Labyrinth a place for moving meditation

Herald-Mail: As Michael Holland walked the outdoor Cretan labyrinth at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Hagerstown Sunday afternoon, he paused to read the plaque affixed to a large flat stone at its center.

That plaque expresses in words the impact the late Sharon Rucker made on the growth and health of the church she loved so dearly. She died in May 2008 at the age 58.

Even the stone that holds the plaque is a tribute to Rucker and her beloved congregation. It was the bottom step of the church’s former location on North Potomac Street, saved 12 years ago during the move to 13245 Cearfoss Pike.

“She made a difference here,” said Yvonne Pfoutz, a longtime member of the congregation.

On Sunday afternoon, the outdoor labyrinth awaited for members and visitors wanting to meander in their meditations. Inside the meeting room, a Faith in Action fair was being held.

“A lot of people come here just for the labyrinths,” Pfoutz said.

The outdoor version was built in 2003 and opened to the public a year later. In December 2004, church members created an indoor labyrinth, which is a Chartres pattern measuring 22 feet in diameter. The pattern is named for the Chartres cathedral in France, which featured that pattern labyrinth in the church floor.

Children often move through the outdoor labyrinth at breakneck speed, while most adults tend to take their time and even pause along the way. Any way is fine, Pfoutz said.

The outdoor and indoor labyrinths are usually open on the second Sunday of each month from 1 to 3 p.m.

Labyrinths have been in existence for thousands of years, and appear in one form or another in nearly every culture and religion in the world, according to a pamphlet handed out to walkers.

The theory is that labyrinths call people to take a meandering path of the spirit, not the shortest distance between two points.

“I found it relaxing and easy to follow,” Holland said as he completed the journey.

Although he attends services regularly at the Unitarian Church, Holland said Sunday marked the first time he walked the labyrinth. He said he enjoyed the experience and plans to do it again.

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600 years of solitude, by Michael Chaskalson (Kulananda)

On the Irish isle of Skellig Michael, Celtic Monks once pursued a tough life of meditation. Kulananda (Michael Chaskalson) feels a connection across the centuries with these vanished contemplatives, and senses a continuity between his own efforts and theirs.

I am traveling about the Kerry coast with the team that runs the Dublin Meditation Center. As the Center’s president, I visit from time to time, helping out where I can. We are getting to know one another better, getting to know Ireland together, adventuring around its glorious coastline on a kind of pilgrimage.

One evening we set out in search of a place to hold an impromptu meeting: three members of the Western Buddhist Order meeting to discuss our practice and our work. We find a quiet cove and start along a “mass path” to an old “mass rock,” where outdoor mass was said in the absence of a church during the time of the Penal Laws that suppressed Catholic church services.

Thirteen monks, living a life of prayer and contemplation in their tiny, round, rock-built huts 600 sheer feet above the rolling north Atlantic.

It is a golden evening, the sun setting softly pink into the still ocean as we scramble over rocks and through purple rhododendron glades. Rounding a corner, the two Skellig islands suddenly appear before us, like huge Gothic cathedrals, floating in yellow light upon a gilded sea, an eruption from another dimension.

Some time in the sixth century a small band of monks headed out into the Atlantic Ocean off the south-west coast of Ireland in a hide-covered coracle. Their destination was a peaked rocky outcrop, seven miles out to sea. Battered by the deep Atlantic waves, somehow they negotiated a landing against the island’s steep face of crumbling sandstone. They had come to stay here, a day’s perilous journey from the mainland, on a barren, storm-battered rock at the edge of civilization on the western-most tip of Europe. On their horizon the sun set over the very end of the world.

Thirteen monks, living a life of prayer and contemplation in their tiny, round, rock-built huts 600 sheer feet above the rolling north Atlantic. Unbelievably, a small community flourished on that rock for six centuries. They fished, kept a tiny garden and maybe an animal or two. On the southern pinnacle, above a chimney of rock, a solitary hermit once passed his days in complete isolation.

…when most of western Europe was plunged into darkness and illiteracy, the Irish Celtic monks preserved classical learning…

Skeilic means “rock” in Irish. and there are two Skellig Islands. Little Skellig is an uninhabited haven of seabirds; a mile and a half away is Skellig Michael, dedicated, like so many high places, to the archangel of that name. It is barren pinnacle of rock, less than half a mile long and nowhere more than 500 feet wide. It rises steeply to a peak 700 feet above the ocean.

Six centuries. Despite, cruel winter weather, despite the scarcity of food and fuel, for 600 years a monastic community clung to that rock. And ever since has been a place of pilgrimage, a place of awe.

A romantic picture perhaps, but here in the west of Ireland the mind turns naturally to romance — it’s in the air, in the radiance of the light, the greenness of the land. Awestruck, we stand and quietly stare, new Buddhists on an old mass of rock, bringing a new religion to a country where an old one was once so hampered; gazing at an illuminated haven of timeless contemplation.

The next day dawns gray and wet, and there is only just time to buy ourselves green plastic rain capes before heading off to join our boat. “You’ll not be needing those today, boys,” says the boatman, seemingly oblivious to the squalling rain. But as we approach the islands the sky clears, the wind drops, and we circle Little Skellig on a clear, calm sea.

Little Skellig is home to one of the world’s largest colonies of gannets. They jostle for space and fleck the rocks white. There soar flocks of razor bills, guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes: a multitude of seabirds. Seals bask in small inlets, and there I caught my first sight of a puffin: a childhood wish at last fulfilled.

The smallness of the buildings is accentuated by the vastness of the space all around. Man, on this rock, is but a little thing.

Landing on Skellig Michael, we climb an ancient rock-cut stairway. A thin layer of soil clings to gray, lichenous rock. Sea campion, plantago, scurvy grass: a few plant species scrabble out a desperate living. A sign put up by the Office of Public Works urges us to take care of the flora, not to throw stones, and to respect the “spiritual atmosphere” of the place

The monastic enclosure sits on a flat terrace at the edge of a 600-foot cliff. The windowless huts are shaped like beehive domes and are roughly rectangular inside, none more than 15 feet by 12. The smallness of the buildings is accentuated by the vastness of the space all around. Man, on this rock, is but a little thing. There are altars, prayer stations, and a few Celtic crosses — everything starkly laid out against a brilliant Atlantic sky.

There are no springs on Skellig Michael; rainwater, as well as dew and condensed mist from the rocks, was gathered in cisterns. And since there is nothing to burn, there can have been few fires, and little cooking. The monks must have lived on a few vegetables, grain from the mainland, wind-dried fish and raw seabirds’ eggs in season. Through the wet, freezing winter their rough woolen garments can rarely have been dry. This was no easy life.

As my friends and I crowd into a tiny drystone cell, the silence settles and a sense of awe arises. We know why those monks came there, 14 centuries ago. In our own ways we know that same yearning, the desire for peace and solitude that moves all meditators.

This is expressed by the Buddhist poet Shantideva, writing in India maybe 100 years after the founding of Skellig monastery

… one should recoil from sensual desires and cultivate delight in solitude, in tranquil woodlands empty of contention and strife.

On delightful rock surfaces cooled by the sandal balm of the moon’s rays, stretching wide as palaces, the fortunate pace, fanned by the silent, gentle forest breezes, as they contemplate for the well-being of others.

Bound to none, one enjoys that happiness and contentment which even for a king is hard to find.

During the sixth century, when most of western Europe was plunged into darkness and illiteracy, the Irish Celtic monks preserved classical learning in a project of voracious bibliophilia. Not only the Gospels, but Aristotle, Euripedes, Virgil, Ovid. Whatever they could find they copied, preserved and returned to the rest of Europe. The debt we owe them is immense. But I don’t see these Skellig monks as scribes. We know very little about them but surely they were contemplatives, upholding the more inward dimension of the Celtic Christian tradition.

I am humbled by the commitment of those monks, by their single-minded devotion to the contemplative life

On the saddle of the island, with the blue sky all around us and the myriad-colored Atlantic rolling beneath, I sit talking with a friend. Discussing his meditation practice and thoughts about life, I feel a strong resonance come upon me. Yes — this is it. It rolls on and on. The same searching, the same fundamental quest. The Skellig monks practiced for the sake of the life to come, for the glories in heaven. Shantideva, like all Buddhists, taught practice for the sake of radical change here and now. But for all their differences, they share a profound commitment to spiritual effort, a deep dedication to the inner life.

On the boat back to the mainland a still solemnity steals over me. As a western Buddhist in western Europe, it is not often that I experience a sense of continuity between my efforts and those of the ancients. I felt it once on the Acropolis and something like it, from a different dimension, in Florence. But on Skellig Michael the feeling is much more immediate. For six long centuries that barren rock was dedicated to contemplation. So our journey there seems fitting, for although we are bringing something new to that land, something clear and not heard before, it distantly resonates with something very old, and long buried. I feel it welcoming us back.

With that feeling comes humility and awe. I am humbled by the commitment of those monks, by their single-minded devotion to the contemplative life, which led them to live far out in the wild North Atlantic. That level of dedication is something to aspire to.

But omens abound on Skellig Michael and solemnity doesn’t last. As I emerge from my reverie, a school of dolphins surfaces around the boat. Leaping and diving, they are joyfully at home in their own true element, out here in the wild Atlantic Ocean.

KulanandaMichael Chaskalson (also known as Kulananda) is a leading teacher of mindfulness-based approaches to work and healthcare, training senior executives, executive coaches, clinical psychologists and others in this radical approach to creativity and personal effectiveness. With Dominic Houlder he is the author of Mindfulness and Money and has written several books on Buddhist themes. See for more information.

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Søren Kierkegaard: “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”

Søren Kierkegaard

How do we find inner peace? How do we learn to overcome inner conflict? What is the guiding principle of our lives? Bodhipaksa takes a saying by the 19th century Danish theologian and philosopher, Kierkegaard, and looks at the Buddhist perspective on “willing one thing.”

“Purity of heart is to will one thing.”
– Søren Kierkegaard

This saying by Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish theologian and philosopher, suggests that a mind divided is a mind unable to be at peace with itself. When we desire contradictory ends there is no chance for the mind to find harmony; always there is inner strife, conflict, and confusion. When the mind pulls in two directions at once we inevitably suffer; we are forever restless, dissatisfied, and second-guessing ourselves.

To will one thing means to have a mind that is unified around an organizing principle that gives our lives meaning and purpose. I believe that we all attempt to find such an organizing principle. We choose one thing that is, for us, the most important thing in our lives. This focus determines our priorities so that we can make choices, aim at “willing one thing,” and thereby escape from inner conflict.

We may, for example, decide quite unconsciously that work is the most important thing in our lives. We tell ourselves that spending so much time in the office is actually a way of serving our family (we do it to give them a higher standard of living) but really we’re workaholics. And our families resent us and our work.

Or we may decide that the family is the focus of our lives and we end up railing against a teacher who has disciplined our child for having been disruptive or for harming others. We say we’re protecting the family while actually we’re harming them by failing to value ethical boundaries.

To will one thing means to have a mind that is unified around an organizing principle

And a more internal example would be when I know I’d be happier if I meditated, but I have the idea of living in ease and comfort as the focus of my life and I end up avoiding meditating because it will inevitably lead to me having to exercise discipline over myself, confronting my inner restlessness.

Kierkegaard offers a whole list of examples such as pleasure, honor, riches, and power, that appear to offer a focus for our lives so that we can “will one thing,” and yet cannot fulfill that role. These are false focuses, promising inner unity but unable to deliver.

So we need to have an appropriate focus, a true focus. For Kierkegaard the person who wills one thing is the person who is focused on the Good.

Any other focus but the Good is self-defeating. In all three of the examples I’ve given the focus chosen ends up being self-defeating. They are self-defeating because the focus is not something into which we can throw the whole of our will without creating further conflict. When, seeking a point of unity in our lives we choose our work or career as our focus we have to try to negate or trivialize other aspects of our lives — not just family, but health, friendship, and leisure: anything that may get in the way of our work ambitions. This leads to our having unfulfilled needs, and these lead to further conflict. In seeking harmony we have found strife. Similarly, when we choose family as the focus of our lives we have to forget that the members of our family have to coexist with others, and when we choose comfort we end up trying to ignore painful issues and real conflicts that have to be addressed.

But what is the Good? It must be something ultimately real and enduring. It cannot be something impermanent or transient. it has to be something all-embracing so that it’s not in opposition to other aspects of our life.

Kierkegaard tells us that the Good can’t be something external to us or we will inevitably come to resent it. “The path and the place are within each of us. And just as the place is the blessed state of the striving soul, so the path is the striving soul’s continual transformation.”

It’s by looking inside ourselves that we will find the Good — the focus that allows us to orient our lives so that we can find wholeness and escape the inevitable pain of “double-mindedness.”

Rather than bringing the Good into being we are revealing the Good which already exists and which always has existed

There are two ways, in Buddhist theory and practice, of seeing what the Good is. On the one hand we can see it as being our “skillful” (kusala) impulses: those thoughts and emotions that are based on love, compassion, and self-awareness. The task then is, in every decision we make, to look for the most skillful response we can muster and to act upon in as best we can. In doing so we strengthen our positive habits and weaken the negative. Thus the “striving soul” is engaged in “continual transformation” in pursuit of wholeness — the wholeness of a mind free from greed, hatred, and delusion. In this vision we are bringing the Good into being.

On the other hand we have a vision in Buddhist theory that the mind is essentially pure already: “Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements.” While in the first model “we” are a mixture of skillful and unskillful tendencies and our job is to get rid of the unskilful and bring skillful habits, emotions, and thoughts into being, in the second model “we” are inherently pure and luminous. The mind is like a jewel. But the jewel of the mind is covered over with “defilements” (unskillful habits, emotions, and thoughts). Our task is still to rid the mind of the unskilful, but rather than bringing the Good into being we are revealing the Good which already exists and which always has existed.

This pursuit of the Good involves a constant self-examination in the moment of choice. We examine our responses. Are we cultivating the positive or strengthening unskillful tendencies? Are we revealing the Good or obscuring it?

This pursuit of the Good gives us a way to put family, career, wealth, comfort, into a wider context. Family and work may still be of great importance, but more important still is that they are arenas in which we can cultivate or reveal the Good in ourselves and to encourage the cultivation or revealing of the Good in others. And in this way we do not set up family and work, or comfort and self-examination, or any other aspect of our lives, in opposition to each other and in opposition to what is most real in us. We learn to will one thing and in doing so develop true purity of heart.

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“Healing Breath: Zen for Christians and Buddhists in a Wounded World,” by Rubin Habito

healing breathZen and Christianity may have much to offer each other and to learn from each other. But is it possible to be both a Christian and a Zen Buddhist? Author Ruben Habito seems to think so. Reviewer Samayadevi is more skeptical.

Ruben L F Habito was for many years a Jesuit priest serving in Japan. He studied with both Father Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle, a spiritual pioneer in inter-religious dialog and with Koun Yamada, a renowned Zen teacher. He thus brings a fascinating perspective on the interplay of Christianity, as experienced in Catholicism, and the practice of Zen.

Healing Breath is aimed at those seeking a healing spirituality in their own lives and guidelines for a practice that integrates the personal, social and ecological dimensions of life. He assumes a familiarity with Christian concepts, beliefs and traditions and an unfamiliarity with Zen practice. These are fortuitous assumptions on his part as they allow Habito to explain and teach the four characteristics of Zen and the three fruits of that practice.

The overarching thesis of Healing Breath is that the Zen practice of being still, listening to the breath, and calming the mind all conduce to an experience of the interconnectedness of all life, to “seeing things are they really are.” The healing begins with a (radical) change in how we see the world, a “shift not of strategy but of cosmology”.

In this “right view” the spiritual path is “one with the path of active socio-ecological engagement,” and “healing the world is not unrelated to healing our personal woundedness.” Zen is presented as a practice that resonates with a Christian belief system and is compatible with a Christian faith commitment. “Christian expressions and symbols and practices point to transformative and healing perspectives and experiences opened to on in Zen practice.”

There are many lovely gems in this little tome. In writing about the second mark of Zen practice, not being limited by words or concepts, he writes: “The human capacity to name things takes its toll on our mode of awareness.” The implication is that Zen practice leads to the limitless spaciousness of the Heart Sutra. What an invitation to go beyond our analytical mind (our comfort zone), and, to go deeper into pure unfettered awareness!

Habito sees the violence and destruction in the world being caused by the illusion of “I” and “other”, and Zen sitting, following the breath and calming the mind, as leading to the dissolution of that false dichotomy. “The fruit of concentration is that the separation between subject and object is overcome and we can see our true nature.” It is from that dissolution that compassion for all beings flows.

The “art of living in attunement with the breath” is how Zen is described. These are all appealing insights and pretty much propel me to my cushion, or to my breath, as I sit here writing. On my first reading I was not so taken with the invitation to sit zazen (I tried that first in 1970), but on a second reading I could not help but be inspired. Especially in the midst of Christmas and New Year’s holidays, the image of quiet sitting to quietly realize an innate connection with all beings is pretty irresistible. It can even color and perhaps guide the potential frenzy of gift giving celebrations.

In discussing the Six Point Recovery to healing, Habito lists “integrating the shadow side.” Pema Chodron also often writes of befriending what scares us, what we want to hide, deny, or push away. It is an essential element in healing, in claiming our wholeness, and it cannot be said often enough.

In the section on Rekindling After the Burnout, Habito suggests that the very sense of “I” doing “good” to achieve good “results” is that cause of burnout! Again, we are reminded of the Heart Sutra: “Not even wisdom to attain, Attainment too is emptiness.” The practice is not to distinguish between the giver and the gift and the receiver. That is a high calling and a description of freedom.

So far, so good. However, I should admit that I was once a deeply committed Christian. I have a Master’s of Divinity degree from Weston Jesuit School of Theology. I am intimately familiar with Christian symbols and concepts. I am also a committed, practicing, ordained Buddhist. As Habito explains, the Christian corollary of “living in attunement with the breath” is found in Genesis, in the Hebrew word “ruah,” meaning “the divine breath that is at the base of all being and all life.” This breath inspired the prophets to speak the word of God. Christian spirituality is literally a life led in the Spirit or Breath, of Jesus Christ.” Zen practice is then (seemingly) used to access this Breath of Christ, to allow us to “…become an instrument of this Breath.” I clearly have trouble with this. I find a quantum difference between realizing I am not a discrete, inherently existing entity but rather deeply one in “interbeing” (Thich Nhat Hahn’s neologism) with all life, and believing that my ultimate truth is to be an instrument of the Breath of Christ.

Habito suggests that the koan practice of Zen is a means to “dissolve the opposition between subject and object.” The task of the practice is to remove obstacles to that realization. But this is followed by the suggestion that that realization is similar to glimpsing “the universe from the eyes of God; the one who hears is inseparable from the Word that is heard.” The concept of a creator God is so discordant with my Buddhist insights, I find it almost disturbing to try to mesh them together.

The implication throughout is that Zen practice and Christian commitment are not only compatible, but mutually beneficial. My own experience is that while Zen practice gives me the tools of sitting, following the breath, and calming the mind, the fruits of that experience exist in their own right without the need of a Christian world view. For a Christian, Zen may be beneficial in facilitating and fostering centering prayer, and a stillness of the heart.

Buddhists and Christians have so very much to learn from one another. Habito mentions at the beginning, that ‘Placing ourselves within differing religious traditions to discover mutual resonance, (leads) not only to inner healing, but to global healing.” I wish and hope that might be so. I just have trouble finding the resonance.

Samayadevi is a 65-year-old mother of six, step-mother of four, and step-grandmother of eight. She discovered meditation when she was thirteen and has been practicing (erratically) ever since. Her spiritual path has led her through Catholicism to the Episcopal church and finally into Buddhism. She was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order this summer on a three month retreat in Spain.

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Zen and the art of social justice

William Wolfe-Wylie, In the late 1970s, Horacio Morales founded The National Democratic Front of the Philippines. The organization’s primary goal was to overthrow the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. A few years later, Morales was arrested and taken to a jungle prison near a military rifle range. He was confined to a small concrete cell and, over the din of gunfire, subjected to electro-shock torture.

But each Friday, a kind-hearted Canadian woman ventured to the prison, alone, to visit Morales and the other prisoners, and she taught him the art of Zen meditation.

“They’d been tortured electrically and their bodies would jump,” said Sister Elaine MacInnes, a practicing Catholic nun who discovered Zen meditation while in Japan in 1958. She spent the next couple of decades learning Zen from the monks she had encountered, until she was certified as a teacher. Soon after that, she found herself in the Philippines where she began to visit prisoners, including Morales.

It took time, Sister Elaine recalls over a pot of tea in her Toronto home, but over the four years of his imprisonment, she taught Morales how to turn his prison cell into a monk’s cell. She helped him to deal with his anger and to channel his feelings through Zen meditation.

It was then, she said, working with Morales and his fellow prisoners, that she began to see the importance of teaching Zen to prisoners all over the world.

Earlier this month, twenty-five years after her first meeting with Morales, Sister Elaine held a fundraiser in Toronto to support that ongoing project, through her charitable organization called Freeing the Human Spirit. At 83, Sister Elaine doesn’t meet with prisoners as often as she used to. Instead, she is looking to train as many Zen teachers as she can before she’s no longer able.

Her mission has never been an easy task.

“To bring hope and healing to prisoners is not a popular cause,” she says.

For Sister Elaine, teaching meditation is more than teaching prisoners to deal with their incarceration. It’s about helping them to better reintegrate into society after their time has been served.

Zazen, the act of meditation and clearing the consciousness, does away with “the dust of the mind,” she explains. Inner freedom, coping with stress and understanding of the self leads to acting more appropriately and naturally in the wider world.

Sister Elaine first began to understand the power of Zen shortly after she took her final vows to become a nun in 1961. That fall she moved to Japan and was quickly intrigued by the monks who prayed up high up on a nearby mountain.

“How do you pray?” she was asked by one of the men. What followed was a conversation that lasted for hours that exposed more links between her native Catholicism and Zen meditation than she had thought possible.

The body is used to help empty the mind, she briefly elaborates. Through control of breath, the breath of god and the breath of man become one. The breath of life, she said, transcended religion and became prayer itself.

“The infinite cannot be experienced intellectually,” she notes. “The world we see is just half the story. When you have seen the inner world, it becomes more and more important to you.”

Despite the pain and suffering she has seen in her travels, Sister Elaine’s face betrays none of the sorrow. As a 2005 documentary about her work plays in her living room, she has a soft smile on her face and sips her tea quietly.

Sister Elaine left the Philippines in 1993 and, after ten years in England, bringing group lessons in meditation to the prisoners there, she returned to Canada. Since then, she has established her program in more than twenty prisons across the country.

Nobody is forced to take part in the program when a prison signs on. “They can only teach volunteers,” she said. But it has become so popular in some prisons that separate programs have been set up to help staff and guards at the institutions.

The rewards of her work come in the form of the letters that she receives from prisoners. She can see the impact that meditation is having on their self-esteem and interaction with others.

“Before I practiced meditation I felt a lot of anger,” wrote Scott Kennedy, a prisoner in the UK. “I used all sorts of drugs and alcohol for years, from the age of fifteen til thirty-four, and now I’ve stopped using drugs. I’ve been practicing meditation just over a year and I’ve never felt better for years. I feel calmer, relaxed, happy in myself and towards other human beings. I have been really determined to turn my life around and practicing meditation made me see who I truly am: a kind, loving happy person.”

Her first student is still working with the people of the Philippines, too, though in a slightly different role. Morales was named Agrarian Reform Secretary in the Philippines’ new government in 1998. He is now the country’s Customs Commissioner, a slight deviation from the communist-party affiliated revolutionary group he used to lead.

At the same time as Sister Elaine was speaking on the value of teaching Zen to prisoners in Toronto, Morales was preparing an international crackdown on produce smugglers operating between China and the Philippines. The operation was hailed by farmers throughout the Philippines; their product remained safe from illegal food imports which threatened their markets.

Indeed, as Sister Elaine wrote in 2001, “In my prison experience…the sangha gradually changed their swords into ploughshares.”

Read an archive of the original article

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Telling inmates’ inside stories

Stuart Laidlaw, Toronto Star: Even after 27 years working with prisoners to help them find peace through meditation, and countless interviews and speaking engagements to explain the importance of her work, Toronto-based Catholic nun Elaine MacInnes says it’s the letters from the inmates themselves that tell the story best.

And tonight, renowned British actor Jeremy Irons will read some of those letters to an audience at the Jane Mallett Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts as part of his ongoing effort to raise money and awareness for MacInnes’ program.

“The line between being in jail and not being in jail is very thin – and very easy to fall across,” Irons says in an interview.

MacInnes’s work, which has taken her into dozens of Canadian jails, is based on a very successful program she ran for years in Britain, where she visited some of that country’s most notorious jails.

“When people ask me about hardened prisoners, I say I haven’t met one yet,” MacInnes, a Zen roshi, or master, who has been teaching meditation and yoga to prisoners since 1980…

Read the original article…

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Church Accused of ‘Brainwashing’ Pupils (The Scotsman, Scotland)

The Church of England was today accused of trying to “brainwash” young children into believing in God by getting them to pray after being put into a trance-like state. The allegation, which the Church rejected, was sparked by advice from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s diocesan schools adviser to use what is known as “guided meditation” in primary education.

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Spiritual fusion (Miami Herald)

Alexandra Alter, Miami Herald: Armed with snacks and prizes, Audrey Bloom is trying to coax an answer out of her 17 students. ”So who can tell me what duhka means?” she asks, dangling a set of golden bells from India before a semicircle of confused faces.

”Suffering,” a handful of her adult students call out, correctly identifying the Sanskrit term. For the last hour, Bloom has been illuminating the similarities between Buddhism and Christianity at Miami’s Unity on the Bay, a non-denominational Christian worship center.

To the casual observer, the 2,500-year-old religion of Gautama Buddha bears scant resemblance to Christianity. But as Buddhism becomes increasingly popular in the United States — outpacing Episcopalianism with as many as four million members — a growing number of Christians are exploring Buddhist practices while remaining within their own tradition. Christian-Buddhist meditation groups, retreat centers, books and websites attest to the growth of the trend.

”Times are so scary that people are looking for spiritual discipline that offers some kind of detachment and peace amid all this chaos,” said Rita Gross, co-author of Buddhists Talk about Jesus: Christians Talk About the Buddha (Continuum International Publishing Group, $15.95). “People might find a basic meditation practice very helpful, and Buddhism is very chic right now.”

But spiritual fusion isn’t as easy as whipping up Cuban Chinese or Jamaican Indian.


On almost every level, the two doctrines clash. Christianity holds that a divine creator fashioned the Earth in seven days; Buddhists believe the universe — thought to be one of many — has no beginning. Christian doctrine maintains the dead will be resurrected on judgement day, while Buddhism, like Hinduism, posits that individuals will be reborn until they achieve spiritual liberation. And while some say Buddha and Jesus offer similar messages of peace and compassion, one is an enlightened sage who offers a contemplative path to liberation, the other, the sole savior.

But the glaring theological contradictions don’t impede Ruben Habito, a Zen Buddhist teacher and a practicing Jesuit, from finding common ground between Buddhist and Christian mystical experiences.

”There is a way one can, in a single life, be faithful to two faiths,” said Habito, a professor of world religions at the Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, who recently led a week-long meditation retreat with 35 people, and offered the Catholic Eucharist after the evening meditation.

Prominent Buddhist leaders like the Dalai Lama and Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn have written about the shared goals of the two faiths, as well as Christian authors.

But it’s not just scholars and religious leaders who are driving the conversation — a quick Internet search unveils a smattering of Christian Buddhist listservs and support groups.

And Christian Buddhist meditation groups have sprung up in Massachusetts, Texas, Minnesota, and Washington.

Christians who are not comfortable in a strictly Buddhist setting seek nirvana at the Empty Bell, a Christian Buddhist retreat center in Watertown, Mass. The center, founded 10 years ago by Robert Jones, a Roman Catholic and Buddhist practitioner, has attracted a Christian base of followers.

”We have all stayed in our own tradition but been changed by Buddhism,” Jones said.

The popularity of Buddhist practice among Christians has grown substantially during the last two decades, said John Cowan, author of Taking Jesus Seriously: Buddhist Meditations for Christians (Liturgical Press, $16.95).

A Roman Catholic and Zen Buddhist who teaches meditation in churches throughout the Midwest, Cowan said it took a meditation practice to help him understand the Gospels.

‘Jesus said, `The kingdom of God is right before you but you can’t see it.’ A meditation practice gives you a glimpse of that,” he said.

Many agree it’s Buddhist meditations and chants, not doctrine, that attract Christians.

”Buddhists have a lot of good techniques, and those techniques don’t have to be tied down to Buddhist philosophy,” said Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University and an expert on Buddhism in America.

It’s also a matter of convenience. Buddhist meditation centers, which have doubled to more than 1,000 in the last 15 years, vastly outnumber Christian retreat centers, making them a draw for those seeking a contemplative spiritual practice.


The Rev. Annette Jones, pastor of St. John’s On The Lake First United Methodist Church, became interested in Buddhism while working as a pastor in Houston in 1990. A counselor to people dying of AIDS, Jones turned to Buddhist philosophy, where she found practical ways of dealing with death, particularly the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence and the meditation on dying.

”I remembered from my seminary days that Buddhism used dying as an entrance into meditation and self growth,” she said.

After getting a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy at Rice University in Houston, Jones moved to Miami Beach in 1999 to take the pastor’s post at St. John’s, where she began teaching a course on Buddhism and Christianity.

On Monday nights, Jones and up to 12 students squeeze into the church office to practice a form of Tibetan Buddhist meditation that includes mantra recitation, yogic breathing, and concentrating on the Tibetan letter ”A.” There’s little mention of Christianity.

”As far as I’m concerned, what has to fit is the inner experience,” she said.

Some seekers have entered Christianity through Buddhism. After 15 years of Buddhist practice, Susan Postal was baptized as an Episcopalian in 1985 after she experienced ”a reconnection with Christianity” during meditation. Postal, who continues to act as a Zen meditation teacher, said a number of her students are practicing Catholics, and several are lapsed Catholics.

Many are apprehensive about meditating at first, she said. ”When they first come to the zendo, they feel a little guilty and wonder if they’re being a good Christian,” she said. “Once they see that it’s just sitting, they relax a bit.”

But some Christians disapprove of mixing and matching Buddhist practices with Christian doctrine. Russell Moore, the dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said the two faiths are completely at odds.

“Those who claim to be Christian Buddhists don’t take Buddhism or Christianity very seriously,” he said. “Christianity believes in a personal God and the resurrection of the dead, and Buddhism totally rejects that.”

Some of the congregants from Miami’s Unity on the Bay, despite their teacher’s best efforts, are still having a hard time grasping the connections.

”Buddha is a way-shower, does that sound familiar to anyone?” Bloom prods, receiving blank stares. Jesus, they are reminded, is also a way-shower or spiritual teacher, according to the philosophy of Unity.

Seated next to an altar adorned with a statue of Buddha, flowers and incense, Bloom is the picture of patience, as serene as the Buddha himself. She queries them once more.

“Buddhism sees itself as a practical spirituality, does that sound familiar?”

This time, she gets a few knowing laughs. But many seem caught up in the differences between Buddhism and Christianity. In particular, they seem baffled by the Buddhist concept of selflessness.

‘We are told, `Know thyself,’ and Buddhism says, ‘Know no self,’ ” a member of the class, LeGrande Green, offers cheerfully.

”So if you believe in both, you’re schizophrenic,” a woman across the circle mutters. Well, it’s only their second class.

Original article no longer available…

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Church warns of risks from ‘New Age’ therapies (Belfast Telegraph, UK)

David Quinn, Belfast Telegraph, UK: Christians have been warned about the dangers of using a whole range of increasingly popular ‘New Age’ therapies, including reflexology, reiki, yoga, transcendental meditation, and ‘charms and cures’. The Presbyterian Church issued the warning in a report that was approved yesterday at its annual General Assembly in Belfast.

The report says that ‘alternative therapies’ can lead believers away from God and Jesus because they “have their roots in either Eastern religion (Taoism or Hinduism) or vital life force or energy”, which implies the existence of “an impersonal god”.

However, the report was criticised as too negative by one Presbyterian clergyman who addressed yesterday’s assembly meeting.

Rev Jim Campbell told delegates: “Too often resistance to change, to the new, has been a feature of Presbyterianism and I fear that the report on alternative medicine and therapies fits into this category.

“If you read the comments . . . on a whole range of therapies, nothing is commended and some negative feature is always found.”

He stressed that a therapy could be accepted for its practical value without having to accept the religious beliefs associated with it.

“Many of us have difficulty separating a particular medicine or therapy from the primitive understanding of how it actually works,” he said. “I believe that, as Christians, we must not limit God by claiming that He can only reveal the mysteries of the workings of his creation through the discoveries of Western science.”

However, Martin Ford, a naturopath with Tony Quinn Health Stores, which has popularised many alternative therapies in Ireland, said that even the Bible acknowledges the existence of ‘vital energies’.

He stated: “All of these therapies listed by the Presbyterians do acknowledge energy of some sort. The Bible makes reference to these energies when Jesus says ‘power has gone from me’ after a woman touches his cloak and is cured.”

Mr Ford said: “No religious person need worry that these therapies will take people away from religion. Quite the opposite, in fact. All holistic therapy expands people’s awareness of life. It encourages people to expand out of a narrow point of view.”

Alternative therapies are now thought to be availed of by tens of thousands of Irish people each year. A ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ seminar held annually at the RDS draws an estimated 6,000 people.

Alternative therapy courses are offered nationwide, including in many Catholic institutes.

Our Lady’s Hospice in Dublin has hosted a course offering the chance to learn about shamanism, chakras, and ‘dancing the rainbow’.

Courses such as the Enneagram, aimed at self-understanding, are hugely popular, including with nuns and priests.

The specific therapies which the Presbyterian report warned against yesterday were: reflexology; acupuncture; yoga and transcendental meditation; reiki; aromatherapy; homoeopathy; and charms and cures.

The report said: “We need to be careful before, as Christians, we take part in any of these therapies and their belief in ‘other gods’.”

“There is clearly a search for a deeper spiritual reality going on in society. However, we need to be clear that not all spirituality is good.”

The Presbyterian General Assembly ends today.

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Running feeds seminarian’s body, mind, spirit (The Daily Item, Sunbury, Pennsylvania)

Bobby Ross Jr., The Daily Item (Sunbury, Pennsylvania): In what he calls his “Mother Teresa Run,” Roger Joslin looks for the divine in the faces of everyone he meets. When “Running With Alms,” the Austin seminarian takes along a few dollars to help those in need.

In Joslin’s view, a spiritual experience – even an encounter with God – is as likely to occur along a wooded trail as in a church, synagogue or mosque.

The 52-year-old master of divinity student at Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest relates his experiences in the book “Running the Spiritual Path: A Runner’s Guide to Breathing, Meditating and Exploring the Prayerful Dimension of the Sport.”

Published last year by St. Martin’s Press in New York, the book combines Joslin’s insights from 30 years of running with the spiritual journey that guided him toward the priesthood.

Joslin maintains that through chants, visualization and attention to the most obvious aspects of the present moment – the weather, pain or breathing – the simple run can become the basis for a profound spiritual practice.

“When running, search for the divine in the ordinary,” he writes. “Each run is not a pilgrimage to Chartres, to Mecca, to Jerusalem, but it is a pilgrimage nonetheless.

If the intention is to converse with God, you are a pilgrim. It is the very ordinariness of the run that enables it to become a central part of your spiritual life. When God appears in the midst of the mundane, we are making progress toward him.”

In a recent interview, Joslin described how he prepares for a workout, trying to get himself into a state in which he is keenly aware of everything around him.

“Before I go for a run, if I’m driving, I’ll turn off the radio on the way, so I can begin to prepare,” he said. “When I’m putting on my T-shirt and my shorts, I’m going to do it very methodically, very consciously, in the same way that a priest might put on his vestments in preparation for celebration of Mass.”

In California, a group from the Rev. Jimmy Bartz’s church gathers each Thursday at the Santa Monica beach to run and pray based on the guidance in Joslin’s book.

Bartz, associate rector at All Saints’ Beverly Hills, an Episcopal church, said Joslin isn’t the first to combine meditative spiritual practice with physical exercise.

“I think there are a lot of people that have thought about it, but it just hasn’t been quite expressed the way Roger does pretty clearly in his book,” said Bartz, a longtime friend of Joslin’s.

Joslin’s book advocates “running meditation” as a way to quiet one’s mind and engage the body.

Hunt Priest, a friend and fellow seminarian, said Joslin’s book “just really blurred, in a necessary way, the line between the sacred and the everyday.”

“It helps you understand that you can be praying or meditating all the time,” said Priest, 39. “It doesn’t have to be one hour on Sunday.”

Joslin’s spiritual path to the seminary was more a marathon than a sprint.

He entered the seminary two years ago after 20 years in the architectural woodwork business. He’s not alone in pursuing the priesthood later in life; many of his fellow seminarians are in their early 40s.

“I am sure that I will be a far better priest now than I would have been had I entered the ministry at an earlier age,” he said. “I may not be wiser, but I am more compassionate. I have a better sense of how difficult life can be.”

Perhaps fittingly, running helps Joslin deal with that difficulty. But that wasn’t always the case.

As a high school football player in Alvarado, south of Fort Worth, he – viewed running simply as punishment. In his 20s, he ran just to keep in shape.

Then in his late 30s, the father of two dealt with a painful divorce. Running became an escape – but that escape gave way to a transformation.

As Joslin paid more attention to his immediate physical environment, he started seeing God, he said. A running journal that he kept from 1993 to 2001 formed the foundation for his book.

“God exists in the present, and to the extent to which you can find yourself fully engaged in the present, I think you can call that an experience with the divine,” he said. “It’s not always spectacular and mystical, although it can be on occasion.”

Joslin said his “original encounters with the divine” occurred in natural settings such as Big Bend National Park and the Pecos Wilderness.

“But I probably wouldn’t want to be a priest if I couldn’t experience God’s presence through the sacraments in the sanctuary,” he said. “I can’t say that one’s easier than the other. God exists all around. It’s a matter of being intentive and being receptive in either setting.”

Roger Joslin, 52, a master of divinity student at Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, holds a
copy of his book, “Running the – Spiritual Path: A Runner’s Guide to Breathing, Meditating and Exploring the Prayerful Dimension of the Sport.”

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