Burmese Christians forced to convert to Buddhism

The Express Tribune: Christian students from Myanmar’s Chin ethnic minority have been forced to convert to Buddhism, shave their heads and wear monastic robes, a rights group said Wednesday.

The Chin, a mainly Christian group in the poor and remote west of the predominantly Buddhist country, face harassment for the link between their faith and British colonial rule, according to the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO).

“President Thein Sein’s government claims that religious freedom is protected by law but in reality Buddhism is treated as the de facto state religion”, said Salai Ling, Program Director of the CHRO.

Rachel Fleming, another member of …

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A Buddhist’s perspective on biblical ways to love

Book of Corinthians

I just read a list of biblical suggestions for ways to show love and I was inspired to write this article including a Buddhist’s perspective of ways to carry out the suggestions on the list.

Ten ways to show people you love them:

  1. Listen without interrupting. (Proverbs 18) – When someone is speaking, the most loving thing we can do is listen. And, if we are really listening, we are not thinking of how to respond or how to get our point across or asking questions or saying anything. We are simply listening to hear and understand what the person is saying. So, the next time you are listening to someone, wait until the person is finished and then respond.
  2. Speak without accusing. (James 1:19) – We all have times with our partners, family members and friends when we disagree, feel disappointed, feel hurt or get angry. When someone accuses us of doing something, we can respond honestly, without blaming or accusing them, by gently speaking from our own experience including: how we felt, what we heard and how we responded. Whenever we accuse or blame someone, they feel defensive and communication is blocked.
  3. Give without sparing. (Proverbs 21:26) – A friend of mine suggested “Always follow through on an impulse of generosity”. I love this idea and put it into practice as often as possible. Yesterday I was selling tote bags and jewelry at a Crafts Fair. A young woman, with two young children, was at a table next to mine. She came to see my jewelry and found a necklace she liked. She told me she would love the necklace but she works at a Child Care Center and cannot wear jewelry to work. She went back to her table where she was selling things her students made so they could take the proceeds and purchase holiday gifts for children who otherwise wouldn’t have them. I put the necklace she liked in a box and gave it to her and told her I would like her to have it. We were both very happy. At the end of the Crafts Fair, she came back to my table with a box, filled with goodies to make a gingerbread house and offered it to me. I accepted her gift and agreed with her when she said “After all, it’s all about creating community.”
  4. Pray without ceasing. (Colossians 1:9) At times in our lives when we feel overwhelmed, uninspired, exhausted or hopeless, the best we can do is to meditate or pray.
  5. Answer without arguing. (Proverbs 17:1) Recently I received an email from a friend (Cindy) who told me she heard from a friend (Janet) who was upset because they had not gotten together for a long time. Janet has a relationship that is on again, off again and Cindy hears from her when the relationship is in the “off again” mode. Janet expects Cindy to be available when Janet wants to get together. Cindy loves Janet but feels Janet takes advantage of their friendship. Cindy wrote to Janet and expressed her feelings. Janet got defensive and argued her case. Cindy refused to enter into an argument and although they didn’t come to an agreement, Cindy left the door open for further communication. When two people argue, it is unlikely they will find a resolution.
  6. Share without pretending. (Ephesians 4:15) Real sharing comes from the heart, without pretense of giving something because it is expected or given with strings attached.
  7. Enjoy without complaint. (Philippians 2:14) Real enjoyment comes when we are wholeheartedly in the present moment. When we have a tendency to find fault with or complain about things, we stop ourselves from enjoying life.
  8. Trust without wavering. (Corinthians 13:7) Many people grow up in situations where they learn not to trust people. This lack of trust can become a habit, a way of protecting ourselves, but it also interferes with closeness with others. When we are aware that we lack trust, it is important to make a resolution to learn to trust again, not blindly, but with wisdom and compassion for ourselves and others.
  9. Forgive without punishing. (Colossians 3:13) People will disappoint us and we will forgive them and when we do, the forgiveness should come without conditions or punishment.
  10. Promise without forgetting. (Proverbs 13:12) It is so important to follow through with our promises so that we are trustworthy and dependable.
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Labyrinth experience provides outlet for meditation

wildmind meditation news

Sara F. Neumann, The Etownian: Although Elizabethtown [Pennsylvania] College is a Brethren-affiliated college, the religious identity of students and faculty has become more diverse in recent years; the religions on campus vary from Christian faiths to Jewish to Muslim and everything in between. In light of this diversity, there have been more attempts by student organizations to reach out and invite people of various faiths through different activities.

The Labyrinth, hosted by the Chaplain’s Office, is one of these new interfaith activities. Most students are unaware of what a labyrinth is and what the experience at Etown offers them. “Labyrinths are a kind of walking meditation and they are like mazes, but there is only one path in and one path out. It’s a guided path that allows walkers to get closer to God or just to themselves,” explained Assistant Chaplain Amy Shorner-Johnson.

The Labyrinth began last semester and is held on Sunday nights, but this semester it was switched to Thursday afternoons.”We wanted it to be more interfaith,” Shorner-Johnson said. “Having it during the week makes it more inviting toward everyone.”

Labyrinths date back to Roman times, when Romans carved the circular paths onto rocks. They were then adopted by various faiths, including Christian sects, who often placed them on church floors. Depending on the faith, labyrinths could be walked on the knees for penance or walked as a substitute for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. One of the most famous labyrinths is in the Chartres Cathedral in Paris, France; the labyrinth is a circular maze, which leads into a patterned center and then leads the walker back out.

Etown’s own labyrinth is modeled after the Chartres labyrinth. It is a large canvas piece that, when rolled out, reveals a winding path defined in purple. “The Chaplain’s husband picked the color, actually, and the company liked it so much they picked it up for their other labyrinths,” Senior Marshal Fettro said, the student leader in charge of the Labyrinth.

While Chartres labyrinth is a Catholic labyrinth, the assistant chaplain is eager to emphasize that Etown’s is multifaith and open to all. While labyrinths can be religious for some, walking one does not have to be a path to a personal God. It can just be a way to relax.

“It provides a sacred space or just a getaway for students. You can practice mindfulness while walking it. Sometimes if I try to meditate or relax while just sitting, I worry about sleeping. I tend to be able to focus when I’m doing something,” Shorner-Johnson shared.

Senior Laura Miller explained that she goes to the Labyrinth as an escape. “I’ve been coming since last semester. It’s just a break from everyday life,” she said.

Senior Amanda McGeary, a first time attendee, came to earn Called to Lead points. “It was calming and quiet. It was just nice,” she said.

Another first time Labyrinth walker was impressed with the fulfillment of the slogan that drew him in. “I saw the poster in the BSC that said, ‘Walk your worries away,’ and I thought, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ Well, it worked—I don’t have any worries anymore,” he explained.

The Labyrinth experience offers a few quiet hours for students to focus simply on themselves or on getting close to the God in which they personally believe. Music is played during the experience, but it is non-denominational; the CDs vary from Native American chants to simple nature sounds. The music changes from week to week. The walk can take as long or as short as the walker desires, depending on what they are contemplating.

“Just setting some time, whether to meditate, pray or think, can turn the profane into the sacred,” Fettro said, referencing Emile Durkheim’s dichotomy of the sacred and profane.

The Labyrinth is held every Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m. in the M&M Mars room in Leffler Chapel. It is open to all who wish to attend.

Original article not available


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Students learn about healing programs for inmates

Inside Toronto: Prison inmates can find hope and healing through meditation and yoga, students at a local high school found out this week, in a presentation on the work of Sister Elaine MacInnes and her charity, Freeing the Human Spirit.

“Every day, 36,000 Canadians wake up in prison cells,” Cheryl Vanderburg, Freeing the Human Spirit’s program co-ordinator, told her teenage audience at Bishop Marrocco/Thomas Merton Catholic Secondary School, Wednesday morning, Nov. 10.

“More than half the people in prison are victims of child abuse. The majority have unstable job history. Every day, I go into prisons and I see kids like yourselves. They’ve done something stupid and gotten caught.”

Vanderburg was a guest speaker during the high school’s annual Peace and Justice Week.

For the majority of prisoners, they want to change. They’ve come from difficult circumstances, said Vanderburg, a yoga instructor.

“We carry a lot of stress in our bodies. Our aim is to help prisoners release some of that stress.”

Freeing the Human Spirit is a charity founded in 2004 by MacInnes, a Zen master and Roman Catholic nun. It works in 22 prisons across Canada and receives letters of thanks from inmates regularly.

“Once your spirit is free, you can make better choices and get on with your life,” wrote one in a letter that Vanderburg read to students.

MacInnes was scheduled to visit the school on Wednesday morning, but the 86-year old Toronto resident came down with the flu. Instead, students learned about MacInnes’ quest to bring inner peace to prisoners by teaching them yoga and meditation through the 2005 documentary, The Fires That Burn: The Life and Work of Sister Elaine MacInnes.

Born into a musical family in Moncton, New Brunswick, MacInnes joined Our Lady’s Missionaries in 1953 after moving to New York to study violin at Julliard.

MacInness found herself in Japan on her first missionary assignment where she climbed Mount Hiei, met a monk and went on to join an order of Rinzai Buddhist nuns at Enkoji in Kyoto, a place she called home for eight years. There, she practiced “zazen,” sitting meditation.

In 1976, through her work opening a Zen centre for the Catholic Church in Manila, MacInnes began teaching meditation to political prisoners, including Horacio “Boy” Morales, an esteemed rebel at the helm of the New People’s Army against dictatorship.

It was this work that attracted the attention of the Prison Phoenix Trust, a charitable organization in Oxford, England that teaches yoga and meditation to inmates. In 1993, she became its executive director, helping prisoners come to terms with their tremendous stress.

Her work overseas earned her the Order of Canada in 2001. Three years later, upon her return to Canada, she founded Freeing the Human Spirit.

The third day of the Peace and Justice week programming kicked off with the Freeing the Human Spirit presentation in the auditorium, followed by a talk by representatives from the White Ribbon Campaign, the world’s largest effort by men working to end violence against women.

This year’s focus of the 21-year old initiative was healthy relationships, said school Chaplain and Religion Teacher Elaine Orsini.

Representatives from METRAC, which works to prevent and eliminate violence against diverse women, youth and children, were on hand to lead an interactive discussion about relationships with Grade 9 and 11 students on Monday, Nov. 8. The week also included a visit from Free the Children and a showing of Social Justice documentaries.

“The purpose is to make students aware of the need for peace and justice,” said Orsini of the program, spearheaded by the school’s religion department and sponsored by the student council, “to bring people in to motivate students to become more aware so they can move into action.”

Peace, says Orsini, “has to begin within our own hearts, our homes and our own schools – that’s always been my message.”

Link to an archive of the original article…

See also our review of Sister Elaine MacInnes’s book, The Flowing Bridge.

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East meets west. There’s some wariness at first. But they end up liking each other.

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As well all know, mathematics is dangerous — especially trigonometry. Rooted as it is in ancient Greek religious practice, young minds exposed to mathematics become open to unwholesome — possibly demonic — spiritual influences. Nah, just joking. The bit about math being rooted in religion is true, naturally, but the possibility that the hypotenuse is the straight line to hell seems far-fetched, to say the least. But Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler believes something very similar about yoga, according to an article in the Clarion Ledger. Yoga comes from the Hindu tradition, but of course dressing in a leotard and stretching your hamstrings doesn’t strike most people as much more than a way of calming down and getting in shape. As the article says, “Mohler’s posture has drawn a mix of bafflement and criticism from those who practice yoga, which is taught in many churches and which many people see as unrelated to its ancient roots in India.”

But coincidentally, Dr. Michelle Belfer Friedman, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and the director of pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, has a column in The Jewish Week, offering advice to a woman who’s worried about her husband’s dabbling in yoga and meditation. Dr. Friedman’s advice — basically talk to your husband and get to know what he likes about his new pastime — is very sound.

A less fraught east-meets-west story is to be found in Massachusetts, where a Thai sangha have just been granted permission to build a 60 foot Theravadin temple, complete with a golden spire. The photograph in the article looks lovely, and apparently there were no objections raised at the planning meeting.

And the interfaith harmony goodness extends to North Carolina, where Pitt County Memorial Hospital has just dedicated an ecumenical chapel. The new chapel cost 2.3 million dollars and was built thanks to private donations.

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“The Flowing Bridge,” by Elaine MacInnes

“The Flowing Bridge,” by Elaine MacInnes

Writer Renée Miller introduces a book on Zen koans written by Elaine Miller, who is both a Catholic nun and a Zen priest.

When we step to the edge of our experience and then have the courage to take yet one more step, we are often surprised to find that the anxiety we felt at taking that “one more step” vanishes in a whole new feeling of expansion. When it comes to religious thinking, we are accustomed to holding fast to our familiar patterns of belief and tradition because what we know or have been taught feels like a protection and security for us. The religion itself may put constraints on our exploration as a way of insuring its own continuance. Yet, when we take that extra step to open up to other faiths and beliefs, we are brought into an open space where we begin to see the oneness that embraces all.

Title: The Flowing Bridge
Author: Elaine MacInnes
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
ISBN: 978-0-8617-1545-9
Available from: Wisdom,, and

Certainly, Elaine MacInnes, a Roman Catholic nun and a Zen teacher in the lineage of Koun Yamada has found this to be true in her own life. A wise bishop once told me that only those over 75 years of age were really capable of dispensing holy wisdom to others. It takes the living of the holy life for a long period of years to bring true wisdom to fruit. Elaine MacInnes fits the bishop’s criteria. MacInnes, herself an octogenarian, has lived the life of Christianity and Buddhism for years and in her book The Flowing Bridge she dispenses the wisdom that is the fruit of faithful practice.

The Flowing Bridge is a book about koans — statements or questions which cannot be understood by rational thinking but may be accessible through intuition. The book is about the first koans that Zen students are exposed to when they begin their practice, and miscellaneous koans that MacInnes has gathered from various traditional sources — koans that were generally kept only between teacher and student. The beginning Zen disciple is exposed to koan practice because it helps unlock spiritual doors and remove phenomenal obstacles that prevent the Essential Nature from being fully experienced. The fascination with koans, however, goes way beyond the dokusan (private interview between a Zen student and the master) room. Koans make their way into cocktail parties, into Bible studies, into football game conversations. They are perceived by non-Buddhists as puzzles to be solved, conundrums to be volleyed like a ping pong ball between worthy opponents. In many ways, koans are like the paradoxes Jesus was so fond of using though it should be noted that paradoxes don’t seem nearly as captivating in the phenomenal world as koans!

Imagine, however, being given the tools with which to sample the truth nestled inside a koan, and finding there a world of infinity. Imagine it being really, just a sample, not the full meal. MacInnes does just this throughout the entire book. She takes to heart the words she quotes from the verse of Mumonkan Case 33:

If you meet a swordsman, you may present a sword.
You should not offer a poem unless you meet a poet.
When you speak to others, say only three-quarters of it.
You should never give the remaining part.

She gives what feels like a full meal, but it’s really only three-quarters of it, and at the end there is still hunger. It is not fascination with puzzle solving that she seeks to initiate. It is nothing less than the enlightenment that St. Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century recluse, experienced when she discovered the entire universe in a hazelnut. MacInnes begins each koan by giving a sneak peek into the koan through a story or piece of reality from the Phenomenal world. She then moves stealthily to the Essential Nature which ends up being as koan-esque as the koan itself. She is so masterful in her teaching that just when we think we’re getting a grasp on the koan — just when we think we’ve “got it!” and just when we think we don’t need to read any further because we’ve ‘got it,’ she stops us dead in our tracks with the incisive word that sounds like a relentlessly focused Zen Master. For example, when writing about the Shogen’s koan, “why is it that a man of great strength does not lift up his leg?” MacInnes comments,

“The next time you see the centipede, look well. It has already cast away its hundred legs, and Mount Mayon walks away happily — quite unaware of its legs.


Take a look. If you want to know — whether it is pure gold or not, you must look at it in the midst of fire. Burn off the legs! Or take out that two-edged sword and cut them off.”

I am reminded of Jesus’ words in the New Testament. If your hand causes you to offend, cut it off. If your eye causes you to offend, pluck it out. It is better to enter heaven maimed than not at all… For both Jesus and MacInnes, hard truth is sometimes the only way to obtain the freedom we seek.

The Flowing Bridge is not always flowing. Because it is based on Zen talks that MacInnes gave to students over a period of years, it can be choppy reading; at once obtuse, then repetitive, then tangential. At times, reading The Flowing Bridge is both an effort and a strain. Then the realization dawns — she’s painting nothing less than real life through her words. Life itself is obtuse, repetitive, tangential. We suffer because we want life to run along smoothly without effort and strain, without distortion or confusion. Only life is not like that. A student asked MacInnes if they could put off reading her teisho (Zen talk) on a particular koan until after they had discussed the koan in their dokusan interview. The student complained that the teiso was confusing. MacInnes writes, “This is the supreme compliment. Teisho are meant to confuse!

The end purpose of the book, for MacInnes, is the proper formation of the human personality which, she writes “is the removal of one’s delusions, so that one’s original nature comes to the fore.” She maintains that to be our own true Tathagata (Buddha), we must rid ourselves of false illusions. We do this, she proposes, through “sitting and allowing our Essential Nature to return to its own spontaneity.” It seems so simple, just two things — as simple as intellectualizing a koan, in order to “understand” it. Yet, it is a work of a lifetime. A work that demands our best effort and no effort at all. A work that asks of us to be right here, now.

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The Dalai Lama on tolerance

When I was a boy in Tibet, I felt that my own Buddhist religion must be the best — and that other faiths were somehow inferior. Now I see how naïve I was, and how dangerous the extremes of religious intolerance can be today.

Though intolerance may be as old as religion itself, we still see vigorous signs of its virulence. In Europe, there are intense debates about newcomers wearing veils or wanting to erect minarets and episodes of violence against Muslim immigrants. Radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold to religious beliefs. In the Middle East, the flames of war are fanned by hatred of those who adhere to a different faith.

Such tensions are likely to increase as the world becomes more interconnected and cultures, peoples and religions become ever more entwined. The pressure this creates tests more than our tolerance — it demands that we promote peaceful coexistence and understanding across boundaries.

Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.

An early eye-opener for me was my meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in India shortly before his untimely death in 1968. Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions.

A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism. In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion. His miracle of the loaves and fishes, his healing and his teaching are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering.

I’m a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I’ve long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks. The focus on compassion that Merton and I observed in our two religions strikes me as a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths. And these days we need to highlight what unifies us.

Take Judaism, for instance. I first visited a synagogue in Cochin, India, in 1965, and have met with many rabbis over the years. I remember vividly the rabbi in the Netherlands who told me about the Holocaust with such intensity that we were both in tears. And I’ve learned how the Talmud and the Bible repeat the theme of compassion, as in the passage in Leviticus that admonishes, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In my many encounters with Hindu scholars in India, I’ve come to see the centrality of selfless compassion in Hinduism too — as expressed, for instance, in the Bhagavad Gita, which praises those who “delight in the welfare of all beings.” I’m moved by the ways this value has been expressed in the life of great beings like Mahatma Gandhi, or the lesser-known Baba Amte, who founded a leper colony not far from a Tibetan settlement in Maharashtra State in India. There he fed and sheltered lepers who were otherwise shunned. When I received my Nobel Peace Prize, I made a donation to his colony.

Compassion is equally important in Islam — and recognizing that has become crucial in the years since Sept. 11, especially in answering those who paint Islam as a militant faith. On the first anniversary of 9/11, I spoke at the National Cathedral in Washington, pleading that we not blindly follow the lead of some in the news media and let the violent acts of a few individuals define an entire religion.

Let me tell you about the Islam I know. Tibet has had an Islamic community for around 400 years, although my richest contacts with Islam have been in India, which has the world’s second-largest Muslim population. An imam in Ladakh once told me that a true Muslim should love and respect all of Allah’s creatures. And in my understanding, Islam enshrines compassion as a core spiritual principle, reflected in the very name of God, the “Compassionate and Merciful,” that appears at the beginning of virtually each chapter of the Koran.

Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever. As a species, we must embrace the oneness of humanity as we face global issues like pandemics, economic crises and ecological disaster. At that scale, our response must be as one.

Harmony among the major faiths has become an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence in our world. From this perspective, mutual understanding among these traditions is not merely the business of religious believers — it matters for the welfare of humanity as a whole.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is the author, most recently, of “Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together.”

[via the New York Times]
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Letting go, always letting go

martha and maryIn the first of a series of articles, The Rev. Canon Renée Miller explores Buddhist practice from the perspective of her own Christian faith.

The Dalai Lama says that meditation is the cure for every problem. That seems a bold claim to make. When we consider the various small and large problems in our lives, it doesn’t seem that meditation could resolve them. What can sitting in silence, counting our breaths do about the pain we feel in our bodies, or the fear we experience when we face death, or the lack of purpose we sometimes feel, or even the bread we baked that did not rise as it should have? How is meditation a solution for that?

Meditation actually applies to every problem, no matter how debilitating or simplistic we find the problem to be. These principles can be seen in stories of people that have lived them out. One story in the Christian tradition is about two sisters, Martha and Mary. We don’t know if either of the women was accustomed to meditating, but we do know that when Jesus arrived for dinner Mary was insistent on simply sitting at his feet. She didn’t seem to want to speak or attend to the details of the meal preparations. Martha, on the other hand, was so distracted, so worried about all that needed to be done, so consumed with the problems that loomed before her, that all she could do was complain – certainly not meditate!

 Meditation applies to every problem, no matter how debilitating we find the problem to be.  

Jesus’ response to Martha was that Mary had chosen the best part and it wouldn’t be taken from her. Jesus was saying what the Dalai Lama might have said to Martha — that meditation was the solution for every problem — even cleaning the house, getting the table set, seating the guests, being sure that all the dishes were prepared properly and that conversation flowed with ease.

We are accustomed to dealing with our problems by trying to find solutions to them, or by trying to escape them altogether. On the one hand, we stress, we worry, we plan and strategize, or we get more outside opinions. On the other hand, we turn on the television, take a drink, plan a party, shop, take a trip, surf the Internet. Even though neither approach seems to get us the results we hope for, we feel that we are at least doing something -– even if it’s just stressing about our problem.

I have found in my own tradition that there are two principles of meditation that make it the solution to every problem. First, we learn about letting go. Second, we give up our attachment to the result. The most important of these is the first -– learning to let go. It is counter-intuitive because we are so used to holding on, controlling, making something happen by our own will and action. Letting go takes us out of control, removes the drama around our problem, and leaves us with nothing to stress about or act upon. The good news of that is that it takes us out of control, removes the drama around our problem, and leaves us with nothing to stress about or act upon! In other words, when we sit in meditation and find issues, thoughts, and problems rising in our soul and we simply let them go, we are cutting them loose from us. Because we are no longer attached to them they cease to have power over us.

 Letting go removes the drama around our problems, and leaves us with nothing to stress about  

When we fully accept this, we move into the second principle of not being attached to the result. This is critical because we can separate ourselves from a problem for awhile, but still be seeking a certain resolution to it. When we fully let go of the result, we become as open as curious as children about how things will turn out. We’re no longer so afraid or uncertain. We may take action on our problem, but we are as surprised as anyone else about how it will all unfold.

Meditation helps us learn to let go and helps us practice letting go on a regular basis. It’s really only when we let go that we are able to be detached from what acts on our lives from outside. It’s only when we let go that we experience the freedom of detachment from results.

Letting go is not easy. It’s hard even during the midst of meditation, much less in the hard reality of everyday life. When we’re impatient waiting in line to check out at the grocery store, it’s not easy to let go. When our spouse has misinterpreted something we said, it’s not easy to let go. When our net worth drops yet again, it’s not easy to let go. When our computer doesn’t respond, it’s not easy to let go. When someone hurts us or betrays us, it’s not easy to let go. These are the hard, implacable areas of life – the ones where we tend simply to respond as we’ve always responded. Unfortunately, we continue to get the same results.

Imagine what would happen if we learned to let go. Imagine what would happen if we became detached from results. I believe we would begin to see our souls developing peace and fullness. I believe we would begin to see joy and hope slipping into everything we experienced – even those things that were less than desirable. I believe we would find ourselves becoming braver and bolder.

The divine truth is that the invitation to sit down and breathe is always there. And when we sit down and breathe we are surprised to find ourselves stilled and filled.

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Three lies and a half-truth

United Church Observer: When it comes to understanding meditation, Christianity and neuroscience are closer than you might imagine

When I teach about cognition and prayer, I often start with an exercise designed for failure. I ask the class to cross their legs and arms, slump in their chairs and think of nothing for two minutes. During this period, I remind them regularly and harshly how much time is left and that their minds should be empty.

Afterward, participants invariably speak about their frustration and discomfort. For me, it’s the longest two minutes of the course. But I love this exercise. It illustrates the three biggest lies and one half-truth about meditation: that meditation means getting our minds totally quiet; that if we get distracted we’re doing it wrong; that there’s only one correct, Christian way to meditate; and finally, the half-truth at the root of much suffering, that our goal is inner peace.

Neurobiology presents a problem for the first assumption, that our minds should be totally quiet in meditation. The human brain is made to be anxious; it’s designed to scan for incoming danger. Three seconds is the longest we usually concentrate on any single thing unless we exert serious effort.

The stilling of the mind that happens in deep meditation is not a normal state of being, and even seasoned meditators can’t sustain it continuously. There is a good reason why Buddhists call meditation “the noble failure” and Christians speak of contemplation as a gift rather than an achievement. There is no way to force one’s self into silence and stillness. Force actually makes repose more difficult to find.

Read the rest of this article…

Rather, the work of meditation is to find a balance between effort and release. We use willpower to maintain our practice and simultaneously let go of straining. Like all balancing acts, it takes time and repetition. Some days I’m good at it, some days I’m not.

A neuroscientist looking at my brain while I’m attempting to concentrate might say I am activating the parts that govern attention. Doing this repeatedly will strengthen my capacity to attend to myself and others. A religious person watching my practice would tell me that I am engaged in an act of co-creation with the Divine, letting God be in charge. Both of these ways of describing meditation are true.

The second big lie is if I can’t concentrate, I’m failing. However, both brain scientists and contemplatives will agree that all my distractions are actually running continuously. The mind is never empty. It’s simply more or less engaged with its own busyness. We don’t notice all the chatter until we get quiet.

In the past, I’ve thought that the incessant noise meant I was a rotten meditator. I’ve beaten myself up for being distracted and at times even ditched the practice altogether.

But these days, I’m convinced that living through the mess between my ears — looking at it with the compassion of Christ, gently setting it aside, returning to my practice — is what actually transforms me.

This is the work: with great self-forgiveness, we point ourselves back to centre. The experience of anxiety and discomfort is so common in meditation, there’s even a phrase for it: taking out the trash. But distractions come and go. Losing the way and coming back are just part of the process.

If I want to know whether or not I’m making progress, I don’t look at what happens when I meditate. I look at my daily life. Am I better able to imagine the feelings of someone I don’t like? Do I lose my temper less frequently, conduct myself more generously in intimate relationships? If so, meditation is working.

A neuroscientist might say that when I bring myself back from distraction to a meditative state, I am increasing my neural integration; that is, I am growing new neuronal pathways from the prefrontal cortex down to the limbic system and the brain stem. This brings my normally automatic reactions more closely under conscious control. A Christian might call these changes in behaviour “fruits of the Spirit” — slow-growing, humble results revealed in daily living — and note that accepting God’s love and forgiveness for myself enables me to love and forgive others. Both of these ways of describing meditation are true.

Now the third lie, that there’s a single correct form of Christian meditation. I’d argue that our early Christian forebears would heartily disagree — as would hundreds of thousands of Christians around the world.

If we believe that God made each of us in our lovely and surprising diversity, then that diversity must also include the ways in which we approach the Divine. Walking a labyrinth, prayerful journalling, reciting a mantra, practising loving kindness, contemplative Scripture reading, developing breath awareness, becoming attuned to the presence of God: each of these is a valid way to meditate.

What makes Christian meditation Christian is not the particular method we use, but the focus and centre we bring to it: Jesus Christ.

Whether you chant, concentrate on your breath or sing, “Oh thank you, God,” to the tune of O Tannenbaum, if it’s Christ to whom you dedicate your practice, you are engaged in Christian meditation.

A neuroscientist might point out similar brain activations associated with different forms of meditation when we label them Christian. A person of faith might say that each practice allows God into another corner of his or her life. Both of these ways of describing Christian meditation are true.

And now the half-truth: the purpose of meditation is inner peace. Unfortunately, I’m not in charge of what bubbles up in my mind during meditation. Trying to think comfortable thoughts only makes those thoughts more elusive. But if I’m willing to receive whatever comes, I get what’s given: some things hard, some joyful. Unpleasant insights into my own character or a call to a difficult situation come accompanied by an invitation to deeper peace.

Here’s an example. After experimenting with several different practices, I joined a group from the World Community for Christian Meditation. There was one leader who recited a little prayer that ended “so let your God love you.”

This phrase stunned me. I had several mental frames for meditation — trying to love God, trying to contact the Divine, trying to please the Holy — but never before had I thought of meditation as a chance to let God love me. I was too busy beating up on myself every time I fell asleep or found myself worrying. I’d judge each thought, judge each session and then judge myself for judging. It wasn’t fun.

I had kept at meditation for years because I am stubborn. But if you had asked, I’d have rated my experience as generally lousy.

When I heard “so let your God love you,” I realized that I could relax. This wasn’t about showing God anything or trying to make contact; it was simply soaking in the love that was always present. The purpose of my practice could be resting in the love of God and letting it fill me up.

Over time, I found the place inside where I felt that love. I even began to be able to feel it when I wasn’t meditating, and began to bring that love to my work and relationships.

A cognitive linguist might say that I built a substantial neural net that was available for activation in many situations. A religious person might say that I learned to trust. What I say is that I learned to let my God love me.

All of these ways of describing my meditation are true.

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Buddhism strengthens ties to church

The Denver Post: What in the recent past seemed exotic and foreign is now almost routinely folded into “the fold.”

Buddhism is not only accepted as a mainstream American religion, it is a path increasingly trod by faithful Christians and Jews who infuse Eastern spiritual insights and practices such as meditation into their own religions.

When John Weber became a Buddhist at age 19, his devout Methodist parents were not particularly pleased.

In recent years, however, they’ve invited their son, a religious studies expert with Boulder’s Naropa University, to speak at their church about Buddhism.

“That never would have happened before,” Weber said. “They would have been embarrassed.”

The Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey in 2007 found that seven in 10 Americans who have a religion believe there is more than one path to salvation. A growing number of people are contemplating more than one each.

And they are contemplating contemplation itself.

There are Jubus — Jews who bring Buddhism into their practice of Judaism — and Bujus, who are Buddhists with Jewish parents. Then there are UUbus, or Unitarian Universalist Buddhists, and Ebus, or Episcopalian Buddhists. There are Zen Catholics.

“There is a definite trend and movement that will not be reversed,” said Ruben Habito, a laicized Jesuit priest, Zen master and professor of world religions at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “We are in a new spiritual age, an inter-religious age.”

Search can lead back home

People are hungry for a deeper spiritual experience — meditation, mindfulness, personal transformation, deep insight, union with God or the universe.

Habito, who calls himself a Zen Catholic, is one of the experts who say the search is a little like Dorothy and her ruby slippers. The quest for meaning ultimately leads some, like Dorothy, to their own backyards.

Judaism, Catholicism and Islam have rich traditions in contemplative practices, yet these had all but disappeared from everyday congregational life.

For many Christians cut off from the past, or alienated from the faith of their upbringing, Buddhism has served as the bridge to ancient wisdom.

“The problem is the contemplative tradition in the Christian Church has had its ups and downs over the centuries,” said Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and leader in the Centering Prayer movement, a modern revival of Christian contemplative practice.

“We sensed that the Eastern religions, with their highly developed spirituality, had something we didn’t have,” Keating said. “In the last generation, 10 to 20 years, some didn’t even think there was a Christian spirituality, just rules — do’s and don’ts and dogma they didn’t find spiritually nourishing. It’s important to recover the mystical aspects of the gospel.”

Christian contemplative practices were lost or weakened in the Protestant Reformation and later in the Great Awakening — religious revolutions in colonial America that advanced the themes of Protestantism.

“There is growing permission to turn back to some of the early church practices and pieces that helped us to be whole,” said the Rev. Stuart Lord, an ordained Baptist minister and new president of Naropa University, a Buddhist-founded institution. “I’ve been studying Buddhism and meditation for about seven years. I look at it as helping a person lead a fuller Christian life.”

Cultivating an inner life

Buddhist scholar Judith Simmer-Brown, a professor at Naropa, said Christian denominations are working hard to rediscover contemplative traditions as one way to combat people leaving their churches.

“They literally have rebuilt their Christian meditative forms,” Simmer- Brown said. “Some borrow heavily from Buddhism.”

Lord said the interdenominational yearning for meditation and deeper spiritual experience is not reflective of a desire for different doctrines or ethos — or a taste for Asian cultural trappings.

“It’s about cultivating an inner life, not the outer appearances,” he said. “You don’t have to shave your head.”

The Buddha was non-dogmatic and non-authoritarian — a compassionate guide, not a god, Buddhist texts say. The Buddha was silent on the subjects of a supreme being and the immortality of the soul.

“Buddhism is more about spiritual practice than believing in certain doctrines,” Habito said. “There are more definitive and particular requirements for saying ‘I am a Christian.’ ”

Yet the fusion of strong Buddhist elements with mainstream Christian religion has created a backlash, Simmer- Brown said.

The nomination early this year of the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester to become an Episcopal bishop in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula created a stir when it was learned he also practiced Zen Buddhist meditation.

Forrester’s nomination failed.

Problems of religious rivalry

Blogger Greg Griffith, of, criticized the “progressivism” and the church’s willingness to fuse differing religious beliefs that paved the way for Forrester’s nomination in the first place.

“It starts with labyrinths, continues with Buddhist monks constructing mandalas in a cathedral, and over the background noise of pagan priests and books about love spells, proceeds to Muslim priestesses and now a Buddhist bishop,” Griffith wrote .

Methodist Rev. Toni Cook, a founder of St. Paul’s Buddhist Christian InterSpiritual Community in Denver, said religious rivalry creates more problems than reconciliation.

About 14 years ago, a gang member had laughed when Cook and a group of clergy asked how they could help get young people out of gangs.

“How are all the religions any different from street gangs?” he asked. “You mark off your own territory and defend it to the death.”

Cook decided: “There’s got to be a way to share sacred space without trying to convert one another.”

By the numbers

12,000 Approximate number of adult Buddhists in Colorado, according to Pew survey

2,600 years Age of the world religion Buddhism

170 percent Increase of adherents during a Buddhist “boom” between 1990 and 2000, according to the American Religious Identity Survey

1.5 million Estimated total number of Buddhists in the U.S. in 2004

5 million Estimated number of Buddhists in the U.S. currently, not counting the numbers of Christians, Jews and others heavily influenced by Buddhism

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