Buddhism

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.

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.

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