karma

Should we cut Tiger some slack?

“Tiger Woods, you suck. God damn it!”

Those might have been the harshest public comments to date about the man who was making his much-anticipated comeback to golf from a self-imposed four-month leave of absence triggered by the eruption of a tawdry sex scandal. The source? Woods himself — the born-again Buddhist — on the sixth hole Saturday at the Masters.

Only five days earlier, when Woods faced the media for the first question-and-answer session since his shocking and swift fall from grace, he had pledged to try to “not get as hot when I play” and to “be more respectful of the game and show appreciation for the fans.”

His jarring outburst seemed to suggest Woods had failed to change and had acted contrary to what’s believed to represent Buddhist teachings. But did he?

“Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security,” Woods said during his Feb. 19 statement, his first public utterances since the scandal came to light. “It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously I lost track of what I was taught.”

In his comments, Woods made it abundantly clear that recommitting to the religion of his childhood would be a crucial part of becoming a better person on and off the golf course. With more scrutiny on Tiger than ever before, critics were quick to dismiss the idea that Woods had changed, forgetting that breaking long-established habits doesn’t happen overnight.

So how might the journey to correct the error of his ways occur?

“Buddhism is a religion of experience that takes time to learn,” said Jonathan Bradley, the president of the New York Diamond Way Buddhist Center and a student of the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism for 13 years. “It’s the development of our fullest human potential.

“Practicing Buddhism starts from understanding that we are responsible for our reactions and the causes that create the circumstances we experience in the future,” he said. “There’s a teaching called ‘karma cause and effect,’ which says that from this moment forward, we have the ability to change through becoming more aware of our minds in the present. But it’s a process. So if Tiger Woods is applying the teachings sincerely, he’ll get the results over time.”

Just minutes into the CBS broadcast of Saturday’s action, Woods’ unsettling outburst blared into the microphones surrounding the sixth tee box and, consequently, the televisions of the millions of viewers.

While many watching at home scrambled to rewind their DVRs to ensure Woods hadn’t uttered a much stronger word, CBS’ Jim Nantz scolded Woods for that thing-he-vowed-he-wouldn’t-do. (To be clear, Woods actually hedged in his Monday statements by saying he would “try” to limit his on-course tantrums.)

Surrounded by the intoxicating dogwoods along the hallowed fairways of Augusta National, Nantz expressed his “disappointment” and presented a flurry of biting questions to analyst Nick Faldo about what he perceived to be Woods’ breaking his word. Simultaneously, the Twitter-sphere exploded with 140-character sound bytes, ranging from outrage to jokes to snarky criticism that Woods’ language was contradicting Buddhist values.

Before Woods could stomp up the seventh fairway, where another, less pronounced “Dammit!” slipped, the now-infamous “Tiger Woods, you suck!” video had been posted on YouTube and was making its way around the blogosphere — along with fiery comments both defending and chastising him.

Would a Buddhist consider Woods’ outburst to be against the religion’s teachings? Not necessarily.

“People shouldn’t be too harsh on [Woods],” said the Venerable Dhammadipa Fa Yao, the abbot — or spiritual leader — of Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, N.Y. “If he wants to yell, it’s his way of expressing his emotions. It doesn’t mean he’s not Buddhist. As a human, we can’t expect him to be perfect.

“From a monk’s perspective, there are two thoughts, the first being that he shouldn’t have done that because it spoils the image of Buddhism. Another would say everyone has their own karma. He should do as they like as long as it doesn’t intentionally hurt anyone else.”

Another interpretation? Live and learn.

“Everybody makes mistakes, but it’s how we react to them,” Bradley added. “Buddhism leaves you with ways to reflect on them. When the outcome of our actions isn’t ideal, we’ll try to act differently the next time. It’s not a good idea to have temper tantrums. But it’s not a moralistic thing; it’s just a piece of advice.”

Raised as a Buddhist from childhood by his Thai mother, Kultida, Woods confessed to straying from his spiritual practices in recent years. “I’d gotten away from my core values,” he told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi on March 21 in his first interview since the scandal broke. “I’d gotten away from my Buddhism. And I quit meditating.”

A 1996 Sports Illustrated profile of the then-20-year-old Woods implied he practiced his religion seriously. The story went on to say that every year around his birthday, he visited a temple with his mother and wore a gold Buddha around his neck.

Of the millions in America who watched the Masters on Sunday, only a small percentage are Buddhists. As a first-generation Chinese-American, I grew up with my family practicing some Buddhist traditions. So I knew there was more to it than the “core values” statements Woods reiterated over and over through his public comments over the last two months. And I wasn’t going to grasp it by reading about it at home or listening to El Tigre.

My mother, who considers herself a Buddhist and meditates every once in a while, kept chiding me, saying I was being too critical of Woods and should forgive him. I tried to explain that wasn’t the point. He had disappointed and deceived so many people. How could we believe anything he said?

A lesson in meditation, she said, would help remove these negative feelings. My interest was surprisingly piqued.

Could understanding the power of meditation explain why, when Woods abandoned it, he turned into such a cad that he sent crude text messages to women not called Mrs. Woods? And what makes someone a Buddhist? Coincidentally, a meditation retreat taught by Fa Yao started the upcoming weekend. Sign me up! Gulp.

For three days, a before-dawn wakeup call came from the banging of a gong. With very little human contact and no food after noon, we listened to lectures about Buddhism and practiced (or tried) meditation for most of the waking hours. It’s not easy. My legs and back ached from sitting in the proper posture just 15 minutes into a 3-hour session. (It’s karmic suffering, and we have to train our minds to will it away, Fa Yao said.)

The first technique taught actually was applicable to my attempt to feel compassion for Woods: I first had to visualize myself being happy, then go through the same exercise with close family and friends. Eventually, I worked my way all the way to someone like Tiger Woods.

So what could Buddhism, and meditation, do for him?

“[Woods] can study morality, establish focus and avoid distractions, which will help him see everything in a clearer manner,” Fa Yao said. “With a clear mind, he can understand what he did to hurt others and learn more about himself through the Buddhist teachings. Then he will have less anxiety and concerns and be able to see reality more clearly in the present and make better decisions.”

So is there a specific type of meditation that helps recovering sex addicts cope?

“There’s a technique called ’32 Body Parts,'” Fa Yao said. “He needs to understand the body is a component of 32 different parts — the eyes are one part, the heart is one part, the nose [is] one part. Then when he visualizes them that way, he won’t be aroused and won’t think about the beautiful form.”

On Monday of the Masters, when he was asked whether he might have played even more brilliantly during his career had he not drifted from his principles, Woods replied: “I would like to say yes. I would be more centered, more balanced, and that’s what I’m headed toward. I just lost that and unfortunately lost my life in the process.”

As a Buddhist would acknowledge, Woods has made progress just by identifying his mistake, which is the first step on the journey to regaining his center. Interestingly, the word “meditation” in Tibetan is “gom,” which literally means “becoming familiar with” or “getting used to,” Bradley said.

When Woods made his way to the first tee in the opening round at Augusta National, he looked different — perhaps it was the small army shadowing him to deflect the slim possibility of unseemly disturbances, or perhaps it was the nervous smile on his face.

Throngs of spectators flocked to watch with tense anticipation, politely applauding. No one knew what to expect from the “new Tiger.” He had endured rehab (but won’t say for what), and seemed calmer and friendlier.

Moments before his 1:42 tee time Thursday, a slight disruption came from the skies. A small plane hovered above, carrying a banner that asked, “Tiger: Did you mean Bootyism?”

Woods denied ever seeing the plane and instead striped a perfect drive down the middle. He sauntered down the fairway and didn’t forget to acknowledge the crowd, smile and utter thank-yous.

In the final round, other than a “Jesus!” and a “Come on, Tiger!” comment, he stifled his notorious tantrums despite playing the first five holes in 3-over par.

Near the end of a tumultuous Sunday, Woods flew the pin on the 17th green. He scolded himself with an indignant “Tiger!” and turned away before passing off the club to his caddie.

Five months ago, that club might have gone flying into the gallery followed by a series of expletives. But this Tiger stopped himself and looked down — maybe at the Buddhist bracelet (which he said is for strength and protection) that he started wearing on his left wrist.

As the week progressed, the mental fatigue caught up with Woods. He showed less poise and composure, but he refrained from dropping f-bombs and chucking clubs. At times he let the club hit the ground with disgust, but certainly more delicately than “old Tiger.”

Sure, Woods blurted out some choice words over the weekend, but even his reactions to good shots didn’t have the same gusto. Even in the final round when he holed out for eagle on the seventh hole, he seemed subdued. There were no crazy fist pumps as in the past. He simply threw both arms in the air and smiled. Overall, he stayed relatively even-keeled.

Woods wasn’t flawless, but contrary to what some critics believe, he didn’t necessarily flout the pledge to tone down his emotions on both extremes. He promised he would “try” to hold back his negative outbursts.

When he slipped, he was reacting naturally to hitting poor tee shots. Do we want Woods to turn into someone he’s not? (Which, mind you, would probably be more offensive than the foul language.) We just don’t want him to be a jerk.

Tiger isn’t going to wake up and miraculously be rid of all his bad habits — ones that have been 34 years in the making. Perhaps we should remember that and give Woods a bit of a break.

Oh, wow. Did I just write that? The meditation retreat must be working.

[Stephanie Wei: ESPN]
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Death and Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism

Detail of center of Tibetan wheel of life, showing beings ascending and descending from life to life

Buddhist author, scholar, and practitioner Nagapriya shares insights into the Tibetan view of rebirth as a spiritual practice, in this excerpt from his acclaimed book, Exploring Karma and Rebirth.

The Tibetan schools of Buddhism place great importance on the death bardo — the intermediate state between death and rebirth — because they believe it provides a precious opportunity for spiritual awakening. For this reason, a good deal of their spiritual practice is geared towards preparing for it so that the death experience can be put to best use.

Spiritual practice as a whole could well be described as a preparation for death. As we approach death, images of our past deeds supposedly flash across our minds. For instance, if our life has been skillful, then skillful volitions are most likely to be present at the time of death and lead to a favorable rebirth. These schools believe that in the bardo we are confronted by the white light of reality, which is nothing other than the true nature of our mind, but instead of recognizing it as such we become frightened and fall into a swoon.

At first, we don’t even realize we have died. We then undergo a series of experiences in which we are confronted by reality in the guise of different Buddha and Bodhisattva forms. These experiences offer us a series of opportunities to wake up to reality, but without adequate preparation we are likely to misunderstand their true nature, become terrified by the appearance of the angelic figures, and scuttle towards the nearest womb.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead could be described as an instruction manual for the living so that they can help the deceased to orient themselves through the death experience and attain spiritual liberation rather than rebirth. It describes in great detail the parade of Enlightened figures that will confront us in the after-death state. Over a series of “days” we will be faced with a choice between the startling light of reality as manifested through various Buddha figures and the dull light of rebirth that emanates from each of the six realms. The light of the Buddhas is intense, so bright that it frightens us, whereas the lights emanating from each of the six realms are dull and soothing. If we have an affinity with the god realm we are likely to be drawn to its dull white light. Similarly, the angry god realm emits a dull red light, the human realm dull blue, the animal realm dull green, the preta realm dull yellow, and finally the hell realm emits a dull smoke-colored light.

If we are able to embrace the light of reality, we may gain spiritual awakening in the bardo state; if not, then we will seek re-embodiment in whichever realm we feel most affinity with. One way of preparing for our encounter with the startling light of reality is therefore through regular meditation on a Bodhisattva or Buddha figure. During the first few days, the deceased is confronted by a series of peaceful Buddha figures whose beauty and purity may be so terrifying that they swoon again. As time passes, the deities that appear become more wrathful in aspect and in conventional appearance seem demonic, though they are traditionally believed to be less frightening than the peaceful figures.

Spiritual practice as a whole could well be described as a preparation for death.

It is considered important to remind the departing spirit of the Three Jewels — the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha — as he or she enters the intermediate state. For this reason, it is usual to place images of Buddhas around the dying person, to recite mantras, and even to read instructions from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. By doing this, the chances of the dying person recognizing what is happening to them as they enter the bardo and responding positively to the experience are greatly improved.

But the teaching of the bardo also has a more immediate, everyday relevance. Not only is death a valuable bardo; daily life also represents a continuing opportunity to embrace the light of reality. At every moment we can choose to understand and live according to truth, or reject the truth and perpetuate our delusion and evasion. At every moment we have a choice whether to embrace compassion, clarity, and equanimity or to reinforce petty selfishness, vagueness, and partiality. We don’t need to wait until the moment of death to experience the clear light of reality – it is present before us even now. It is through making this choice that we can begin to redirect the course of our lives and create a different future. Rather than be directed by what is worst in us, we can deliberately align our will with what is best and break free of the gravitational pull of unskillful habits.

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Seven Buddhist strategies for coping with stress

Girl blowing dandelion seeds, against a background of dark trees.

We all know that mindfulness and meditation are increasingly taught as ways of coping with stressful situations. But what about other forms of Buddhist practice? A research study led by Dr. Russ Phillips, a Buddhist and professor of psychology at Missouri Western State University, identified 14 Buddhist coping strategies by asking Buddhist practitioners what coping mechanisms they used and by examining the outcomes.

The use of religion to cope with stress — known as religious or spiritual coping — has been studied across many different faith traditions, but rarely within Buddhism. Much research has been conducted on meditation and mindfulness, two common Buddhist practices, but rarely has this research examined such practices in a Buddhist context. Additionally, meditation and mindfulness are not the only coping mechanisms used by Buddhists, and yet no scale of religious coping in Buddhists exists to complement the measures created for other religions.

To produce the questionnaire. Dr. Phillips’ team initially interviewed 24 Buddhists of varying backgrounds across the United States about how Buddhism was involved in the ways they dealt with stress. They then used a scientific process called “thematic analysis” to determine common Buddhist coping strategies across the participants’ responses. As a result of this initial research, the team hypothesized that there were 18 major ways Buddhism was involved in the coping process, and for each form of coping various questions were devised for a questionnaire.

In the spring of 2008, Dr. Phillips recruited 550 Buddhists from across the United States to take the Buddhist coping questionnaire, which had been narrowed down to 95 items. Participants were asked to consider a stressful event, and rate how often they engaged in what each item said (for example: To cope with the stressor, how much did you remind yourself of the concept of impermanence? — “Not at All” — “A Little” — “Quite a Bit”).

The hypothesis that there were 18 types of coping strategy within Buddhism was the first casualty — a statistical analysis revealed there were only 14.

The seven Buddhist coping strategies that were studied further are:

  1. Meditation: Focusing in a relaxed, nonjudgmental way on one structured aspect of a situation (e.g., breath, mantra).
  2. Mindfulness: Nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance of the present moment.
  3. Lovingkindness: Being nonjudgmental, compassionate, kind to oneself and others.
  4. Morality: Practicing right speech, right action, and right livelihood, and doing these things with good intention.
  5. Impermanence: Realizing nothing lasts forever.
  6. Comprehensive Karma: Acknowledgement that one’s past, present, and future actions will have consequences, and that one has the ability to control his/her current actions.
  7. Fatalistic Karma: Feeling a sense of helplessness, that one’s past actions have led to one’s current state, and there is nothing one can do to avoid those consequences.

The study determined that the participants’ answers on these seven forms of Buddhist coping did better at predicting how participants were feeling about the outcome of the stressful event than other measures on the survey — such as how spiritual a person was, or what age they were.

The seven were not selected for especial study out of the total 14 strategies that had been identified because they were most effective, but simply because the team were most interested in those particular approaches. The other seven coping strategies will be researched more thoroughly in a follow-up study.

How much the participants had actually used each of these seven approaches correlated closely with how they felt about the outcome of the stressful event. Thus, meditating, practicing mindfulness, practicing ethical right action, lovingkindness, or considering the Buddhist ideas of impermanence or karma were helpful.

The only exception was fatalistic karma — the more a person felt helpless and believed there was nothing they could do about the stressor because their past actions led to the current situation, the worse the participant reported feeling about themselves, and the poorer the outcome of the stressful life event. While all of the other seven coping strategies were shown to have some positive effect, only fatalistic karma was shown to have a negative effect.

Some participants reported to the researchers that a fatalistic karma outlook is not an accurate portrayal of how karma works according to Buddhism. However, the researchers are at pains to work out that they were not studying Buddhist theology, but the coping methods actually used by Buddhists (and believed by those people to be a part of their Buddhist practice), whether or not those coping methods are genuinely Buddhist. They were therefore examining people’s perceptions of what Buddhism teaches rather than the “official” Buddhist versions of those teachings.

Interestingly, meditation and mindfulness, although shown by the study to be highly effective coping strategies, were not as effective as practicing lovingkindness, right understanding, and impermanence, which jointly scored 3.1 out of a possible 4.0 for effectiveness, compared to a joint 3.0 for meditation and mindfulness.

The most effective coping strategies are therefore cultivating lovingkindness (metta), or being nonjudgmental, compassionate, kind to oneself and others; right understanding, or trying to see the world as it truly is; and reflecting on impermanence, or the notion that all things (including our problems) pass.

The other seven coping strategies, to be studied later, were:

  1. Sangha support: turning to other Buddhists for advice, connection, and compassion.
  2. Dharma: turning to study of Buddhist teachings for support.
  3. No-self: recognizing that there is no separate self because everything is interconnected and impermanent.
  4. Inter-being: understanding that everything is interconnected and nothing is independent
  5. Right understanding: trying to see the world as it really is.
  6. “Bad Buddhist”: understanding that your problems arise because you are not practicing correctly.
  7. “It ain’t easy being Buddhist”: recognizing that Buddhism is not an easy path and that the benefits of practice lie in the future while we must experience difficulties in the short-term.

The “Bad Buddhist” approach to coping was one of the few coping strategies, along with karmic fatalism, that had a negative effect. This was not a strategy that the research team had expected to find. It instead emerged from the reported experiences of the Buddhist practitioners participating in the study. Similarly, the existence of the “It ain’t easy being Buddhist” strategy was not predicted in advance by the researchers, but was reported by practitioners.

13% of the participants in the survey were immigrants from other, mostly Asian, countries, while the rest were western Buddhists.

Dr. Phillips’ team intends to continue its analysis, and to publish the results of the other seven major forms of Buddhist coping later this summer.

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Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “No single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected.”

Antoine de Saint Exupéry

A common misquotation of a saying by a famous French writer gives Bodhipaksa pause for thought: are both the misquotation and the original saying true, even if they’re saying opposite things?

“No single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected. To live is to be slowly born.”
— Antoine de Saint Exupéry (1900-1944).

Antoine de Saint Exupéry was a famous French aviator and writer who most notably wrote the children’s fable, The Little Prince and who died when his plane crashed in the Mediterranean while on an Allied surveillance mission over France during World War II. His writings are deeply philosophical, poetic, and charming.

Interestingly, this quotation from his memoir, Pilote de Guerre (“Flight to Arras”), more often appears in English-language websites (and even in several books of quotations) in a mangled form: “A single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected”* rather than “No single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected.”

The misquotation thus reverses the meaning of Saint Exupéry’s original statement, but still manages on the face of it to be true. (At my more cynical moments I wonder whether perhaps the secret of being deeply poetic and philosophical is to make statements that, when reversed, are still meaningful).

Let’s look at that reversal: “A single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected.”

The experience that’s known as “conversion” or “awakening” or “spiritual rebirth” or “realization” or “the arising of insight” can certainly be imagined as a single event, and in such events we find that a new being has manifested within us. We have changed, suddenly, and sometimes irrevocably. We see a new aspect of ourselves. Our being has become reoriented around a new insight, a new meaning. The purpose of our life has changed. We have new values, new priorities. We have changed so radically that there has awoken within us a stranger whose existence was previously unsuspected. Hence the mangled statement appears to be true.

But Saint Exupéry’s point in saying “no single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected” was not that sudden changes do not occur. In the passage following in his memoir he acknowledges in fact that this does happen: “Sometimes a sudden illumination seems indeed to propel a destiny in a new direction,” for example (Une illumination soudaine semble parfois faire bifurquer une destinée).

His point rather was that these “sudden illuminations” are not random events. They may appear to come from nowhere, but in fact they have their causes. They may appear to be single events but rather they are the culmination of an inextricably linked chain of events and causes. And what are those causes?

The answer lies in “To live is to be slowly born” (Vivre, c’est naître lentement). Living is the cause of awakening, or more precisely it is a certain kind of living that leads to awakening, or “sudden illumination.” It is living with mindfulness that leads to the creation of sudden illuminations and the revelation of new destinies.

When we live mindfully we do two things: we are more conscious in the moment of choice, and we open the channels of communication to a deeper level of wisdom of which we are not normally conscious while caught up in the fray of day-to-day living.

In living mindfully we are more conscious in the moment of choice. First we become more aware that there are actually choices to be made. Mindfulness creates, or perhaps better reveals, a gap between stimulus and response. In every moment we perceive sensations, thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and we habitually respond to these.

Perceiving in another person a neutral face or a frown when we expected a smile leads to a proliferation of thoughts and feelings. We start to wonder what we’ve done wrong, what kind of trouble we’re in. We perhaps start, depending on temperament, to plan how to get our retaliation in first or how best to placate the other person.

With mindfulness, however, we simply perceive the other person not smiling as expected, and we experience a feeling that’s not entirely pleasant. We notice that feeling and then we pause. Mindfulness creates a gap, and in that gap we realize there is a choice. We are aware of the habitual impulses described above, but we are also aware that we don’t have to act those habits out. We realize that we can call on other perspectives within which we can view the situation: we can wonder, perhaps, whether the other person is feeling all right. Lovingkindness has arisen. We can decide to ask them how they’re doing. Compassion has manifested.

In stepping out of the cycle of stimulus followed by mindless response, we have created a gap, and not only have we created a space in which we can choose how to respond, but we have created a gap through which the light of wisdom and compassion can shine, from within.

Sometimes, just sometimes, what shines forth through the gap is a complete surprise to us. We realize truths that we’d never before suspected. We see things in a new way. We discover that we are not who we thought we were. There is a stranger living within us, unsuspected, and little by little we are being united with him or her. The “Buddha within” is, moment by moment, choice by choice, action by action, becoming us. And in some of those moments there appears through the gap a great surge of wisdom and compassion, and we have become the stranger, or at least we have become a great deal more like the stranger, who lives within.

This is illumination. This is the arising of Insight. This is spiritual rebirth, or conversion. And “illumination “is but the sudden sighting, by the soul, of a path long under preparation” (Mais l’illumination n’est que la vision soudaine, par l’Esprit, d’une route longuement préparée). That path consists of moments of mindfulness, a myriad of single events, of tiny awakenings that lead to the birth of a new us.

[* Author’s note: Actually, the translation into English, lifted direct from Lewis Galantiere’s translation of Pilote de Guerre, is usually “No [or a] single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us” but I found this neither elegant nor entirely faithful to the original French, and so I retranslated the phrase as “No single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected” (Aucune circonstance ne réveille en nous un étranger dont nous n’aurions rien soupçonné).]
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“Exploring Karma and Rebirth,” by Nagapriya

Exploring karma and rebirth, Nagapriya

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

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

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

See also:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

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The greatest story ever told? (Independent, UK)

groundhog day movie poster

Andrew Buncombe, The Independent (UK): A 1993 romantic comedy starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell is being hailed by religious leaders as the most spiritual film of all time. Today, as the US town of Punxsutawney celebrates Groundhog Day, Andrew Buncombe reports on an unlikely parable.

Fred knew a thing or two about redemption, about the willingness to change, about turning one’s life around. Sitting drinking beer from a bottle in a dark, late-night bar in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, as a blizzard blew up outside, he explained, “A few years ago, my son was about 12 or 13 and it had got to the point where he needed me around more than I was. I was working for a gas company, making $55,000 [£30,000], which is good money for these parts. But I just walked away from it. Now I sell trailers and low-loaders, anything, and I doubt I make a third of what I used to. But I’m always there for my boy. Now my son’s a star athlete at high school and a grade-A student.”

Fred put down his bottle, tugged on the peak of his baseball cap and glanced at the snow coming down outside. “I’ve done some pretty stupid things in my time, but I can walk down the streets of Punxsutawney with my head held high.”

Today, the people of Punxsutawney will be holding their heads as high as any. For the 117th consecutive year the people of this small town will hold aloft a small, rat-like creature and, by its subsequent behaviour, seek to forecast the weather. Records suggest that the forecasters usually get the prediction correct, but either way the town’s Groundhog Day has become world famous, and tens of thousands of people will flock to this part of Pennsylvania to participate in it.

Much of that has to do with the success of the 1993 film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray as a brash TV weatherman who is dispatched to Punxsutawney to cover the annual festival. Yet the movie has achieved far more than simply luring crowds to a Pennsylvanian town – what is usually described as a romantic comedy has become a crucial teaching tool for various religions and spiritual groups, who see it as a fable of redemption and reincarnation that matches anything that Fred could tell me at the bar.

“At first I would get mail saying, ‘Oh, you must be a Christian because the movie so beautifully expresses Christian belief’,” the film’s director Harold Ramis recently told The New York Times. “Then rabbis started calling from all over, saying they were preaching the film as their next sermon. And the Buddhists! Well, I knew they loved it because my mother-in-law has lived in a Buddhist meditation centre for 30 years and my wife lived there for five years.”

Firstly, a brief synopsis of the film: Murray’s arrogant and curmudgeonly character, Phil Connors, having been sent to Punxsutawney for the fourth year in a row, finds himself inexplicably trapped in a seemingly endless cycle in which he is forced to repeat that 2 February day over and over again. Nothing he can do – not suicide, not prayer, not visits to the psychiatrist – can break the circle. At first he uses the repetitious cycle to his advantage, learning to play the piano and to speak French in an effort to seduce his producer, played by Andie MacDowell.

It is all in vain. Every day at 6am he wakes up in the same bed with the same crushed pillow in the same small hotel, the same tinny radio on the bedside table playing Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” and the same obnoxiously cheerful local-radio presenter reminding everyone – just in case they had forgotten – that it is Groundhog Day. It is only when, an endless number of days later, Murray learns humility, understanding and acceptance of his fate that he breaks the cycle.

Unknown to Fred, and probably to most of the people in snow-bound Punxsutawney, Groundhog Day is now associated in the minds of many spiritual seekers with redemption, rebirth and the process of moving to a higher plane. Professor Angela Zito, the co-director of the Centre for Religion and Media at New York University, told me that Groundhog Day illustrated the Buddhist notion of samsara, the continuing cycle of rebirth that individuals try to escape. In the older form of Buddhist belief, she said, no one can escape to nirvana unless they work hard and lead a very good life.

But in the teachings of the slightly more recently established Mahayana Buddhism, no one can escape samsara until everyone else does. “That’s why you have what are called bodhisattvas who reach the brink of nirvana and come back for others,” she said. “The Dalai Lama is considered one living bodhisattva, but Bill Murray could also be one. You can see [in the film] that he learns.” Zito shows the film to her undergraduates in New York without any explanation beforehand. “Most of them know the film,” she said. “I think they find it interesting.”

But Ramis is quick to point out that it is not just Buddhists who are able to draw parallels with the film. Scholars of Judaism have also leapt on it, and Ramis claims that many Buddhists in the US started out as Jews. “There is a remarkable correspondence of philosophies and even style between the two,” said Ramis, who was raised in the Jewish tradition but practises no religion. “I am wearing meditation beads on my wrist, but that’s because I’m on a Buddhist diet. They’re supposed to remind me not to eat, but they actually just get in the way when I’m cutting my steak.”

Dr Niles Goldstein, the author of Lost Souls: Finding Hope in the Heart of Darkness, is rabbi of the New Shul congregation in Greenwich Village. He recently said that there was a resonance in Murray’s character being rewarded by being returned to earth to perform more good deeds, or mitzvahs. This was in contrast to gaining a place in heaven (the Christian reward) or else achieving nirvana (the Buddhist reward). He is considering using the film as an allegory when he speaks to his congregation. “The movie tells us, as Judaism does, that the work doesn’t end until the world has been perfected,” he said.

As Ramis has been told by Jesuit priests among others, the film clearly also contains themes found within the Christian tradition. Michael Bronski, a film critic with the magazine Forward and a visiting professor at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, where he teaches a course in film history, said: “The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ, the ever-hopeful renewal of life at springtime, at a time of pagan-Christian holidays. And when I say that the groundhog is Jesus, I say that with great respect.”

Not everyone in Punxsutawney buys into the Groundhog Day cult. Rev Mary Lewis of the town’s First Baptist Church felt the idea that the film illustrated resurrection was taking matters too far. “However, to me, in terms of Christian values I see that [Murray] is growing as a person. He starts out as a creep only out for himself, but gradually he begins to actually become a better human being.”

The morning after the night in the bar, I drove up to Gobbler’s Knob to inspect Phil’s temporary home. Bill Cooper, the president of the Groundhog Club, and Butch Philliber, another member, were shovelling away the overnight snow and throwing down salt in anticipation of today’s crowds.

Cooper, an affable banker from Pittsburgh who moved to Punxsutawney some years ago, knew all about the religious groups who had jumped on the movie, and he appeared to approve of the spiritual element attached to the event. “With the forecasting, it depends who you listen to,” he said. “Some people say we get it right a lot, others say we usually get it wrong. But if you’re the sort of person who is going to come and argue about that, then Groundhog Day is not for you.”

[Original article no longer available]
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