Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Distorted and Defiled Religion

I listened to President Obama's speech last night about sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. First of all, I don't agree with sending more U. S. troops to Afghanistan. The security of Afghanistan is an international concern and there should be a balanced international presence there. This isn't our war and it is not a war that can be won with guns. It's an occupational hazard for the president as commander-in-chief to ask generals what they need to solve the world's problems. If you ask a general what they want to fix Afghanistan, of course the general will say more troops, more guns, more equipment. It's the wrong question to the wrong person. As president, not as commander-in-chief, but as president, Obama should be asking those that really know how to fix Afghanistan's problem. And what is the problem?

President Obama, to his credit, hit the problem squarely on the head when he said that extremists have distorted and defiled Islam. The problem is a malignant ideology. You cannot fight the spread of a distorted view by sending more U. S. troops. This is a war over the minds of young men and women, not just in Afghanistan, but around the world. As such, the best way to fight this war is for people to bear the good fruits of their faiths, the acts of kindness and compassion that lead to understanding and illumine the true path in life. The problem is, Islam is not the only religion that has been distorted and defiled by those that have only greed and hatred in their hearts which distorts their view of not just their religion, but of politics, morals, and all aspects of life.

In Buddhism, the first path of the Noble Eightfold Path is Right View. Right view is fundamentally understanding what all the great religions have taught. Perhaps Jesus said it best, "As you sow, so shall you reap". With just this much knowledge from the world's great religions, we can see not only how distorted and defiled Islamic extremists have twisted the religion of Islam, but how many churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques have distorted and defiled religion by condoning the use of military force to win a war of the mind and heart. If only they would just stick to practicing their true faith, loving neighbor as self, sowing good seed to reap good fruit, seeking the kingdom of heaven within, visiting those in prison, feeding the poor, caring for the sick to use a few Christian examples, the correct view would become apparent. This is a war against ignorance, greed and hatred. It cannot be won with guns. Killing the enemy only creates more hatred which only gives rise to even more enemies. What must be killed is the greed, hatred, and ignorance. This can only be done through compassionate charity, loving kindness, and wisdom.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama Wins Nobel Peace Prize

I was surprised and glad to hear that President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize today. On the other hand, I think it was premature. I have heard Senator and then President Obama say many things that could have come from the lips of Thich Nhat Hanh. Just yesterday I heard a quote stating that the existence of Guantanamo Bay probably inspired the recruitment of more terrorists than the prison ever detained. I've heard President Obama express the notion that Thich Nhat Hanh has devoted much of is life to, that using force instead of diplomacy and hatred instead of compassion only creates more enemies.

President Obama gets it, unlike his predecessor. But, President Obama has yet to actualize the values that Thich Nhat Hanh has lived all his life. And I have to wonder why Thich Nhat Hanh was never awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, though nominated. Pick up any of his many books and you'll see the same message of actualizing world peace through the cultivation of individual peace and compassion for others based on recognition of our "interbeing", our interconnectedness.

I'm not a big fan of bumper stickers, but I do have a small one on the back of my 2003 Prius, a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh:
"We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness."
President Obama seems to understand this. I just hope that the award of the Peace Prize will inspire him to really deserve it.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Lion's Roar Dharma Center

My son, Gavriil, and I went to the Lion's Roar Dharma Center meeting at the Quaker Friends Meeting Place this evening. Lama Yeshe Jinpa, the director and resident teacher, led a brief meditation followed by a very short Dharma talk (I think the shortest I've ever heard). After a break, there was another sitting meditation session, but Gavriil was not up for that so we left early.

It's wonderful attending such meetings with my son. Although he is only 5, he knows he must be quiet in places like that and he chose to sit with us instead of playing in the playroom. About half way through the meditation, he started getting fidgety. Fortunately, it was cool in the room and he came over and sat on my crossed legs and was fairly still for the remaining 10 minutes. Exposing young children to the Dharma and to practices is so valuable. Moments spent in silence together plant seeds that eventually sprout and bear fruit as kids grow up and seek that calm they felt as a child and begin cultivating themselves.

On the way home, we had a talk about meditating. I told him it was like a game. You see how long you can follow your breath and if you have a thought, you get to label it, "thinking, thinking, thinking". Then you return to following your breath in and out of the nostrils. If you have a pain, you note, "pain, pain, pain" and go back to the air coming in and going out of the nose. An itch, "itchy, itchy, itchy". A sound, "hearing, hearing, hearing". Always coming back to the breath. This is a good way for kids because it helps them become aware of mental processes and physical sensations while developing the ability to focus on the breath. Gavriil likes the notion that it's a game, like swating a thought with the swatter, "thinking, thinking, thinking" and going back to the deepening calm of following what is most natural to us all, our breath.

We talked about how a calm mind is a happy mind and about how you can always be happy by practicing meditation and by being kind to others. Our talk made the trip all the more worthwhile.

I didn't realize it before I arrived, but Lama Yeshe Jinpa is a Western psychotherapist. I thought I was going to hear a Dharma talk by a Tibetan monk! It was rather strange seeing other Westerners bowing and treating this plain-clothed American with such reverence. According the the website, "He was given direct heart/mind transmission by Lama Geshe Lobsang Gyatso of Sera Je Monastic University in 1995 after 25 years of Dharma study and practice."

For more information about Lama Yeshe Jinpa and Lion's Roar, visit Lion's Roar Dharma Center online.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Simon, set the way back machine to 1967....

What do Paul McCartney, Ringo Star, Donovan, Paul Horn, and Mike Love have in common? They all learned to meditate back in 1967 and joined their teacher, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, on a retreat in Rishikesh India. I remember seeing pictures of the Beatles with Maharishi back in the late 60's and they made quite an impression on me. It took awhile for causes and conditions to ripen, but I eventually learned to meditate in Springfield, Illinois in 1976.

I was walking down the street and saw a poster with Maharishi's photograph on it. It was advertising a public lecture on on Transcendental Meditation to be given that evening. I had just finished reading "The TM Book" about a week before and had pretty high interest. I was just out of the Air Force and missed the peaceful state I would experience listening to ocean waves at Cape Hatteras. The husband of an old friend of mine had learned EST, but it just didn't interest me. But the idea of meditating was really in my blood, in my DNA. As far back as I can remember, I most enjoyed those times when I was just suspended in the moment, clearly aware, but completely at rest. These were peak experiences for me and I wanted to learn how to have them more predictably and more often. Needless to say, I attended the lecture and found myself back at the TM center a couple days later with my white handkerchief and fruit and a check for $65.00. I didn't like the idea of having to pay for learning to meditate, and this was a lot of money to me back then. But, I had to see what TM was like.

The teacher performed a puja to Maharishi's teacher, "Guru Dev" and then quietly introduced me to silently repeating a mantra. Within a few minutes, it felt as though my hands resting on my lap were far below and I became acutely aware of the room, the teacher sitting next to me, the environment outside the house. Every sound sound was crystal clear against a backdrop of expansive silence. I was perfectly present, awake, clear, relaxed. I felt like all the tension I had been carrying just melted away. The teacher stopped me and asked how it was. "Good," I replied, barely able to force sound from my throat. He said, "This is how we meditate...."

It wasn't long before I found myself in Colorado Springs in a "Science of Creative Intelligence" class. I was working at Western Forge for $3.50 an hour, living alone, practicing TM twice a day and saving money to go backpacking and eventually attend school at Maharishi International University. The SCI class was completely nourishing to me providing theoretical understanding for what I was experiencing in meditation. And the people were so special -- not just Ron Carpenter that was leading the class and the other TM teachers, Patti and Phil Pierce, but the students were extraordinary people. Mrs. Labowski was quite wealthy but so incredibly kind and sweet. Karen, who was attending Colorado College, had the most penetrating eyes and was always so awake and yet laid back. The retired Air Force officer who was so relaxed and thoughtful. Watching Maharishi videos drinking chamomile and honey tea with this company was something I so looked forward to each week.

Finally, in January of '78, I arrived at Maharishi International University to begin a six year journey that was most enduring and fulfilling spiritually enriching experience of my earlier years. I learned the TM Sidhis program there and sat twice a day in the meditation hall with hundreds of other meditators bent on creating world peace through the purifying effect of group meditation. MIU was a very cool place. Quite a contrast from my teenage years of partying, there were no alcohol or drugs or crazy parties, but we had fun and the friendships I made at this special university have endured to this day and are among the most meaningful I've experienced.

It's been a long time since I practiced TM and the Sidhis. I learned Chan (Zen) meditation from Ven. Chan Master Sheng Yen in Taiwan back in the mid '80's because I was so impressed with his practical wisdom, kind nature, and penetrating presence. I was impressed with many of the Buddhists I met in Taiwan at the time. They were so giving and selfless. Also, money was never required, though donations were accepted. I attended a Chan Qi, as seven day Chan retreat with "Shifu" in New York in 1985 and took refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha becoming a Buddhist formally at the end of the retreat. Shifu let me meditate with TM the first day and a half, but I started having visions of a radiant gem-filled paradise and then of hellish beings and Shifu suggested that I practice just following my breath, a beginning Chan method. I practiced this method for several years until, little by little, concerns of my career and family slowly displaced my practice and I found myself relaxing at the end of the day with an import beer or glass of wine rather than sitting in half lotus on a meditation cushion.

I would still meditate from time to time and tried to be in the moment and mindful but for the most part, my practice eroded to the point that it became a spiritual crisis for me. I tried to return to my Catholic roots and find encouragement through some of Thomas Merton's writings. Later, I read a lot of Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating on Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina. After I remarried in 2002, I became very interested in the Eastern Orthodox practices. I even started the 3 year St. Stephen's course to become a deacon.

It was at the end of the 1st semester of the St. Stephen's course while on vacation at Lake Tahoe in 2005 that I realized how deeply I disbelieved what I was studying. While I retained great love and respect for Jesus, I felt his teaching and ministry paled in comparison to the Buddha's teaching and 45 years of helping thousands of people to become fully awakened. I couldn't accept the dogma about Jesus being "the only Son of God" and even the idea of a Creator God that set the world in motion only to watch the human drama unfold was somehow very disturbing to me. I fundamentally could not accept Christian dogma and when I returned to Fort Wayne, I apologized to Fr. David at St. Nicks and told him that I couldn't continue the program and that I would be leaving the church as well. There is no middle ground in Orthodox Christianity. You either fully believe it or you don't.

In April of 2005, I found myself back in New York on a seven day Chan retreat with Ven. Guo Jun, a Dharma heir to my Shifu. This was the most wonderful time and really made me see that the Buddhist path is the path I must tread from here on out. I went to several other 10 day Chan retreats and then the Bodhisattva Precepts retreat, in which Shifu led, his last retreat in the U.S. before his passing last winter. I subsequently attended 2 Vipassana meditation retreats with Ven. Chanmyay Sayadaw in Springfield, IL. Between the Chan retreats in 2005, 06, and 07 and the Vipassana retreats in 06 and 07, Mindfulness practice has become well established and being in the present is no longer a "peak experience" that comes when it will, but a daily living reality. For this, my gratitude to Maharishi, Ven. Sheng Yen, Ven. Guo Jun, and Ven. Chanmyay Sayadaw is unbounded and unending. My faith in the Buddhist path has become unshakable. I still have trying days now and then, but for the most part, my life is blessed.

With deeper moment to moment experience naturally comes deeper contentment and insight. And with deeper contentment and insight naturally comes the desire to help others also experience this blessed state. I know I have a long path to travel, but have seen enough of it that my faith in the map is resolute and with this faith comes great confidence. Ven. Guo Jun asked me to open a Dharma Drum Mountain liaison office and branch in Fort Wayne. I set up a Meetup site and soon the most wonderful people began entering my life again, like old friends that have reappeared time and time again from the distant, beginningless past. This great affinity I feel for people I meet on this path is also the greatest blessing. And as practice continues, this joy and compassion spills over to everyone I meet. They are all capable of experiencing the same Buddha Nature. I know of nothing more important and worthwhile than this.

I am now in Elk Grove, CA and am once again organizing a Buddhist meditation Meetup group. In the first 3 meetings, I've met such wonderful, interesting people. It's very satisfying giving people an opportunity and a venue to practice together and have fellowship with other practitioners.

Now, here I am on Facebook, Twitter, and Blogger, reconnecting with so many meditating friends from the past! What a blessing this is! All the friendships and times of my life become condensed onto a single social media page and I can see everyone making progress in their lives, having insights and enjoying life. This is great stuff!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson Passing

I grew up with this kid who in a way became my strange but incredibly talented little brother. I admired his successes and was disappointed with his mistakes the way I would with my own brother. I was always hoping he would get his life together and was looking forward to his tour as a possible avenue toward that end. Instead, it possibly was his end.

Michael was connected to all of us that were born in the late 50's. We created him and he was our collective reflection. Part of us passes away with him, as it does with anyone who touches our lives. I felt much the same way when George Harrison passed away from us. Michael and George were us. They reflected our passions, dreams, and love of life in their music.

I wish them the best....

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Middle Way

I once heard someone say that mediators make such quick spiritual progress that they are unaware of their evolutionary momentum until they do something that is counter-evolutionary. It's as if we are flowing at incredible speed through an invisible tube completely unaware of our motion until we drift from center and come in contact with the wall of the tube. Touching the wall of the tube traveling at that speed will be uncomfortable to say the least. It may be quite painful or even catastrophic!

After brushing against the side a few times, meditators learn to not drift far from the center or they eventually stop meditating. When we establish a daily practice of meditation, we quickly expand the breadth and depth of our awareness. We become more sensitive to things that dull our awareness or inhibit the clarity of meditation.

But sometimes we may not be entirely conscious of our progress and we might temporarily fall back into old habits. We might get too busy to meditate and start skipping our daily sitting. Or we might stay up late and be too tired to meditate the next day. We're getting close to the wall of the tube. Then, we begin to loose the contentment we generally experience and start thinking we need things we normally wouldn't desire. Perhaps we go out with friends and have a few drinks on the weekend. We wake up dehydrated and feeling miserable. This affects our mood and because we lack the clarity to be mindful of our state, we are irritible and easily annoyed by things that otherwise wouldn't bother us when our practice is steady. It's a downward spiral from there. Life can quickly become very unpleasant and since we've now completely lost our perspective, we chase after any fleeting sensory pleasure that makes us forget our miserable existence. The good fortune we used to take for granted seems to have waned and we get a traffic ticket, drop something and break it, or something is stolen from us. Bad things start happening and our life no longer feels blessed. We begin to feel insecure and doubt our future. Life close to the wall is turbulent!

If we are fortunate enough to realize that we've drifted dangerously from center, we'll rededicate ourselves to our practice and to a lifestyle that helps us maintain it. As quickly as this happens, our life once again seems to be blessed, to just flow. Our perspective expands, we once again become aware of the rising and falling of our breath, of fleeting thoughts and emotions. We are once again more steadily mindful.

The Buddha spoke of the Middle Way with respect to the eternalist and nihilist views predominant in India of his day. But he also offered the perspective of the Noble Eightfold Path and recommended following precepts of moral conduct to ensure the quickest progress possible could be maintained by his followers. Practicing Buddhists, especially those cultivating their minds through meditation and mindfulness, should hold to the five most basic precepts to keep to the center and tread the Middle Way:
  1. Abstaining from killing and supporting life.
  2. Abstaining from stealing and practicing generocity.
  3. Abstaining from sexual misconduct and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, and altruistic joy.
  4. Abstaining from divisive or false speech and pursuing truth.
  5. Abstaining from intoxicants and cultivating the mind through meditation and mindfulness.
Although the 5 Precepts are generally discussed in terms of the abstentions, Buddha also emphasized their positive correlates since there is no better way to abstain from something that drags us down than to make energetic progress in the virtues that lift us up and give true meaning to life.

There is an unfortunate trend in the West and also in the East to fashion ones own version of Buddhism by de-emphasizing the importance of the precepts, of regular practice, of the Eightfold Path, and in essence, of Buddha's teaching. This is rooted in self-pride, craving, and ignorance, which are in direct opposition to what true Buddhism naturally cultivates when properly followed with respect for the teaching and the Buddha. These self-deluded, would-be Buddhists love to say that the Buddha himself said to question everything. They use this as license to craft their own version of Buddhism that allows for their personal foibles, vices, and vexations. Buddhism without sincerely striving to cultivate the mind through meditation and mindfulness, and the heart through the practice of generosity and compassion, is without value, just as Christianity without practicing what Jesus taught is just a cult of convenience. The life of the Christian faith is in feeding the Christ in the poor, visiting the Christ in prisoners, caring for the Christ in the physically and mentally ill. Likewise, Buddhists should strive to see clearly everything that arises and passes away from moment to moment while working for the liberation of others. The five precepts help greatly in this regard.

When we feel our lives are getting a bit rough, when we feel our luck is down, when we no longer feel grounded or centered and everything overshadows our clarity, we need to take that as a sign that we may be straying from the Middle Way. This is true for individuals, for families, for companies, communities, and for nations. We should take it as a sign that we are straying from the center, or in Christian terms, the narrow gate, and rededicate ourselves to the practice of medition, mindfulness, the study of Buddha's teaching, and compassion for others. Life will quickly and naturally return to a more comfortable flow, contentment will grow, and kindness and clarity will again be the common, everyday experience.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Moving to California

My wife, Olya, and I have finally decided to move back to California. A UHaul moving van brough up yesterday from Indy is sitting in the street. I can see our 2003 Prius on a transport trailer in back through the frosty windows of the house we've been renting on Emerson Street since we sold our home in Fort Wayne. We'll be loading up this morning and tomorrow, I'll be once again driving the 2,000 plus miles out to Sacramento. I drove our 2005 Prius out there a couple weeks ago via Oklahoma City and Flagstaff. Olya and I decided to leave it there until we could decide what to do. I flew back for New Years. Now, I'm thinking about taking 80 through Salt Lake City if the forecast looks favorable, saving about 500 miles.

The past couple days, we've finally had a chance to sit together, talk and reflect on what is really important to both of us. As the song goes, I think I "left my heart in San Francisco" or there about. Olya fell in love with San Francisco a few years ago when we flew out for a JavaOne conference. She hasn't been satisfied with Fort Wayne (or Warsaw, Indiana at the time) since.

Since I moved to Indiana, I completely lost my inspiration for photography and enthusiasm for outdoor recreation. I have often missed my weekend forays into areas of California that were new to me and those that were like old friends. When I was in California last week, I once again felt that warm flow of appreciation that stirred me to grab my camera equipment and head out on Saturday morning to photograph the Marin headlands, or just walk along the headland trails watching the wisps of fog course through the laurel trees like fingers through hair. That land makes me feel awake, alive, in awe of this world!

Soon, I hope to be heading up to the Ridge Tahoe timeshare again to ski on the Nevada side or grabbing my camera and heading out for a spirit-nourishing hike most anywhere! Like James Taylor said about Carolina, "In my mind, I've gone to California!" We might as well physically be there as well.