interfaith

Pat Robertson on Buddhism as a “disease”

Christian Broadcasting Network host Pat Robertson suggested to viewers on Monday that Buddhism was like a “disease” and that a Christian could get “infected” if their coworkers practiced it.

“I work in an environment where all of my coworkers are Buddhists,” a viewer named Tina explained in an email. “They talk about Buddhism all day long and try to preach to me. It didn’t matter much to be before, but since I recommitted myself to Jesus a year ago, it has started to bother me a lot.”

Robertson replied by noting that “healthy” people might not contract a “mild contagion.”

“But if you put yourself in the middle of a hospital ward where everybody has the disease except you, sooner or later, you will be infected by it,” the TV preacher warned. “If you’re in the middle of hundreds and hundreds of people who believe that way, you’ve got an uphill fight.”

“And I think your best thing at that point is to withdraw with dignity,” Robertson said. “Get out of that environment because they’re going to get to you before you get to them.”

Tina notes in her email that she’s trying to convert her Buddhist colleagues, but that she gets “offended” by their responses, and that when she “argues” with them they get offended.

Robertson’s analogy is rather offensive, but his advice—that this woman is in the wrong work environment—may be sound, given that there’s so much “being offended” going on.

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Does Hawaii represent the future of religion in the US?

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This fascinating map from the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (click to enlarge) shows the second largest religious tradition in each of the states of the US. Buddhism is in second place in 13 states. Hawaii, with a large population of Japanese descent, perhaps isn’t a surprise. California is perhaps incapable of giving surprises. Alaska? I did not see that coming.

Of course it probably doesn’t take much for a religion to be in second place in the US. Christianity, as you’d expect, is the majority religion in every state. Another resource shows that the percentage of the population identifies as Buddhist in each of these states is in the order of 1% to 2% — although this map doesn’t include Hawaii, where estimates of the percentage of Buddhists range from 6% to 9%. It’s striking that in Hawaii, only 29% of the population identifies as Christian, and 51% are unaffiliated.

Nationally less than 1% of the population is Buddhist, according to Pew Research.

I wonder what this map will look like 100 years from now? My guess would be that Christianity will still be the majority religion, but with a much smaller majority, many more non-believers, and some states with up to 10% of the population practicing some form of Buddhism. I’m convinced that Buddhism is the religion of the future, being practical, compatible  (in essence) with a rational approach to the world, flexible, and offering a wide variety of approaches to spirituality.

In fact, I think that the future of religion in the US looks very much like Hawaii.

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“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” — St. Julian of Norwich

This was revealed to St. Julian by Jesus in a vision, and recorded by her in her Revelations of Divine Love: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” These words have been of great comfort to me in times of stress and anxiety.

Meditation practice can reduce, but doesn’t erase, anxiety. In fact meditating makes us more sensitive to what’s going on within us, both emotionally and physically. When we meditate we feel more. Meditating can also lead to us being more present with those feelings, so rather than than avoid or bury them we experience them full-on. In these ways, meditation can cause our anxiety to be stronger!

If this sounds like bad news, it should be balanced by the fact that meditation also gives us the ability to stand back from our anxiety and to befriend it, so that it becomes less threatening and is less likely to lead to worry.

(What’s the difference between anxiety and worry? I see anxiety as being an initial unpleasant feeling in the body, produced by parts of the brain that are not accessible to conscious awareness. Worry, on the other hand, is where the mind responds to this initial unpleasant feeling with a succession of “what if” thoughts, that again and again turn toward what we’re anxious about, and in doing so intensify our anxiety.)

Also see:

Sometimes I can be with my anxiety mindfully. I can accept it. I can recognize that I don’t have to turn it into worry. And to prevent my mind getting caught up in worrying thoughts, I can keep myself grounded in my experience of the body. I can especially be aware of sensations low down in the body, like the movements of the belly or sensations of contact with the ground, my seat, or whatever else is physically supporting me. I can relax the physical tension that accompanies anxiety and worry by really letting go on the out-breath. I can offer my anxiety (or the anxious part of my mind) reassurance and kindness. I can say to it, “May you be well; may you be happy; may you be at peace.” The point here is not to make the anxiety go away, but to be a compassionate presence for it while it’s in existence.

But there are times when I turn to those words of St. Julian (or of Jesus, depending on your perspective).

One thing they remind me of is that all things pass. I’ve had intense worries in the past. I remember one time being in utter despair because of financial problems (although really those fears were more to do with concern that I wouldn’t get support from others). I even had some suicidal thoughts, although I knew I had no intention of following through on them. But where are those particular financial problems now? The debt I was struggling with at that time has just gone. (I may have new debts, but they are new, and not a continuation of the same problem I had before.) Where is the isolation that I feared before? That’s gone too. Where is the anxiety I experienced in the past? It’s no more than a memory, and not even a very vivid one. I can recall feeling despair, but in recollecting it I feel compassion for my old self rather than falling into despondent once again. The past is gone. Memories are just thoughts. They’re like dreams or mirages.

So even though there are things going on in my life right now that prompt anxiety to arise — health concerns, housing concerns, financial concerns — I know that from the perspective of my future self they too are going to have a dream-like or mirage-like quality. And so I can remind myself, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Julian had been concerned with the question of sin: why did God allow it, since if he hadn’t then all would have been well from the beginning. The reason is to do with sin, pain, and faith. Sin, she tells us, is another kind of mirage: “I saw not sin: for I believe it hath no manner of substance nor no part of being.” She did believe that the experience of pain was real, however, even if it was impermanent. “Nor could sin be known but by the pain it is cause of. And thus pain, it is something, as to my sight, for a time.”

The value of pain, in Julian’s view, was that it could cause faith to arise. It causes us to reach out to God. Had we not had sin, and therefore not had pain, then we would, in some sense, have been god-like. And so God allowed sin.

Buddhism doesn’t use the word “sin,” but it does say that our pain is caused by spiritual ignorance. And one key manifestation of this ignorance is that we see things that “hath no manner of substance” as being real and substantial. And as in Julian’s view, it is pain (dukkha) that impels us to seek happiness and peace — that drives us toward awakening.

Julian’s view of “sin” was quite remarkable, and it would be misleading not to point out her belief that because God allowed sin to exist, he therefore shows no blame to any who shall be saved. We don’t, after all, choose to have spiritual ignorance, or to be born with sin.

To Julian, “all shall be well” because we’ll find God in heaven. To me, “all shall be well” not just because pain will pass, but because we’ll awaken to the nature of reality, and will see that pain itself (such as the pain of anxiety) “hath no manner of substance.”

Anxiety isn’t just dream-like or mirage-like when we look back on it from the future. It has those illusory qualities right now, whether we see that or not. Right now, when we look closely at our anxiety, we’ll see that it’s not really there. It’s just patterns of sensation in space. When we can see our experience in that way, then “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

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Meditation experiences in Buddhism and Catholicism

Susan Stabile, OUP Blog: Becoming a Tibetan Buddhist nun is not a typical life choice for a child of an Italian Catholic police officer from Brooklyn, New York. Nevertheless, in February of 1988 I knelt in front of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, as he cut a few locks of my hair (the rest had already been shaved), symbolizing my renunciation of lay life.

I lived in the vows of a Buddhist nun for a year, in the course of spending two years living in Buddhist monasteries in Nepal and India. Including my years of lay practice, I spent twenty years of my …

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Professors win grant to study meditation effects

Three faculty members from the University of Redlands in Redlands, California — Fran Grace, professor of Religion, Lisa Olson, associate professor of Biology, and Celine Ko, assistant professor of Psychology — have received a grant of $5,000 to fund research on the “Impact of Meditation Curriculum on Physiological and Psychosocial Stress, Well-Being, and Correlates of Academic Success.”

The grant will allow faculty members to explore the relationship between meditation, and the physical and psychological side effects of stress.

The grant was awarded by The Trust for the Meditation Process.

The research project will focus on studying previous observations from Professor Fran Grace’s meditation-based Seminar on Compassion in the Religious Studies department. The research demonstrated that students who participate in meditation show signs of improved academic achievement, are more resilient to stress and achieve an increased sense of well-being. Research will be conducted on two groups of students, a portion of those who are enrolled in the spring section of Fran Grace’s Compassion course and a control group of a select amount of students.

The group of professors we will be measuring traditional clinical outcomes such as student anxiety, depression, perceived stress, and affective states; physiological responses to stress such as nervous system activity, stress hormone, and cardiac and respiratory parameters; and psychological measures of well-being, personal growth, compassion, mindful attention and awareness, dispositional optimism, subjective happiness and other potential correlates to academic success. The study is intended to collect pilot data for a larger longitudinal study.

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Law professor to speak about Buddhist meditation and Christian spirituality

University of St. Thomas law professor Susan Stabile will present the lecture “Adapting Buddhist Meditation Practices to Christian Spirituality” at 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12, in Quad 264 at Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota.

The lecture is sponsored by the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning and is free and open to the public.

Drawing from her book “Growing in Love and Wisdom: Tibetan Buddhist Sources for Christian Meditation,” published this month by Oxford University Press, Stabile will explore common values that underlie Christianity and Buddhism and how interreligious engagement can offer mutual enrichment for people of both traditions, giving special attention to how Buddhist meditation practices can enrich Christian spirituality.

After the program, Stabile’s new book will be available for purchase and signing.

Stabile holds the Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, where she also serves as a fellow of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership and offers retreats and other programs of spiritual formation for students, faculty, staff and alumni.

Raised as a Catholic, Stabile devoted 20 years of her life to practicing Buddhism and was ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun before returning to Catholicism in 2001. She is a spiritual director, trained in the Ignatian tradition, and one of the leading scholars in the United States on the intersection of Catholic social thought and the law.

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Director of Zen temple in harmony with her Jewish roots

Rebecca Rosen Lum, J-Weekly: As someone who has maintained a vital connection to her Jewish faith even as her Buddhist practice has deepened, Tova Green says the two traditions share some basic tenets.

An awareness of the preciousness of life.

The necessity of living an ethical life.

A sense of interconnectedness.

Also, she adds, “there are practices that are mutually enriching.”

Green is the director of the San Francisco Zen Center’s Beginner’s Mind Temple (also known as City Center), a post she has held since April 2011. The temple is a Soto Zen training center open to the general public.

The San Francisco …

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Former Benedictine monastery finds new life as retreat center

Bill Sherman, Tulsa World: A dozen people sang a prayer of invocation and then sat for 20 minutes of silent meditation in a round, sunken prayer room at the Osage Forest of Peace retreat center.
A bell chimed to end the meditation. They rose, bowed and sang another prayer.

It was a ritual repeated three times a day, every day, at the center, an interfaith contemplative community on 43 wooded acres four miles west of Sand Springs.

Osage Forest of Peace was founded more than 30 years ago as a Catholic Benedictine monastery by Sister Pascaline Coff, who modeled it after an ashram in India that …

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Jesus meditating

Somewhere on the web I came across this interesting rendition of Jesus sitting in meditation posture.

I’m normally turned off by modern pictures of Christ, either because of the crucifixion aspect, or the general sappy vibe that a lot of them have, but I rather like this.

***

Update: Thanks to Steven (see below) I now know that this image comes from the Old Temple of the Vedanta Society of Northern California.

According to Vedanta Press:

The story goes that Sw. Trigunatita had a dream or vision of Jesus Christ and asked one of his disciples to paint it according to the scene he remembered. The result is a classic painting of value not only to those who see a synthesis of spirit with Christ and the East, but to the Christian community as a whole.

It’s very typical of Hinduism to try to co-opt figures from other religious traditions. They’ve done this with the Buddha, who they claim was an avatar of Vishnu, although of course the Buddha did not see himself as being the avatar of any deity.

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“The Meditative Mind” by Daniel Goleman

The Meditative Mind, by Daniel Goleman

The Meditative Mind is an updated version of a book Daniel Goleman first published in the 1970s and revised in the 1980s. Goleman, who’s famous for his classic, Emotional Intelligence, was in on the first wave of research into the effects of meditation, having made a visit to India and having met some impressive yogis before returning to Harvard. Goleman has been ahead of the curve for a long time. This earlier parts of this book, he points out, first appeared at a time when the links between traditional Asian systems of mental training and modern psychological science were few and far between. They are of course far more common now, with an explosion of research having taken place over the last two decades in particular.

To take account of at least some of these developments, new material has been added, detailing some of the history of the encounter between meditation, on the one hand, and science and psychotherapeutic traditions on the other.

Title: The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditating Experience
Author: Daniel Goleman
Publisher: More Than Sound
ISBN: Unknown
Available from: Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

The Meditative Mind is uneven in tone, but this is to be expected given that it’s a compilation of writings spanning several decades and having been composed for a variety of purposes and circumstances. The book is in five parts.

Part One: The Visuddhimagga: A Map for Inner Space

The first chapter, on Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, gives a comprehensive and useful overview of the sophisticated psychological theory that underpins practice in Theravadin Buddhism. Since I was already familiar with most of this material, I didn’t find this chapter particularly engaging. I’m also very aware that the commentarial tradition, including Buddhaghosa, departed significantly from the teaching found in the (much earlier) scriptural tradition, and I found that there was a skeptical barrier between me and my appreciation of this particular chapter.

However, to be fair, the point of the chapter is to present an overview of classic Theravadin spiritual orthodoxy, and not to critique it. The chapter performs its task well, and gives an impressive survey of the Asian tradition’s systematic approach to spirituality. What is outlined here is a comprehensive schema of the progress of spiritual development, and given the vague terms in which people tend to think about such matters, this chapter will no doubt surprise and enlighten many readers.

Part Two: Meditation Paths: A Survey

At the risk of making Dr. Goleman feel very old, The Meditative Mind, as far as the earlier material goes, constitutes a valuable historical document. Part Two of the book offers an overview of a number of meditative traditions: Hindu Bakti meditation, Jewish meditation, Christian meditation, Sufism, Patanjali’s Yoga tradition, Tantra, Tibetan Buddhism, and Zen. For me this was the most fascinating part of the book. In fact I’d go as far as to say it’s one of the most eye-opening spiritual documents I’ve read.

The commonalities between the various traditions are immense, and I came away with a deep respect for non-Buddhist traditions. It’s clear that within Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc., there have been deep currents of meditative experience, and correspondingly deep insights. I’m convinced now that there have been enlightened practitioners in many traditions besides Buddhism — something I hadn’t really contemplated before. I still consider other traditions to be hampered by their theological baggage, however, and for that reason I do still consider the Buddha’s insight to have gone further than others’, but I am still humbled and reverential toward the Desert Fathers and other non-Buddhist meditators.

Part Three: Meditation Paths: Their Essential Unity

The third part of the book gives a brief outline of some of the commonalities (and divergences) of the various meditative paths, although the emphasis is on their essential unity. Particularly useful was the categorization of meditative techniques into those that involve concentration, “in which the mind focuses on a fixed mental object,” mindfulness, “in which mind observes itself,” and integrated, in which both functions are present simultaneously. As Goleman points out, few schools take a purist approach, and employ whatever means are found to be helpful. This is a valuable reminder not to cling dogmatically to one approach to practice, but to retain a pragmatic approach.

Part Four: The Psychology of Meditation

Part Four examines the spiritual psychology of meditation, and its “potential for cross-fertilization with western psychology.” It was originally written for psychologists in order to introduce them to non-Western systems of psychological theory. The Buddhist scholastic tradition of the Abhidhamma, which attempted to systematize and clarify the Buddha’s teachings, is the main focus. The overview of Abhidhamma (unlike the Abhidhamma itself!) is engrossing, and offers an overview of Buddhist personality theory, and a map of the Buddhist conception of mental health. The enlightened individual is then presented as the exemplar of religious views of the ideal of human “peak performance” and this is contrasted with the history of western psychology’s obsession with psychological disfunction, and compared with the way in which some western psychological theory has sometimes seen the healthy individual in terms very similar to those of the Buddhist tradition.

Part Five: Meditation: Research and Practical Applications

The final section of Meditative Mind offers an overview of some of the impressive findings from meditation studies. The degree to which meditation is able to affect our physiology and psychology — from enhancing the ability to recover from stressful incidents to affecting the immune system — is staggering. This section however, absorbing though it is, seems dated, with no reference to studies after the early 1980’s. Given the huge body of research that has taken place since that time, this is a puzzling omission. Dr. Goleman is well placed to offer such an overview.

So, overall my opinion of The Meditative Mind is mixed. One the one hand it contains much thought-provoking material on comparative psychology. On the other hand it doesn’t bring us up to date on the west’s embrace of meditative practice. There is no mention of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, for example, or of the many therapeutic techniques that it has given rise to. On balance, the book is certainly worth reading, although readers will want to turn to Goleman’s The Brain and Emotional Intelligence to get an overview of the dialog between meditation and modern neuroscience, and Ed Halliwell’s The Mindful Manifesto for an excellent survey of how meditative practices are transforming therapeutic approaches.

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