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January 2007

Dear Wildmind Subscriber,

Happy New Year!

In the spirit of fresh starts, we've made our newsletter lighter on your inbox this month. Now you can scan quickly through the article summaries and follow a link if you wish to read the full article on our web site.

We've also added a feature article -- this month on the topic of Buddhism and gay marriage. For the news stories, we've selected the top five stories concerning meditation from the previous month -- but of course, you can still access all stories on our full archive on our site.

We hope you enjoy this more streamlined format.

In this issue:

gay marriage

Buddhism and Gay Marriage

Opponents of same-sex marriage have been making slow but steady progress in Massachusetts, most recently with the legislature's approval to advance a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. What does Buddhism have to say about the issue of gay marriage? Bodhipaksa comments on this hot topic in his blog.

Read more

portrait

Quote of the Month

"Life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent how you respond to it."
- Lou Holtz

Lou Holtz is revered as one of the premier NCAA football coaches of our time. Among his many notable achievements, he led six college teams to championship games within two years of his taking the helm. In the case of the University of South Carolina, it was his leadership that engineered an amazing turnaround from the nation's longest losing streak to a winning level unprecedented in the school's 107-year history of competitive sports. In his "retirement," he has translated his positive attitude and philosophy from football to the larger game of life, and is highly sought after as a motivational speaker who continues to inspire people well beyond the realm of sports.

When we hear stories of remarkable people like Holtz, it's easy to fall back into thinking that they must have started out with some kind of "right stuff" that helped them to succeed. Ordinary people like us -- we never had that stuff. But we'd be wrong. Holtz started from humble beginnings in West Virginia, a child of divorced parents. He even admits that he was never much of an athlete as a kid. In short, he was an ordinary person who started out stumbling along in life much like the rest of us.

The arc of Holtz's life story reveals a simple, commonsense lesson that we can all apply in everything we encounter in our own lives. It's all about attitude, focus, and being passionate about our aspirations. It's about not letting our current circumstances, no matter how bleak, cloud our view of the possibilities ahead.

I have no idea what Holtz's spiritual inclinations are -- I doubt he's a Buddhist or a meditator, but that's purely a guess. But I can say that his message resonates strongly with that of the Buddha. So much of the pain and suffering we experience in our lives are not caused by what happens to us, but are self-inflicted by our unmindful responses to them. We can't change the fact that we face disappointments and frustrations in life, but we can separate them from our attitudes and motivations. It's when we let go of our doubts and self-defeating stories that new possibilities open up to us. And meditation can help us to train our minds to cultivate the more positive thoughts, views, and attitudes that shape the ninety percent of our lives.

So as we embark on a new year and cheer on our favorite teams, I hope that we can all take a lesson from Coach Holtz -- and start taking steps toward a happy and successful 2007.

- Sunada

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book cover

Book Review

Exploring Karma and Rebirth by Nagapriya (Windhorse Publications, paperback, $13.95).

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, has a great interest in science and sees an overlap between the two, believing that both the scientific method and Buddhism are attempts to discover how things really are. He has even gone so far as to say that when science and traditional Buddhist teachings part company, it is Buddhism that has to change.

In some cases these adjustments have already been made: people 2,500 years ago in India may have thought that Mount Meru was the center of the world and that there were four continents, but there are no contemporary Buddhist fundamentalists crying out for school text books to carry disclaimers stating that geography is "only a theory." We've let that one slide.

It's relatively easy to recognize in the face of modern scientific findings that a cosmological model has outlived its usefulness, but there are a number of trickier areas where science and traditional Buddhist perspectives do not mesh, and an exploration of these areas is perhaps overdue and important.

Two of those areas are the related fields of karma and rebirth, and an examination of these is important because they are - unlike the Ancients' conception of geography - central to Buddhist teachings, not just as concepts but as the underpinning for Buddhist practice.

Nagapriya's book has, I confess, been languishing on my shelf for too long, and deserves to have been reviewed much earlier because it represents an important step forward in examining the relevance and usefulness of the concepts of karma and rebirth to modern, western Buddhists. It is a text I think all practitioners would benefit from reading.

Nagapriya begins by putting the theory of karma into its historical context, showing that the concept existed prior to Buddhism but was reinvented in a Buddhist way. Karma, for example, moved from being seen by the Brahminical tradition as ritual actions aimed at placating the gods to being seen by Buddhism as ethical or unethical actions: the difference between the two kinds of actions being the state of mind underlying them. He shows how non-Buddhist understandings of karma have crept into the Buddhist tradition and caused confusion, and also how the concept has come to be understood differently at different times.

He also places karma in the wider context of the Buddhist teaching of conditioned coexistence, showing that it is a specific instance of a more general teaching about how phenomena come into being.

To be brief, it's as important to say what karma is not as it is to say what it is, and Nagapriya does both with a convincing clarity and elegance.

Nagapriya goes on to critically examine the teaching of karma. He teases out what is useful in our specific historical context, drawing on the Buddhist scriptures, examples from fiction, and his own experience. In this examination he manages to express the teaching in a way that is easily comprehensible to the modern mind and also profoundly useful. Consider the following admirably clear way of expressing the essence of the teaching, for example:

Karma rests on two important assumptions about human character. The first assumption is that human character is not fixed, and so it may be modified. The second is that willed actions are the means by which character is modified.

He goes on to take a similar approach to the concept of rebirth, looking at what Buddhism says lies beyond the "undiscovered country" that is death, examining what is said to be reborn, looking at the traditional Buddhist teaching of the six realms of rebirth, and taking us on a quick tour of some differing historical perspectives on what (if anything) lies between death and rebirth.

Nagapriya concludes his examination of rebirth by looking critically at some of the evidence for life after life and by speculating that rebirth may be a less tidy affair - one consciousness dying and then coasting into a new body - than is generally understood. His discussion here is highly stimulating but too detailed for me to recount.

Much of the value of this book comes from the fact that Nagapriya's approach is critical - meaning not that he is hostile to traditional Buddhist teachings (he's not) but that he bears in mind at all times (or almost all times) Buddhism's central purpose of addressing the problem of human suffering, and that he constantly attempts to examine whether traditional teachings are useful in that regard.

He is also very rational, in the sense that he does not gloss over contradictions in the tradition but takes those contradictions as an incentive to think more deeply. For example, he rightly questions a Tibetan Rinpoche's outrageous assertion that those who were exterminated in the Nazi death camps "must have done something very bad in earlier lives." This kind of teaching is common in certain Buddhist circles, but Nagapriya strongly questions the spiritual usefulness of this kind of "blame the victim" mentality as well as its validity (it's a pretty absurd belief when you start to really think about it) and its orthodoxy (it directly contradicts the Buddha's own teachings).

I had the feeling throughout reading this book that I was in a seminar with a highly intelligent, inquisitive, mind, and one that has above all an abundance of intellectual integrity.

The book is not perfect, but then, none of them are. There are a few minor errors of fact (Leonard Shelby in the movie "Memento" had problems making new long-term memories and hadn't "lost his short-term memory") and a number of cases where I thought the wrong word had been used (surely he meant to talk about the "culpability" of the Nazis and not their "liability"). There were also a few times when I wished he'd made connections that were absent (he often fails to connect the Buddha's teachings on karma with the ultimate purpose of Buddhism, which is to address our suffering), and he too glibly dismisses the concept of the dharma-niyama as "not clear" when I think he has the capacity to bring a great deal of clarity to the subject. But often these "flaws" are actually a good sign - Nagapriya's book has got me thinking and making connections, just as a good seminar should.

Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist author and teacher and is the founder of Wildmind.

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meditation in the news

Meditation in the news: top five stories of last month

For a complete, categorized, and searchable listing of news stories concerning meditation, visit our news database.

top STORY IN SCIENCE

Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don't (New York Times) 2 Jan. Physicists, neuroscientists and computer scientists have joined the heirs of Plato and Aristotle in arguing about what free will is, whether we have it, and if not, why we ever thought we did in the first place. Read more

top STORY IN HEALTH

Yoga can control epilepsy (The Hindu: Kerala) 19 Dec. A yoga meditation protocol may be effective as an adjunctive therapy in patients with drug-resistant chronic epilepsy, according to a pilot study conducted by doctors at Indian's Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology. Read more

top STORY IN SOCIETY

Buddha Meets Hollywood (Phayul.com) 20 Dec. When Richard Gere meditates in India, even the Dalai Lama makes time for his famous acolyte. Read more

top STORY IN BUSINESS

Religion finds firm footing in some offices (Yahoo News) 6 Dec. The growth of diversity in the workplace, along with the influence of religion in America, has brought faith -- once as taboo in the office as talk of sex and politics -- to the job, experts say. Read more

top STORY IN WESTERN BUDDHISM

Buddhism adapts for a new audience (Detroit News) 8 Dec. Western spiritual seekers who have focused on meditation have fueled a remarkable growth in Buddhist practice in the United States. But what if you are part of an ancient Buddhist tradition that is huge in Asia but has failed to catch on in the United States in part because it has no real place for meditation? Change the tradition. Read more

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