Buddhism

Activist Monks

An image seared into my psyche from the earliest years of my consciousness is that of a burning Vietnamese monk. The incident happened before my existence but was repeatedly shown during the long, drawn out war. The flames so violent, yet the monk so stoic. So Buddhist.

The image of such drastic protest to oppression is in sharp contrast to the stereotype of monks I later developed while studying Buddhism and talking to various practitioners - stoic and detached. In fact, one of the few criticisms of Buddhism that I hold is that, unlike Christian liberation theology, it is a philosophy that does not encourage political involvement. While I had heard rumours of socially engaged Buddhism and even read a few books on the subject, I hadn't seen much evidence of it in recent years. (Aside from Thich Nhat Hahn of course, bless him.)

The events coming out of Burma in the last couple of months are bringing to mind the images of Vietnam again. Monks protesting in the streets. Monks leading the protests. Monks being targeted by the brutal Myanmar government. I am both heartened by their social engagement and appalled by what is happening to them as a result. When someone is brave enough to stand for justice in the face of overwhelming power, we must support them. If we do, they may succeed. If we don't, their suffering will be in vain and that will be on our heads.

Please stand with the Burmese protestors.

All is Buddha & Buddha is All

One of the tensions with which I continually struggle is trying to reconcile two ideas, both of which I believe to be true, and yet seem contradictory.

Buddhists will say "All is Buddha, Buddha is all." Does that mean that rape and murder and torture are Buddha??! And many theists will say, "EVERYTHING that exists exists only because of God. Otoh, we want to say that God is GOOD." Again, does this mean that rape and murder and torture are good? If not, why does a good God allow bad things?

Can something - whether "Buddha" or "God" - be both "everything" and also only "good"?

The response I've often heard from practitioners of the Eastern traditions is that "good" and "bad" are only concepts created by the mind and have no reality otherwise. I accept that in theory. But in practice I don't accept that this means it's all the same. I don't think that the Buddha was saying that it's all the same. If he believed that, why would he bother to teach us the Dharma? Suffering is real. Intentionally causing suffering and intentionally relieving suffering are NOT the same. Even if ultimately good and bad are only concepts, there is a usefulness to these concepts in identifying what is the ideal and what is not.

So we are still left with the conundrum, if Buddha/God/the Ultimate is EVERYTHING, is It also those things from which we seek to deliver ourselves/society? How can Buddha/God/the Ultimate be both EVERYTHING and the IDEAL?

Another response I often hear is that goodness is like light and evil is like darkness. Both must be in balance with each other. Does that mean that there must always be evil? What implications does that have for social justice? Should we all just give up now?

Long ago a professor, William Chittick, tried to explain to me that it's a mistake to equate goodness with light and evil with dark. I believed him but didn't fully understand why until now.

Light isn't "goodness" and dark isn't "evil." We don't want 100% light all the time, or if we do we are sorely mistaken. (Anyone out there seen Insomnia?) What we actually want is for it to be light when we need it to be light and dark when we need it to be dark. We want the correct balance between light and dark.

What we call "goodness" is that balance, whereas what we call "evil" is the lack of balance. I can affirm then, that the universe is basically and inherently good. In the grand scheme of things, the Universe is always balanced. But it can become unbalanced locally and temporarily. And we can work to balance it again. It does matter what we do.

So.... all is indeed Buddha, and Buddha is the ideal. Both are true.

Happy Birthday to the Buddha

According to the calendar that I snatched from my parents during Christmas because it is full of beautiful pictures of San Francisco that make be very homesick, it's the Buddha's birthday today.

Of course, that depends on whether you are Mahayana or Theravada Buddhist.  If the former, then it's the Buddha's birthday today.  If the latter, then you celebrated the Buddha's birthday, enlightenment, and death on the last full moon (May 2nd).

Anyway, in explaining the difference to an officemate between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, I said that the Mahayana tradition was closer to UU.  The truth is that Mahayana is closer to what I wish UU to be.  I don't actually know which one is closer to what UU is in actuality.

The ideal in the Theravada tradition is the Arhant - someone who has left the negative influences of society in order attain enlightenment and achieved it. The ideal in the Mahayana tradition is the Bodhisattva - someone who vows to put off one's own enlightenment in order to help all other sentient beings.  In Theravada salvation/liberation/enlightenment is individual.  In Mahayana salvation/liberation/enlightenment is communal.  It is Universalist.  No one is saved unless everyone is saved.

Which is not to say that Theravadan Buddhists don't care about social justice.  The dichotomy isn't that simple.  At any rate, here's a shout out to the man who started it all.  Happy (belated) Birthday to the Buddha.

Karmic Lessons in Peacemaking

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.

- Mahatma Gandhi

Like many realizations that I have, it takes me a long time to get to them and then once I do, it seems so obvious that I'm embarrassed that I hadn't realized it before.  That's how I feel about a recent epiphany with respect to karma.

I have argued for a while now that karma is not just the Western conception of punishment and reward - if you do good, good will come to you, if you do evil, evil will come to you.  More than that, karma says that if you do good, it will be easier for you to do good again in the future, and if you do evil it will be easier to do evil again in the future.  The law of karma says that <strong>what you do will actually change who you are</strong>.  You cannot be unaffected by your actions.  

So many times, when confronted with what we perceive to be violence and hatred, we are tempted to resort to violence in response.   Surely, we argue, it is justified to use violence to get rid of something that causes suffering.  A greater good will come from this temporary violence.  The ends justify the means.  

As with many of these kinds of things, I've known in my gut that the ends do not justify the means, but I didn't fully grasp why.  Karma tells me why.   What you do will actually change who you are.  In seeking to rid the world of violence through violence, we become the source of violence ourselves.  And not just temporarily.  That last bit is what I had been missing.

We send soldiers to war in order to fight for justice (or so we say). We expect them to kill other human beings, and then, if they live, to come back to us and take their place in society as if nothing has changed.

We kill people who have murdered, and expect that somehow reduces the propensity for murder.

And hardest of all to understand for many of us liberals.... we hate people who hate and expect that somehow reduces the amount of hatred in the world.

Hate has never dispelled hate.

Only love dispels hate.

This is the eternal law.

- Dhammapada 1:5

Karma says that the only way to rid the world of hatred is to love.  The only way to achieve peace is to be peaceful.  The only way to realize the Beloved Community is to live it.

May all beings be happy

May all beings be happy. May they be joyous and live in safety. All living beings, whether weak or strong, in high or middle or low realms of existence, small or great, visible or invisible, near or far, born or to be born, may all beings be happy. Let no one deceive another, nor despise any being in any state; let none by anger or hatred wish harm to another. Even as a mother, at the risk of her own life, watches over and protects her only child, so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things, suffusing love over the entire world -- above, below, and all around without limit.

- from the Metta Sutta

The Blind Men and the Elephant


A number of disciples went to the Buddha and said, "Sir, there are living here in Savatthi many wandering hermits and scholars who indulge in constant dispute, some saying that the world is infinite and eternal and others that it is finite and not eternal, some saying that the soul dies with the body and others that it lives on forever, and so forth. What, Sir, would you say concerning them?" The Buddha answered, "Once upon a time there was a certain raja who called to his servant and said, 'Come, good fellow, go and gather together in one place all the men of Savatthi who were born blind... and show them an elephant.' 'Very good, sire,' replied the servant, and he did as he was told. He said to the blind men assembled there, 'Here is an elephant,' and to one man he presented the head of the elephant, to another its ears, to another a tusk, to another the trunk, the foot, back, tail, and tuft of the tail, saying to each one that that was the elephant. "When the blind men had felt the elephant, the raja went to each of them and said to each, 'Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?' "Thereupon the men who were presented with the head answered, 'Sire, an elephant is like a pot.' And the men who had observed the ear replied, 'An elephant is like a winnowing basket.' Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush. "Then they began to quarrel, shouting, 'Yes it is!' 'No, it is not!' 'An elephant is not that!' 'Yes, it's like that!' and so on, till they came to blows over the matter. "Brethren, the raja was delighted with the scene. "Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing.... In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus." Then the Exalted One rendered this meaning by uttering this verse of uplift O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim For preacher and monk the honored name! For, quarreling, each to his view they cling. Such folk see only one side of a thing.

The Poisoned Arrow

(from the Culamalunkya-sutta) There was once a man named Malunkyaputta, who had heard the Buddha preach the Dharma and been moved to take up Buddhist practice. However, one afternoon, Malunkyaputta got up from his afternoon meditation, went to the Buddha, greeted him and said: "Sir, when I was alone meditating, these thoughts occured to me: There are these problems that the Blessed One has not explained. Namely, 1) is the universe eternal or not eternal?, 2) is the universe finite or infinite?, 3) is the soul the same as the body or are they two different things?, 4) does the Buddha exist after death or does he not exist after death?, 5) does the Buddha simultaneously exist and not exist or does he simultaneously not exist and not not-exist? The Blessed One has not explained these problems to me, and that bothers me. I will go to the Blessed One and ask him about these things. If the Blessed One explains these things to me, then I will continue to follow the holy life under him. If the Blessed One does not explain these things to me, then I will go look for someone else who might. So if the Blessed One knows the answers to these questions let him explain them to me now. If the Blessed One does not know the answers to these questions, then let him say that he doesn't know." The Buddha replied to Malunkyaputta, 'Did I ever say to you, "Malunkyaputta, if you come lead the holy life under me I will explain these questions to you?"' "No, Sir." 'Then, Malunkyaputta, did you say to me, "Sir, I will lead the holy life under you if you explain these questions to me?"' "No, Sir." "So under these circumstances, who is refusing whom? 'Malunkyaputta, if anyone says, "I will not lead the holy life under the Blessed One until he explains these questions," he may die with these questions unanswered. Suppose Malunkyaputta, a man is wounded by a poisoned arrow, and his friends and relatives bring him a physician. Suppose the man then says to the physician, "I will not allow you to remove this arrow until I have learned who shot me: the age, the occupation, the birthplace, and the motivation of the person who wounded me. I will not allow you to remove this arrow until I have learned the kind of bow with which I was shot, the type of bowstring used, the type of arrow, what sort of feather was used on the arrow, and with what kind of material the point of the arrow was made." That man would die before having learned all this. In exactly the same way, anyone who should say, 'I will not follow the teaching of the Buddha until the Buddha has explained all the multiform truths of the world' - that person would die before the Buddha had explained all this."

Call Me by My True Names

Do not say that I'll depart tomorrow -
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am the grass-snake who, approaching silently,
feeds on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his "debt of blood" to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain if like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear my cries and laughs all at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

- Thich Nhat Hanh

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