Saturday, September 13, 2014

Vertical and Horizontal Healing

"Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
--Matthew 22: 35-40.

Thus sayeth Jesus, whom Christians worship as "the Lord," but whom I, following the Dalai Lama, simply honor as a Buddha--a fully awakened being whom I revere as the greatest of Dharma teachers, along with Gautama Siddhartha the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and a few others. 

He is answering the challenging question from a local scribe or lawyer, "Which is the greatest commandment of the (Hebrew) Law?" and his response is simply to quote two isolated passages from the Torah--Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. His genius is to equate them: "And the second is like unto it."  In other words, loving God is inseparable from loving one's neighbor, just as loving one's neighbor is inseparable from loving oneself.  And therein, according to the Master, "hang all the law and the prophets." In other words, he is implying that Wisdom (loving God) and Compassion (loving our neighbors as ourselves) are two sides of the same coin. And all the rest is commentary. 

In Luke's version of the story, the Lawyer then challenges him with the $35 question: "Who is my neighbor??" In other words, where do we draw the boundaries of the Sacramental Community--who is in and who is out? Who is "us"--the so-called "people of God"--and who is "them"?

Jesus responds--typically--by telling an ironic story: the Parable of the Good Samaritan. But who were the Samaritans? They were the "other guys"--the folks the Israelites loved to hate (and vice versa). They lived--remarkably enough--in the area that we know today as the West Bank. 

So the Samaritans--or as we might call them today, the Palestinians--were the folks who lived on the other side of the tracks--or of the wall, as the case may be. In fact, the Disciples had just been thrown out of a Samaritan village, and were already smoldering in resentment at these lowly scum. So Jesus' parable could not have arisen at a more propitious moment--what the Buddha called "Skillful Means."

The story, of course, is quite familiar already: a traveler to Jericho is waylaid by highwaymen, robbed, and beaten. As he lies there bleeding, several of his fellow Israelites--a priest and a Levite--happen by as he moans and cries for help. Both cross the road--to the other side, to avoid him. After all, like the highwaymen themselves, scam artists were common on the remote mountain roads of the time--people who would pretend to be hurt and then rob you blind-- so the priest and the Levite were not taking any risks, and they hurried along, not looking back.  And then a Samaritan came along. In all likelihood, the battered traveler didn't even bother crying out for help--after all, he and the Samaritan were enemies--their peoples hated and despised one another as infidels.

We'll let Jesus tell the rest:

"When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said to him, 'Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.' Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbour to him who fell among the robbers?"

The answer, of course, is obvious. The loathed Samaritan--the guy we love to hate--was the only one of the three passersby whose compassion overrode any fear or mistrust that he might have encountered a scam artist, and who took the man in, brought him to an inn, dressed his wounds,  and even promised to reimburse the host in full for getting him home safely. 

The implications are equally obvious: to the question, "Who is my neighbor?"--that is, what are the boundaries of the Sacramental Community--Jesus was saying something radical for our time as well as his own: "Ain't no boundaries."

As we face the horrific crises of our time--anthropogenic climate destabilization, despoiling of our land, air, and water by greedy corporations, religious and ethnic hatreds coming to a boil, whether in Iraq, Ukraine, Gaza, or St. Louis, and so on, we need to keep this majestic teaching of Jesus close to our hearts--Loving God = Loving our neighbor as ourself--whoever that neighbor might be.

But how do we get there from here?  While Jesus tells us, unequivocally, what we need to do, the Buddha and the traditions he spawned on the other side of the Eurasian landmass give us a wide range of practical approaches to how to do it--how to grow ourselves, that is, into people like the Good Samaritan--people who know how to put love ahead of fear, and do what needs to be done.

It comes down, in my view, to integrating Vertical and Horizontal healing.

"Vertical Healing" refers to all the arts of "loving God"--which Hindus classify as the Way of Devotion (Bakhti Yoga), the Way of (intellectual) Contemplation (Jnana Yoga), the Way of Selfless Service (Karma Yoga) and the "Royal Way" (Raja Yoga) of direct attainment through the eightfold Yogic path--Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi (or integrative realization of Oneness).

Other traditions, of course, have other formulations of this path of self-purification, but they all strongly overlap. They all involve the vertical integration of Body, Mind, and Spirit.

"Horizontal Healing," then refers to political activism--that is, to all ongoing efforts to bring peace and justice to our communities, our nations, and our planet--including, but not limited to, agitation for human rights, labor activism, environmental advocacy, nonviolent civil disobedience, and so on.

The problem is, the practitioners of vertical and horizontal healing are mostly very different people, who are at times scornful of the other. Vertical practitioners--whether Yogins, Tai Chi masters, Catholic priests, or scholars, often get so caught up in their head trips (or body-mind integration disciplines) that they look down on those who get caught up in worldly pursuits. Similarly, social and political activists are often so driven, so obsessed, and so chronically angry at the evils of the world that they are contemptuous of anyone who wastes his or her time meditating or chanting mantras.

Yet--as Jesus knew--vertical and horizontal healing are inseparable. You cannot truly love God--in any cultural permutation of that idea--without loving your neighbor as yourself--all your neighbors, including the animals and plants on which we all depend for our survival. And we cannot truly bring peace, justice, and environmental healing to our planet without first--or simultaneously--realizing inner peace, equanimity, compassion, and joy within ourselves. As Lao Tzu put it--

What is firmly established cannot be uprooted.
What is firmly grasped cannot slip away.
It will be honoured from generation to generation.

Cultivate Virtue in yourself,
And Virtue will be real.
Cultivate it in the family,
And Virtue will abound.
Cultivate it in the village,
And Virtue will grow.
Cultivate it in the nation,
And Virtue will be abundant.
Cultivate it in the universe,
And Virtue will be everywhere...

So healing our families, communities, and planet must begin by cultivating virtue in ourselves. Here is an easy formula to remember:




Breathe, Observe, Let Go
Be well, Do good work, Keep in touch,
Learn, teach, heal, and create.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Wangari Maathai on Democracy

"All political systems, institutions of the state, and cultural values (as well as pathways toward, and indicators of, economic growth) are justifiable only insofar as they encourage basic freedoms, including human rights, and individual and collective well-being. In that respect, democracy doesn’t solely mean “one person, one vote.” It also means, among other things, the protection of minority rights; an effective and truly representative parliament; an independent judiciary; an informed and engaged citizenry; an independent fourth estate; the rights to assemble, practice one’s religion freely, and advocate for one’s view peacefully without fear of reprisal or arbitrary arrest; and an empowered and active civil society that can operate without intimidation. By this definition, many African countries—and indeed, many societies in both the developing and developed worlds—fall short of genuine democracy. Likewise, “development” doesn’t only entail the acquisition of material things, although everyone should have enough to live with dignity and without fear of starvation or becoming homeless. Instead, it means achieving a quality of life that is sustainable, and allowing the expression of the full range of creativity and humanity."
Wangari Maathai (Nobel Peace Prize Laureate)

The Challenge for Africa (Random House/Anchor Books, 2009), p. 56

The above passage is, in my view, the most eloquent, complete, and resonant definition of democracy as an ideal since the Declaration of Independence.  This is all the more remarkable since its author, Wangari Maathai, learned English as a second language, and other than her relatively brief time studying abroad in the US,  spent most of the rest of her life in her native Kenya, which was under British colonial rule in her childhood, and since independence in 1963, has been, at best, an unstable democracy, prone to corruption, dictatorial rule, and sporadic violence between competing ethnic factions. 

Wangari Maathai was a Gaian Bodhisattva--an enlightened being who saw clearly, and devoted her life to, the integration of ecological healing, empowerment of local communities and of women in particular, and the cultivation of real democracy. Her life work was the Green Belt Movement, which began with planting a tree in her own back yard, and blossomed into a mass movement of rural African women who planted millions of trees to restore the devastated landscapes of Kenya. She won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in 2004, and died in 2011. If you have some time, be sure to see the magnificent documentary that celebrates her life and career: Taking Root.


"Imagine all the for today..."
--John Lennon.

I'm quite sure that most people today consider John Lennon's iconic song "Imagine" to be little more than a naive and utterly impossible hippie fantasy, a piece of nostalgia to be indulged now and then, or, for some, a dangerous socialistic, heretical screed...another reason to stamp out "godless liberalism."

But I love this song for another, unlikely reason: because it is a luminous description of reality.  What??? you ask. Consider:

  • In actuality, there is no Heaven or Hell. These are not actual "places" we somehow fly to (or descend to) after death, but metaphors, at best, for states of mind.
  • In actuality, all the people do live for today, whether they know it or not. The past is gone and irretrievable; the future is just a mental formation, an imaginative projection. Neither actually exists--only the present moment does.
  • In actuality, there are no countries--the view from space discloses no actual borders between nation states. Nations, likewise, are collectively held mental formations.
  • In actuality, there are no possessions. Everything we "own" (including our own bodies) is just a temporary configuration of causes and conditions in transit between us and someone or something else, and is a product of ongoing interactions with their exterior. Without everything in the universe, there would not be anything in the universe--this is because that is, and vice versa, and all is in constant flux and transformation.
But what about "No religion too"? This is the line that provokes the most heated reactions, quite naturally. ("See? I told you--he is a Godless Commie who wants to suppress God's people," I can hear the right-wing zealots scream.)

In the spirit of the rest of the lyrics, I would suggest that Lennon is saying, or at least we can interpret, that no one religion has a patent on Truth; that it is "nothing to kill or die for."  And likewise, as with no Heaven, no Hell, and no national borders, and no real possessions, there is no such thing as "religion" in the real world--that is, in the "inescapable network of mutuality" that is Gaia. Religion, likewise, is a mental formation, without any actual counterpart in the real world.

That being the case, let's do a bit more imagining. Imagine what might happen if...

  • a Dharma Gaia movement took root, simply because people discovered the joy of meditating, and the mental and spiritual wholeness and joy of aligning the health, competence and resilience of their own bodies, minds, and spirits with that of their communities and their planet, and because none of this threatened their existing religious beliefs. The movement would not be a religion; there is no mandatory ideology. At its core is basic meditation practice, common throughout wisdom traditions of the world: Breathe - Observe - Let Go - Abide. To this it adds learning to identify oneself with one's community and planet simultaneously--or as Lao Tzu put it, "Taking care of everything (and everyone) and abandoning nothing (and no one)."
  • Dharma Gaia circles started springing up everywhere, adapted for the local culture--in schools, churches, synagogues, community centers, even places of work, simply because people enjoyed the practice, and derived such personal and social benefits of doing so. (In Christian churches, for example, where the word "Dharma" is often considered heresy and "Gaia" as a pagan earth deity to be stamped out, one could simply call it "the mustardseed project" after the Parable of the Mustard Seed.) There would be no Dharma Gaia hierarchy, no enforcement of orthodoxy, but there would be ongoing communication, through the Web, of ideas and best practices for healing self, community, and planet simultaneously among all the various self-organizing circles. Its iconography will be simply the photo-image of the Earth, which has already gone viral all over the planet.
  • As a direct consequence, local farm markets, tree-planting cooperatives, and garden cooperatives started springing up in communities throughout the world, as people reclaimed their food and healed the land, rivers, and topsoil that provides it.
  • In any instances where Glomart perversely persists in lucrative efforts to plunder the planet and enslave its inhabitants (i.e. clearcutting forests, mountaintop removal mining, fracking, blood diamonds, overfishing, etc.) Gaians would plan and execute focused and relentless Satyagraha campaigns to disrupt their despoliation, while simultaneously restoring democracy from the ground up by mobilizing voters to throw Glomart-owned politicians out of office, through a widespread Campaign for the Public Interest.
  • The net effect of all such efforts would be Spontaneous Remission of the Cancer of the Earth--a global culture where everyone was well aware that humanity is a part of, not apart from Gaia, and therefore everyone is committed to honoring and nurturing the biological conditions of our existence--topsoil, air, water, and sunlight;  that "possessions" are borrowed temporarily from Gaia, not owned; that "countries" are simply administrative conveniences, and nothing to kill or die for; and that "religions" are fine as social cohesives, provided they reject toxic "my way or no way" ideologies. A world, in short, where it is common knowledge, as William Blake said, that "Everything that lives is holy."

Friday, August 29, 2014

Spontaneous Remission?

"We were talking/About the space between us all/And the people/Who hide themselves behind a wall/of Illusion..." --George Harrison.

Today, I was having lunch with two of my closest friends, Tench  and Michael, and we got into a lively conversation about the seemingly irreversible erosion of democracy into corporate oligarchy, and the apparent futility of any normal political channels for rectifying this situation--whether by mounting grassroots campaigns to elect honest candidates who would actually serve the public interest rather than their corporate sponsors, forming and mobilizing labor unions, or organizing mass demonstrations of popular opposition and protest, or whatever--given the overwhelming power of the corporate media for ignoring or suppressing us completely and brainwashing the general public into mindless consumerism, ignorance, and complacency. Indeed, Michael, taking his cue from Plato, feels that "Hoi Polloi"--the common masses--are hopelessly benighted and easily manipulated by advertising, attack ads, or appeals to boneheaded fundamentalism and patriotic belligerence, and thus could never be awakened to confront the beast of self-serving corporate power and Glomart consumerism directly.

By "Glomart" I refer to the Global Market Economy--that is, the entire global money-based complex (mal)adaptive system of multinational corporations, banks, and captive governments, based on an unquestioned logic of maximization ("More is always better") that has become the Cancer of the Earth, with nothing to lose and everything to gain from plundering the planet and exploiting and/or brainwashing its inhabitants--turning citizens into passive consumers and/or cheap labor, communities into "markets" and nature--all of nature--into commodities for quick sale...and then externalizing the costs of doing business--passing those costs onto the public--as pollution, ravaged landscapes, declining public health, and an atmosphere overloaded with carbon that is slowly cooking us all...

I am not entirely sure, however, that Glomart is invincible.   History has shown, repeatedly, that viral ideas, starting at the grassroots level with a new, self-validating and self-replicating mythology, have the power to undermine powerful empires and transform whole cultures in a remarkably short historical period. Three obvious historical examples are the rise of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam; others were the power of Confucianism in China to transform chaotic warring states into the most coherent, highly organized, and efficient bureaucracy the world had ever known. Or--more recently--the Scientific Revolution and its power to undermine centuries of entrenched and repressive Medieval superstition and launch the rapidly evolving modern era of industrialization, innovation, and democratic freedoms.  All of these vastly transformative cultural movements occurred in times when communication moved at the glacially slow pace of letters carried on horseback; imagine what could happen today, with the instantaneous global reach of the Internet, if a similar viral idea captured, motivated, and transformed the imaginations of people today, in the way the Cross, the Quran, or the Dharma Wheel did in the past...

Could this happen, given today's vast population, and the torrent of information flowing electronically around the world--and given the sophisticated control of mass media by the ever-watchful guardians of Glomart to make sure no truly subversive idea ever penetrates beyond a small coterie of discontents who mostly talk to each other?  I would say it can, but the viral idea, to succeed, must be sufficiently innocuous to the guardians of the Glomart money machine that by the time they catch wind of its transformative potential, it has already spread beyond their control, and all they can do is scramble to adapt to it.  That, and the viral idea must be of the sort whose beneficial effects are immediately obvious to those who hear it and practice it, so that it quickly self-replicates and spreads to others.  Finally, that viral idea, like any good virus, must attack Glomart where it lives and is most vulnerable. And of course, it must have its own mythology--its own imagery and iconography--to facilitate identification and acceptance.

Here is one possibility. Pass it on.

Where is Glomart most vulnerable?  Very simply, Glomart thrives entirely by their success in parting us from our money--if they cannot get our dollars, corporations will quickly fail. This is why they invest billions in pervasive advertising, everywhere--to ensure that we continue to buy their products and services, for by this alone do they survive, no matter how big and powerful they may be.

We must take our cue from this simple fact: Glomart eats and breathes money, and needs our money as much as we need oxygen. What would happen if we simply withheld that money from them, spending it instead on locally grown and marketed produce and products, whenever we could?  They would try, of course--they are already trying--to mimic local enterprise in order to reclaim the hold they once had on our wallets. We already see this in the fact, for example, that the new Glomart pseudo-cities that are springing up, like Hampton Town Centre, here where I live, are now boasting that they, too, will have "Farmer's Markets" on weekends, to exploit our growing appetite for real food, rather than Glomart-produced junk foods. Naturally, with their cash infusion, these ersatz "farmer's markets" will look more glitzy, and thus attract more customers than real farm markets...

So we need something more than appeals to "buy fresh, buy local" to subvert Glomart domination, however commendable these recent trends may be.

The Revolution may begin in our wallets--seeing every dollar as a vote for either Glomart or Gaia, and voting for Gaia whenever, however, and to whatever degree we can--but in order to gain a foothold, it will have to be rooted more deeply, at the core of our being.  In short, we need some serious mind-training, as the Buddha (and Jesus and St. Francis and Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Wangari Maathai knew very well...)

I have launched my own experiment along these lines.  I am teaching my students--all my students--how to meditate, by starting every class with a short Qigong sequence followed by 3 minutes of meditation using a simple 4-step mantra:  Breathe - Observe - Let Go - Abide. Each is correlated with a natural phase of the breathing process: Inhale (Breathe); Pause (Observe); Exhale (Let Go); and Pause (Abide).  It is very easy to learn, does not threaten their belief systems (they don't have to "believe" anything in order to practice), and--most importantly--as they themselves acknowledge, it feels good.

Once they get the hang of this very basic practice, we are moving to the next phase: teaching the Dharma.  First I instruct them to associate these four phases with the cycle of life: Birth and childhood (Breathe); Adulthood (Observe); Old Age (Let Go) and Death (Abide). Next, we correlate these four phases with what Buddhists call the "Four Brahma-Viharas" (Abodes of God) but which I translate and demystify as "the Four Adaptive Attitudes:" Gratitude (Breathe); Compassion (Observe); Joy (Let Go); and Equanimity (Abide). Then I start introducing them to other Dharma teachings from the world's wisdom traditions, such as Chapter 16 of Lao Tzu ("Empty yourself of everything...") so they can see that the Dharma is, indeed, ancient and universal--that it can be found in every religious culture on the planet, in some guise.

The next step, of course, is to teach them, as George Harrison puts it, to "see beyond themselves"--that is, to extend the basic mantra into the Tenfold Dharma Gaia Mantra for self-transformation into a planetary healing agent, by the following:

  1. Reclaim the moment:  Breathe, Observe, Let Go (Abide);
  2. Reclaim the day: Be well, Do good work, Keep in touch (Abide)
  3. Reclaim your life: Learn, Teach, Heal, Create.
Finally, they are instructed to make the connection, in every decision they make, between the health, competence, and resilience of themselves, their communities, and the planet simultaneously.

In this way, ordinary people can be transformed into Dharma practitioners, and Dharma practitioners into Gaians--that is, into agents of Spontaneous Remission of the Cancer of the Earth, seeing themselves in all others and identifying with all of life, in everything they do.

Glomart may never know what hit them...

Monday, July 21, 2014

Is this the promised end?

I just finished reading a comprehensive report by a superb investigative journalist, Dahr Jamail, on the global impacts of climate disruption, and the persistence of obtuse denial among some of our more benighted politicians and corporate funded public "intellectuals" who should know better. I recommend reading this, even if it may well ruin your day:

This catalogue of devastating worldwide effects of ACD (Anthropogenic Climate Disruption) was enough to knock the wind out of the sails of any optimist, for the implications of this report are grim indeed: we have set in motion a juggernaut of successive, mutually reinforcing, climate-related catastrophes--droughts, floods, rising sea levels, mass extinctions, killer heat waves, disappearing aquifers, tropical diseases--many already well underway, and all on an accelerating, irreversible trajectory to get steadily and incrementally worse, promising a horrific future--one that I would not wish upon my worst enemy--for all young people today, and any subsequent generations.

Such ghastly news creates, for me, a recurrent ethical dilemma: how do I share this soul-wrenching information with my students, without leaving them feeling hopeless, embittered, and demoralized? Or do I simply let them persist in the illusion, officially cultivated by my college and in fact reinforced throughout the educational establishment, as well as through all commercial media, that the future will simply be a continuation of the past, an arena of boundless opportunity where, if they apply themselves, they can launch a satisfying career and realize the American Dream of comfortable affluence and suburban contentment for themselves and their children? Who are we kidding?

It seems to me that a middle way between the false optimism of business as usual on a dying planet and simply succumbing to despair is to follow a threefold path in reaching out to others:: (1) the wake-up call--awakening people to he scope and urgency of the problem, even if they are shocked and horrified by the evidence presented; (2) profile one or more visionaries, who are already addressing this issue courageously and constructively and/or forging whole new paths toward ecological sanity; and (3) providing small steps that your audience can take, starting today, to follow the path of these visionaries.

 I have chosen the path of one of my icons, Wangari Maathai of Kenya, whose life work, for which she won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, was the Green Belt Movement--a magnificent grassroots movement she inaugurated among rural women in Kenya in 1977 to plant millions of trees in order to restore their watersheds from the devastation of many years of deforestation and soil erosion. The effect of this movement was to mobilize women politically as well, and as a consequence, she became a political force, and ended up causing the downfall of the oligarchic dictator, Daniel Arap Moi, and restoring democracy to Kenya. (Her story is chronicled in her autobiography, Unbowed, as well as in a documentary, "Taking Root," which is available in segments on YouTube.)

Wangari was no naive optimist; she was keenly aware of the formidable, overwhelming challenges that face Africa in particular, and the planet in general. But she never gave in to despair, but remained ebullient, resilient, and courageous right up to her untimely death from cancer in 2011.

She left us an inspiring, though paradoxical message--especially geared toward young children--in her famous and charming Hummingbird parable: a hummingbird learns that a forest fire is raging, and all the other animals are fleeing in despair. So the hummingbird flies to a river, takes a drop of water in its tiny beak, and flies back to deposit it on the fire, then repeats the procedure, ad infinitum. The lesson in her parable? "I am a hummingbird. I will do what I can."

The parable is paradoxical, of course, because the hummingbird's tiny efforts to put out a massive forest fire are so obviously futile. But Wangari's own wonderful smile, her own indefatigable courage and love, are an essential part of this parable--she embodies what she speaks; a determination never to give up, to do what needs to be done, even if the entire planet is on fire.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Faith and Ideology

For some reason, I have been thinking a lot about Christianity lately. One reason, of course, is that Virginia is very much a Christian country, and over Easter Week in particular, most of the music on the radio, the newspaper editorials, etc. are all full of Christian themes and topics.

All this talk of Christian doctrine puts me in mind of a time, while I was still single and living in Oregon, when I became deeply involved with St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Eugene,  since I sang in the choir and got to know many interesting and thoughtful people in the congregation. I was even asked, by one pillar of the church, whether or not I might be interested in becoming a Deacon(!) --until she discovered that I was not actually a member of the church. I was even contemplating attending their Confirmation Class and actually becoming a member--but one thing held me back. It was a line from the weekly Eucharistic liturgy that stuck in my craw: "The Gifts of God for the People of God." Whenever I heard this line, something within me screamed, "Who, pray tell, are the 'People of God'?" And--more to the point, who are NOT the "people of God?"

It was this recurrent "Us and Them" character of their belief system that stopped me from going any further--that finally pushed me out of the Christian fold altogether toward Buddhism.  For I saw that it was integral to the Christian faith that THEY--those who had embraced their creed and hence had been "saved"--were the People of God, while the rest of us--including not only other religions and secular people without a religious creed, but also other denominations within Christianity, were cast into the outer darkness, doomed to eternal damnation unless they, too, were "saved" by conversion to (their own brand of) Christianity.

 What rot!  If spirituality is exclusive, it is nothing but religious bigotry. Unless the "people of God" include every man, woman, and child--every living being--on the planet or in the universe--the very concept of "the people of God" is a recipe for hatred and intolerance, and nothing more. Now I know that many Christians would deny this, claiming that the phrase simply means that they have been "saved" by giving their lives to Jesus, and that this sets them apart from the rest of humanity, albeit with the mission to go forth and "save" everyone else (i.e. by converting them to Christianity as well). But what if others do not want to be "saved" in this way? What if they are perfectly happy in their own belief system, or none at all. The Christians answer: "Then they are going to Hell."  To which I ask, "How do you know?"  What follows, of course, is a broken record:

"Through Faith."
"What is Faith?"
"Belief in Jesus"

...and so forth.  But the upshot is, they are "saved" because they believe that they are saved, and that all others are going to Hell because they believe that all others are going to Hell, and they believe this because "The Bible says so" and they believe the Bible because it is the Word of God and they believe..."

This is, of course, pure tautology...

In other words, for the average Christian (and Muslim as well--they are no better)--Faith is the same as Belief--there is no difference.  And in order to be "saved" you must "believe."

But wait: Why must I (or anyone) "believe" anything?? Especially if it violates common sense altogether? (like the Doctrine of Original Sin, the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Descent into Hell, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the "Right Hand of God" and so forth--all the arrant nonsense that Christians repeat weekly in the Nicene Creed).  If God did not want me to think, why did He give me a brain?? So I can be condemned to everlasting hellfire for simply using it??

This belief--that "nonbelievers" will be condemned to hellfire--inevitably leads, of course, to intolerance and persecution--for if "we" are the People of God, it follows logically that "they"--all who oppose us--must be the "enemies of God." And this logical conclusion led, of course, to all the recurrent brutal horrors that have spattered blood across the canvas of Western history--from the burning of the Library of Alexandria and the torture and death of the brilliant philosopher Hypatia through the horrific Crusades (where armed Christian zealots massacred an entire population of Muslim men, women, and children in the streets of Jerusalem) through the burning of heretics, the hideous wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants, and the wholesale genocide of Native American peoples across two whole continents following the invasion of the New World--not to mention the obscene rape of Africa in the 19th Century.

Yet despite this lamentable history--a true chamber of horrors--Christianity has hundreds of millions--possibly billions--of devout "true believers" all over the world. This fact has always baffled me--but then when you are told something over and over from childhood--i.e. that you must be "saved" by Jesus or else you will go to hell after you die--it sinks in below the level of critical consciousness and becomes something you are mortally afraid NOT to believe, at a primordial level of awareness. To question or deny beliefs that all the adults around you hold as sacred is to risk social ostracism--which for a young child, is tantamount to Hell itself. Growing up in a secular, liberal humanist family for which church was a mere formality, more often honored in the breach than the observance, I was spared this brainwashing--yet I know many perfectly intelligent, thoughtful people who are still devout Christians--almost as if their religious beliefs occupy some compartment of their mind hermetically sealed from critical inquiry.

To such people, I can only say, "Fine. Whatever beliefs make you happy and comfortable with yourself and with God--however you conceive Him, you are welcome to those beliefs. I ask you only to grant me the same favor."

At the root of the issue, I feel, is a fundamental confusion, in all the Abrahamic Religions but especially Christianity and Islam, between "faith" and "belief." For most adherents of these traditions, the two terms are synonymous--if you don't "believe" you have no "faith."  This is why Muslims call all the rest of us "infidels"--that is, people without faith. Because we don't believe what they do--that the Qur'an is the final, authoritative Word of God.

But what if Faith and Belief are different?  Well--they are.  For Buddhists, Faith has nothing to do with beliefs--it is synonymous with confidence. Confidence in what? In the efficacy of the Buddhist teachings for liberating us from the inner suffering that arises from our deluded notions that we have "selves" that are separate from others, and from the rest of life. That, and the suffering that comes from wishing things were other than they are.  But the Buddha never demanded that we "believe" anything he said--his injunction was rather to test his teachings in practice, to satisfy ourselves that they are effective--his final teaching was to "be a light unto yourself."  In other words, you don't have to "believe" anything at all in order to practice the Dharma. You simply practice--breathe, observe, let go--and see if it works. And as you come to trust that it does indeed work, therein lies faith. It is purely scientific--testing hypotheses to see if they hold true, and building upon that knowledge. Only the "knowledge" here is not of the outer world--it is of how our own consciousness works.

So confidence in the teachings of the wise ones of all traditions is one meaning of faith. Another is the completely irrational, but entirely trustworthy, inclination to keep on keepin' on--something that I have in common with elephants, salamanders, chickadees, and redwood trees. It is how I interpret the essential mantra that Jesus, (whom we honor as a Buddha--an awakened being) left for his followers: "Thy will be done."
I am on the same page as Christians, that is, when they define Faith as trust in God (which was the actual meaning of the Greek word "pistis," usually mistranslated as "belief.")  A belief is nothing but the intellectual assent to someone else's verbal construct about the Sacred; faith is intuitive embrace of the Sacred itself, without any need for words. "The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life."

Friday, May 9, 2014

Edgar and the Fundamentalists

Note: Edgar Markham is my alter-ego; the protagonist of a novel I keep threatening to write, in which, in an apocalyptic world, Edgar launches a  rapidly growing movement known as Dharma Gaia Circles, who are groups actively practicing and promoting both Dharma Practice and Earth-healing activities--restoring ourselves, our communities, and our planet simultaneously. His antagonists are as follows:

  • General Erwin Stanfield, a kind of Pinochet-clone who, in the name of Glomart, takes over the US government and imposes a mandatory caste system based on wealth and utility to Glomart: the Owners (1%), Consumers (middle class suburbanites), Cheap Labor,and the Unclassified Others--the latter, including the homeless, the destitute, criminals, and "terrorists"--destined for elimination;
  • "Brother Randolph" Masterson, a popular Christian televangelist and fundamentalist zealot; and
  • Raoul Gomez, a former gangleader turned Marxist Revolutionary, organizing both the Laborers and the Unclassified Others for armed resistance against Glomart and the Stanfield regime. From time to time, I will upload excerpts from this work-in-progress. Here is one.

Edgar and the Fundamentalists

One central purpose of Edgar’s Dharma Gaia movement was to get beyond preaching to the choir; to reach out beyond those naturally receptive to his message—Buddhists, secularists, and environmentalists in particular—to more resistant audiences, and he knew well that no audiences would be more resistant than Christian fundamentalists, for whom “gaia” was a dangerous pagan deity, Buddhists were going to Hell for denying Christ, and “tree huggers” were all damned as well for “worshiping the Creation, rather than the Creator.” So when Brother Randolph, a Fundamentalist preacher, agreed to invite Edgar to attend a “debate” at his megachurch as an exercise in what he called “Christian Apologetics,” Edgar readily accepted.  As the “debate” opened, Edgar addressed the audience briefly as follows:

“First, while this event is called a “debate,” I am not here to debate Reverend Masterson or anyone else, for you are all welcome, as I am, to believe whatever you wish, and I have no desire whatsoever to dissuade you from those beliefs. In fact, I acknowledge only one criterion, one litmus-test, by which to evaluate anyone else’s belief system, since I have never been inside any of your heads. And that criterion is one given by none other than Jesus Christ, when asked by the disciples how they could distinguish true from false prophets: “By their fruits shall ye know them.” So I would judge all of you; so I ask you to judge me—regardless of our personal beliefs.

"What am I?  you might well ask. First, I am a human being, just like you. Like you, I breathe air, drink water, and eat food. Like you, I have hopes and fears, and like you, I have opinions about things that matter to me. Unlike you, perhaps, I do not choose to label myself as a “Christian,” but nor am I, in any sense, anti-Christian; in fact if, by “Christian” you mean a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, count me in. Similarly, though many call me a “Buddhist,” this, too, is an arbitrary, question-begging label. The Buddha was a man, not a deity, and while we cannot know much about him, we do know that he never used the word “Buddhism” just as Jesus never used the word “Christianity.”  Like Jesus, the Buddha was a truth-seeker, within the cultural frame of reference into which he was born. I don’t know who was “better” or “worse,” or who was “authentic” or “false”—nor does it matter. When the Dalai Lama was asked, by a group of Christian theologians with whom he was having a mutually respectful dialogue, what Jesus meant to him, he responded, without hesitation: “Jesus was a Buddha.”  Because the word “Buddha” means a thoroughly awakened being—something all of us have the potential of becoming, and a few—notably the Buddha and Jesus—actually made it.

"Now many of you may be shaking your head, saying that I am equating Jesus with the Buddha. Well—perhaps, but I really don’t know. For you, Jesus is the Only Begotten Son of God, or God Incarnate, and for that reason, any comparison of him with anyone else is, ipso facto, blasphemy. If so, I am sorry to have offended you. And while the notion that “Jesus died for our sins” or that “whoso believeth in Him shall have eternal life” may have deep and profound meaning or significance for you—please forgive me if these notions do not register with me at all, one way or another.  It is not a question of whether I “believe” such statements—I simply do not understand what they mean, and so they have no meaning for me at all, good or bad. If on the other hand, such beliefs give you inner peace and make you want to be a better person, who am I to challenge them?  So I won’t. You are all entitled to your own beliefs, and I would only ask you to return the favor.

"But there is another issue here besides the question of what we choose to believe, for this is ultimately a personal matter. And that is the simple question, how are we going to eat? Most of you have seen or heard on the news that topsoil depletion and erosion worldwide have dramatically increased due to climate change and intensive mechanized farming, and that food prices are skyrocketing. Some will, perhaps, take comfort in such dire facts as evidence of End Times, when God will strike down the wicked as they deserve, and “rapture” away all true believers—and perhaps you are right—I cannot say. But the question remains: in the meantime, how are we going to eat?  And equally importantly, as disciples of Jesus—a status I share with you despite any difference in our beliefs—how are we going to follow his example by feeding the hungry and healing the sick?

"Here is where I seek your collaboration. I have started a new movement, for Christians, called the Mustardseed Project, based on Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed, in which I am encouraging all Christian churches everywhere to start growing gardens, and to organize your congregations to do likewise, collecting food scraps from restaurants and composting to rebuild the topsoil, and using greenhouses, wherever possible, to grow food in winter as well as summer—not only to feed ourselves nutritious fruits and vegetables, but to distribute the surplus to the needy within our communities.

"Just imagine how many churches there are in the world? What would happen if all the faithful, all who claim to follow Jesus, were to follow him in fact, by planting your own “mustardseeds”—your own vegetable gardens—starting where you are—and to build fellowship and community among yourselves and with others in the process? When we share meals—when we break bread together—we can also learn, as Jesus taught us, to love our neighbors—even the Samaritan “others”—as ourselves, and in so doing, create the Kingdom of God right here on Earth.

Thank you for your time."

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Buddhist appreciation of the Pope

This morning, I was reading the first major publication of the wonderful new Pope, Francis, his Apostolic Exhortation entitled "Evangelii Gaudium" meaning "The Joy of the Gospel." While, obviously, his text is thoroughly grounded in Christian ideology--that is, in biblical allusions, the notion of Christ as Redeemer and as Son of God, and references to "Christians" etc.--I nevertheless took great joy, as a Buddhist, in reading it, for it was, notwithstanding, pure Dharma. Here is but one example from the opening invocation:


The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who ac­cept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Ex­hortation I wish to encourage the Christian faith­ful to embark upon a new chapter of evangeliza­tion marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.
With a few minor changes, a Buddhist would feel perfectly comfortable with the following translation:


The joy of the Dharma fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter it. Those who pursue the path of enlightenment are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Practice, joy is constantly born anew. In this Ex­hortation I wish to encourage all seekers to embark upon a new chapter of Dharma practice marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Human journey in years to come.
The sole difference is the terminology; Christian terminology is exclusive; Buddhist terminology is not. In other words, the Christian terminology excludes all who (1) do not believe in the absolute truth of "the gospel";  (2) cannot relate to the idea of Jesus as the sole redeemer of all humanity; (3) are not committed into converting everyone else to believe as they do ("evangelization"); (4) do not limit their appeal to "Christians" alone; and (5) don't limit this journey to one particular "Church."  Yet the common themes of Pope Francis and Dharma practicitioners everywhere else--especially Gaian Buddhists like myself--become even clearer in the subsequent passage:
The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and an­guish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spir­it which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.
The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and an­guish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. Our inherent Buddha nature is no longer heard, the quiet joy of love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for practitioners too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not Bodhichitta, nor is it the life in the Spir­it which has its source in our hearts.
As we can see, when the Pope (Peace be upon him) gets seriously down to business, the differences between his Christian teachings and my Buddhist translation become fewer and farther between, and more trivial as well. His message rings true and clear.
My fondest wish for world peace lies in a realization I would hope to make available to everyone:  that all (authentic) religious traditions worldwide are nothing but retail outlets for Truth--that they all consist of two elements: Dharma and identity politics. Dharma refers to the inner truth that transcends all ideology--the wisdom and compassion we know in our hearts, to which all authentic teachings point, with their various, culturally based metaphors. Identity politics refers to all those superficial elements of language and doctrine that distinguish one faith tradition from another--all the signs by which people recognize others as "one of us" or"one of them." And the core teachings of every authentic tradition all point beyond identity politics to true Dharma: "Love God and that which is like unto it, Love your neighbor as yourself."
Unfortunately, since we all cultivate an (ultimately illusory) sense of self, we are pretty much stuck with identity politics--with labels, whether "Christian," "Buddhist" "Muslim" "Jew" or what have you...But Gaianity--my own "label" for collective enlightenment--involves cultivating the ability to look beyond our personal labels, to embrace our Oneness with each other and with all life.  This entails, among other things, the willingness to let go of the urge to convert--to make others "see like me, feel like me, and be like me" in the words of Bob Dylan. Rather, we need to cultivate the ability to live and let live--to love others as they are, no matter which label they feel most comfortable affixing to themselves.  The Pope is a Catholic; I am a Buddhist. But I honor him as a true Dharma teacher, a true Bodhisattva.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Watching my mind

This afternoon, as I was grading papers,  I noticed, yet again, how often some aspect of my consciousness subverts my determination to stay focused and on-task. There are many times when I am gripped by this temptation to get distracted--whether by trips to the refrigerator for...whatever presents itself to eat, or by various thoughts, obsessions, or fantasies, or--even worse--the temptation to simply google something for the hell of it, and get drawn into the endless, often craven distractions of the Internet or YouTube. Often after indulging in such idle and pernicious distractions, torpor sets in, tempting me to go take another brief nap, which often--despite setting the alarm--ends up being anything but brief. And so important tasks get postponed, again and again.

While I am by no means alone in this tendency to give in to distractions, I may have it worse than many, for--had the diagnosis existed when I was young--I would most certainly have been labeled "ADD"--Attention Deficit Disorder. (When I mentioned this to my Dean one time, she--in her unflappable coolness--said "Of course; I knew that.")  I generally don't go in for such labels--they seem inherently abusive and simplistic, reducing a complex personality to a mere set of symptoms, assumed to be genetically embedded and hence inescapable.

Buddhist teachings suggest otherwise. The Buddhist texts list and classify these as "afflictive emotions" personified as Mara, and their antidote is, as always, neither to repress them nor to indulge them, but simply notice them as they arise, and practice simply acknowledging their existence, and then (when you are ready) letting go of them.  These afflictive emotions include also the feelings of self-loathing and self-flagellation that often arise in the wake of getting seized by a distraction or temptation and lured away from our responsibilities--we can simply observe and let go of those feelings as well.

This is not easy, of course; if it were, we would not have anywhere near as many crazy, screwed up, neurotic, self-destructive, demoralized people walking around out there.  But nor is it impossible. Like everything else in Buddhism, it takes practice, and we can always start over, no matter how times we have failed or relapsed into bad habits.  No matter what happens in our interior weather--even in the tornado-like vortex of despair and self-loathing--we can always start over--by breathing, observing, and letting go.  This is, for me, one of the greatest gifts of Dharma practice: our ticket out of Hell.  The minute we return to focus attention on our breath, we are no longer in the grip of distractions or afflictive emotions--we simply can observe them like a movie--watch the mental impulses toward distraction arise and dissipate, neither acting on them nor wishing they were otherwise, but simply watching our own minds with the same patience and compassion we aspire to extend to everyone else--and then, when ready, returning to doing good work and keeping in touch.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Over the Rainbow

Lately, my good friend and office-mate Michael Tarpey, a philosopher, and I have had a grand time discussing all sorts of philosophical questions. In the context of these conversations, mostly focusing on the perennial question, as Bob Dylan put it, of "what's real and what is not,"  I observed that certain things we take for real are merely artifacts of perception--that is, things we perceive, whether with our eyes or our mind, and therefore assume to be real, but which in fact, are simply a virtual reality,  a consensual concept which we have agreed upon to be "real" in order to better organize our experience and behavior. As an example of such a perceptual artifact, I cited the rainbow--something we can see, but that isn't really "there" because it is simply the perceptual consequence of a temporary convergence of sunlight, rain, and point of view--that is, only those who stand between the sun and the sheet of rain perceive a rainbow, opposite the sun, and everyone's rainbow is in a slightly different place from everyone else's, depending on where they are standing. (Therefore, Dorothy could dream all she liked about "somewhere over the rainbow" but she'd never get there--since the rainbow would move with her!) In this way, a rainbow, though it appears to be "real," is in actuality no more real than a shadow or a heat mirage (both likewise artifacts of perception).

Looking more deeply, we find that artifacts of perception can be found not only "out there" in the world, but also in our minds. By this I refer not only to dreams or mental images, which are obvious examples of insubstantial perceptions, but also to a whole array of concepts that most people take to be, in some sense, real, and which form the pretext for many of our actions, but which on closer examples are no more "real" than a rainbow, a shadow, or a mirage.

Here are a few noteworthy examples: money, the past, the future, and the United States of America. We all assume money to be real; we can, after all, buy real, tangible things with it. But money is, in actuality an empty, arithmetical signifier, whose value depends entirely upon a shifting consensus within a community of buyers and sellers.  It is, as Gregory Bateson might have said, a transform of information about the relative value of commodities in the market. And "commodities" themselves can often be quite virtual, quite nebulous. What, for example, is an "insurance policy"? A legally binding agreement between insurer and insured. But if the insurer goes belly-up, what happens to that contract? It becomes a worthless piece of paper.

But surely, you might argue, the past and future are real; we have artifacts to prove that the past in fact actually happened, and we can make reasonably accurate predictions about the future--weather forecasters do it all the time.  While I agree that the past and future can be useful concepts, whether for reflection or planning or imagining, they still lack any substantive reality. The past is gone an irretrievable; the future hasn't happened yet.  All we actually have is the ever-shifting present moment. Both the others are imaginary constructs.

We can take this further, of course. While the past is gone and irrevocable, the future can be influenced, up to a point, by our actions (or inactions) in the present moment.  But it is still an artifact of our imagination, for no matter how carefully we plan, something could happen in the next moment to completely eradicate those plans, or at least require a major change in them. Or, of course, we could die--at any time--rendering all such plans and dreams null and void.  That notwithstanding, our actions today will still influence the shape of the future, with or without us. And if the Buddhist teachings are right about a continuum of mind that pre-exists our birth and transcends our death, then we--or some version of ourselves--will reap the karmic fruits of our actions anyway.  But even that, if or when it happens, will not be "real" knowable until it becomes the Present Moment, whether for ourselves or for another "self" we cannot even imagine. After all, this concept of "self" we have and cherish is yet another perceptual artifact, no more real than a rainbow.

Thursday, March 6, 2014



When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
in the fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

--Wendell Berry

This lovely poem by Wendell Berry, one of my favorite modern poet/essayists, was sent to me by my dear friend Catherine Larson, who lives in Eugene, Oregon, and is one of my oldest and best friends. It evokes one of the most important fruits of mindfulness: equipoise, or the ability to hold in balance grief and joy, agony and peace.   It invites us to acknowledge our shared fears and despair at the horrors of existence in this apocalyptic time--the vast sufferings wrought by greed, ignorance, hatred, and denial, and the ongoing, seemingly unstoppable devastation of the only living planet we will ever know and all her creatures. But then, on the other hand, invites us, as a refuge, into the quiet beauty, magic, and tranquility of Life in the present moment.

Such equipoise, the ability to fully embrace both the horror and the beauty of life simultaneously, will become an ever-more important skill as we all draw inexorably closer to the bitter end--of our lives, of our security, of our social fabric, and of our planet's climatic stability--as our sustaining ecosystems shrivel and die. Let us therefore remember, at all times, to practice the Five Remembrances and the Four Immeasurables:

The Five Remembrances:

I, my community, and Gaia are of the nature to get sick. There is no way we can avoid getting sick.
I, my community, and Gaia are of the nature to grow old. There is no way we can avoid growing old.
I, my community, and Gaia are of the nature to die. There is no way we can avoid death.
I, my community, and Gaia are of the nature to lose everything we cherish. There is no way to avoid the total loss of all we love.
My actions are my only true possessions. Therefore I shall strive stand on, and live by, my actions; to assume total responsibility for everything I think, say, do. Until my last breath, may all my actions serve to promote the health, competence, and resilience of myself, my community, all others, and Gaia.

Mantra of the Four Immeasurables:

  • (on the in-breath) "Breathe"--in gratitude and benevolence toward all living beings, without exception. (Visualize--the sun, the trees, the crops, all who work hard to provide for you, all whom you encounter)
  • (on the pause at the full) "Observe"--with compassion for all living beings who suffer. (Visualize some who suffer the most, but also those whose inner suffering manifests as evil or cruelty--may all be healed)
  • (on the out-breath) "Let Go"--with sympathetic joy for all living beings who share with me the miracle of life in this moment.
  • (on the pause, emptied of everything) "Abide"--in perfect equanimity and peace, at one with all of life, all things, all the universe, the Sacred.
Such practices can be helpful, when we are overwhelmed with grief, rage, or despair.