society

Love the world

Your brain evolved in three stages (to simplify a complex process):

Reptile – Brainstem, focused on AVOIDING harm
Mammal – Limbic system, focused on APPROACHING rewards
Primate – Cortex, focused on ATTACHING to “us”

With a fun use (to me, at least) of animal themes, the first JOT in this series – pet the lizard – was about how to soothe the most ancient structures of the brain, the ones that manage the first emotion of all: fear. The next one – feed the mouse – addressed how to help early mammalian neural systems feel rewarded and fulfilled. The third one – hug the monkey – was about weaving the sense of being included and loved into the primate cerebral cortex.

Of course, these three practices go way beyond their anatomical roots. The three primary motivational systems of your brain – Avoiding harms, Approaching rewards, and Attaching to “us” – draw on many neural networks to accomplish their goals. In fact, one motivational system can tap the two other ones; for example, you could express attachment to a friend by helping her avoid harm and approach rewards.

Lately, I’ve started to realize that a fourth fundamental human motivational system is developing out of the other three.

Whether it’s our hunter-gatherer ancestors depending upon their habitats for food and shelter, or modern folks making use of the settings of home and work, or the nearly 7 billion members of the human race pressing hard up against the limits of Lifeboat Earth: to survive and flourish, cultural evolution alone and perhaps biological evolution as well are calling us to love the world.

The world is near to hand in the matter/energy, nature, and human-made objects all around you. And then in widening circles, the world extends out to include society and culture, the planet itself, and ultimately the entire and still often mysterious universe.

When you love the world, you both appreciate and care for it. Each of these actions makes you feel good, plus they help you preserve and improve everything you depend on for air and food, livelihood, security, pleasure, and community.

During the last several million years of human evolution, our emerging species had neither much capacity for harm nor much understanding of the effects it did have upon the world.

But now, humanity has great power for good and ill, as well as undeniable knowledge of its impact on both the natural and built world. As the planet heats up and resources decline . . . and as a species – us – that evolved in part through being lethally aggressive toward its own kind (see the research on the high fraction of deaths due to violence in hunter-gatherer cultures) must now live cooperatively and peacefully if it is to live at all . . . it is critically important that a fourth major motivation guide our thoughts, words, and above all, deeds:

Love the world.

How?

In terms of the aspect of love that is about appreciating, routinely look for opportunities to enjoy, value, and feel grateful for little things in your environment.

These range from whatever is close by – soft pillow cases, flowers blooming, traffic laws, sun rising, libraries, tree shade, shared language – to the increasingly vast nested nests we all share: the internet, global institutions, oxygen/CO2 exchanges through which animals and plants give breath to each other, the incredibly rare and fortuitous occurrence of a rocky planet – Earth – surviving the early formation of a solar system to find an orbit that allows for liquid water on its surface . . . all the way out to this universe which bubbled out of nothing: the largest nest of all, the extraordinary miracle in which we make our ordinary days.

In terms of the aspect of love that is about caring for, this means to me a combination of cherishing, protecting, and nurturing the world. You naturally cherish what you love; cherishing something, you want to keep it safe; once it’s protected, you want to help it flourish. (As an aside, it’s interesting that these three inclinations map to the three underlying motivational systems: the Attaching system cherishes, the Avoiding system protects, and the Approaching system nurtures; as with other aspects of evolution, new capabilities and functions draw on preceding, “lower” systems.)

SO much could be written – and has – about cherishing our world, and protecting and nurturing it, yet I must be brief here, with just three suggestions.

For a minute, an hour, or a whole week, touch natural and human-made things around you like you truly cherish them.If you cherished an orange or a cup, how would you hold it?

Protect something from harm. You could save something you might otherwise throw away, from water running in a sink to food in a restaurant. Security is a wholesome aim of the Avoiding system, which is achieved in large part by conserving what we’ve got.

Pick one thing and focus on helping it grow and thrive. Perhaps a plant, or a business, or a project at a local school, or a collaboration among some friends, or a fix-it repair at home.

At the heart of it, I experience this practice as a matter of our relationship with the world. Do we relate to it as an adversary or distant acquaintance?

Or do we relate to the world as a friend, a child, a beloved nest?

Here and there and everywhere, let’s all live in a world we love.

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Investigating and integrating mindfulness in medicine, health care and society

umass medNow: The UMass Medical School Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society is hosting its 11th annual international scientific conference in April. The conference, Investigating and Integrating Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society, is jointly sponsored by the UMMS Office of Continuing Education. It will be held at the Sheraton Four Points in Norwood from April 17 through 21. The conference attracts participants from around the world.

The four-day event provides an opportunity for clinicians, researchers, educators and students to interact with one another in investigating new approaches and significant findings in the broad integration of mindfulness and medication into medicine…

Read the original article »

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Why Buddhists should support marriage equality

Marriage equality is one of the key social and legal issues of our time. I’d like to offer a Buddhist perspective.

As with so many ethical and social questions, especially those that involve sexuality, we find that religion wants to be at the core of things. The conservative Christian churches are leading the opposition to marriage equality. We can’t generalise on the basis of religion, though. Many Christians believe that Christ’s message of compassion and love, and the fact that he never made any statement on homosexuality, provide a basis for support of marriage equality.

In Australia there was an interesting exchange between the highly conservative Catholic leader Cardinal George Pell and the group Australian Marriage Equality. The AME asked to meet Cardinal Pell, and he consented to do so as long as the AME agreed that not all opposition to same-sex marriage was a result of homophobia or discrimination. The AME agreed, and came out with the following statement:

‘Just as we acknowledge that it is possible to oppose marriage equality without hating homosexuals, so we ask those who differ with us on this important issue to acknowledge that it is possible to support marriage equality without seeking to undermine, marriage, family, or religion.’

That’s a great starting point, and an all-too-rare example of dialogue as it should be.

But what of Buddhism? As with any issue, you’ll find a variety of positions; and as with any issue – and I apologise if this sounds cynical – most of those positions have little to do with anything the Buddha himself said or did.

In some cases we find Buddhist leaders who state the ethical case plainly. Ajahn Brahm has been very forward in supporting the gay community for many years, both in Australia and overseas. Master Hsin Yun, the leader of the international Fo Guang Shan order, said:

‘People often ask me what I think about homosexuality. They wonder, is it right, is it wrong? The answer is, it is neither right nor wrong. It is just something that people do. If people are not harming each other, their private lives are their own business; we should be tolerant of them and not reject them.’

On the other hand, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly maintained that homosexual acts are a violation against the precepts. At the same time, he insists on compassion and full human rights for all. His stance is solely concerned with what is appropriate behaviour for a Buddhist practitioner, not what should be made law.

His argument is that the sexual organs are designed for procreation and should be used solely for that purpose. So any form of sex that is not for procreation is out.

This is, to my mind, an extreme and unrealistic position. The Dalai Lama says it is based on certain medieval Indian scholars (Vasubandhu, Asanga – but I have never seen the passages myself). It certainly has no basis in the Suttas. On the contrary, the Suttas freely acknowledge that sex is for pleasure, and they never make a problem out of that. Buddhism is not a fertility religion, so why we should insist that sex be for procreation is beyond me.

The precept as found in the early Buddhist texts mentions nothing about whether sex is for procreation or not. What it talks about, solely, is whether the sexual relation involves the betrayal of a social contract. Here’s the text. It’s a stock passage, found for example in Majjhima Nikaya 41, and Anguttara Nikaya 10.176 and 10.211:

‘One is a person who misconducts himself in sexual pleasures. One has intercourse with a woman who is protected by mother, father, mother and father, brother, sister, family, clan, law (or custom, ‘dhamma’), or one who has a husband, who is punishable, or even with one garlanded for betrothal.’

Kāmesu micchācārī hoti, yā tā māturakkhitā piturakkhitā mātāpiturakkhitā bhāturakkhitā bhaginirakkhitā ñātirakkhitā gottarakkhitā dhammarakkhitā sasāmikā saparidaṇḍā antamaso mālāguḷaparikkhittāpi, tathārūpāsu cārittaṃ āpajjitā hoti.

Most of these are straightforward. They refer to women who are not ‘independent’ women in our modern sense, but who live under the authority of others. Typically, of course, this would have been young girls living at home, then in a family with a husband. There are significant variations, though, so arrangements were flexible.

It’s noteworthy that, while the Hindu texts say that a woman must always be under the authority of a man, here we find that living under the authority of a mother is next to father, and a sister is next to brother, with no implication that one of the other is preferable.

In some cases, it seems, women lived under the protection of the wider family. The one ‘guarded by dhamma’ is probably adopted, orphaned, or in some other way taken care of. The one who is ‘punishable’ is ambiguous: does it mean that the woman is to be punished (as a criminal)? Or does it mean that having intercourse with her is punishable? The text doesn’t make it clear. The woman ‘garlanded for betrothal’ refers to a woman who is, in our modern sense, ‘engaged’ but not yet married.

Obviously, the passage as stated above only refers to the man as agent. That doesn’t mean that women can’t break this precept! Like so many of the Buddhist texts, it is phrased from a male point of view (andocentric), and would apply equally to both genders. The assumption of the passage is that it is women who are under protection. This reflects the social reality of the Buddha’s time; it doesn’t endorse this situation, nor does it say that women can’t or shouldn’t live independently. It just says that if a woman (and presumably a man) is living in a committed relationship then one should not betray that.

This much is clear: the precept against sexual misconduct has nothing to do with homosexuality (or any other form of sexual activity as such.) It is concerned with breaking the bonds of trust with those that we love, and nothing else. While the specifics of the social relations in the Buddha’s time are different than today, it is not problematic to work out how to apply this in our own context, at least in most cases.

So if the precept does not concern homosexuality, what did the Buddha say on the topic? We are very lucky in Buddhism to have thousands of discourses, with the Buddha making observations or criticisms regarding many kinds of ethical issues. Rape, paedophilia, adultery: these and many other problems are clearly mentioned in the early texts, and the Buddha made it clear that he didn’t approve of them.

In the case of homosexuality, however, we have nothing in the Suttas. In all the thousands of discourses, not a single one regarded homosexuality as a significant issue.

There is one passage in the Cakkavattisihanada Sutta, which is sometimes cited by those who are trying to prove that the Buddha was anti-gay. The text discusses various examples of moral decay in society. One of the practices it mentions is, in the Pali, micchā-dhamma. This is about the most generic term for wrong doing that it’s possible to make in Pali. You could translate it as ‘wrong teachings’, ‘bad practices’, ‘misguided actions’, and so on. The commentary, compiled nearly 1000 years later in Sri Lanka, however, says it means, ‘Lustful desire of men for men, and women for women.’ (Micchādhammoti purisānaṃ purisesu itthīnañca itthīsu chandarāgo.) Since this has no basis in the text, it stands as a record of the attitude of a medieval commentator. There’s no evidence, so far as I am aware, that this attitude was representative of ancient Theravadin or Sri Lankan culture in general.

The Suttas essentially ignore any issues around homosexuality. Now, arguments from absence are always difficult. But the presence of thousands of discourses detailing lists of many kinds of ethical violations, strongly suggests that the Buddha tried to be reasonably comprehensive in addressing ethical concerns, and homosexuality was not one of them.

The picture in the Vinaya is a little different. The Vinaya is a legal code for monastics, and since it regulates the conduct of a celibate order, it deals with all kinds of possible sexual behaviours. It does so with a degree of frankness and candour that so shocked the early European translators that they simply omitted large chunks of text, or, with a quaint regard for the delicate sensibilities of young readers, translated them into Latin.

Homosexual acts, like just about any other imaginable sexual act, are depicted many times in the Vinaya, both among monks and nuns. In each case, the Buddha is shown as responding in his usual direct and common sense manner. Obviously, homosexual behaviour, like any sexual behaviour, is inappropriate among the celibate monastic community, so the Buddha prohibits it. However, this is done in a straight, matter-of-fact tone, and there is never a suggestion that there is anything wrong with gay sex per se.

In several cases the penalty is actually less in the case of homosexual behaviour. For example, for a monk to erotically touch another man is a less serious offence than the same act with a woman. Sex between women, likewise, is treated less seriously than between a woman and a man. There is one passage where the Buddha’s chief disciple, Venerable Sariputta, is said to have had two novices as students. But they had sex with each other. The Buddha laid down a rule that one should not take two novices as students at the same time! (This rule, like many others, was later relaxed.)

However, it would be a mistake to read this as implying that the Buddha regarded same-sex sexuality as somehow more permissible in the Sangha. The Vinaya, as a legal code, frequently makes judgements for various technical reasons, and there is no strong correlation between the moral weight of an act and the severity with which it is treated in the Vinaya. For example, building an overly-large hut is a serious offence, while bashing someone within an inch of their life is a minor offence.

So we shouldn’t read too much into the relative leniency of how some homosexual acts are treated in the Vinaya. The main point is simply that homosexuality is treated in pretty much the same way as any other expression of sexuality.

In these accounts there is nothing that really corresponds with our modern notion of sexual orientation. For the most part, same-sex acts are just that, acts. There’s no idea of a person who solely or primarily is attracted to people of the same sex.

The texts do speak of a certain kind of person, called a paṇḍaka. These are typically male, but there were females too (itthīpaṇḍikā). A paṇḍaka is forbidden to ordain, and is regularly associated with unbridled sexuality. It is, however, unclear exactly what paṇḍaka means. The descriptions of the paṇḍaka are few, and not always consistent, but there seems to have been some physical attribute involved, as well as a set of cultural behaviours. Perhaps they were some form of eunuchs who performed sexual services. In any case, the paṇḍaka is clearly not a homosexual in the modern sense of the word. They may be connected with the modern classes of Hijras and the like, who are considered a ‘third sex’ in India, including transsexuals, hermaphrodites, and eunuchs.

To sum up, early Buddhism is well aware of homosexual acts, and never treats them as an ethical problem. Homosexuality as a sexual orientation is not found.

This is completely in line with the Buddha’s take on ethics. The Buddha did not ethically judge persons, he judged deeds. People are simply people, who do various kinds of things, some good, some bad. If a person does a deed that causes harm, this is what the Buddha considered ‘unskilful’. If the deed causes no harm, it is not unskilful.

The basic problem in sexual ethics, addressed in the third precept, is betrayal. ‘Sexual misconduct’ is sexual behaviour that causes harm by breaking the trust that a loved one has placed in us. The Buddha was compassionate, and he never laid down ethical rules that caused harm or distress. Making a moral proscription against homosexuality marginalises and harms people who have done no wrong, and it is against the basic principles of Buddhist ethics.

It’s so important to keep this essential ethical question in mind. In discussions on homosexuality, as with just about any other controversial ethical issue, there is a pervasive tendency to confuse the issue. Why do we find it so difficult to look at an ethical question rationally? It is true, there are some issues that are complex and the details can be difficult to work out. But this is not one of them.

Countless times we are told, for example, that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’. Surely a moment’s reflection should show us this is not true, because there’s plenty of homosexuality in the animal world. And anyway, how is gay sex more unnatural than, say, typing on a keyboard, or wrapping food in plastic? But this is all beside the point. Being ‘unnatural’ is not an ethical issue. The issue is whether it causes harm, not whether it is natural or not. That is no more an ethical issue than is the choice, say, to eat organic or non-organic vegetables.

Homosexuality is also regularly linked with sexual ‘decadence’ in general. Homosexuals are said to be paedophiles, or promiscuous, or to cause diseases such as AIDS. Allowing homosexual relations is to licence all manner of debaucheries. This objection, too, is not valid: gays behave in all sorts of ways, just as do straight people.

Blaming gays for AIDS is one of the most cruel arguments possible. We feel compelled to look for examples that show the absurdity of these views. What of babies born with AIDS? What of those who get AIDS via blood transfusion? Incidence of malaria is much greater among poor people – are we to blame them, too? And why is incidence of AIDS among lesbians so very low – is lesbianism kammically preferable?

But we shouldn’t have to look for such examples. Like the arguments mentioned above, the whole thing is missing the point. Take the ‘worst case’ scenario, the cliché of the promiscuous, irresponsible, drug-taking, careless gay man. We might not think his behaviour is praiseworthy or wise, but does it deserve a slow, lingering, and painful death? Are we really comfortable to righteously proclaim the justice of destroying a human life, because we think that the way they have sought pleasure is irresponsible? This whole argument is inhuman and unworthy.

If there are behaviours that gay people do that increase transmission of HIV, for example, then we can try to change those behaviours, just as we would try to help any people who were inadvertently causing harm. What the marriage equality movement wants is to enable people of various sexual orientations to live in an accepted, recognised, and legal framework which supports the development of loving, committed relationships. Banning gay marriage is the very best way to ensure gays remain marginalised.

Another red herring, in my view, is the ‘born this way’ argument, which is often used by those who support marriage equality. Homosexuality, so the argument goes, is not a choice, some people are just like that and can’t change. While this is an important, if contested, fact, it misses the ethical issue. What if some gay people don’t feel like they were ‘born this way’? What if they feel like they have made a conscious choice? Whether this is the case or not, or whether there are in fact hidden biological factors involved, so what? Having sex with someone of the same gender is not a harmful deed, nor is marrying someone of the same gender. Whether it’s by biological determinism or free will, nothing harmful is done, so there’s no ethical problem.

Perhaps the single most fallacious argument against gay marriage is simply that it upsets the customs of society. Marriage has always been between a man and a woman, therefore it will damage society to do it any other way.

This argument, favoured by conservatives, once again completely misses the point. The damage is already here. Violence, trauma, and abuse is a part of the living reality of millions of perfectly good people all over the world, simply because the have, or want to have, sex with persons of their own gender. Part of society is broken, and it needs fixing.

This is the same argument that was used to oppose abolishing slavery, votes for women, property rights for all, and so on. In each case, those in the position of privilege strive to keep others from getting the same rights. And since the cost of inequality is borne by the ‘others’, it does not exist for the privileged.

When we introduce compassion into the equation, however, we recognise that society has always been imperfect. Just because something was done in the past does not make it right. Perhaps it was the case that in certain times and places our marriage customs made more sense than they do now. But that’s not the point. The point is, what is the right thing to do now? To continue to exclude, marginalise, and discriminate? Or to broaden our moral horizons, to fully accept and include all people?

If homosexuality as such is not a problem, what then of same-sex marriages? In this area we find that the Buddha had even less to say. In fact, there is no such thing as a Buddhist marriage. Buddhists have simply adopted the marriage customs of the culture they find themselves in. The most basic model, therefore, was the customs of ancient India. These have been the basis for Buddhist family customs, adapted in each society that Buddhism has gone to.

In ancient India, there were several forms of marriage. As with all things Indian, there is no insistence on one true, correct way of doing things. Some Hindu texts list a whole range of marriage possibilities, which are correlated with the levels of Indian cosmology. The highest form of marriage is the ‘Brahma wedding’, where the bride and groom, each pure in lineage and caste, is united in the most perfect of ceremonies. If the marriage is lacking in some perfections of detail, it is reckoned as pertaining to the lower classes of deities. The lowest of the auspicious weddings is the gandharva wedding, where the bride and groom simply elope. Then there are the various inauspicious unions, those of the yakkhas or rakkhasas, where, for example, the woman is abducted by force.

Along with this diversity in wedding style, there were different marital arrangements. Monogamy seems to have been common, and of course these were often arranged marriages – but ancient Buddhist texts also record a strong struggle by women for autonomy in the marriage choices. Polygamy is also common, and was the norm for kings. Polyandry is less common, but is central to the most famous of all Hindu texts, the Mahabharata. Apparently polyandry is common in Tibet.

I’m not trying to uphold the Indian marriage system as superior to that in the West. It has its own problems with inter-caste marriages, arranged marriages, domestic violence, and so on. I’m merely making the point that there has traditionally been an adaptive diversity of living arrangements that were considered to be valid forms of marriage, and that this can be seen in some ways as a precedent for the modern idea of same-sex marriages.

So there has always been a flexibility and diversity in marriage customs in the Indian sphere that stands in clear contrast with the ‘one and only’ correct form of marriage that is, in the main, endorsed by the contemporary monotheistic religions. Same-sex marriages were not, so far as I’m aware, historically acknowledged within the Indian cultural sphere. Nor am I aware of any laws against them, such as we find in the modern day. Given the wide variations in marriage customs, including many forms of marriage that would not be considered valid in modern times, it would seem that the typical Indian approach was that of tolerance and inclusion. Accordingly, when the British law that made gay sex a crime was repealed in India in 2009, some Hindu authorities applauded the move, saying homosexuality was part of the divine order.

Unfortunately, this tolerant attitude is not always the case today. One sometimes finds Hindutva polemics against homosexuality. Such discourse, sadly enough, often rails against the supposed debauched influence of ‘Western’ morals, oblivious to the fact that anti-gay attitudes were themselves imported into India by the monotheistic religions. This ambiguity has been expressed by the highest authorities in India. Goolam Vahanvati, then solicitor-general and current attorney-general, stated to the UN Human Rights Council:

‘Around the early 19th Century, you probably know that in England they frowned on homosexuality, and therefore there are historical reports that various people came to India to take advantage of its more liberal atmosphere with regard to different kinds of sexual conduct.

‘As a result, in 1860 when we got the Indian Penal Code, which was drafted by Lord Macaulay, they inserted Section 377 which brought in the concept of “sexual offences against the order of nature”.

‘Now in India we didn’t have this concept of something being “against the order of nature”. It was essentially a Western concept, which has remained over the years. Now homosexuality as such is not defined in the IPC, and it will be a matter of great argument whether it is “against the order of nature”.’

A similar situation prevails in other Buddhist countries, too. In Japan, China, and elsewhere, the early generations of Christian missionaries were shocked at the casual acceptance of homosexual behaviour among the Buddhists. They immediately set about trying to persuade the world that their own version of sexual propriety was the right one for everyone.

Sadly enough, modern generations of Buddhists and Hindus are now doing this work for them, oblivious to their own more accepting and compassionate past. When a Thai monk like Thattajiwo, one of the leaders of Dhammakaya, rails against the ‘sexual perverts’, who have called down the kammic justice of AIDS (‘the executioner of the sex-mad’) upon them, oblivious of the pit of sin they have fallen into, and the even greater sufferings that await them in future disease-ridden hells of torment, he is merely parroting the frothing excesses of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. (Phra Thattajiwo Bhikku. Waksiin Porng-kan Rook Eet (A Vaccine to Protect Against AIDS). Pathumthani: Thammakay Foundation.) Such apocalyptic and condemnatory ‘ethics’ have no basis in the Buddha’s teaching.

So in today’s climate, what are we to do? For the Buddha, homosexuality was clearly not an issue. Nor was making laws proscribing valid forms of marriage. What was an issue, on the other hand, was compassion. The very essence of compassion is to reach out to those who are suffering, those who are marginalised. and persecuted. People whose sexual orientation varies from the majority suffer discrimination, bullying at school, violence, and emotional trauma. As Buddhists we should recognise a clear moral imperative to help wherever we can.

One might object that since the Buddha made no statement on the legalities of gay marriage, we should do the same. But the problem is a little more subtle than that. We are living in a culture where, based on certain religious and cultural ideas, certain ways of living one’s life have been made illegal. This is an artefact of the conditioned and always arbitrary course of history, not a timeless feature of the human landscape. In Australia, for example, there was no clear Federal law that prohibited same-sex marriage until 2004.

Supporting marriage equality is not to introduce something new, but simply to abolish laws that discriminate. The injustice is already in place. The harm is being done. The change is merely to remove the harmful influence of discriminatory laws, which should never have been there in the first place.

People are people, regardless of their gender, colour, nationality, or sexual orientation. The Buddha taught ‘for one who feels’. That’s the only requirement for Buddhist practice: one who feels. In the past our society decreed that marriage should not be between people of a different race, or a different colour, or a different religion, or a different nationality. Over time, we decided that these rules were harmful, and we abolished them.

Catastrophes were predicted: they didn’t come true.

What has happened, rather, is that we have become a little more open minded, and a little more aware of the suffering of others. The test of our generation is whether we can continue this move towards a more accepting and loving way of living, or whether we are to regress to a meaner, hard-hearted place.

My society, my culture, the one that I’m proud of and want to belong to, is this one. The society that is kind, questioning, accepting. Let us take up the best aspects of our own cultures, whether they be Buddhist or modern cultures, and discard all that is unjust, discriminatory, and harmful. Let us give our full support for marriage equality, for if we do not we are betraying the best part of our humanity.

This article was originally published on Bhikkhu Sujato’s blog.

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The Buddha Is Still Teaching: Contemporary Buddhist Wisdom Selected and Edited by Jack Kornfield

“In these pages you will find the Dharma … Dharma is kept alive by those who follow the path,” writes Jack Kornfield, the beloved American Buddhist teacher and co-founder of Spirit Rock meditation Center, near where I live in San Francisco.

For the past two months I have had this little book in my messenger bag, a compilation of selections that Kornfield tells us will “bring the Dharma eloquently to life for us in our own time, place and culture.” Indeed it is full of inspiration, and has been a treat to open it, never knowing what treasures will await on the page, as I ride the train during evening rush hour, as I relax at home after supper, when I read after my morning meditation.

Title: The Buddha Is Still Teaching: Contemporary Buddhist Wisdom
Author: Selected and edited by Jack Kornfield
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-692-5
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store; Amazon.com and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

The selections are generally quite short, ranging from one sentence to a few paragraphs, and they are drawn from many teachers who have inspired my own Buddhist practice over the years. I have been making a practice of reading one selection from this book and then just savoring it as I look around the crowded train, has I take in the silence of the evening, or as I make breakfast.

This book is “dedicated to the generation of teachers who have so beautifully carried the lamp of the Dharma to the West” and is organized in four sections: Wise Understanding; Compassion and Courage; Freedom; and Enlightenment and The Bodhisattva Path, drawn from 75 different teachers. A reader could stay with one section for a while and look for connections between the teachings, or could skip around, allowing the teachings to mix spontaneously. She could read one selection a day or finish a whole section. There are many ways to enjoy this book.

I have enjoyed rediscovering quotes from books I read long ago, now re-reading them with fresh eyes. Words that seem timely and wise from familiar teachers like Dilgo Khyentse, my own teacher’s teacher, from Thich Nhat Hanh, Shunryu Suzuki, Pema Chödrön and Charlotte Joko Beck. And also from teachers less familiar to me, such as Taizan Maezumi, Tulku Thondup, and Noelle Oxenhandler. There is a balanced representation of teachers from different traditions. And I enjoyed hearing the voices of so many women Buddhist teachers. The book has a lovely format. It is small, but dense, the pages are beautifully laid-out and the font is pleasing to the eye.

Jack Kornfield introduces the volume as “a Buddhst treasure: the equivalent of new Buddhist sutras.” He reminds us that the teachings of the Buddha are “the Lion’s Roar, words of fearlessness and unshakable freedom”. I would agree that the wisdom of the Buddhist teachers in this book do point to this fearlessness and freedom. I was, however, surprised to find that not all entries were by Buddhist teachers. In fact, there were even three entries by Gandhi, whose words Kornfield explains “echo those of the Buddha.” He describes these entries as “the good medicine of the Dharma.”

I would argue that Gandhi’ sentiments are not appropriate in such a book, and are not taken by all as “good medicine”. Gandhi was not a Buddhist, he was a Hindu. In his political career Gandhi had a lot of conflict with the community which some refer to “The new Buddhists”, those traditionally considered in Hinduism as “untouchable”, who were followers of the social reformer Dr. Ambedkar. Gandhi opposed many meaningful reforms that would have fundamentally changed the injustice of the caste system in newly-democratic India, and he called the oppressive, non-Buddhist, caste system “the backbone of Indian society.” Gandhi is not a hero to this community, and it seems insensitive to include him in such a lovely volume, considering the ways he blocked Dr. Ambedkar’s political reforms. It is also particularly ironic, since one entry of Gandhi’s is entitled “Religion and Politics”. This selection ends by saying that “those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”

I believe it would have been more inspiring and more appropriate in such a book to include a quote from Dr. Ambedkar, who actually converted to Buddhism, as a way of escaping caste oppression. “Buddhism alone among the world’s religions,” Ambedkar wrote, ” is compatible with the ethical and rational demands of contemporary life.” In terms of “Religion and Politics,” Ambedkar famously said, “My final word of advice to you is educate, agitate, and organize. Have faith in yourself. With justice on our side, I do not see how we can lose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual.” This is “the Lion’s Roar” for our times.

Jack Kornfield himself says that the task of selection was difficult, and I can only imagine that it must have been so. This is, in fact, a lovingly-compiled book and a source of inspiration in many ways. Kornfield writes in his introduction that the book demonstrates that “two and-a-half millennia have nothing to diminish the freshness of the Buddha’s teaching, or their universal applicability of our lives.” Yes! Kornfield also writes that, “The Buddha insisted that his awakened disciples, when traveling to new lands, teach the Dharma in the language and vernacular of their times.” If we believe that the Buddha’s teachings are universal, and appropriate to our times, then let us expand that view to our fellow Buddhists who live outside the United States, and have embraced Buddhism as a way of rejecting 3,000 years of an oppressive caste structure.

The instructions are to read the selections in this book slowly, to listen to them. “Let these luminous words bring The Buddha’s awaking to your own heart and mind. Reflect on them, practice them, let them transform your life.” It is a lovely invitation. Eh ma ho!

“These are the teachings that are good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end.” Gautama Buddha

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Support the struggles of marginalized Buddhists in Hungary

A petition has been started in order to protect the rights of Buddhist Gypsies, or Roma, in Hungary.

This year a nationalist government was elected in Hungary. The new government rewrote the constitution and passed a law that deregisters all but a few mainstream Christian and Jewish religious organisations. These steps were taken with the aim of curbing tax abuses, but the blunderbuss policy “de-registers” all faith groups that count fewer than 1,000 members, or that have been in existence for less than 20 years.

Groups that manage to get established — and stay established for 20 years — and accumulate over 1000 members, cannot get official recognition without a parliamentary vote with a two-thirds majority. This amounts to an impossibly high hurdle, meaning that essentially no new groups can get government recognition and enjoy the tax benefits that established traditions have.

This affects many organizations, since under the new law, only 14 of 358 registered churches and religious associations will be granted legal recognition according to Christian Century. Groups such as Methodists, Pentecostal churches, reformed Jewish churches, and all the Islamic, Buddhist, and Hinduist congregations, are being de-registered.

Prominent pro-democracy dissidents from the Soviet era have written a letter condemning the new law. “Never before has a Member State of the EU so blatantly dared to go against the principles of freedom of beliefs, equality before the law, and separation of church from state. These are all established fundamental rights in our common Europe,” they said.

Some established churches have welcomed the law. Zoltan Tarr, general secretary of the Hungarian Reformed Church, commented, “We wanted a new law to make it more difficult to establish churches here – and we’re happy the present government has now done something.”

Buddhism, as a religion that is relatively new to Europe, is badly affected by the new system; no Buddhist organizations will be allowed to have tax-exempt status. Among those affected are the marginalized Roma, or Gypsies, who have recently embraced Buddhism.

Historically, the Roma people originated in India, leaving, for unknown reasons, about 1000 years ago. One theory is that the name Roma is derived from the Sanskrit ḍōmba, meaning “a man of low caste living by singing and music.” If the Roma left India in order to escape caste discrimination, they fared little better in Europe, where they have often been a despised population. Recently, however, Hungarian Roma, inspired by the conversions of Indian Dalits (former so-called “Untouchables”) to Buddhism, have formed the Jai Bhim network, under the umbrella of the Triratna Buddhist Community.

The name Jai Bhim is an explicit reference to the leader of the conversion movement in India, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Sensing a deep affinity with the Dalits of India, Roma converts to Buddhism refer to themselves as “the Dalits of Europe. The Jai Bhim Network “educates, agitates and organises on the footsteps of Bodhisattva Dr. Ambedkar in schools and congregations in rural Roma communities.” The organization was formally established in 2007 in order to promote the social integration of Romas, and has received support from Buddhists in Europe, India, and Taiwan.

When the Jai Bhim Network’s registration lapses at the end of this year, they will lose government funding for the schools that they run, and will find it very difficult to continue to provide education to the 1,000 students who study with them.

Subhuti, an English-born Buddhist who is a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, has a long-standing involvement with the Dalit Buddhists in India, and for six years has gone to Hungary twice a year in order to support Roma Buddhists.

According to Subhuti, the work that the Roma Buddhists he supports is beginning to flourish. “Besides the very effective education they offer to Gypsy students who have no other realistic opportunities for education, they are beginning to have a deeper impact on Hungarian Gypsy society. At the recent census, some 500 or more Gypsies declared themselves to be Buddhists.” He sees this as a very significant development, similar to the mass conversions that took place in India in 1956, when Ambedkar let tens of thousands of Dalits to Buddhism.

Those concerned about the situation of these marginalized Buddhists in Hungary can show their support by signing this online petition. A second online petition can be found here. (On the petition Név means Name and Foglalkozás means Occupation.)

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Saner society

Osho: Society does not introduce you to meditation because that is the only way to be absolutely certain that you will never go mad, that you will always remain master of your actions. But there are reasons why society is interested in the mind, and not in meditation.

Fear of meditation

The whole interest of society is in how to exploit you, how to enslave you, how to use you in a more efficient way, almost like a machine. It gives you all the education just for these secret aims. It prevents you from knowing anything about meditation.

It is afraid of meditation, for the simple reason that a meditator starts living a life of… Read the rest of this article…

freedom, a life which has its source within. He does not care about respectability, honour, money and power. All these things become trivia, because the meditator knows real, valuable things: he knows silence, peace, love; he knows a dancing heart, he knows the music that is within his own being and also outside of him. He becomes aware of all these treasures. Now money is like children’s play; power is violent, brutal, barbarous. Anything that needs to be competitive, he will not participate in, because every competition means enmity, every competition means putting somebody down. Your victory is going to be somebody’s defeat, and he cannot conceive that he can be the cause of anybody’s defeat, sadness and suffering. He becomes a dropout from the competitive, egoistic, money-minded, power-oriented society.

Mind games

Hence every society has been afraid of meditation. It teaches you things which, taken to the extreme, are bound to create insanity in you. And once you are a participant in the game, there is no way not to go to the extreme. One thing leads to another, one step to another step.

You want to reach the peak, you forget completely that what you are doing is being very destructive to your own being — and you cannot be destructive to others without being destructive to yourself. Your jealousies, anger, your greed, all accumulate like wounds inside you. Sooner or later… there is a limit that you can tolerate; once that limit is crossed, the same society which has created the insanity in you puts you in an insane asylum.

And have you ever heard that anybody comes out cured from your insane asylums? Have you ever heard of anybody who is cured by years of psychoanalysis? I know people who have been, for 15 years or even 20 years, into psychoanalysis, wasting treasures. Now they have become addicts; their basic problem is still there but a new problem has arisen: they cannot live without psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis has become a drug. Twice a week or three times a week they need psychoanalysis.

But nobody is cured, because the function of psychoanalysis or psychiatry — or any other therapies used in insane asylums — is not to cure you. It is just to make you normally insane so that you can go back to work, so that you can be again useful to society, so that society can again exploit you. They are simply pushing you back within the limit so you can function efficiently.

This is not cure; any small incident and you may cross the line again. Your wife dies, your child dies, your business goes bankrupt and again you are back beyond the sanity line.

In fact, society is not sane, and its whole education and culture is not for the sane.

A strong foundation

The rebellious society of my vision will first discipline every child more in meditation than in anything else, because the child is the most capable of being meditative. The child is innocent, unburdened, unworried; he has no thoughts, no memories, no wounds, he is still unscratched.

The first thing that should be as a foundation for his whole life is the art of meditation; anything else should come later on. First, make sure that he knows how to get out of the mind, to get out of the jungle of thoughts any moment he wants. Then there will be no need of any madhouses and unnecessary psychoanalysis… society would be responsible.

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Buddhists, education, and money

(Click on the image to enlarge.)

A Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey on religion, education, and money was covered in a recent NYT article. The article was titled Is Your Religion Your Financial Destiny?, which is probably misleading because it doesn’t seem that the survey could possibly indicate whether educational attainment and family income were the result of people’s religious affiliations, or vice versa. Other issues might also be at work, such as geographic ones. If you’re in a poor, rural area there’s probably not likely to be a Buddhist temple handy, but there may well be a Baptist church.

Despite all this, the data are fascinating. As the NYT report says:

The most affluent of the major religions — including secularism — is Reform Judaism. Sixty-seven percent of Reform Jewish households made more than $75,000 a year at the time the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life collected the data, compared with only 31 percent of the population as a whole. Hindus were second, at 65 percent, and Conservative Jews were third, at 57 percent.

On the other end are Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists. In each case, 20 percent or fewer of followers made at least $75,000.

As an aside, I find myself wishing that my Jewish ancestors hadn’t converted, although none of them seemed to have much luck with money anyway and those that made the most money did it in ways that ended up with them also earning hefty prison sentences.

The graph makes more or less a straight line, showing a strong correlation between education and income, with a few outliers. In the middle we have Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, and Unitarians, who are all modestly less well off than you might exist, and right at the end the most highly educated religion — Hindus — are still the richest, but despite their educational attainments they’re less rich than you would expect.

What does this tell us about Buddhists? Apart from the obvious facts that they’re considerably better educated than average, and that given that level of education they are less well-off than might be expected, there’s little that can be said definitively. Apart from anything else, who are America’s Buddhists? There tends to be a rather sharp divide between America’s “ethnic Buddhists” — immigrants from Asia or their descendants — and so-called “Western Buddhists.” It’s not clear what the relative sizes of the two populations are, but it’s conceivable that Asian-American Buddhists (who are also Western Buddhists, surely?) constitute at least half of the total Buddhist community in the US.

Often the two groups practice very different kinds of Buddhism, and for very different reasons. And there’s a tendency for the two groups to be separate. They may practice in different languages and in different places (temples versus “Buddhist Centers”) Even in publications the two communities are separated. Arun Likhati has kept an “Asian Meter” for the popular magazine, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. He’s found that Tricycle consistently under-represents Asian Buddhists in its pages.

Nevertheless, the two communities may have much in common as regards education. Asian families, including Buddhist Asian families — tend to value education highly. Coming from another direction, European-Americans who are highly educated are often less interested in traditional religion, and more open to other spiritual paths, including Buddhism. That covers the finding that Buddhists in the US (from both groups) tend to be generally highly educated, but what about their being less affluent than you might expect?

There’s no hard data available. The study focuses on annual income, so its findings tell us nothing about whether Buddhists are giving more or their money away. All we know is that fewer of them earn over $75,000 a year. The NYT article states that “some religions are more likely to produce, or to attract, people who voluntarily choose lower-paying jobs, like teaching.” They don’t back that statement up with any data, but I think both parts — “produce” and “attract” — are true.

But I think that it’s more the case that Buddhism “attracts” well-educated people who are in social work, teaching, alternative health professions, and social work. Why do I think that? This is purely anecdotal, of course, but I meet a lot of those sorts of people at Buddhist centers. And it seems to me that those are the professions people hold when they first walk through the door. Westerners aren’t, on the whole embracing Buddhism as stock traders and Fortune 500 executives and then taking up high-school teaching because Buddhism somehow encourages this. Rather, high-school teachers (and people in other less highly paid occupations) are embracing Buddhism. Sometimes — perhaps it’s most often — this is because they’re stressed and start by taking up meditation in order to relax, and this is followed by a deeper exploration of Buddhist practice. Buddhism may be more acceptable to many people because it can be viewed as a more “rational” system of personal development rather than as a belief-oriented religion. It may also be attractive because it is perceived as a religion of compassion, which is presumably a plus factor if you’re a teacher or social worker or nurse because you want to help people.

Once Westerners have converted to Buddhism, however, I think they do on the whole tend to be less invested in consumerism, and this may lead to them not pursuing promotion, or otherwise moving to higher paid jobs. Again, this is just my anecdotal take, based on my perceptions of the people I’ve encountered in Buddhist centers. So I do think there’s an element of Buddhists “voluntarily choosing lower-paying jobs,” but it’s a secondary aspect. It’s more that people who are highly educated who have already chosen lower-paid jobs are more attracted to Buddhism in the first place.

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Religion to become extinct, says model of census data

A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction, say researchers.

The data reflect a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation.

The team’s mathematical model attempts to account for the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one.

The result, reported at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, US, indicates that religion will all but die out altogether in those countries.

Nonlinear dynamics is invoked to explain a wide range of physical phenomena in which a number of factors play a part.

One of the team, Daniel Abrams of Northwestern University, put forth a similar model in 2003 to put a numerical basis behind the decline of lesser-spoken world languages.

At its heart is the competition between speakers of different languages, and the “utility” of speaking one instead of another.

“The idea is pretty simple,” said Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

“It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility,” he told BBC News.

“For example in languages, there can be greater utility or status in speaking Spanish instead of [the dying language] Quechuan in Peru, and similarly there’s some kind of status or utility in being a member of a religion or not.”

The team took census data stretching back as far as…

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a century from countries in which the census queried religious affiliation: Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

“In a large number of modern secular democracies, there’s been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion; in the Netherlands the number was 40%, and the highest we saw was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60%,” Dr Wiener said.

The team then applied their nonlinear dynamics model, adjusting parameters for the relative social and utilitarian merits of membership of the “non-religious” category.

They found, in a study published online, that those parameters were similar across all the countries studied, suggesting that similar behaviour drives the mathematics in all of them.

And in all the countries, the indications were that religion was headed toward extinction.

“I think it’s a suggestive result,” Dr Wiener said.

“It’s interesting that a fairly simple model captures the data, and if those simple ideas are correct, it suggests where this might be going.

“Obviously much more complicated things are going on with any one individual, but maybe a lot of that averages out.”

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Have less, give more

I’m fascinated by the psychology of giving and/or financial exchanges. Just this morning I was noticing my hesitation in committing to pay 99¢ for an iPhone app without having tried it first. But when I go into a coffee shop I happily plonk down $1.50 or so for a cup of Joe, without hesitating or asking for a free trial. The coffee will last me for 20 minutes, while I might end up using the app on a daily basis for an indefinite period of time. There’s no guarantee I’m going to find the coffee pleasant. Screwy, but normal.

One peculiarity regarding money is that people who have less of it are more willing to give it to another person in need. The following is from an article in today’s Boston Globe:

Given the opportunity to share money with an anonymous person, people who considered themselves lower in socioeconomic status shared more. When asked how much of one’s salary should be donated to charity, they designated a higher percentage. And, when confronted with a distressed person in need, they offered more help. These differences don’t seem to be innate. For example, after simply asking people to contemplate their socioeconomic status relative to those with higher socioeconomic status, people became more charitable. The authors theorize that people in the lower strata of society are particularly motivated by a greater dependence on — and, thus, concern for — social relationships, though affluent individuals may be more inclined to abstract charity (e.g., the environment).

The research is from, Piff, P. et al., “Having Less, Giving More: The Influence of Social Class on Prosocial Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Isn’t that interesting? It’s not a simple case, as I would have assumed, of “the rich” getting that way by being tight with their money. It seems more that poorer people are more tied into social networks and value the support they give. In my experience, many people who are better off are unable or unwilling to empathize with the difficulties of those who are less well off. In the US it’s common to blame people for being poor, even though it’s impossible for every single person to accumulate wealth, given how our society operates, with the people who have wealth setting the wages and conditions for those who don’t, often making it very difficult indeed to escape poverty.

It’s encouraging that reflecting on one’s relative lack of wealth compared to others boosts empathy and generosity. At least these attitudes are not fixed, and reflection, self-awareness, and social awareness are tools for change.

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The mindful enlightenment

Buddhist practices can help bring about a new kind of social enlightenment

A fresh kind of enlightenment is in the air. Madeleine Bunting recently reported on the bold vision for progress being set out by Matthew Taylor at the Royal Society Of Arts. Calling for a new “revolution of the mind”, the RSA is grounding its arguments in empirical studies from neuroscience and psychology.

Evidence from these disciplines is making it increasingly clear that we are social creatures with plastic minds, wired for empathy and able to access a consciousness that, if developed, could help release us from the shackles of emotion that so often bind us. Building on its 18th-century precursor, the defining feature of this enlightenment is an understanding that to tackle the world’s most pressing problems, we don’t just need more action, we need more awareness.

This is familiar territory for Buddhists, whose training is rooted in a path to awakening which holds dear the same kinds of insights – that through experiencing more clearly, we can begin to transcend the suffering that comes from thinking, feeling and behaving as if we are single, separate and solid. As we begin to realise the nature of our predicament through meditative disciplines, we naturally lean towards compassion for others, whose fate is intertwined with our own.

Some 2,500 years separate these appeals to enlightenment, but despite their common ground and aspiration, they can sound very different. One comes in the language of science, backed by observational studies of the brain, say, or human behaviour. The other has an ancient, religious feel – words like Buddha, meditation, even enlightenment (in this context) can prompt negative reactions that stem partly from current attitudes towards religion in our society. Centuries of Buddhism, in its many institutional forms, has no doubt contributed to this perception.

It seems unlikely that the man known as the Buddha would have wanted to establish a religion – his teaching is not a set of things to believe, but considerations for a way of life. Understanding, he said, must come through observation of one’s own direct experience – a kind of inner science based on first-person investigation of the body, mind and world. As Stephen Batchelor has pointed out, these core insights are easily cloaked in religious garb when that is the prevailing discourse of the day.

So what happens when Buddhism meets our secular world? Whereas some students of Asian emigre teachers in the 60s and 70s appeared spellbound, wide-eyed with enchantment at exciting foreign rituals, many western teachers have moved on – Jack Kornfield recently explained that “more and more, we’re teaching meditation not as a religious activity, but as a support for living a wise, healthy and compassionate inner life”. He added that some of his students don’t identify as Buddhists, “which is absolutely fine with me”.

Some new champions of Buddhist-inspired practice bear no mark of Buddhism at all – from universities and healthcare settings, to schools and boardrooms, mindfulness is being taught without reference to its religious heritage, while Andy Puddicombe’s media-savvy Headspace brand is taking meditation to the Jamie Oliver generation. Puddicombe has even managed to get Chris Evans sitting quietly for a second or two.

Traditionalists will complain about babies being thrown out with bathwater, and they may have a point – in our urge to connect with a wider audience, there is the danger of losing important, less palatable messages, honed over thousands of years. But if the Buddha’s insights are durable, then surely they can stand the creative tension that comes from attempts, Buddhist and secular, to forge new stretches on the road to enlightenment.

[Ed Halliwell, Guardian]
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