Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Eightfold Path: A Secular View of Right Understanding

The path of awakening begins with a step the Buddha called right understanding. Right understanding has two parts. To start with, it asks a question of our hearts. What do we really value, what do we really care about in this life? Our lives are quite short. Our childhood goes by very quickly, then adolescence and adult life go by. We can be complacent and let our lives disappear in a dream, or we can become aware. In the beginning of practice we must ask what is most important to us. When we’re ready to die, what will we want to have done? What will we care about most? At the time of death, people who have tried to live consciously ask only one or two questions about their life: Did I learn to live wisely? Did I love well? We can begin by asking them now.

This is the beginning of right understanding: looking at our lives, seeing that they are impermanent and fleeting, and taking into account what matters to us most deeply. In the same way, we can look at the world around us, where there is a tremendous amount of suffering, war, poverty, and disease. What does the world need to foster a safe and compassionate existence for all? Human suffering and hardship cannot be alleviated just by a simple change of government or a new monetary policy, although these things may help.

On the deepest level, problems such as war and starvation are not solved by economics and politics alone. Their source is prejudice and fear in the human heart— and their solution also lies in the human heart. What the world needs most is people who are less bound by prejudice. It needs more love, more generosity, more mercy, more openness. The root of human problems is not a lack of resources but comes from the misunderstanding, fear, and separateness that can be found in the hearts of people.

Right understanding starts by acknowledging the suffering and difficulties in the world around us as well as in our own lives. Then it asks us to touch what we really value inside, to find what we really care about, and to use that as the basis of our spiritual practice. When we see that things are not quite right in the world and in ourselves, we also become aware of another possibility, of the potential for us to open to greater loving-kindness and a deep intuitive wisdom. From our heart comes inspiration for the spiritual journey. For some of us this will come as a sense of the great possibility of living in an awake and free way.

Others of us are brought to practice as a way to come to terms with the power of suffering in our life. Some are inspired to seek understanding through a practice of discovery and inquiry, while some intuitively sense a connection with the divine or are inspired to practice as a way to open the heart more fully. Whatever brings us to spiritual practice can become a flame in our heart that guides and protects us and brings us to true understanding.

Right understanding also requires from us a recognition and understanding of the law of karma. Karma is not just a mystical idea about something esoteric like past lives in Tibet. The term karma refers to the law of cause and effect. It means that what we do and how we act create our future experiences. If we are angry at many people, we start to live in a climate of hate. People will get angry at us in return. If we cultivate love, it returns to us. It’s simply how the law works in our lives.

Someone asked a vipassana teacher, Ruth Dennison, if she could explain karma very simply. She said, ‘‘Sure. Karma means you don’t get away with nothing!’’ Whatever we do, however we act, creates how we become, how we will be, and how the world will be around us.

To understand karma is wonderful because within this law there are possibilities of changing the direction of our lives. We can actually train ourselves and transform the climate in which we live. We can practice being more loving, more aware, more conscious, or whatever we want. We can practice in retreats or while driving or in the supermarket checkout line. If we practice kindness, then spontaneously we start to experience more and more kindness within us and from the world around us.

There’s a story of the Sufi figure Mullah Nasruddin, who is both a fool and a wise man. He was out one day in his garden sprinkling breadcrumbs around the flowerbeds. A neighbor came by and asked,

‘‘Mullah, why are you doing that?’’

Nasruddin answered, ‘‘Oh, I do it to keep the tigers away.’’

The neighbor said, ‘‘But there aren’t any tigers within thousands of miles of here.’’

Nasruddin replied, ‘‘Effective, isn’t it?’’

Spiritual practice is not a mindless repetition of ritual or prayer. It works through consciously realizing the law of cause and effect and aligning our lives to it. Perhaps we can sense the potential of awakening in ourselves, but we must also see that it doesn’t happen by itself. There are laws that we can follow to actualize this potential. How we act, how we relate to ourselves, to our bodies, to the people around us, to our work, creates the kind of world we live in, creates our very freedom or suffering

Friday, January 08, 2016

A Secular Look at the Eightfold Path

The Dharma Wheel
The Eightfold Path is common to most Buddhist traditions, and secular Buddhists consider the Eightfold Path to be the heart of practice. The Eightfold Path, or path as it’s called, is a guide for areas to explore and practice. There is great wisdom in this path, all of which can be tried out and tested in everyday life. In following and practicing the path, you learn to see life realistically, without delusions crowding out your mind and creating a lot of mental noise and anguish, and you’ll benefit in many other ways.

The path is not linear. In fact, many of the areas of the path can’t really be explored without practicing other areas. For instance, Right Mindfulness and Right Intention go into all parts of the path. I would say all areas of the path are of equal importance.  Over time you’ll settle into exploring them naturally.

You’ll notice each of these areas of the path begins with the word Right. There is much discussion about this, and many would agree that the word right actually means something more like wholesome or skillful, with non-harm in mind. The meanings of these areas are mostly the same across traditions, but Right View differs a bit for secular Buddhists.

Right View
Seeing the world as it is is Right View, with an understanding of the Three Marks of Existence, and the Four Noble Truths. When you fully understand the marks and truths, then you see the world and yourself without delusion, hatred, greed, etc. Some of the traditions also include kamra (kamma) here, but most secular Buddhist view kamma as intention or action, so we place it under Right Action. Additionally, with secular Buddhists, kamma is not believed to be a system of justice that goes from one life to the next, but instead is about developing wholesome intention behind our actions so we behave ethically in this life, with Right Action.

Three marks of existence
In Buddhism, the three marks of existence are three characteristics shared by all sentient beings, namely impermanence (anicca), dissatisfaction or suffering (dukkha), and non-self (anattā). These three characteristics are mentioned in verses 277, 278 and 279 of the Dhammapada.

Right View also touches on our own views of the world, how we may cling to them, how we may consider them permanent, when they are really impermanent, and how we can get caught up in a “thicket of views”. Exploring the Three Marks of Existence helps you see through getting caught in your own views.

Right Intention
In order not to create more suffering, we need to rely on paying attention (mindfulness) to what our intentions are with others and with our actions. If our intentions stem from anger, resentment, or greed, then we are more likely to do harm than if our intentions are driven to help, to understand, to better our actions in the world. We also need to use intention when we sit for meditation, when we want to speak or act effectively, etc. and to practice the path. Learning how to be mindful to intentions before you act, speak, or write takes some time to learn. But it’s fascinating once you start digging deeply into this area. Once you are aware of your intentions, you sometimes need to consciously set new intentions and let go of the old ones. This is a big part of practice. And it takes practice!

Right Action
With wholesome intentions, our actions are more likely to be skillful as well. This part of the path asks us to pay attention (mindfulness) to how we act or behave in the world, that our actions go towards helping and not harming, that what we do is skillful and don’t do what leads to more suffering. Keep in mind, we are not giving you specifics of what you should do or shouldn’t do. Instead, you learn to develop an ethics meter so to speak, good judgement, based on whether or not your action will bring harm or suffering to yourself or others. You learn to make sure your actions don’t cause suffering.

Right Speech
From the above, you probably figured out already that Right Speech is talking, and includes emailing/messaging,  in such a way that you don’t hurt feelings, you don’t lie, don’t use deceptive or intentionally confusing language, that you don’t gossip, or intentionally make people angry with your speech. Why? Because doing so causes suffering to the people you speak or write harshly too. That doesn’t mean you have to withhold your opinion. It does mean, learning to pay attention (mindfulness) to the intention behind what you are saying, and deciding if it’s going to do more harm than good.

Intention plays a big role here. Examine your intentions for wanting to share your opinion, for wanting to correct or criticize, etc. Right Speech, can also be thought of as Right Writing as well, because what we are really talking about here is communication. We want our communications to be of benefit, not harm. This can be tricky in a world where we come across a multitude of opinions and ideas daily. Sometimes we know people’s views are skewed, wrong, delusion, or divisive. Set an example for healthy, helpful communications.

Right Livelihood
Right Livelihood addresses how we earn a living and more. I’ve seen a lot of debates online where people argue about whether it’s ok or not to work at certain places. Again, this is another part of the path that asks us to determine for ourselves if what we do for a living is causing suffering, or whether what we do is neutral or helping. It’s not a matter of this place is bad and that place is good. Mindfulness and intention come into play in how we interact with our coworkers (action), what our jobs ask of us, how we approach our work ethics. You could be working at a place that does service to others, but if you are treating coworkers unfairly, or you are cheating your employers out of hours or money, then you might want to examine your intentions. This is an area that is worth deep and detailed exploration. The Eightfold Path helps us learn to make our own judgement calls on where we work, how we can make the most of it, and how we interact with others while doing our jobs.

Right Effort
Without effort, our practice is toast. Of course, we all know that to accomplish anything we need to put effort in. For our practice, however, this effort has the motivation/intention of lessening suffering. So, the effort we put into our practice is the impetus for dropping whatever gets in the way of our developing ethics, compassion, and it motivates us to let go of greed, fear, angst, hatred, self loathing, etc. By practice, I mean all your interactions in the world. Being mindful of where we put our effort in our actions and speech each day is really important. And, of course, we need to apply effort toward other areas of our practice, such as developing mindfulness in meditation so that we can put it to good use throughout our days.

Right Mindfulness
Mindfulness in a nutshell is paying attention, but it stretches beyond that. The norm for many of us is to go through our days, living mostly in our heads, with thoughts of the past or future, in conversation with people who aren’t present, ruminating over and over problems. Now, that’s not to say thinking and problem solving aren’t necessary. They surely are, but there is a time and place for thinking and musing, and it’s not all day long. Mindfulness helps keep us anchored in the present, so we can interact in the world appropriately, so we can apply just the right effort to various tasks, and to help prevent from creating and worsening problems. Living entirely in our heads is a habit that is hard to break. Living in our heads can cause us to do poorly in our jobs, distract us from driving on the road well, and in general can just cause a lot of angst.

But with proper intention, effort, and mindfulness, you can train yourself to be present, and deal with whatever arises appropriately. You’ll find over time, mindfulness becomes the new mode of being, a new healthy habit, and you’ll find yourself lost in thoughts much less frequently. Meditation is the tool to develop mindfulness. As you develop mindfulness in the quiet, still environment of meditation, you then extend mindfulness to include all your daily life.

Right Concentration
Right Concentration, sometimes called Right Meditation, and is the practice of focusing the mind solely on one object. Where mindfulness is open to whatever arises, concentration is focusing on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. Both concentration and mindfulness are tools to sharpen the mind, and bring it out of the shadows of discursive thinking and root us in the present. In some traditions, concentration is developed through the practice of the jhanas. This is not a common practice in western Buddhism, but as neuroscience finds benefits to meditation, there seems to be renewed interest in using jhana techniques to develop very specialized forms of concentration.

Concentration also improves naturally through mindfulness meditation. Concentration requires use of Right Effort, Right Intention, and Right Mindfulness. Some argue that you can’t have really good concentration until you’ve developed the ability to let go of anger, hatred, discursive thinking, negativity, etc. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try developing concentration until you have a free mind. Indeed, working on concentration is what helps you to learn to drop unskillful thinking. Once mindfulness and concentration are established, then you can develop greater insight overall because your mind is cluttered with thoughts that inhibit wisdom.

It’s important to review the Eightfold Path from time to time, and to focus on areas as needed. Over time, you’ll notice the overlaps, how each part of the path works with other parts. Working the path is an ongoing lifetime effort that brings many rewards and improve the quality of life.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Reconnecting with Buddhism, Part 1

I'm in the process of re-learning Buddhism, starting from the beginning. The material i'm reading right now is "The Art of Living" by S.N. Goenka. 

 The source of suffering lies within each of us. When we understand our own reality, we will recognize the solution to the problem of suffering. “Know thyself,” all wise persons have advised. We must begin by knowing our own nature; otherwise we can never solve our own problems or the problems of the world. But, actually, what do we really know about ourselves?

We are each convinced of the importance of ourselves, of the uniqueness of ourselves, but our knowledge of ourselves is only superficial. At deeper levels, we do not know ourselves at all. The Buddha examined the phenomenon of a human being by examining his own nature. Laying aside all preconceptions, he explored the reality within and realized that every being is a composite of five processes, four of them mental and one physical. The first one is matter.

Let's begin with the physical aspect. This is the most obvious, the most apparent portion of ourselves, readily perceived by all the senses. And yet how little we really know about it. Superficiallywe can control our bodies: it moves and acts according to the conscious will. But on another level, all the internal organs function beyond our control, without our knowledge. At a subtler level, we know nothing, experientially, of the incessant biochemical reactions occurring within each cell of the body. But this is still not the ultimate reality of the material phenomenon.

Ultimately the seemingly solid body is composed of subatomic particles and empty space. What's more, even these subatomic particles have no real solidity; the existence span of one of them is much less than a trillionth of a second. Particles continuously arise and vanish, passing into and out of existence, like a flow of vibrations. This is the ultimate reality of the body, of all matter, discovered by the Buddha 2500 years ago.

Through their own investigations, modern scientists have recognized and accepted this ultimate reality of the material universe. However, these scientists have not necessarily become liberated, enlightened persons. Out of curiosity they have investigated the nature of the universe, using their intellects and relying on instruments to verify their theories. In contrast, the Buddha was motivated not simply by curiosity but rather by the wish to find a way out of suffering. He used no instruments in his investigation other than his own mind.

The truth that he discovered was the result not of intellectualizing but of his own direct experience, and that is why it could liberate him. He found that the entire material universe was composed of particles, called in the ancient language of Pāli, kalāpas, or “indivisible units.”

These units exhibit in endless variation the basic qualities of matter: mass, cohesion, temperature, and movement. They combine to form structures which seem to have some permanence. But actually these are all composed of minuscule kalāpas which are in a state of continuously arising and passing away. This is the ultimate reality of matter: a constant stream of waves or particles. This is the body which we each call “myself.”

Sunday, January 11, 2015

We Create the Evil in Our World

Evil is a word many people use without thinking deeply about what it means. I want to compare common ideas about evil with Buddhist teachings on evil, if for no other reason than to facilitate deeper thinking about evil. I do not have perfect wisdom or perfect understanding of evil, I'm just talking about it because of all the horrible things going on in our world everyday. I cringe when I turn on the news, but I have to watch it. I usually have what I think is a healthy detachment, meaning I can carry on with my life without too much fear or too much sadness while still maintaining an awareness of the world I live in. I believe we are doing this to ourselves. We live in the world we create.

Thinking About Evil

People have different ideas about evil, where it comes from, why it exists. Here are the two I think are most common.

Evil as an intrinsic characteristic. It's common to think of evil as an intrinsic characteristic of some people or groups. In other words, some people are said to be evil. Evil is a quality that is inherent in their being.

Evil as an external force. In this view, evil lurks about and infects or seduces the unwary into doing bad things. Sometimes evil is personified as Satan or some other character from religious literature.

You can find much more profound ideas about evil in philosophies and theologies, eastern and western. But for this post I want to focus on Buddhist teachings and explain why Buddhism rejects both of these common ways of thinking about evil. 

Evil as a Characteristic

The act of sorting humanity into good and evil carries a terrible trap. When other people are thought to be evil, it becomes possible to justify doing harm to them. And in that kind of thinking are the seeds of genuine evil.

Human history is thoroughly saturated by violence and atrocities committed on behalf of good people against other people categorized as evil. I think I can say that most of the mass horrors humanity has inflicted on itself have come from this kind of thinking. People who are intoxicated by their own self-righteousness or who believe in their own intrinsic moral superiority can too easily give themselves permission to do terrible things to those they hate or fear. Or who get in their way.

Sorting people into divisions and categories is very un-Buddhist. The Buddha's teaching of the The Four Noble Truths tells us that suffering is caused by greed, but also that greed is rooted in the delusion of an isolated and separate self.

Closely related to this is the teaching of dependent origination, which says that everything and everyone is a web of interconnection, and every part of the web expresses and reflects every other part of the web.

And also closely related is the Mahayana teaching of shunyata, emptiness. If we are empty of intrinsic being, how can we be intrinsically anything? There is no-self for intrinsic qualities to stick to. (there are a ton of posts about shunyata on this blog...)

For this reason, a Buddhist is strongly advised not to fall into the habit of thinking of herself and others as intrinsically good or bad. Ultimately there is just action and reaction; cause and effect - Karma.

Evil as External Force

Some religions teach that evil is a force outside ourselves that seduces us into sin. This force is sometimes thought to be generated by Satan or various demons. The faithful are encouraged to seek strength outside themselves to fight evil, by looking to God.

The Buddha's teaching could not be more different --
"By oneself, indeed, is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself, indeed, is one purified. Purity and impurity depend on oneself. No one purifies another." (Dhammapada, chapter 12, verse 165)
Buddhism teaches us that evil is something we create, not something we are or some outside force that infects us.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Siddartha Gautama's Story

There was a small country in what is now southern Nepal that was ruled by a clan called the Shakyas.  The head of this clan, and the king of this country, was named Shuddodana Gautama, and his wife was the beautiful Mahamaya.  Mahamaya was expecting her first born.  She had had a strange dream in which a baby elephant had blessed her with his trunk, which was understood to be a very auspicious sign to say the least.

As was the custom of the day, when the time came near for Queen Mahamaya to have her child, she traveled to her father's kingdom for the birth.  But during the long journey, her birth pains began.  In the small town of Lumbini, she asked her handmaidens to assist her to a nearby grove of trees for privacy.  One large tree lowered a branch to her to serve as a support for her delivery.  They say the  birth was nearly painless, even though the child had to be delivered from her side.  After, a gentle rain fell on the mother and the child to cleanse them.

It is said that the child was born fully awake.  He could speak, and told his mother he had come to free all mankind from suffering.  He could stand, and he walked a short distance in each of the four directions.  Lotus blossoms rose in his footsteps.  They named him Siddhartha, which means "he who has attained his goals."  Sadly, Mahamaya died only seven days after the birth.  After that Siddhartha was raised by his mother’s kind sister,  Mahaprajapati.

King Shuddodana consulted Asita, a well-known sooth-sayer, concerning the future of his son.  Asita proclaimed that he would be one of two things:  He could become a great king, even an emperor.  Or he could become a great sage and savior of humanity.  The king, eager that his son should become a king like himself, was determined to shield the child from anything that might result in him taking up the religious life.  And so Siddhartha was kept in one or another of their three palaces, and was prevented from experiencing much of what ordinary folk might consider quite commonplace.  He was not permitted to see the elderly, the sickly, the dead, or anyone who had dedicated themselves to spiritual practices.  Only beauty and health surrounded Siddhartha.

Siddhartha grew up to be a strong and handsome young man.  As a prince of the warrior caste, he trained in the arts of war.  When it came time for him to marry, he won the hand of a beautiful princess of a neighboring kingdom by besting all competitors at a variety of sports. Yashodhara was her name, and they married when both were 16 years old.

As Siddhartha continued living in the luxury of his palaces, he grew increasing restless and curious about the world beyond the palace walls.  He finally demanded that he be permitted to see his people and his lands.  The king carefully arranged that Siddhartha should still not see the kind of suffering that he feared would lead him to a religious life, and decried that only young and healthy people should greet the prince.
As he was lead through Kapilavatthu, the capital, he chanced to see a couple of old men who had accidentally wandered near the parade route.  Amazed and confused, he chased after them to find out what they were.  Then he came across some people who were severely ill.  And finally, he came across a funeral ceremony by the side of a river, and for the first time in his life saw death.  He asked his friend and squire Chandaka the meaning of all these things, and Chandaka informed him of the simple truths that Siddhartha should have known all along:  That all of us get old, sick, and eventually die.

Siddhartha also saw an ascetic, a monk who had renounced all the pleasures of the flesh.  The peaceful look on the monks face would stay with Siddhartha for a long time to come.  Later, he would say this about that time:
When ignorant people see someone who is old, they are disgusted and horrified, even though they too will be old some day.  I thought to myself:  I don’t want to be like the ignorant people.  After that, I couldn’t feel the usual intoxication with youth anymore.When ignorant people see someone who is sick, they are disgusted and horrified, even though they too will be sick some day.  I thought to myself:  I don’t want to be like the ignorant people.  After that, I couldn’t feel the usual intoxication with health anymore.When ignorant people see someone who is dead, they are disgusted and horrified, even though they too will be dead some day.  I thought to myself:  I don’t want to be like the ignorant people.  After than, I couldn’t feel the usual intoxication with life anymore. 
At the age of 29, Siddhartha came to realize that he could not be happy living as he had been.  He had discovered suffering, and wanted more than anything to discover how one might overcome suffering.  After kissing his sleeping wife and newborn son Rahula goodbye, he snuck out of the palace with his squire Chandara and his favorite horse Kanthaka.  He gave away his rich clothing, cut his long hair, and gave the horse to Chandara and told him to return to the palace.    He studied for a while with two famous gurus of the day, but found their practices lacking.

He then began to practice the austerities and self-mortifications practiced by a group of five ascetics. For six years, he practiced. The sincerity and intensity of his practice were so astounding that, before long, the five ascetics became followers of Siddhartha.  But the answers to his questions were not forthcoming.  He redoubled his efforts, refusing food and water, until he was in a state of near death.One day, a peasant girl named Sujata saw this starving monk and took pity on him.  She begged him to eat some of her milk-rice.  Siddhartha then realized that these extreme practices were leading him nowhere, that in fact it might be better to find some middle way between the extremes of the life of luxury and the life of self-mortification.  So he ate, and drank, and bathed in the river.  The five ascetics saw him and concluded that Siddhartha had given up the ascetic life and taken to the ways of the flesh, and left him.

In the town of Bodh Gaya, Siddhartha decided that he would sit under a certain fig tree as long as it would take for the answers to the problem of suffering to come.  He sat there for many days, first in deep concentration to clear his mind of all distractions, then in mindfulness meditation, opening himself up to the truth.  He began, they say, to recall all his previous lives, and to see everything that was going on in the entire universe.  On the full moon of May, with the rising of the morning star, Siddhartha finally understood the answer to the question of suffering and became the Buddha, which means “he who is awake.”

It is said that Mara, the evil one, tried to prevent this great occurrence.  He first tried to frighten Siddhartha with storms and armies of demons.  Siddhartha remained completely calm.  Then he sent his three beautiful daughters to tempt him, again to no avail.  Finally, he tried to ensnare Siddhartha in his own ego by appealing to his pride.  That, too, failed.  Siddhartha, having conquered all temptations, touched the ground with one hand and asked the earth to be his witness.

Siddhartha, now the Buddha, remained seated under the tree -- which we call the bodhi tree -- for many days longer. It seemed to him that this knowledge he had gained was far too difficult to communicate to others.  Legend has it that Brahma, king of the gods, convinced Buddha to teach, saying that some of us perhaps have only a little dirt in our eyes and could awaken if we only heard his story.  Buddha agreed to teach.

At Sarnath near Benares, about one hundred miles from Bodh Gaya, he came across the five ascetics he had practiced with for so long.  There, in a deer park, he preached his first sermon, which is called “setting the wheel of the teaching in motion.”  He explained to them the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.  They became his very first disciples and the beginnings of the Sangha or community of monks.

King Bimbisara of Magadha, having heard Buddha’s words, granted him a monastery near Rahagriha, his capital, for use during the rainy season.  This and other generous donations permitted the community of converts to continue their practice throughout the years, and gave many more people an opportunity to hear the teachings of the Buddha.

Over time, he was approached by members of his family, including his wife, son, father, and aunt.  His son became a monk and is particularly remembered in a sutra based on a conversation between father and son on the dangers of lying.  His father became a lay follower.  Because he was saddened by the departures of his son and grandson into the monastic life, he asked Buddha to make it a rule that a man must have the permission of his parents to become a monk.  Buddha obliged him.

His aunt and wife asked to be permitted into the Sangha, which was originally composed only of men.  The culture of the time ranked women far below men in importance, and at first it seemed that permitting women to enter the community would weaken it.  But the Buddha relented, and his aunt and wife became the first Buddhist nuns.

The Buddha said that it didn’t matter what a person’s status in the world was, or what their background or wealth or nationality might be.  All were capable of enlightenment, and all were welcome into the Sangha.  The first ordained Buddhist monk, Upali, had been a barber, yet he was ranked higher than monks who had been kings, only because he had taken his vows earlier than they!

Buddha’s life wasn’t without disappointments.  His cousin, Devadatta, was an ambitious man.  As a convert and monk, he felt that he should have greater power in the Sangha.   He managed to influence quite a few monks with a call to a return to extreme asceticism. Eventually, he conspired with a local king to have the Buddha killed and to take over the Buddhist community.  Of course, he failed.

Buddha had achieved his enlightenment at the age of 35.  He would teach throughout northeast India for another 45 years.  When the Buddha was 80 years old, he told his friend and cousin Ananda that he would be leaving them soon.  And so it came to be that in Kushinagara, not a hundred miles from his homeland, he ate some spoiled food and became very ill.  He went into a deep meditation under a grove of sala trees and died.  His last words were...
Impermanent are all created things;
Strive on with awareness.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

I Am Not An Animal

For the last two and one half years, I've been exploring Christianity. I've really thrown myself into it, trying to learn and understand and believe. I got in with a wonderful, loving, good group of people who have been and are very loving and supportive to me. I have no complaints about almost everything from this experience. I love the people very much and hope to always be in their lives.

However, Christianity has lead me to a dark place because of the rules and regulations. Threats and fear based beliefs. Rigidity.

After months of praying, reading, thinking and talking to many people, especially my dear friend Bruce Miller, the senior pastor at my church, I realize that there is not a place for me in Christianity. It, of course, is the gay thing. Bruce is tired of talking about it, but it continues to be my life. I understand its not his life or their life. Its me that doesn't fit.

But back to the dark place. It was like hitting a wall, like the concussion from an explosion - an unseen blow slamming into me with force and heat:
  "The bottom line, again, is that homosexual acts are contrary to God's order and design and are only in the world because of our fallen, broken nature" 

No. That is not true. I won't live my life thinking about myself or others in this manner. There is no love, no compassion, no acceptance, no logic, no nothing there for me. I have to get back to a more loving, mindful and considered way of life. This whole gay thing with Christians doesn't work for me. This is where my head was at a couple of months ago and it is very far away from where I want to be. Its a copy of a what I posted after the sexuality sermon series at church.

Creatures of the Fall
October 27, 2014

I haven't posted on my blog for several months - I've been in a holding pattern, waiting for a sermon series on sexuality at my church. The next two weeks will be devoted to same sex issues as viewed from a Biblical standpoint.

I started reading the study guide for the series today. I'm deeply hurt and disappointed in what I read, but I'm not surprised. I just didn't know how bad it was going to be. If they had just stuck to "its okay to be gay, it's just not okay to have gay sex" I could have endured it. But I didn't expect what I read. Here's a quote from the study guide: "The bottom line, again, is that homosexual acts are contrary to God's order and design and are only in the world because of our fallen, broken nature" 

I found out today that I, as I am today and have been my whole life, would not exist if it hadn't been for "the fall of humanity." If Adam and Eve had just behaved we could have avoided having homosexuals on the planet altogether. No bothersome gay marriages or having your day ruined when you see two men holding hands.

Here's another quote: "Hearing that your deepest desires for intimacy are the result of humanity's fall is not an easy thing to accept."  No kidding. I'm not sure I'm going to be able to sit through the next two week's sermons. There's lots more quotes like these. Its very disturbing to me that things like these will be said, heard and believed. It's extremely disturbing that they think gays would feel welcome there and that they think they are even capable of welcoming gays. Gays would only be welcome, for real, if they changed and conformed. There would be many church functions that gay people would be excluded from just because they are gay. I am very out of sorts. I feel pain in my chest, a pit in my stomach, a lump in my throat. My heart is broken.

Here's the thing. I've been going to this church for over two years now. I have community there, I  have some friends. I've volunteered, joined a life group, taken classes, gone to bible studies, attended services.  I like the people and they like me. A LOT of my time and energy and love have gone in to the church. Its a big part of my life. I've learned so much about God, how to live in a way that pleases God. It is my hearts desire to become more and more like God wants me to be. I really don't want to leave, but how on earth can I stay knowing they believe I'm a perversion that sprung into being because a lady ate an apple a million years ago.

There is no reason to live in this turmoil. I'm getting my life back on track.

The Method of Developing Metta

The Method of Developing Metta 
from The State of Mind Called Beautiful
 by Sayadah U. Pandita

The method for developing metta is much the same as the methods for the other brahmacariyas. We will explain metta bhavana, then, as a basic example; and we will also briefly describe the theme of protective meditations.

The basic method for metta bhavana is simple. One deliberately generates wishes for others' welfare and happiness. Identifying one's own wish to be happy, one recognizes that others feel just the same way. A desire to help them arises; and so one goes out and does whatever helpful things one can. Helpful actions are a form of metta, known as kaya-kamma metta, friendly actions performed with the body. True loving-kindness includes kaya-kamma metta and two other forms of metta: vaci-kamma mettd, verbal acts of metta; and mano-kamma metta, friendly mental actions.

Four Kinds of Loving Speech

 To speak friendly words, recite suttas, give good advice, or simply to speak in a friendly, beneficial manner--all are forms of vaci-kamma metta.

The specific teachings on skillful speech, vaci-sucarita, indicate that for speech to be skillful it must be motivated by loving-kindness. Thus, to practice skillful speech is vaci-kamma metta.

The first type of skillful speech is truthful speech. One wishes to inform the other person honestly, so he or she may have correct understanding and knowledge. This is a wholesome, kind intention. Honesty is a form of loving-kindness.

Second, one chooses words that are unifying rather than divisive. Not only is the intent based in metta but the result of such speech is sure to be a further expression of loving-kindness.

Third, we choose words that are sweet and pleasing, not rough, harsh language. We want to make people happy when they hear us talking. At the same time, we guard against deceit and flattery, which contain an element of dishonesty.

The fourth type of vaci-sucarita is speaking of meaningful, essential things. Not wanting to waste the other person's time, we offer worthwhile information and understanding.''

People who practice vaci-sucarita will easily find friends and support. Should they become leaders, they must not suddenly abandon the principles of skillful speech. Leaders will be trusted and respected if they do not lie to the public, if they speak in a way that builds trust and friendship, if they refrain from speaking roughly or threateningly; and if they make speeches that are pithy and meaningful.

Vaci-sucarita is important in all kinds of organizations and groups --families, businesses, communities, governments. It is especially crucial in the religious arena, given that skillful speech is based on cetana-metta, or kind intention. When people sense cetana-metta in a religious figure they become devoted; but if kind intent is lacking, they won't want to hear anything else. As soon as a religious leader indulges in wrongful or deliberately deceptive speech, it's the beginning of the end. So long as their lies remain concealed, leaders may retain some followers, but when the truth is exposed they will undergo a public downfall.

People who love to gossip and pass around divisive tidbits often claim they just want to be kind and helpful, but this is untrue. Similarly, rough, coarse language and frivolous time-wasting chatter reveal a dearth of metta. In general, ill-intentioned speech, vaci-duccarita, turns people away. People are attracted to speech that is truthful, meaningful, unifying, and friendly.

Vaci-sucarita, skillful speech, and vaci-kamma metta verbal acts of loving-kindness, are beneficial for everyone. The more one practices them, the more power one will have to gather others together into a respectful and supportive group. The kind intentions must be genuine, though.

Mental Kindness
The third and final form of metta is mano-kamma metta acts of loving-kindness performed by the mind. Essentially this means wishing others to be well and happy. Mano-kamma metta can be radiated at all times, in all postures. It can occur as a spontaneous wish or a deliberately repeated phrase like "May she (or he, or they) be happy." To recite verbal formulas silently in the mind is the method of formal metta meditation, which can develop one's loving-kindness to an extraordinary level. It will be described extensively below.

Loving-Kindness as a Protective Practice
Metta bhavana has two possible goals. It can be used to gain the jhanas, or absorptions, states of very strong concentration; or it can be used as a Guardian Meditation, leading to freedom from danger and enmity.

The technique for developing jhanic concentration has many fine points that we will not go into here, since our emphasis is on developing the insight knowledges through satipattthana vipassana meditation. Sufficient moment-to-moment concentration arises in satipatthana vipassana practice to fulfill the Noble Eightfold Path and lead to freedom from the defilements.

The protective form of metta bhavana is extremely beneficial. It generates wholesome mental states, guards against inner and outer dangers and disturbances, and develops the perfections according to the example of the Buddha.

There are enemies, vera; and there is also fear, bhaya. The two are related, for if we are not free from enemies we endure danger and fear. We already distinguished outer and inner enemies--puggala vera, the enemy that comes in the form of a person, and akusala vera and kilesa vera, unwholesomeness and mental defilements. Outer enemies are encountered relatively rarely, while the inner enemies attack us night and day, unless we protect ourselves with meditation.

Dosa is an internal enemy, as is raga, or lust, which so often poses as metta. When dosa and raga arise in the stream of consciousness they disturb it; they also have the potential to bring disaster to oneself and others. Hatred, when indulged, hardens into resentment. Lust too can grow into a destructive passion. Whenever a destructive mental state is present, the mind becomes rough, coarse, wild, heavy, dosed, disgusting, and dreadful. In contrast, a mind filled with metta is peaceFul, lovable, light, and open.

The First Wish of Metta Meditation
To be free from hatred and lust is avera, to lack an enemy. This wonderful state is the first wish we generate toward others in formal metta bhavana. "May he or she be free from enemies," we say to ourselves, thinking of both inner and outer enemies. (It is all right to vary the verbal formula slightly, as long as the essence of the wish remains. For instance, the phrase you use could be "May he or she be free from danger" or "May he or she be free from enmity, danger, and fear.")

People often ask, When one meditates by radiating metta to other beings, will these others become peaceful? This is not certain. What is certain is that one's own internal enemies, dosa and raga, will be pacified and one will become peaceful oneself.
If we practice loving-kindness, it will certainly arise. If we keep at it, our metta will gradually increase, growing powerful enough to quell the internal enemies of hatred and greed. Once these enemies are subdued, one is no longer so quick to respond to others in an angry or self-centered way--for example, by immediately forming negative judgments of those we meet, or by feeling jealous and suspicious of family members. Generally if one does not radiate metta, or if one's practice is weak, one remains easy prey for hatred, greed, lust, and so forth. One can end up violating the precepts by killing, stealing, verbal unkindness, sexual misconduct, or intoxication.

Protection from Inner and Outer Danger
Wrongdoing results from a tormented mind; it also leads to further dangers. By protecting us against inner enemies, metta bhavana also averts the dangers that result from wrongdoing. These dangers are:

Attanuvada-bhaya, the fear or danger of self-blame, feeling ashamed and guilty about what one has done.
Paranuvdda-bhaya, the fear of censure by others, losing the respect and support of people who have good judgment. Kind, ethical people tend to avoid those who habitually indulge in wrongdoing.
Danda-bhaya, fear of punishment by the authorities. If one kills, steals, lies, takes intoxicants, and is generally unruly, sooner or later this will lead to conflict with the secular authorities.
Duggati-bhaya, fear of being reborn in an unfavorable existence. Just as eating unsuitable food leads to an upset stomach, anytime one acts on a defiled intention one will suffer the consequences.
Clearly, no happiness arises in the mind of a person who is facing guilt, punishment, torture, and unfavorable rebirths.

Formula for Reciting Loving-Kindness

The wish we are emanating, for others to be free from enemies or danger, is expressed in a short, simple phrase that encompasses all possible problems a being can face: outer and inner enemies, wrongdoing, and all of its future consequences. If this wish were to come true, the being toward whom we're directing it would be perfectly happy and calm. Since we're wishing them to be freed from inner enemies, we are also wishing they might reach ultimate liberation of mind, perfect peace and freedom.

So, as we mentally recite the formula "May this person be free from enemies," we're emanating a pure volition for their happiness. Though it's uncertain what the result of this will be for the recipient, great joy will develop in one's own mind. One begins to understand what it is like to be freed from inner enemies, oneself.

Metta practice bestows the power to overcome kodhummattaka, mental madness based on hatred, colloquially called blind rage. Gripped by kodhummattaka, one goes berserk, out of control, and barely knows what one is doing. With metta bhfivanfi, one's knee-jerk responses become gentler, toned down; one's thoughts are less distorted, more humane.

People with strong metta no longer wish disadvantages upon others. They genuinely hope for others' happiness. They can put up with being insulted; they can forgive and forget. They let go of grudges and can sacrifice their own benefit for the sake of other beings. These wise, kind, beautiful qualities all arise due to lack of hatred in the mind. As metta grows stronger, the beauty of the mind increases. A generous, tolerant, unselfish person will also tend to be loved by others; he or she will be relatively free of puggala vera, enemies in human form. Thus, the protective quality of metta bhavana works inwardly and outwardly. It gradually tames the mind and behavior. As one's own little world is pacified, peace arises in the surrounding world.
Radiating Metta

To wish others to be free from enmity and danger is an efficient, focused way of radiating metta. The wish, in the form of a phrase, is radiated repeatedly. Metta can also be radiated spatially, first to those within one's home, then to those in the immediate neighborhood, and progressively to all beings in one's village, township, state, country, world, and universe.

If one's wishes are dedicated wholly to the welfare and happiness of others, metta reaches the level of metta-parami, the perfected loving-kindness of a buddha. Each and every time one radiates loving-kindness, either to individuals or groups, one is protecting oneself, developing metta-parami, gaining merit, and sowing a beneficial kammic seed that will bear fruit someday. By radiating metta hundreds or thousands of times, one protects oneself, develops metta-parami, and gains merit hundreds or thousands of times~quite a matter for rejoicing.

Radiating metta once per second, within a minute one protects oneself, develops metta-parami, and gains merit sixty times. Radiating loving-kindness for five minutes, one develops metta-parami and gains merit three hundred times. An hour offers thirty-six hundred instances of protection, parami, and merit.

But if we radiate the phrase "May so-and-so be well and happy" a thousand times and then speak roughly to that person, we cannot be said to possess real loving-kindness. After radiating loving-kindness mentally, we must also express it in verbal and bodily actions. Anytime we relate to other beings, we should do so with threefold loving-kindness–mental, verbal, and bodily acts of metta. This point should be well noted.

Still, it is said in the texts that a single moment of radiating loving-kindness mentally is more beneficial than cooking up huge pots of rice and offering them to others in the morning, noon, and evening. The Sarhyutta Nikaya states this very clearly radiating loving-kindness even for the time it takes to pull a cow's udder once is far better than
making huge rice offerings three times a day. They're not talking about just one giant pot of rice, but three hundred giant pots in the morning, three hundred more at noon, and again three hundred gigantic rice pots in the evening! It would seem that a point is being made.

Self-Esteem and Human Status
Most people hold themselves in high esteem; this is why they so easily lose patience. Impatience is a form of anger based on pride and conceit, or mana. Conceited ill will causes one to lose one's tolerance and humanity. One may continue to look like a human being from the outside, but one's mind and behavior resemble a hungry ghost's. If one remains just as irritable and impatient after radiating metta, the practice has been superficial. It is a sign that one needs to practice more. Maybe then one will start being a little bit more generous and succeed in rising up to human status and eventually become a distinguished, even an outstanding human being.

In human life it is quite possible to fulfill one's social duties, be generous, and improve one's mental states through meditation. If one can do all this, one will not be just a human being, and not just a distinguished human being, but a true human being. As such, when relating to others one will feel happy, cool, and peaceful.

Unselfishness, the Perfection of Loving-Kindness
Since we are practicing metta along the direction of developing paramis, it is good to delve into the meaning of this term.

Parami translated as "perfection," but it means "noble becoming" or "the business of a noble person." When performing wholesome deeds of generosity, dana, when observing morality (sila), and especially in metta-bhavana it is extremely important that there be no selfish interest involved. This is the meaning of the term "noble." It has nothing to do with social class--or, rather, it expresses the Buddha's definition of what is valuable and respectable in human affairs.

When performing a generous deed, it should be done entirely for the benefit of others. Only then does it qualify as true generosity. This is fairly obvious, since selfishness and generosity are contradictory. The commitment to maintain sila, too, can be altruistic, since a refined morality includes the recognition that others are just as worthy of good treatment as oneself. Likewise, when radiating loving-kindness we can do so entirely for the welfare and happiness of others.

Anytime we are generous, moral, or kind, there should be no hint of selfishness in our attitude.

Wholesome acts of morality, generosity, and kindness do not, however, lead to assurance in the Dhamma. Only the insight knowledges attained in satipatthana vipassana meditation can give that ultimate assurance--the assurance that one has understood the truth of existence and will no longer be subjected to suffering. We have been talking about the importance of selflessness in the metta practice. However, metta practice does not by itself lead to the ultimate understanding of the Noble Eightfold Path, to liberation of the mind from suffering, or to what is called "assurance in the Dhamma." When it comes time to practice the Dhamma to attain stream entry, we may feel motivated by a profound wish for release from the suffering we experience in ourselves. To have a certain degree of self-interest here is fine. The texts say that this desire is perfectly legitimate. So, when practicing the Dhamma to attain stream entry, one will be working hard in hopes of being freed from wrong views, doubt, and the danger of rebirth in states of loss. There's nothing wrong with harboring some hope of success, and no harm is done to others either. We've already discussed how one's own insight meditation practice benefits other beings.

In all other areas besides this, one should guard strenuously against selfish interest and instead focus on benefiting others. This is a noble aim; a person who undertakes such noble activity is also called parami. Persons worthy of the title parami will act from genuine loving-kindness and compassion. They are not hoping to gain name and fame or a long life nor even to be freed from the cycle of birth and death, samsara. Their motivation is altruistic.