you behave, reflects on your parents, your family, your village or town, your nation. It is a difficult thing to explain to folks who grew up in completely Westernized sensibilities, because obviously I know the difference between me and other family members, for example. We are different entities. But I cannot conceptualize myself, except as in relation to them, and I cannot do anything without thinking about how it impacts them.  Turning that around, whatever others in my family or nation or ethnicity do impacts me as well, to varying extents. There are no hard lines of demarcation, only gradations.

Another part of the “collective guilt” phenomenon is due to being an ethnic minority within the U.S.  Like all marginalized ethnic groups, we know that the actions of someone else in our group will be used to judge the rest of us, whether we had anything to do with that person.  When white men commit a violent crime, people seek to explain his actions as an individual (mental illness, troubled childhood, monster...) as opposed to judging his entire race. When Black men commit a violent crime it’s “evidence” that Black men have tendencies towards violence and criminality. When Latino men commit a violent crime it’s “evidence” of the perils of immigration and “gangs.” The reaction against Asians in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings were more mixed and muted. We were shielded from a stronger backlash by prevailing stereotypes. Asian American individuals (particularly East Asian American individuals) are considered too “meek” and “feminine” to be taken seriously as a threat. As a group, however, we become the Yellow Peril or Yellow Hoarde. Thus most of the attacks levied against us in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings came in the form of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

When the news broke that the shooter who had killed 12 at the DC Naval Yard was Buddhist, I felt a similar pang of shame mixed with a very different pang of guilt. The shame was similar because I felt a connection with him through Buddhism. Let me be clear. I do not for even a nanosecond believe that Buddhism influenced him towards the direction of violence. If anything, it makes more sense that he had turned to Buddhism to help him cope with violent urges likely due to post-traumatic stress from war, and in the end it just wasn’t enough. And obviously I know that Aaron Alexis and I are two separate people. Regardless, there is a sense of collective identity through something we shared.

But the sense of guilt was very different in that I knew with 99% certainty that the media and most of my fellow U.S.Americans would not focus on Aaron Alexis being Buddhist as a cause for his actions. They would not speculate about how he got “radicalized” in a Buddhist temple. Not question his association with other Buddhists to see whether they had any involvement. Not call on other Buddhists to condemn these actions and blame them for not renouncing him loudly enough. No, if anything the reaction would be / has been, “How could a Buddhist do something like this?”  “He must not really have been Buddhist.”

Similar to ethnicity, people who hold marginalized religious identities in the U.S. do not get to be judged as individuals. Here in the U.S. (and in other “Western” countries), when someone who is Protestant Christian commits a violent crime, their religion is rarely considered relevant. People again look to other clues to attempt to explain the person’s behavior.  But if a person who is Muslim commits a violent crime, their religion seems to be the only thing that is considered relevant.  Nevermind evidence of mental illness or that the person may have been motivated by political reasons that are not religious. Where religious identity differs from ethnicity, it's in that people can more easily convert into and out of religious traditions. And in the U.S., the folks who convert into Islam tend more to be African American/Black, whereas the folks who convert into Buddhism tend more to be Euro American/white. That difference makes it even easier to demonize Muslims, more difficult to demonize Buddhists.

The media are not blaming Alexis’ actions on Buddhism because that does not fit the prevailing narrative of an inherently peaceful religion full of exoticized stoic Eastern monks and more familiar looking white adherents. Perceptions of Buddhists are filtered through positive stereotypes and contradicting data are ignored or explained away.  Whereas perceptions of Muslims are filtered through negative stereotypes and contradicting data are patently ignored.  Neither stereotype sees adherents of the respective religions for who they are with all their complexities.

This is, to put it simply, UNFAIR. And that is where the pang of guilt comes from.

And so I feel like it’s my obligation, to my Muslim sisters and brothers, and to fairness and justice, to say to everyone that yes, Aaron Alexis was Buddhist.  He didn’t just kinda sorta attend a Buddhist temple, nor did he lose his “Buddhist membership card” by committing an act of violence.  He was Buddhist.  And if you don’t blame Buddhism for his actions (which of course you shouldn’t), then you shouldn’t blame Islam for any violent actions of its adherents either.

Meditation on Inter-Being

Thich Nhat Hahn

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow: and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. "Interbeing" is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix "inter" with the verb "to be", we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud, we cannot have paper, so we can say that the cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are.

If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger's father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.

Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here - time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. “To be” is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.

Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper will be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of “non-paper elements.” And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without “non-paper elements,” like mind, logger, sunshine and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.

Simile of the Raft

Bhikkhus I will teach you how the Dhamma is similar to a raft, being for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding on to.  Listen closely to what I have to say:

Bhikkhus, suppose a man is on a journey and comes across a mighty river, with frightening dangers on this side, while the other side is safe and secure, but there is no bridge, no ferry, and no boat with which to cross.

He might think: "This is a mighty river, with frightening dangers on this side, while the other side is safe and secure, but there is no bridge, no ferry, and I have no boat with which to cross.  Suppose I gather together what branches, twigs, leaves, and grass I can find and bind them together with reeds to make a raft, and supported by that raft and making effort with my hands and feet, cross over from here to the beyond."

And then, Bhikkhus, he might gather branches, twigs, leaves, and grass, and bind them together with reeds and make a raft.  Then, making an effort with hands and feet, cross over from here to the beyond.

Then, once he had crossed safely and arrived on the further bank, it might occur to him: "This raft that I have pieced together has been very useful to me.  Supported by it, and making effort with my hands and feet, I got safely to the other shore.  Suppose I were to lift this raft up onto my head or shoulder and carry it around as I go on about my business?"  What do you think, Bhikkhus, if he were to do that, would that man be doing what ought to be done with that raft?

Or once the man had crossed safely and arrived on the further bank, it might occur to him: "This raft that I have pieced together has been very useful to me.  Supported by it, and making effort with my hands and feet, I got safely to the other shore.  Suppose I were haul it onto dry land or set it adrift on the water, and then I can go on about my business?"  Then Bhikkhus, if he were to do that, he would be doing what ought to be done with that raft.

In the same way, this Dharma is for crossing over, not for holding on to.  Bhikkhus, when you know the Dharma to be similar to a raft, you should let go of even the teachings, not to mention things contrary to the teachings.


(Bhikkhu = Buddhist monk)


Bodhisattva Prayer

From now on, until I achieve enlightenment, I rely on you.
Please give me wisdom to escape samsara.

If I am supposed to get sick, let me get sick, and I’ll be happy.
May this sickness purify my negative karma
and the sickness of all sentient beings

If I am supposed to be healed, let all my sickness
and confusion be healed, and I’ll be happy.
May all sentient beings be healed and filled with happiness.

If I am supposed to die, let me die, and I’ll be happy.
May all the delusion and causes of suffering of beings die.

If I am supposed to live a long life, let me live a long life, and I’ll be happy.
May my life be meaningful in service to sentient beings.

If my life is cut short, let it be cut short, and I’ll be happy.
May I and all others be free from attachment and aversion.

Emancipation Day, VA Tech, and Hope

Today was Emancipation Day, a DC holiday.  It is the anniversary of the day Lincoln freed the slaves within the District, nine months before he freed all slaves within the U.S. via the famous Emancipation Proclamation.  It's interesting that we celebrate an event that is widely seen as motivated by political expediency.  Emancipation of the slaves within DC was not based on the moral conviction that slavery is wrong, but rather in the hopes that freed DC slaves would fight for the Union side.

Today is also the one year anniversary of the massacre at Virginia Tech, the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, and as the Asian American community is well aware, perpetrated by one of our own. 

I've realized that I've been extremely emotional this past week, knowing that today was approaching.  The anniversary would have been hard in any case, both because of the number of people killed and also because the shooter was Asian.  But I am all the more on edge because of the controversy surrounding China and the Olympics.  I hate the fact that when an Asian American does something awful, we as a community feel shame and fear possible anger directed at the rest of us.  But that is how things are.  We know from experience that it happens.  And I hate the fact that when criticisms of China arise, even legitimate criticisms, there is always part of me that wonders how much of it is motivated by anti-Chinese sentiment.  But that is how things are.  I know from experience that it happens.  And I know that other folks of color have had similar experiences.

Today is Emancipation Day.  I am wondering how it would be to be free of such doubts and fears.  What would it be like to have someone of your ethnicity commit a crime and NOT have to think, "Oh crap, why did he/she have to be x?"  What would it be like to discuss social issues involving one's own ethnicity and NOT always feel some part of it personally? I guess I'm wondering what it would be like to be white in this society.  But maybe someday we'll all be free from this oppression.

And of course I hope for freedom from the pain for family, friends and survivors of that awful shooting. 

May all beings be happy at heart.
Whatever beings there may be,
weak or strong, without exception,
long, large,
middling, short,
subtle, blatant,
seen & unseen,
near & far,
born & seeking birth:
May all beings be happy at heart.

- from the Karaniya Metta Sutta

After all, even now there are kind people of good will.  With the magnitude of the violence and loss it would be so easy to hate, and many have.  And yet others have hearts big enough to reach out to the family of the shooter, and some even have mourned for the loss of a stranger who did so much damage.  In reading the Washington Post's coverage of Virginia Tech, it's these stories that broke my heart anew.  But in a good way, keeping it open to hope.

With good will for the entire cosmos,
cultivate a limitless heart:
Above, below, & all around,
unobstructed, without enmity or hate.

- from the Karaniya Metta Sutta

Speaking of Buddhism...

All this talk of perpetually peaceful Tibetan monks standing nobly in the face of the evil Chinese reminds me of a related pet peeve I have with respect to how many (not all) Westerners approach things Asian.

When the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life came out with its report on religion in the U.S. a couple of months ago, one notable yet unsurprising finding was that, unlike Hinduism and Islam, most people who identify as Buddhist are home-grown (mostly white) converts, not (Asian) immigrants.  There is nothing wrong with that.  Buddhism is a proselytizing faith; it is open and welcoming to converts - spreading from its native India, throughout Asia, and now the rest of the world.

Nor is there anything wrong with the fact that Buddhism in the West tends to be different than Buddhism in the East.  Everywhere it's spread, Buddhism has been influenced by the local beliefs/cultures.  When it came to China, it blended with Taoism and formed Ch'an, which the Japanese call Zen.  It also blended with other aspects of Chinese culture to form other schools of Buddhism.  When it made it to Tibet, it blended with the native Bun religion and formed Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism.   So when Buddhism came to the West and was embraced mainly by white intellectuals, it's not surprising that Western Buddhism tends to minimize any reference to what many consider "supernaturalism."  And since belief in deity is not necessary for nirvana, it is completely compatible with non-theist positions.

What *does* bother me is the frequency with which I am told by white Buddhist converts that "Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion."  Or that "Buddhism is completely rational and devoid of 'supernaturalism,' unlike Christianity." And I'm like, "Really... because I have relatives who are life-long Buddhists, I've been exposed to it since I was a little kid, and from what I've seen their Buddhism is every bit as much a religion as Christianity, complete with the so-called supernaturalism."

And then these people actually have the nerve to argue about this.  "You don't understand," they say.  "Those gods aren't really gods; they're just projections of the mind."  To which I point out to them passages from the Pali scriptures, the oldest known Buddhist scriptures, thought to be the closest to the Buddha's actual life and teachings, and lo and behold, there are devas (gods) mentioned in the stories. (I strongly suspect that most of these Western converts have read precious little of the original scriptures, given that the Buddhism section of most book stores consists of modern writing about Buddhism.) Even still they persist, "Well, you obviously can't take those stories literally."

It is true that one need not take the scriptures literally.  It's perfectly legitimate to interpret Brahma's conversation with the Buddha as allegorical, symbolic.  But what I want to know is, if you can do that with Buddhist scripture, why can't you do that with Christian scripture?  Why do you insist on taking the bible literally and in the process reject it while you feel free to interpret the scriptures of another culture in whatever way you please?  And what makes you think you then have the authority to say that your interpretation is correct, suggesting that those Buddhists who actually do believe in a real Kwan Yin or rebirth (for example) are somehow backwards?

Conversion to Buddhism is all very well.  Interpreting Buddhism in ways to which you can relate is all very well.  But when white converts feel they can "cut and paste" Buddhism but not Christianity, or when they think they can dismiss other interpretations of Buddhism as inferior to their own, that is not "conversion."  It is colonialization of someone else's religious culture - taking it and using it for their own purposes.  Chalk this up as another example of the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural MISappropriation.

Buddhist Holidays

Buddhism is observed in many different countries and cultures, using different calendars, making a common "Buddhist calendar" difficult.  In general, "lunar month" refers to the Chinese calendar, also used by Koreans and Vietnamese.  Japanese holidays are observed on the Western/Gregorian calendar.  And Therevadan observances use the Indian lunar calendar.

Maitreya Buddha's birthday (Ist day of 1st lunar month) -

Magha Puja Day or Sangha Day (full moon of Magha, usually in Feb) - Therevadan Buddhist celebration of the presentation of teachings by Lord Buddha to an assembly.  It was the day that the first Sangha was formed.

Sakymuni's Renunciation Day (8th day of 2nd lunar month) - The day that Prince Sakyamuni renounced his worldly station in order to seek the root of suffering on behalf of all living beings.

Nirvana Day (15th day - full moon - of second lunar month) - Mahayana celebration of the day that the Buddha attained Parinirvana (death without rebirth). Buddhists observe the day by meditating or by going to Buddhist temples or monasteries. Food is prepared and some people bring presents such as money, household goods or clothes. Some Buddhists read passages from The Paranibbana Sutta, which describes the last days of Buddha.

Kwan Yin Pusa/Avalokitesvara's birthday (19th day of 2nd lunar month) - Bodhisattva of Compassion

Pu Hsien Pusa/Samantabhadra's birthday (21st day of 2nd lunar month) - Bodhisattva of Praxis

Wen Shu Pusa/Manjushri's birthday (4th day of 4th lunar month) - Bodhisattva of Wisdom

Sakyamuni Buddha's Birthday (8th day of 4th lunar month, or April 8th in Japan) - Mahayana Buddhists observe this day as the Buddha's birthday.  Stories are told of the Buddha's birth and his destiny. 

Wesak (full moon of Vesakha or 15th day of 4th Chinese lunar month, usually in May) - Therevadan Buddhists observe this day to commemorate the Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and death (parinirvana).  The day is celebrated by all Buddhists. Begins Mahayanan Vassa

Asalha Puja or Dharma Day (full moon of Ashahda, usually in July) - Commemorates the Buddha's first discourse, given to five ascetics in the Deer Park at Sarnath (near Varanasi, India).  In the Mahayana tradtion, this marks the first turning of the Dhamma wheel. The day is usually celebrated by merit making, listening to a sermon by a monk or nun, and joining a candle lit procession during the night.  Some Buddhists read passages from the reading the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which describes the event.  In the Therevadan tradition, it is the preferred day for Buddhist men to be ordained as monks.

Therevadan Vassa (3 lunar months, starting the 16th day of Ashadha, usually July, until the full moon of Asvina, usually October) - The traditional three month long Rainy-Season Retreat observed by Therevadan monks and nuns.

Ta-Shih Chi Pusa/Mahasthamaprapta's birthday (13th day of 7th lunar month) - Bodhisattva of Power

Ullambana (15th night - full moon - of the 7th lunar month in China, July 15th in Japan) - Festival to honor the dead. Involves lighting of bonfires, traditional meal, paper lanterns, folk dances.  Ends Mahayanan Vassa.  (See Ghost Festival under Taoist Holidays. Also known as Bon in Japan.)

Patriarch Nagarjuna's birthday (24th day of 7th lunar month) - Founder of Madhyamaka, a MahayanaBuddhist school of thought that lead to Ch'an.

Di Cang Pusa/Ksitigarbha's birthday (30th day of 7th lunar month) - Bodhisattva of the Margins.  Ksitigarbha's birthday falls at the end of "ghost month."

Ananda's Day (8th day of 8th lunar month) - Keeper of the Dharma and advocate for women.

Pavarana Day (15th day of Asvina, usually in October) - End of Therevadan Vassa.  On this day, monks and nuns atone for any offense they might have committed during Vassa.  Begins a one-month time for laity to present needed gifts/alms of cloth for robes andfood to the monks and nuns.

Bhaisajya/Medicine Buddha's birthday (30th day of the 9th lunar month) - Buddha of the Eastern Pure Land.

Patriarch Bodhidarma's birthday (5th day of the 10th lunar month) - Founder of Ch'an Buddhism.

Amitabha Buddha's birthday (17th day of 11th lunar month) - Buddha of the Western Pure Land.

Bodhi Day (8th day of 12th lunar month in China, Dec 8th in Japan) - Mahayana Buddhist celebration of the time when Prince Gautama attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.  It is a day for Buddhists to profess their faith, to reaffirm their commitment to the Buddha, his teachings (the Dharma), and his disciples (the Sangha).

Active versus Passive Harm

One of the questions every student of introductory ethics has to struggle with is something along the lines of the following scenario:

You are the conductor of a trolley car. While going down a steep incline you realize that the breaks have failed. Quickly you see that it is possible to turn onto a side track to stop the momentum of the car. However there are a few people standing there and if you turn the car onto those tracks, you will kill them. On the other hand, if you do nothing and let the car roll out of control, everyone on the crowded car will surely die. What do you do?

The scenario sets up a forced choice between actively killing a few versus passively letting many die. Which is worse? We had to ponder several permutations of this choice in my ethics class at Georgetown and I was unimpressed. "When", I thought, "would such a contrived scenario every occur? Why don't we focus on questions that we actually face in our lives?"

Today, it finally dawned on me that wrestling with the answer to this question was indeed a productive use of time. That we in fact make similar decisions all the time, tho we may not see it as such. I had been taking the question too literally, as who lives and who dies. But the heart of the ethical dilemma is active versus passive harm. Will we passively allow harm to happen to a great many people in order to avoid the responsibility that comes with hurting a few people?

And indeed we do this all the time, in our inability to address serious issues of social justice. We passively allow debilitating poverty to continue, generation after generation, when we actually have the means to end it, tho it would require some active inconvenience to ourselves. We passively allow global warming to continue by unthinkingly following our normal routines, causing great misery to the rest of the world, when we could actively adjust our life styles to end it, tho it might be "inconvenient." And we passively allow the wars to continue in our name...

In our society we somehow buy into the reasoning that if we simply allow things to happen, we are not as culpable as if we actively perform the act. And this view allows great suffering to continue unabated. Surely, there is something wrong with this kind of ethical reasoning.


Subscribe to Buddhism

Forum Activity

Fri, 10/31/2014 - 08:11
Mon, 06/16/2014 - 07:09
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 22:01


wizdUUm.net is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative