Tag Archives: Western Buddhism

What I’ve come to understand of karma

“Monks, these four types of kamma have been directly realized, verified, & made known by me. Which four? There is kamma that is dark with dark result. There is kamma that is bright with bright result. There is kamma that is dark & bright with dark & bright result. There is kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma.

“And what is kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma? Right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This is called kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma.”

~ from the Ariyamagga ( or Noble Path) Sutta

“Now what, monks, is old kamma? The eye is to be seen as old kamma, fabricated & willed, capable of being felt. The ear… The nose… The tongue… The body… The intellect is to be seen as old kamma, fabricated & willed, capable of being felt. This is called old kamma.

“And what is new kamma? Whatever kamma one does now with the body, with speech, or with the intellect: This is called new kamma.

“And what is the cessation of kamma? Whoever touches the release that comes from the cessation of bodily kamma, verbal kamma, & mental kamma: This is called the cessation of kamma.

And what is the path of practice leading to the cessation of kamma? Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This is called the path of practice leading to the cessation of kamma.

~ From the Kamma (Karma) Sutta

Many of the Western lay Buddhists I’ve come in contact with over the internet have taken an agnostic or atheistic approach to the central doctrines of karma and rebirth in Buddhism, labeling them “mystical” or “supernatural” and therefore often discarding them almost completely. I’ve never been able to do this as rebirth (or probably better, re-becoming) and karma are found countless times throughout the sutras, in both the Pali and Mahayana cannons.

After trying to wrap my mind around how these two doctrines work, if they work, what that means, if they can be proven etc.. I just gave up on them both for awhile. But after reading through The Wings to Awakening, I stumbled on the excerpt up at the top, and suddenly things started to make sense.

However, I didn’t really have a desire to understand karma on a metaphysical level. Instead what I’m interested in is how it affects me in the here and now, and what I should be doing about it. I figure the more profound insights will happen as they happen, all in due time and when I’m able to take up a formal meditation practice once again.

So what I’ve come up with is more of a practical survey on karma, one that will keep me “mindful” (*puke* – I hate that word!) of karma as I continue to create it. It seems to me that karma is simply that which binds one to samsara, to re-becoming. We do this through our identification with the skandas, and living in ingnorance of impermance, and the dukkha that surrounds us.

The odd thing about samsara though, is that it appears to provide a cure to itself in the form of itself. This is why we reach out for it, crave more of it, and cling to it. Our constant wandering about this world, running from one experience to the next in order to scratch the itch is probably best explained by comparison to a drug addict. The best cure for an addict is rehab, and this is where Buddhist practice hits us right in the gut.

Ending karma is the work of ending the mental conditions we’ve come to associate with everything. Often I see discussions about non-attachment to money, or power, or fame, or worldly possessions. These are all no doubt valuable endevours. But they also fall short of that ultimate mark. What about your attachment to your skin? Your view of the thing you’re looking at right now as a “computer screen”? This is why renunciation doesn’t solve all of your problems. Even a monk in retreat still has to deal with the issue of “trees”, “fart”, “feet” “wet” “ground”. These are the type of attachments that ultimately create our most incredible dukkha, the dukkha that keeps us bound to the conventional world.

I write this post not as a “what karma is” type of post. This isn’t instructional. This is simply a statement of where it is that I’ve been focusing my thoughts around Zen at. I’m simply not interested in what the ultimate answers to the karma and rebirth questions are. At this point in time, I’m more concerned about how they play out in real life, in my day-to-day struggle to maintain a Buddhist practice. Understanding deeply the process of rebirth and how I was an ocelot in a previous life isn’t going to get me very far, at least not at this point. But understanding that it is these mental fetters that keep me stuck in the conditional world, now that is something I can work with.






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The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing

Awakening has nothing to do with outward actions or appearances. It is only achieved by ceasing conceptualization. There is no benefit in shaving your head, taking precepts, or wearing robes. Nor is there any disadvantage if you own a home, work in the secular world, and have a spouse and children. People in the secular world who cease conceptualization awaken. Monks and nuns in monastic communities who do not cease conceptualization remain in delusion.

These are the words of Louie Wing, the fictional character author Ted Biringer brings to life in The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing. This is a masterful work that gets right to the heart of Zen. It is inspired by The Platform Sutra of Hui-Neng and provides a very direct and profound explanation of some Zen philosophy. Ted delves deep into prajna, the five ranks of Zen, and some excellent commentary on the Genjokoan. But when I say deep, I don’t mean that the book just drones on and on with complicated metaphysics. Rather, Louie Wing takes on the role of a fierce bodhisattvha, using his wisdom and teachings like Manjushri’s sword, cutting deep but precisely into the real matters of Zen.

The book provides a departure from most books on Zen you might find at Barnes and Nobles or some other such store. Rather than hold your hand while you mindfully wash the dishes, The Flatbed Sutra cuts right to the heart of the matter, revealing the path of compassion and wisdom in the Zen tradition, focusing on prajna and non-conceptualization. That’s not to say that this book is some sort of harsh, ‘hardcore’ approach to Zen either. Rather, it is styled in the fashion of the Chinese and Japanese classics from which the body of wisdom we know as Zen emerged. It is direct, but not in a know-it-all way. It is classic in its approach, yet the context that Biringer gives to Louie Wing makes the Flatbed Sutra accessible to all students of Zen.

I can’t recommend this book enough. Every student of Zen should read this book at least once;  it is one I will likely keep on my shelf and come back to again and again for years to come.


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Excerpt from the Kalama Sutta

I posted this on my tumblr blog today, but thought I would share it here as well.

The Kalama Sutta is often cited (and it is usually only a few lines that are taken out of context) as the gold standard for free inquiry in Buddhism, and as such is often used to justify throwing out teachings that don’t agree with one’s “common sense” – something not found anywhere in the sutta itself. Instead what this sutta expounds is a process for finding the dharma, and this process is mostly self-reliant, but must be tempered by checking what we find by that which is also “praised by the wise”, or else we might come to identify only with “common sense” – which is something we’re trying to transcend in the first place. It is our thinking, clinging mind that makes up “common sense”, and abandoning that clinging mind is pretty much the whole point of taking up this path.

If read carefully, we can see that the Buddha is expounding the dharma using upaya (skillful means) to a specific group of people, but his advice to the Kalamas is universal. That is to say that when one has faith in the path Buddha laid out for us, it is important to take up the path with the intention of self-discovery. Teachers and roshis and wise people we meet on the way are there to help guide us, but we should never rely on an appeal to authority if we are to face our Buddha nature and escape samsara. I think the following excerpt help keeps all of this in context:

“What do you think, Kalamas? When lack of greed arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?”

“For welfare, lord.”

“And this ungreedy person, not overcome by greed, his mind not possessed by greed, doesn’t kill living beings, take what is not given, go after another person’s wife, tell lies, or induce others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term welfare & happiness.”

“Yes, lord.”

“What do you think, Kalamas? When lack of aversion arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?”

“For welfare, lord.”

“And this unaversive person, not overcome by aversion, his mind not possessed by aversion, doesn’t kill living beings, take what is not given, go after another person’s wife, tell lies, or induce others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term welfare & happiness.”

“Yes, lord.”

“What do you think, Kalamas? When lack of delusion arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?”

“For welfare, lord.”

“And this undeluded person, not overcome by delusion, his mind not possessed by delusion, doesn’t kill living beings, take what is not given, go after another person’s wife, tell lies, or induce others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term welfare & happiness.”

“Yes, lord.”

“So what do you think, Kalamas: Are these qualities skillful or unskillful?”

“Skillful, lord.”

“Blameworthy or blameless?”

“Blameless, lord.”

“Criticized by the wise or praised by the wise?”

“Praised by the wise, lord.”

“When adopted & carried out, do they lead to welfare & to happiness, or not?”

“When adopted & carried out, they lead to welfare & to happiness. That is how it appears to us.”

“So, as I said, Kalamas: ‘Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, “This contemplative is our teacher.” When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness” — then you should enter & remain in them.’ Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

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Raising spiritual children

A few posts have gone up recently regarding raising your children in a spiritual tradition, and all the samsara that goes with it. Check out Nathan’s post, John’s post, Mumon’s post, and Karen’s post for some interesting perspectives. (I would say that my post here is inspired by, rather than a response to these posts).

Interesting perspectives. That’s what they are. Perspectives. Of the 4 mentioned above, all are parents save Nathan, who speaks from experience of working with children and running a successful children’s program in his Zen sangha to which he is very much involved. When I read these posts I see a deep sense of caring. Really caring about the children, their lives, their minds, their future selfs.

And something else is there as well. Parents and caregivers projecting what they wish the desired outcome to be. Parents that want their children to be Buddhist or Christian or Atheist or open-minded or skeptical or whatever; they all want something for their children, all to take on a specific role or mindset. And that is part of parenting. You have to want something for your children, and most of us want what is best for them. We all have our different flavors of “best” peppered by the experiences and luggage we bring with us to the table of life.

Personally, I think telling a child what to believe, or “hey Johnny, you’re a Christian, so you believe in ‘x'” is wrong, and does them a disservice. It takes away the process of discovery and replaces it with dogma, at a time in their lives where fostering an attitude of discovery and imagination is most crucial. Spirituality is a very wonderous, malleable thing. To force it into a shape before a child has had the time to poke and prod at it robs them of an experience that is very special, something that will take a terrible amount of work to get back later in life, if at all.

Currently developing the "Rocks and Sticks" Sutra...

But what of raising a child Buddhist, or in a Buddhist community? Is there a difference? I tend to think so, at least to some degree. Buddhism has less to do with belief, and more to do with results. For instance, take the five precepts. This is a teaching I could explain to my children that will lead to examination, and more questions. There is no “because ‘x’ holy book says so answer; there are only questions of “why” and “how” to be met with their own experiences and guidance from father and mother. In Buddhism we seek noble qualities, not adherence to doctrine.

Why do we take the precept to refrain from taking life?

To affirm and honor life, because it is precious. Why else do think we should not take life?

Why do we take the precept to refrain from taking what isn’t given?

To develop generosity, and to accept ourselves wholly. Why else do you think we shouldn’t take what belongs to us?

Why do we take the precept to refrain from wrong speech?

To develop compassion, live our truth, and honor others. Why else should we tell the truth, and not speak unkindly of others?

One day my son and daughter will ask me about Buddha and meditation and being a Buddhist. The questions they ask will come from a genuine place of wonder and curiosity, and my answers should foster that state of mind.

What’s a Buddhist?

Someone that follows the teachings of the Buddha.

What did he teach?

He taught many things. First he taught us that life isn’t always what it seems or what we want it to be. At times this can cause us to be sad, or even angry. So he taught us to use compassion, wisdom, and have the right frame of mind so that we don’t have to live that way.

Oh. So why do you sit on that pillow in the living room?

That’s one way to help me develop the right frame of mind.


That is a nice pretend scenario of a conversation that might take place. But given my son’s nature I can only imagine the questions that will soon follow. It will be awhile until the questions begin to emerge, but in time they will. And when that time comes I have no qualms with asking him if he wants to practice with me. And if he says no, he says no and he will enjoy racing matchbox cars around the Kitchen 500.

Spiritual communities can be great environments for children. But when the activities include having them sing songs in praise of people and ideals they have no way of understanding, I draw a line.

Presently we have no formal sangha or spiritual community to raise our children in. Our religious practice revolves around our attempt to manifest spirituality in our daily lives and activity. So there is no temple to “drag” them to. And there isn’t much in the way of belief to indoctrinate them in. There are our daily successes and failures that will guide and shape them. For those with access to a sangha or dharma center, their perspective will be different; I cannot speak to the experience of others.

Or maybe they’ll never really take an interest in Dad’s Buddhism. Maybe they’d rather play with the Tarot cards on our shelves, mesmerized by the dozens of different artist’s depictions of the journey of The Fool. Maybe they’d rather read The Lord of the Rings and get lost in The Shire. Maybe they’d rather spend the day in the woods taking in deep breaths of dead leaves and cedar, running from whatever forest creature they might imagine is in pursuit.

It really is up to them. I’ll be steering them in a direction that keeps them on the road. But that is my perspective, and that is where I feel my children would benefit most. For now I’m focusing on raising compassionate, spiritual children. We can worry about the framework later.



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Jataka Tales, Zen Practice, and Daily Life



Once long ago, when Brahmadatta still reigned in Benares, the bodhisattva was born as a crow. In time he became the leader of a great, raucous troop of crows, nearly a thousand strong, that lived in the cemetery…

So starts The Wise Crow Jataka, presented in Chapter 6 of Endless Path. The Jataka tales are a collection of stories that supposedly tell the tales of Shakyamuni Buddha’s many previous lives. The Buddha appears in many forms, from God to crow, and from King to beggar. An obvious moral teaching can be at the heart of each tale, similar in some respects to Aesop’s fables. From my experience, in Western convert communities, the Jataka tales are generally seen as children’s stories, rather than important moral lessons for all practitioners. Enter Rafe Martin.

Rafe Martin is the author of several books, including The Banyan Deer, Straight to the Heart of Zen, and One Hand Clapping: Zen Stories for All Ages. With Endless Path, Martin has found 10 Jataka tales that relate directly to the 10 paramitas (also known as the 10 perfections). In so doing, he brings them off the children’s shelf and into the lives of every modern-day Buddhist, young and old.

The he uses is almost like that of a koan. First he presents the Jataka, each one given fresh new life as an original telling, all with a dash of Zen. Then he spends a few pages extolling commentary on each one. Martin’s commentary stays with the contemporary theme in order to reach a modern audience as diverse as the characters we find in the Jatakas. This is definitely the first Buddhist book that I’ve ever read with references to President Obama, iPods, and 9/11. His commentary roams from personal narrative to a bit of Buddhist history, and covers the morals, ethics, and finer details of each tale wonderfully.

Rafe Martin breathes fresh new life into these wonderful old tales, and in doing so, provides us with a much-needed perspective into our individual lives and practice. He doesn’t really touch on whether or not these stories actually took place. Certainly there are those out there that believe they did, and there are many out there that see them as nothing more than folklore and stories left over from a far-away culture. Instead, Martin prefers taking up the task of telling each story, and bringing out its full potential to a modern audience. It doesn’t really seem to matter here if the tales are true or not, because they are reflections on our own lives, here and now. In his commentary, Martin shows that each Jataka stands on its own, fiction or non, because the lessons we take from them can affect us deeply, here and now.

Something we fail to realize is that this life, right here, now, is a Jataka in the making. We might not be a talking crow or a monkey king, but we do each have our own stories of struggle developing these 10 perfections, developing the life of a Buddha. Something that I appreciated while reading these tales was how much the Buddha struggled through his previous lives! It wasn’t always so easy for him, and sometimes he failed miserably. It should give us hope then, that the struggles we work through here in this life are not just the mud of life, but they have the potential to become the very thing that drives us on this difficult path we walk.

I wholeheartedly recommended Endless Path to any practitioner out there. There are lessons we can all take away from these Jatakas and Martin’s commentary on them. As I said, these tales are for people of all ages. So those of you out there with children have the added bonus of being able to read these tales to them, and maybe create your own commentary, something that touches you and your family.



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The Eight Gates of Zen and Invoking Reality


John Daido Loori, Roshi

Recently I read both the Eight Gates of Zen and Invoking Reality; both titles by the late John Daido Loori, Roshi. For awhile now I’ve been looking for a presentation of Buddhist practice tailored to a Western convert such as myself that didn’t also strip the dharma of all of the culture that it has inherited over its many centuries of evolution. Well, these books are it.

The Eight Gates of Zen is a manual written to explain the path being taken by a student at Loori’s Zen Mountain Monastery in New York State. The path takes up the Eight Gates (zazen, study with a teacher, academic study, liturgy, right action, art practice, body practice and work practice) and combines them with the 10 ox herding pictures to form a disciplined and formative way of practice. For the home practitioner such as myself, this book serves as a reminder that practice happens “in the mud of life”, and shouldn’t be put away with your meditation cushion after your daily zazen.

To me, it seemed as if the entire purpose of this book was to speak directly to the Western convert, espousing the dharma in a way that held on to its traditional roots while at the same time being an expression of our current time and culture here in North America. If you are looking for an introduction to Zen or Buddhism, I don’t think this book is the right one. Loori assumes you already know something about the basic terms being used and have a general knowledge base to work with. Terms like teisho, satoori, Mu; these are all used freely and if someone has no experience with these, they’d have to spend a decent amount of time making notes and referencing the vocabulary used. Thankfully I have enough experience with the language being used here, and this book seemed aimed at someone at right about my level (though it will be something to work with for years to come).

Loori makes it a point to establish two different paths for monastics and the laity, something which makes sense to me. I have no desire to take up the path of a monk; I have a family that I love very much and want to spend as much time with as possible. But this isn’t an obstacle as far as Loori sees it. Here he has laid out a path for the lay person that is just as involved, engaged, and intimate as the path for the monastic. However at the same time he brings us back to the heart of it by explaining that the two paths really are one, and that we both “leave home” in some sense.

I found the content in the book extremely well presented, it was clear (as much as Zen can be of course ;)) and the material was laid out so well that one could use this book as a study point for many years (which is something I know I will do). Additionally, in the end of the book Dogen’s Mountains and Rivers Sutta appears, the sutra that Loori drew much of his inspiration from. Upon first reading I really love this sutra, and plan to study it more intensely in the future. Following that, there is a Zazen checklist (wonderful for a beginner like me), an “Introduction to the Zendo”, Jukai, and a section of Daily Liturgy. For me the Daily Liturgy will definitely come in handy (anyone know of an audio version of the Heart Sutra being chanted in English?) as it will give me something new to recite and chant if I so choose. Also, at the end there is an extensive “recommended reading” list that I plan on working my way through over the coming years (decades?). Seriously if you haven’t read this book, go get it. So far this has been the best book on Buddhism I’ve read yet. It was engaging, poetic, and concise.

There were many “a-ha!” moments throughout the book, but none for me as powerful as the following paragraph in the chapter “The  Still Point: Zazen:

The very first sitting of the rank beginner, whether properly or improperly executed, is at once the complete and perfect manifestation of the zazen of countless Buddhas and ancestors of past, present, and future. From the zazen of countless Buddhas and ancestors, our own zazen emerges. From our own zazen, the zazen of countless Buddhas and ancestors is realized. As a result, we all live the life of Buddha, transcend Buddha, have the mind of Buddha and become Buddha.

I don’t know what it was about reading this, but all of a sudden there was this moment where the teachings of the Lotus Sutra were put into perspective, and it was as if for the first time I was really getting the Lotus Sutra. I don’t know if that makes any sense or not, but reading this really helped. I think it was just his style, and delivery to a Western audience that seemed to put much of the Lotus Sutra into a perspective that I could understand.



In Invoking Reality, Loori presents for us the moral and ethical teachings of Zen in the context of the Three Treasures, the Three Pure Precepts, and the Ten Grave precepts. From the beginning Loori states:

Enlightenment and morality are one. Enlightenment without morality is not true enlightenment. Morality without enlightenment is not complete morality. Zen is not beyond morality, but a practice that takes place within the world, based on moral and ethical teachings.

Living the precepts is living the life of a Buddha. Nothing could be clearer having read this book. It is quite a short read (only 97 pages) and in that sense did leave a little to be desired. I think he did a fantastic job of describing the precepts, how they function, and their role in our daily lives and practice. In Invoking Reality Loori assures us that the precepts are not some stagnant set of rules to follow, but they are a living, breathing dynamic system to follow in order to live this life as a Buddha. The whole phenomenal universe is co-dependant, constantly originating, coming and going. The 16 precepts are a response to this transitory nature of the universe we live, work, and breathe in.

Overall I really enjoyed this book, though I felt at times Loori got lost in his poetry. I love his style of writing but when presenting the 10 grave precepts, more specifics would have helped since this book seemed to be geared toward and introduction to Buddhist (Zen) ethics and morality.

This book is an excellent reminder that Buddhism is a moral and ethical system, and to divorce our practice from this realization is to divorce ourselves from the Buddha and what he taught. I plan on reading some more of John Daido Loori’s works in the future. Truly his was an original voice in Western Buddhism, one that has spoken to me directly. I appreciate his appeal to traditions of old while crafting something original and meaningful to a new audience in the West; all while focusing on the “mud” of life and dharma.



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My thoughts on “Socially Engaged” Buddhism

There certainly has been quite a lot of talk lately about Socially Engaged Buddhism, and whether or not it is crap, real, necessary, or unavoidable. I’ve completely avoided commenting anywhere on any of the posts about this. I’m guessing that if you read this blog, you’ve seen some of the discussions come up elsewhere as well. If not, check out Nathan’s blog for his take (he also linked to most of the other discussions/posts there) as I think it’s worth reading.

I’ve thought quite a bit about this the last couple of days, and given it quite a bit of thought. Let’s start with defining it. From Wiki:

Engaged Buddhism refers to Buddhists who are seeking ways to apply the insights from meditation practice and dharma teachings to situations of social, political, environmental, and economic suffering and injustice. Finding its roots in Vietnam through the Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Engaged Buddhism has grown in popularity in the West.

John over at Point of Contact had this to say:

(via Jizo Chronicles) How is this different than mundane/non-engaged/boring Buddhism? Because still the only difference I see in the inclusion of social activism. And with that inclusion you can count me out. My activism is not dictated by my religion but is an organic creation from my personal, day-to-day practice.

Why put a meaningless label on it?

(via Point of Contact)Don’t practice social engagement as a Buddhist.  Don’t practice charity as a Buddhist. Don’t show compassion as a Buddhist. These are the things that every personal practice should contain without contraining them with religious identity.  When you chose to show charity, compassion or social engagement as a part of your personal practice you can do so without waving a religious banner.  Do it for the benefit for others.  Period.  End of sentence.  No strings attached.  No politics or banners.  Slogans or comments.  No conversions or evangelizing.

Part of me certainly agrees with John. When one is engaged fully in their practice, the changes one incurs will naturally be brought out into other aspects into their lives. But part of me agrees with what we find in the definition here. “Buddhists who are seeking ways to apply the insights” to me says that people are seeking a vehicle in which to apply what they have learned and experienced to greater social causes. This is the same thing we find with organized/structured religion. One might not want to use labels or constructs, but I think having a Zen or Pure Land or Therevadan framework is helpful and can be conductive. They are rafts to use when crossing the river, which are to be discarded when one reaches the other shore. I’m wondering if this is what those that consider themselves Socially Engaged Buddhists are doing as well.

Kyle over at The Reformed Buddhist had this to say the other day:

I don’t want this to come across as yet another rant against politics or social justice, as these are all fine undertakings, just as much as opening a soup kitchen, teaching a child to ride a bike or making dinner for the family. But when we attempt to justify these endeavors as the purpose or goal of Buddhist teachings, then the practice becomes something other than Buddhism. They are at best, distractions from our practice and are just more squirrel mind running ramped. And at worst, they are delusional additions to Buddhist teachings in order to create an artificial goal of happiness, or social change or whatever the extra desires may be.

What he and a few others referred to was that the goal (yes, I know….) of Buddhist practice isn’t to help others, do charitable works or any of the other things that fall under the “Socially Engaged” tent, but rather that the end goal of Buddhism is the cessation of suffering. Certainly I agree with that. Plenty of the Pali texts end with the Buddha bringing whatever it was that he was teaching in that particular sutta back to the Four Noble Truths. It always comes back to suffering, the source of suffering, the knowledge that there is a way to end suffering and then the path out of suffering.  And with this again, I have to agree.

And yet, Nathan had this to say regarding the “looking (only) within” aspect of the path:

This is an old, old debate between those who argue Buddhism is about working to disengage from worldly concerns, and those who see Buddhism as a path that includes coming back to “the marketplace” (Ox Herding Pics) if you will. I think everyone is on a continuum between these two extremes, from solitary monks living in the mountains to lifelong social activists whose work is deliberately guided by Buddhist teachings.

With Nathan I have to agree as well. But I think that even within each individual we find people fall into different places on their own continuum. Some of us bring our practice into politics, others check it at the door. But those who bring it into politics might not bring it with the same fervor when it comes to familial manners. And it is here where I think some of John and Kyle’s (and others!) frustrations over who gets to define what “Engaged Buddhism” means. I am no less engaged than someone else simply because I decide to not be as vocal about issues of race or gender equality as others out there who may not be as vocal about environmental or poverty issues as I am (examples). I also wonder if it’s a slippery slope into “if you are an Engaged Buddhist, you will vote/believe/speak out against/for topics a, b, and c.”

Along these same lines, I have seen plenty of suttra thumping over various topics around the blogosphere/forums/interwebs. Rather than analyzing their own intentions, opinions, and leanings; there are those that would simply say “I’m a Buddhist so I believe such and such”. If I ever say that, please kick me in the nuts. I didn’t adopt a specific set of beliefs when I decided to walk this path. I never said “Hey, I’m a Buddhist now, so I believe in “z” because it says so in X suttra.” Those are all appeals to authority and the Buddha-dharma has no room for those. Now I do believe that belief has a large role to play in Buddhism, but it is more of a trust-based belief. The way that you follow the advice of a doctor even though you don’t fully understand the science behind what it is he has to say. You apply the advice, and if it works, well, it works.

Much of this path lies in the process of discovery and inquiry. Something I’ve been digging at lately is the topic of abortion. Certainly it is a social and political issue. Does Engaged Buddhism allow for both Pro-Choice and Pro-life social activists? (I think I’ll save my personal thoughts on this for a later post.) If “economic justice” is included in Engaged Buddhism, does a Buddhist Tea-Partier that believes we shouldn’t tax the wealthy at a higher rate than the poor have the same voice as the liberal who believes we should tax people because they are wealthy? One could argue issues of economic “justice” for either side depending on one’s politics. Maybe that’s where things are getting messy for some. Maybe it’s that people are bringing their politics into Buddhism, rather than bringing their practice to their politics.

Is this all just coming down to “who gets to define ‘engaged'”? Is it just about the labels?

One final thought. John had raised some points about doing things in the name of Buddhism. Certainly many of us here in the US are familiar with Christian organizations that give out a side-order of proselytizing with their charity. During my homeless months in Seattle, I slept in a church basement at night. We were never preached to nor were we asked to even attend service. Some did and some didn’t. It was truly charity for charity sake. Of course, there was also one of the food lines I stood in where they handed out Vitamin C tablets with a Jesus pamphlet (had to take it if you wanted the vitamin). These two different approaches definitely left two distinct tastes in my mouth (and not just because of the vitamins).

So it got me thinking. Imagine the week after the earthquake in Haiti, two groups of people went down to dig two wells. The first group is a Christian/Jewish/Buddhist/Muslim/pick your religion group who goes down and announces that they are the “X religious group” here to dig a well. They dig, and leave without ever directly trying to convert anyone, but they are sure to mention that “hey, we’re such and such, of course we’ll help!” Awesome. Well is dug and people have clean drinking water.

The second group has no affiliation. They are just a bunch of random strangers that met on craigslist and wanted to help out in Haiti. So they go down and dig the well. The villagers ask “are you with such-and-such church?”. “No” they reply. “We’re just fellow humans, of course we’ll help.” Awesome. Well is dug and people have clean drinking water.

In then end isn’t the well still dug either way? Or is there a difference? Does it matter if the religous group leaves their conversion attempts at their door, even if they announce they are doing God’s/Allah’s/Cthulu’s work? (I have yet to see a charitable Cthulu cult but if you know of one, please let me know).

At first when I came up with this scenario I thought the second group’s impact would be much more profound in that the beneficiaries of their charitable actions would see that it doesn’t take any type of organization or religion to foster compassion for fellow human beings and such. But then I realized that compassion is a key component in many of the world’s religions, and something most of us could all work on in our daily lives. And that it’s nice to have an organization to support that effort. It’s nice to have a website and an organization to find like-minded people with which one can be of service to others. Because while the second group sure is a nice ideal, we all know what people really use craigslist for 😉

So really I’m fairly undecided about all this. And that was the real intent behind this post. I realized that I had no preconceived opinion about Socially Engaged Buddhism. And that listening to all the dialogue going back and forth was interesting, but it wasn’t an organic way to form an opinion that was mine. I’m usually quite opinionated, but for some reason this issue threw up a huge road block for me. It was awesome. I’ve no doubt that social conditioning has some part to play in whatever opinion I do ultimately form around this, but it’s liberating and refreshing knowing that I can walk into a discussion and have zero knee-jerk responses. I’m not sure the last time that has happened.

I came across the following from the Pabbata Sutta that I think fits nicely with this theme:

“ Like a mountain of rock
in the wilderness, in a mighty grove,
dependent on which there prosper
lords of the forest, great trees —
in the same way,
those who here live dependent on
a clansman of conviction
— consummate in virtue —
wife & children,
friends, dependents, & kin.

Seeing the virtue of that virtuous one,
his liberality & good conduct,
those who are perceptive follow suit.
Having, here in this world, followed the Dhamma,
the path to a good destination,
they delight in the world of the devas,
enjoying the pleasures they desire.”



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Stripped down Buddhsim, and study…

Taken at River Meadows Park, WA

So I was going to review a book I just read, but really couldn’t come up with much. After reading Steve Hagan’s Buddhism Plain and Simple, all I had to say was…. “meh”. It didn’t have much substance, and seemed to go too far in stripping down Buddhism.

A book I reviewed awhile back Buddha Takes No Prisoners… was a great book that presented Buddhist practice in a secular-ish, practical way, but didn’t seek to strip down Buddhism to simply “awareness”. Hagan kind of glossed over some stuff in his book, and really it seemed fairly empty to me. Now, I’m all about presenting Buddhism in a way that is accessible to the masses, and maybe this book would serve as a simple intro for someone who had never really looked into the dharma before. Or maybe it’s so stripped down, that it would be a bad first place to start. Anyway, it didn’t really speak to me. I understand that for some, stripped down Buddhism and Buddhism without Beliefs speaks to them, and is the direction they would like to go. But I don’t think that’s for me.

And that’s okay. Reading Hagen’s book gave me the motivation to pick up The Wings to Awakening and dive into that. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It contains some of the essential teachings from the Pali canon with excellent commentary and analysis by Thanissaro Bikkhu. If you’ve never read it, you need to. Also, it’s free to download/view, so you really have no excuse not to! I think I’ll be working with The Wings for a while.

This is sort of where my practice really resides now, in study, in absorbing the dharma. I think that’s just how my mind works. I need that basis of (sutra) study before I can really formalize any sort of practice. I spend some time with the breath here and there, but nothing regular, and haven’t chanted in months. But I think that’s okay for now. I view my practice as a process, and I’m in the beginning of mine. This will give me a solid foundation for whatever form my practice takes in the future, so I’m putting as much effort and time into it as I can for the moment. Skillful means, right? Cheers.

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A Lotus, a Scotsman, SGI, and an open path…

There is something that I’ve been wresting with for a while now in my Buddhist practice. As some of you might know, I started my Buddhist path in the SGI. Well, kind of (I’ll get to the real beginning later). It’s been nearly a year, and there are too many things that have been nagging me about Nichiren Buddhism in general. So here, I’m going to attempt to explain my experience, and some of my thoughts/feelings on Nichiren and SGI. Please note that I admit that I am completely a dharma-noob, and am fully open to criticism if some of my facts are wrong here.

So, a little over 3 years ago, I started looking into Buddhism. When my wife was much younger, she and her family practiced Nichiren Buddhism in the Nichiren Shoshu school. Later some of the members split off and became the SGI (I’m not going into “the split” in any kind of detail here because it isn’t relevant) and her family practiced with that lay-organization. So she had some background with the SGI, and I started looking there first. I also wanted to know about Buddhism at large, so that’s where I started my search. I wanted to know about the Buddha, what he taught, why there were so many schools (and what each one had to offer) and what made the SGI so special. So I read wiki and listened to podcasts and dove into a couple of sutras here and there, read some contemporary literature and commentaries on sutras, and decided that yes, this is a path that I’d like to start on. It spoke to me like no other religion or philosophy had before. It was in the Four Noble Truths that I found more insight and wisdom than any other text or sermon I’d previously come across.

Flash-forward to last spring/summer. It turns out some of the SGI members that my wife and her family used to practice with years ago are in the area where we live. I didn’t know much about Nichiren Buddhism, but started to look into it. I found Nichiren to be a bit of an extremist in some of his writings, but as I learned a bit about the culture he lived in, it became clear as to why he was so adamant about what he believed. So I thought, okay, I’ll give this a shot. If anything, it was connecting me to Buddhists in my area (I didn’t think there were any up here!) and would give me real live people to talk to about the whole process.

Okay, and now we’re here in the present day. And after practicing for a while, I have some issues with SGI and Nichiren Buddhism in general. Before I get into them, I need to state that the issues that I have are my issues, and I’m not condemning anyone’s religion, nor am I trying to refute anyone’s religion (and hopefully I didn’t over generalize too much). So here are my grievances in no particular order.

1) Nichiren Buddhists claim that Nichiren Buddhism is the only “true Buddhism™” and all other teachings (and schools of Buddhism) are “lesser” teachings. Even the different schools of Nicherin continually attempt to refute eachother and claim ownership over true Buddhism. It’s all over SGI publications and I’ve heard it at several meetings as well. They characterize “old Buddhism” as being fatalistic, not open to the masses, rudimentary, and not generally valid. In the SGI, they talk about priests and monks as if they were just money-hungry hucksters trying to trick people into worshiping them.

This is just more arrogant bullshit. There are few things in the world I can stand less than religious pissing contests over who has the “true” faith. Quite frankly, I don’t give a shit. I also don’t give a shit if I’m “right” or “wrong’ (as if a thing like that could even be quantified). I really don’t. I didn’t pick the Buddhist path because I thought it was the One True Path™, I chose the Buddhist path because it is right for me. Some people like IPAs, I prefer an Amber Ale. There is no “right” beer. Get over yourself.

2) Nichiren Buddhists rely completely on the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin and The Lotus Sutra, and take a literal interpretation of much of the sutra. I’ve been told that The Lotus Sutra is the only valid teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, because he supposedly (and this is to be taken literally and as historic fact) said that the Lotus Sutra is the highest teaching, and that every single teaching he spent those 40+ years teaching were only to prepare people for the Lotus Sutra. The SGI basically throws out every other teaching and sutra (both the older Pali and Mahayana) claiming that they are “lesser” teachings, and that everything related to true Buddhism can be found in The Lotus Sutra. They really couldn’t care less about the 4 noble truths, the 8-fold path, dependant origination, mindfulness, or cultivating compassion and equanimity the way the Buddha taught it. I’ve been told that those teachings are like “grade school Buddhism”, and that only the Lotus Sutra and the writings of Nichiren Daishonin are advanced enough to be called true Buddhism.

While I find there to be valid and useful teachings in the Lotus Sutra, I am not about to throw out any of the Buddha’s teachings. I can’t bring myself to believe that the Lotus Sutra was actually hidden away in a Dragon Realm for 500 years, or that it is the literal word of Shakyamuni Buddha. Most scholars seem to agree with me on that as well.  I also don’t find the teachings of the Lotus Sutra to be a good vehicle to be solely relied upon. For me, a better approach is to incorporate the teachings into my life alongside the rest of the Buddha’s teachings. I understand the metaphors as metaphors, and take the teachings to heart. (I should also emphasize that I don’t know if every school of Nicherin Buddhism takes the Lotus Sutra as a historical teaching or not)

3) Recently, I’ve been told that Shakyamuni wasn’t the true Buddha, and that he was simply preparing the way for his mentor who was reincarnated/reborn as Nichiren Daishonin who is the “true” Buddha.

Well, I didnt’ know there was such a thing as a “true” Buddha and an un-true Buddha. That also contradicts the fact that I’ve been told that I’m a Buddha (just haven’t realized it) as well. Does that mean that I’m an un-true Buddha? Crap. I guess I’ve been doing it wrong.

4) Nichiren Buddhism seems to hinge on two things that I find incompatible with reality. First, that the Lotus Sutra is historical and the literal word of Shakyamuni Buddha, and second, that Nichiren Daishonin is the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law.

I’ve touched on this already, but basically I just don’t believe that the LS was preached by the Buddha, then hidden away in a dragon realm, only to then be revealed as a teaching that was made for the masses. It certainly seems inspired by his teachings, but his literal word? I can’t believe that. Nor does the evidence point in that direction. There are great and significant teachings to be found there, but they need not be taken at their word for them to be meaningful and beneficial to one’s practice. 

I found this comment on Barbara’s Buddhism Blog over on About.com back in December that sums up the myth of the latter-day of the law and Nichiren nicely. Basically, you’d have to believe that Shakyamuni lived 3000, not 2500 years ago in order for the timeline to work out. And you’d also have to believe that the Buddha was into making specific prophecies, neither of which I find realistic or necessary on a path of awakening.

5) SGI is a cult of personality (note: I didn’t say cult). Members are taught to look to the leader of the SGI, Daisaku Ikeda, as their leader, mentor, and sensei. It is taught that there is a line of succession from the Buddha to Nichiren to Ikeda, and that he is our mentor.

One of the main pieces of literature for the SGI is The World Tribune. It’s a 6-8 page newspaper that arrives in the mail once a week (for $30/year) and it is basically a press release for Daisaku Ikeda. You can’t go 4 sentences without either reading his name, or reading something that he’s written. I’ve tried. It’s filled with stories about how people’s lives were terrible until they realized their mentor/disciple relationship with Ikeda, and stories about Ikeda having the “heart of a lion king”, and it seems that every week Ikeda is receiving an honorary degree or award from somewhere. 

Personally, I find Daisaku Ikead to be largely uninspiring (though he has written some inspriational lines here and there), and wholly lacking any real spiritual presence. He seems more like your average stereotype of a Japanese businessman than someone who is on a path of enlightenment. Ikeda certainly has a skill for talking to people, but less in a Dalia Lama type of way, and more of an insurance-salesman type of way. Everywhere I turn, it seems like I’m being “sold” this religion; and as such, there is very little substance revealed in his or the organizations’ words at-large. It is mostly just dialogue promoting the religion and organization in some way, though at times it can focus on how the SGI is the only true Buddhism, and rhetoric that simply aims to validate their position as “true Buddhism.” And let’s not even begin to get into how many millions of dollars that man holds on to, and how many monuments have been erected in his name (all while he denounces people who have statues of the Buddha as idol worshipers) or how tied in the SGI is in with the government in Japan.

6) Members that turn away from the SGI are either harassed or attempts are made to get them back. It isn’t an issue of “okay, best of luck on your path!”. It is seen as something gravely disappointing and almost evil.

My mother-in-law recently sought out some local practitioners of the Nichiren Shoshu school, and when some of the SGI members found out, they flipped. We were then told that basically, the Nichiren Shoshu was evil, and that all they do is worship the priesthood, and likened them to horrible things like the Catholic Church and the Dalia Llama (exact words – theirs, not mine). We were then given some material which on the cover said that it was a refutation of the Nichiren Shoshu. I glanced at it, but really couldn’t have cared less. You would have thought they’d be happy that there were other Buddhists in the area, but apparently, it’s a very bad thing that they are even practicing here! 

Along with this is the whole concept of kosen-rufu and shakubuku which is basically a Buddhist version of what Christians call “witnessing” (basically an attempt at conversion). Personally, I hate it when people try to sell me their religion. Nothing will turn me off faster. I don’t want a one world religion. That doesn’t mean I won’t talk to people about what I practice, it just means that I’m not going to go up to people and try to convert them. I think a better approach is to live the best life that you can, and if your greater virtues are rooted in your practice (whatever it may be) and people want to know about it, then take that opportunity to let them in on it if you feel so inclined.

7)The reasons I started on the Buddhist path were many at the time. I sought a philosophy and religion that addressed mindfulness at its core. I have ADHD, and at times my mind resembles a giant projection screen with 40 small screens of picture-in-picture all going at once, each one changing randomly at times. It makes it nearly impossible to concentrate on anything, and it also makes it impossible to remember the little stuff. I’ve perfected the art of forgetfulness. My emotions can run wild at times, and lead me to suffer because of it. While I don’t want to offer up Buddhism as “self-help”, I do believe there are real world benefits to practicing, and much self-improvement can be gained along the way. I also believe that Buddhism integrates nicely with my other beliefs that center on inter-connectedness and compassion, and help to balance my life in favor of ethical conduct.

I find Nichiren Buddhism to be an unsatisfactory vehicle for most of these things. Again, these are my feelings on the matter. If you or someone you know is able to find comfort or refuge or benefit from practicing Nichiren Buddhism or with the SGI, by all means more power to ya’. I have a few other minor issues with the practice as well, but I’m sure there will be comments on this post (I hope anyway) and I’ll be able to address some of them there.

I should make mention that there are aspects of the practice that I enjoy (diversity in the organization, accessability, ritual, focus, something to share with my wife…. among others), and that it hasn’t been a completely terribble experience. I should also note that I don’t believe that every Nicherin Buddhist (or SGI member) is a fundamentalist, but that the statements made above seem to be part of the “party line”, if you will.

So, where does all of this leave me? Buddhist purgatory I suppose. At the heart of Nichiren Buddhism is the practice of chanting nam myoho renge kyo (daimoku). The act of chanting  is something I tend to enjoy, even though chanting in Japanese can be challenging and unfamiliar. For me, it helps to knock me down a few pegs, and bring me down to the mundane. And while I find little connection to the gohonzon itself, it does help to center my practice. I think I’m done with the SGI, though as for chanting, I’m going to make a real effort to chant more regularly. However, my intentions will be decidedly different from that which Nichiren Buddhists hold so dear.

My wife really enjoys the practice, though she’s no fan of Ikeda or the fundamentalism we’ve encountered so far (though we have found some really nice people too, and I’m sure there are plenty more reasonable members out there… somewhere…). As such, chanting together is something we can share, something that will bring us closer together. I haven’t been chanting much lately, and it’s largely due to the issues that I’ve stated here. Getting this out in the open will hopefully help me to re-focus my practice. I want it to be more personalized, and something that truly speaks to me.

So like I said, I’m going to chant with my wife. And sometime in the future, I’ll incorporate a meditation practice. I envision chanting, then spending 15 minutes (to start) afterward in meditation. I see chanting as a tool to use to clear my mind, to sort of “prep” it for meditation or contemplation. But what type of meditation practice? Samatha? Vipassana? Zazen? I have yet to decide. I have a stack of books to read, starting with The Wings to Awakening, followed by a bunch of Zen books (nothing with “and the art of…” in the title) and then I think I’ll move on to just the sutras (prob with commentary) and see what I can find in the way of contemporary Theravadin literature.

I’d like to say I’ll seek out a teacher, but around here there are practically none. I have had an offer to sit with a grassroots Zen group that’s a little over and hour drive from here, but that is simply too far. I have a 17 month old son, and a wife that will give birth to a baby girl at the end of September. My family is my main responsibility in life at the moment, so for now I will have to go it alone. Thankfully, I live in 2010, and am financially secure enough (for now…) to afford access to the internet. I can find many of the sutras online for free (or for cheap on Amazon or local used book stores), and teachers are making themselves more accessable online as well. I also am able to seek the greater iSangha for help and guidance (and laughs) if need be.

I’m not opposed to settling into a tradition at this point. Far from it. What is right for me at this moment is to learn. That’s how I work. I need the intellectual foundation first, and from there I will develop a practice that is meaningful and provides me with the direction and support needed to cultivate the mindfulness, compassion, and equanimity that I started searching for in the first place.



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Buddha takes no Prisoners!

Buddha Takes No Prisoners

Buddha Takes No Prisoners: A Meditator’s Survival Guide

Author: Patrick Ophuls

North Atlantic Books

Once again, I’ve been tricked by the title. “A meditator’s survival guide” led me to believe this book would have to do with meditation practice of some sort, but alas, it really doesn’t. It doesn’t cover meditation in and of itself. It’s more of an “okay, I can meditate, now what do I do with that” book. Okay, no big deal.

Although reading is one of my favorite hobbies/pastimes, it is becoming increasingly difficult to spend a dedicated amount of time reading the books I want to read. I have a small “to read” stack that is growing faster than I can keep up. What was nice about this book, is that it fit right into that lifestyle. It is split up into 24 small chapters, that each read like a well written blog post. The chapters are short enough and self-sufficient enough that you can read one, and come back to the book a few days later without having to back track to regain the train of thought. When I say well written, I mean it. Patrick Ophuls’ style is straight-forward and engaging. He doesn’t cut any corners, and he doesn’t fluff up his writing with too much… “wordiness”. And you can tell this guy has studied the Buddhist texts quite a bit, as he includes more metaphors than you can handle (really, it does get a little bit old).

I really enjoyed this book. It was Buddhism without beliefs without Buddhism without beliefs. He makes his point to an obviously Western audience, but he doesn’t advocate stripping the Dharma of anything. His approach is practical but not anti-establishment. He’s targeting the average Western lay practitioner, and really hits the mark. It’s approachable yet elevating. Some of the parts that I found to be of great interest:

About choosing a Buddhist path:

It’s not true that all roads lead to Rome; quite a few lead to hell instead. But of the many paths that go to the holy city, we need to choose one in particular for our journey.

On a new definition of metta:

So perhaps the single best word to convey the essential spirit of metta is not….kindness. Rather, it is kindheartedness, because the latter more strongly suggests an inner predisposition or habitual tendency to be friendly and kind no matter what, which is precisely what metta is.

On Buddhist practice as a means for “healing”:

…if healing becomes the goal of practice, then a watered-down, feel-good, lowest-common-denominator Buddhism reflecting the cultural values of a secularized, politically correct, therapeutic society may take root and become the norm. To put it another way, the danger is that Freud’s heroic resignation will replace Gautama’s heroic affirmation so that students learn how to live with their suffering instead of how to overcome it.

Ophuls covers many topics in his blog-like chapters; fixing problems that arise with your meditation practice, choosing a path, choosing a teacher, emphasizing that we need worldly wisdom while living in a worldly world (go figure, hu?). The book is like a FAQ for your Buddhist practice. I definitely recommend it, especially for any Dharma-noob out there. There are some great essays in the appendix as well that I think I’ll save for a future blog post.


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Someone said something about Buddhism!

I suppose I’m a bit late to the party, but life kept me away from the internets this weekend for the most part. It seems as though Bill Maher said something about Buddhism, and now people are upset. So I went over to the post in question, read it, and chuckled a little bit.

Bill Maher is a comedian. Some find him funny, others not so much. No biggie. We can’t all like the same flavor of ice cream either. As of the past few years, Maher has really targeted religion and the religious as the butt of his jokes. His movie Religulous focused on crazy people who believe in the different Abrahamic religions, and was kinda funny at times, but largely disappointing. It also seemed like there was supposed to be a point, but then there really wasn’t one. Oh well. In his bit over at the Huffington Post, he starts talking about sex-addiction and Tiger, making some funny points:

But all this talk about sex addiction now – please – sex addiction is just something Dr. Drew made up because he had no other way to explain Andy Dick. And that’s not just me saying that – it’s also the American Psychiatric Association, which does not list sex addiction in its manual; it does not regard it as a real psychological syndrome, like delirium or bipolar disorder or any of the other things Glenn Beck suffers from.

hahaha Andy Dick and Glenn Beck in the same rip?!?! Comedy gold!!!

Moving on.

But before Tiger moves on there’s one more apology he really should make, and that’s to Buddha, for dragging him into this mess and proving once again, that whenever something unspeakably tawdry, loathsome and cheap happens, just wait a few days. Religion will make it worse.

He’s got a point here. People play the God/Jesus card all the time after they get caught cheating/lying/stealing or whatever. It’s actually really annoying, mostly to the people of that particular faith. Tiger said he was re-comitting to his path. I certainly wish him well. Yet part of me thinks that in his forgiveness speech, Tiger was purposefully targeting the Brit Humes of the world that seemed to think he needed Christianity, and Buddhism was a second-class religion when it comes to redemption. If the public hadn’t gotten involved in his personal religion, I wonder if he would have ever mentioned it?

Maher goes on to make some other jokes at the expense of Buddhism. Most of which are gross exaggerations of a limited, superficial understanding of Buddhism:

And it really is outdated in some ways – the “Life sucks, and then you die” philosophy was useful when Buddha came up with it around 500 B.C., because back then life pretty much sucked, and then you died – but now we have medicine, and plenty of food, and iPhones, and James Cameron movies – our life isn’t all about suffering anymore. And when we do suffer, instead of accepting it we try to alleviate it.

Tiger said, “Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves” makes us unhappy, which confirms something I’ve long suspected about Eastern religions: they’re a crock, too.

Craving for things outside ourselves is what makes life life – I don’t want to learn to not want, that’s what people in prison have to do. Buddhism teaches suffering is inevitable. The only thing that’s inevitable is that if you have fake boobs and hair extensions, Tiger Woods will try to fuck you.

ha. Kinda almost funny. I think better jokes could be made here, even if they did offend more than these. Come on Bill, you’re slipping.

I’ve seen quite a few in the greater “buddhoblogosphere” post about this, and about Maher’s comments are coming from a place of ignorance. Well, yeah. Of course they are. I wouldn’t expect someone like Bill Maher to make informed statements about Buddhism, and then turn them into jokes. Because once someone is well-informed on the Four Noble truths, there isn’t much to laugh at about them.  They were also meant for HIS audience, and if you haven’t noticed, the audience he’s targeting isn’t the religous. So no, I’m not really upset at the comments he made.

One of the jokes he made has brought up the same comments over and over again:

And reincarnation? Really? If that were real, wouldn’t there be some proof by now? A raccoon spelling out in acorns, “My name is Herb Zoller and I’m an accountant.” …something?

People are always debating, is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy: it’s a religion. You’re a religion if you do something as weird as when the Buddhist monks scrutinize two-year-olds to find the reincarnation of the dude who just died, and then choose one of the toddlers as the sacred Lama: “His poop is royal!” Sorry, but thinking you can look at a babbling, barely-housebroken, uneducated being and say, “That’s our leader” doesn’t make you enlightened. It makes you a Sarah Palin supporter.

I actually kind of laughed at this one. Any time someone can make fun of Sarah Palin, I laugh. Also, the whole process is kind of well….. funny when you think about it from an outsider’s perspective, isn’t it? But the bloggers were focusing on this comment quite a bit, saying that this practice is grounded in Tibetan Buddhism, and is mostly cultural anyway, so he’s really way off base here.

But is he? Like it or not, The Dalia Llama is the face of ALL Buddhism in the West to non-Buddhist Westerners. Would a joke about  Amitābha Buddha, Daisaku Ikeda, or Robert Thurman really have really flown on Huffington Post? Doubtful. We kind of have to admit that by making the Dalai Llama into such a celebrity and rock star, we’ve also thrown his brand of Buddhism into the spotlight, which doesn’t leave much room for any of the others out there.

All in all, I think it was a moderately funny post on his part. I can handle someone laughing at my religion. I believe in some pretty unconventional (esp by Western standards) stuff, so I have to recognize that others aren’t going to see eye-to-eye with me at times, and that’s alright. I can’t count how many times I’ve laughed at Crazy Church People, babbling idiots, or Magic Mormon Underwear. To now get upset when someone pokes fun of my beliefs would be pretty hypocritical on my part.

Yet, there is a real problem here. Unfortunately, there are people who base their views off of what a comedian like Bill Maher or Dennis Miller or John Stewart has to say. Bill Maher has his version of the “ditto-heads” that flock to his every word, and spread it like a virus. So while I really don’t see anything to get upset with about his comments in and of themselves, the problem really lies with what happens to those comments when they reach the public.

I’ve already seen this happening in some of the comments:

I worship at the Altar of Maher.

Me too. He is a genius. I heard him last night on Larry King. His comments on Palin and Obama, etc., hit the balls outside the fence.

Hey Bill, You are the best at exposing the lack of credibility and believablity
of these crutches going under the name of religion(s)

This is a tiny sample to be sure, used to illustrate my point. But the fact of the matter is that this piece will give people a reason to hate Buddhism, to spread further misconceptions about the dharma, and might turn people away from ever seeking it out in the first place. Using beer as an analogy, let’s say you decide to be bold, and try one of those new-fangled micro-brews instead of the usual lite lager crap. Now let’s say the first beer you try is Stone Mill Pale Ale. You know, the one that looks like it came from a small town micro brewery in Cali? So you get home and crack one open and, EWWWW. It’s freaking awful. Just a little bit more flavor than your usual can beer, but that flavor is awful. Why the hell did you ever think to try something new? Never again.

Of course, Stone Mill is made by Anheiseur-Busch, and is about as far from a local delicious micro-brewed Pale Ale that you could ever get. Your first exploration into something new and exciting just got you burned because you believed what you were buying was somehow a good representation of what you were looking for. But it wasn’t. This is the same flavor that people will be left with if misconceptions about the dharma are left to propagate unchecked. So yes, we should speak up. But we should also take a moment to realize that Bill Maher is a comedian, and comedians will make jokes at the expense of just about everyone, as long as there is an audience for them. I’m not going to take offense at what was said. His ignorance has been pointed out by plenty of others in the buddhoblogosphere, so I’m not going to list all the ways in which he is wrong.

John has a good thread going on about engaging ignorance in Buddhism. I’m trying to figure out what our role is exactly in all of this. Do we simply confront Bill Maher and his misconceptions? Or do we try to get the correct version (not talking about sects/schools here) of the dharma out there in the public to let people see what the Buddha really had to say about suffering? I don’t know if there is an easy solution here.

As for jokes…..

“Sarah Palin thinks the alphabet has 22 letters. She’s so dumb she thinks the capital of China is Chinatown. Sarah Palin is so dumb, she thinks billboards are postcards from giants. The governor of Alaska is so dumb, she thinks soy milk is Spanish for ‘I am milk.'” –“Daily Show” correspondent Wyatt Cenac

oooooh snap!!!



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I’m not a true Scotsman/Buddhist

I enjoy The Zennist for his commentary on the Pali cannon. He certainly knows his stuff, and I’m starting to learn a bit from his blog as well. However, his latest post “On Being a real Buddhist” really kind of pissed me off. I appreciate opinion, and I expect it when reading a personal blog. But to say something like “Less than this is not real Buddhism nor are its practitioners, I dare say, real Buddhists.” and you’ve really crossed a line.

First, please dont’ try to tell others how authentic or ‘real’ their practice is. It’s insulting, and it is divisive (wrong speech). You’re sounding more and more like a Church-of Christ/christian apologetics “I’m holier than thou” types.

Second, you’ve commited a logical fallacy. It is commonly referred to the “not a true Scotsman” fallacy and it works like this:

If Adam, a Buddhist, does not believe in the “immortal-element”, is proposed as a counter-example to the claim “No Buddhist denies the immortal-element”, the ‘No true Scotsman’ fallacy would run as follows:

(1) Adam doesn’t believe in the immortal-element.
(2) No (true) Buddhist denies the existence of the immortal-element.
(3) Adam is not a (true) Buddhist.
(4) Adam is not a counter-example to the claim that no Buddhist denies the existence of the immortal-element.

This fallacy is a form of circular argument, with an existing belief being assumed to be true in order to dismiss any apparent counter-examples to it. The existing belief thus becomes unfalsifiable. Also, by what guidelines do you define a “true” or “authentic” Buddhist? And, who the hell are you to judge?

We don’t need anymore Dharma Police on the block Zennist. Your insight into the Pali Cannon could be put to better use than to belittle others, create divisions, and prattle on about how we in the West will never be Real Buddhists™. Keep the information coming, but keep the snarkyness in check will ya? There is very little metta in your posts.



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Well, we recieved our Gohonzon tonight. It was interesting, weird, jarring, and peaceful chanting with a room full of family and strangers. I don’t know many of the chants quite yet, but I managed to fumble along nicely. Paul, who’s home we went to for the ceremony was very nice and welcoming, and no one commented on our lack of chanting skills. Next week we’ll be enshrining it in the Butsadon that my brother in law and I made last weekend. I’ll put up a picture of mine then. This is a picture of one for those unfamiliar.


I was holding my 9 month old son, Corbin worried that he would start crying at any moment. It was getting past his bed time and he usually doesn’t do well with loud noises or if a lot of people are around him talking. But he just sat there the whole time. Didn’t make so much as a peep. He looked around at all the strangers, and really seemed at peace. Maybe it had to do with the fact that Alex, my wife, has been chanting to him since he was in the womb. He certainly enjoyed himself, and seemed really centered. And when we all stopped, he starting doing his baby babble as if to fill the silence with his version of Nam myoho renge kyo.

 As for me, well, I was able to do the Daimoku, but the rest was way beyond me. I’ll need lots of practice, but I’m okay with that. If it came easy, I don’t think it would be worth it. I think a big benefit of Buddhist practice is breaking us out of the shells we’ve created for ourselves (and we certainly have thick shells here in the US, don’t we?). So while Nicherin Buddhism wasn’t my first “pick” for the type of Buddhism I would practice, it will certainly suffice. I don’t see any reason why in the future I couldn’t also sit zazen or approach things from a more Therevaden standpoint. Maybe that will be the future face of Western Buddhism. The US has always been the “melting pot”, so why not for Buddhism as well? Maybe that is where we will find our voice in the West. Not in any one particular practice or any new version of Buddhism, but a marriage of many practices and beliefs. Who knows?

 I know that right now, I’m diggin this new sangha and practice, and that’s all that matters to me. I’m fine with any form of practice that helps me realize my own Buddha nature. Cheers.

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