The Urban Dharma Newsletter - March 2, 2009
In This Issue: Buddhism – Finding Your Religion
1. Finding Your Teacher By Barbara O'Brien
2. FINDING MY RELIGION – Buddhist teacher and author Jack Kornfield
3. FINDING MY RELIGION – Buddhist writer and teacher Cheri Huber
4. FINDING MY RELIGION – Buddhist pastor Heng Sure talks
5. Buddhism is America's fourth-largest religion.
6. Reasons to Convert to Buddhism? Why I Can't Give You Any – By Barbara O'Brien,
Sorry it’s taken me so long to get to the UD Newsletter, my life is busy (a good thing) I keep getting older (a normal thing) and here I am today with a little free time…
This newsletter theme is – Finding a teacher, finding a religion… Hope you find it useful.
1. Finding Your Teacher By Barbara O'Brien,
The first step in finding a Buddhist teacher is clarifying why you need one. A teacher cannot give you the life you want or make you the person you want to be. A teacher cannot take your pain away and give you enlightenment. If you are looking for someone who can correct your flaws for you and make you happy, you're in the wrong religion.
So, why do you need a teacher? I've met many people who insist they don't need one, never needed one, and have no intention of seeking one. After all, the Buddha taught --
By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depended on oneself; no one can purify another. (Dhammapada XII, verse 165)
But as Ken McLeod wrote in Wake Up to Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), "When we start exploring the mystery of being, we are still mired in habituated patterns. Limited in perception to a world projected by these patterns, we do not and cannot see things as they are. We need a person, a teacher, who, standing outside our projected world, can show us how to proceed."
Ego Is Not a Good Teacher
My first teacher used to say that his entire function was pulling rugs out from under people. He'd see a student grow complacent or settle into new conceptual patterns, and riiiiip.
If your understanding is never challenged you can spend years fooling yourself. I can't tell you how many times I've gone into the interview room thinking I knew something. But when challenged, what my ego told me was great insight vanished like smoke in the breeze. On the other hand, when realization is genuine, a teacher can guide you to deeper realization.
Remember, you are not likely to see through the illusion of ego by protecting your ego.
True and False Teachers
How do you know which teachers are for real and which are phonies? Many schools of Buddhism place great importance on lineage -- the teacher's teacher, the teacher's teacher's teacher, and so on, going back generations. Most schools of Buddhism only recognize teachers who have been authorized to teach either by that school's institutions or by another authorized teacher.
It's true that such authorization is no guarantee of quality. And not all unauthorized teachers are charlatans. But I would be very cautious about working with anyone who calls himself a "Buddhist" teacher but who has no association whatsoever with a recognized Buddhist lineage or institution. Such a teacher is almost certainly a fraud.
A few tips: Only the phonies claim to be "fully enlightened." Beware of teachers who ooze charisma and are worshiped by their students. The best teachers are the most ordinary ones. The true teachers are those who say they have nothing to give you.
No Students, No Teachers
It's common to develop an attitude about authority figures, usually because of bad experiences with them. When I was younger I was easily intimidated by authority figures, including teachers.
But remember the Madhyamika teaching -- things have identity only in relation to each other. Students create teachers. Followers create leaders. Children create parents. And vice versa, of course. No person is, in fact, an authority figure. "Authority figure" is a relationship construct that is caused to manifest by "submissive figure." It is not anyone's intrinsic identity.
When I began to see that, I became less fearful of authority figures. Certainly in many situations -- employment, the military -- one cannot exactly blow off the authority figure illusion without consequences. But seeing through dualistic delusions -- such as authority figure/submissive figure -- is an essential part of the Buddhist path. And you can't very well resolve an issue by avoiding it.
Also, in the case of working with a Buddhist teacher, if you feel something's wrong, you can always walk away. I've yet to hear of a genuine teacher who would try to hang onto or control a student who wished to leave.
But keep in mind that the spiritual path goes through our wounds, not around them or away from them. Don't let discomfort hold you back.
Finding Your Teacher
Once you decide to find a teacher, how do you find a teacher? If there are any Buddhist centers near where you live, start there. Studying year-round with a teacher within a community of Buddhists is ideal. The famous teacher whose books you admire may not be the best teacher for you if you can only travel to see her occasionally.
Consider that karma put you where you are. Begin by working with that. You don't have to go out of the way to find your path; it's already beneath your feet. Just walk.
If you find you do need to widen your search, I suggest starting with BuddhaNet's Online World Buddhist Directory. This is in a searchable database format. The database lists Buddhist centers and organizations in Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe, the Middle East, North America, Oceania and South America.
2. FINDING MY RELIGION
Buddhist teacher and author Jack Kornfield on mindfulness, happiness and his own spiritual journey – David Ian Miller, Special to SF Gate – Monday, November 28, 2005
With all that's going on in people's busy lives, the Buddhist notion of "staying in the moment" may seem like an admirable but too idealistic goal. "Sounds great," you might say, "but who has time for that?" And yet, taking the time to slow down and focus on what's happening -- right here, right now -- can have tremendous benefits.
Jack Kornfield, the well-known Buddhist practitioner and writer, has spent many years teaching people how to live more mindfully despite the challenges of doing so in the modern world. Kornfield, 60, who trained as a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India and Burma, is the author of "A Path With Heart," "The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace" and "Meditation for Beginners," among other books. I spoke with him recently on the bucolic grounds of Spirit Rock, the meditation center he helped found in Marin County.
Let's begin with a basic question: What is mindfulness and why is it important?
Mindfulness is an innate human capacity to deliberately pay full attention to where we are, to our actual experience, and to learn from it.
Much of our day we spend on automatic pilot. People know the experience of driving somewhere, pulling up to the curb and all of a sudden realizing, "Wow, I was hardly aware I was even driving. How did I get here?" When we pay attention, it is gracious, which means that there is space for our joys and sorrows, our pain and losses, all to be held in a peaceful way.
And the path toward mindfulness is meditation?
Meditation is one good way to learn mindfulness. There are many good ways. To be really good at something, you need to be mindful. A very good chef has to be mindful of the ingredients and the knife and the taste that's actually there in that particular dish. So it's a skill that's a part of human development in many areas.
Meditation can be difficult for people to do, especially in cultures where technology has sped up our lives to such an extent. What can be done about that?
It's really not that hard to do, actually. When people come to a meditation class that I teach, initially they often experience the busyness of their lives and the tension they carry. And because they don't know how to work with that, they can feel like meditation is difficult.
But once they are introduced to the possibility of holding that tension with a compassionate and kind awareness so that it can release itself, of seeing their busyness of mind with a spacious mindfulness that lets thoughts come and go like clouds -- once they get a bit of understanding of how to quiet the mind and open the heart, then even if they are having a busy, hard time in their lives, meditation can help them.
You seem like a pretty busy person yourself. Do you ever struggle with this issue of finding solace in the turbulent world?
I'm pretty happy -- and I am busy. I have a busy life as a family person, as a teacher and a writer and as a member of the community. I do these things -- to a certain extent, anyway -- as my meditation. I do them mindfully.
And yes, I sit in meditation and use that to quiet myself and return to a sense of equanimity and calm. Sometimes I'll sit and do loving-kindness compassion practice so that everything I do afterward is touched in some way with that flavor. I think it's all the more important if you have a busy life to be able to do these things.
You describe yourself as happy. What is happiness, as you see it?
Happiness is a profound sense of well-being, which includes both being connected with ourselves and the world. That's different from pleasure. Pleasure comes and goes. You can have a good meal and it's great -- but then it's over. Pain and difficulties also will come and go. Happiness -- true happiness -- is a quality of well-being in the midst of pleasure and pain and gain and loss.
We see it in people like the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela, who could walk out after 27 years of prison on Robben Island with a magnanimity of heart and a beauty about him that didn't blame the world in a bitter way. That kind of dignity and presence and wholeness of being is possible no matter where we are.
For many people, happiness is about chasing after something -- a new car, a promotion, a trip to Bermuda. But when they get it they aren't satisfied. They want more. Why do you think that happens?
I'll tell you a story. A reporter was asking the Dalai Lama on his recent visit to Washington, "You have written this book, 'The Art of Happiness,' which was on the best-seller list for two years -- could you please tell me and my readers about the happiest moment of your life?" And the Dalai Lama smiled and said, "I think now!"
Happiness isn't about getting something in the future. Happiness is the capacity to open the heart and eyes and spirit and be where we are and find happiness in the midst of it. Even in the place of difficulty, there is a kind of happiness that comes if we've been compassionate, that can help us through it. So it's different than pleasure, and it's different than chasing after something.
What would you say is the most practical spiritual advice you can offer?
Relax. That's my first instruction. We have all of these things that we are in the middle of, you know, whether it's tending to an emergency at work, or a relative is in the hospital, or some great thing has just come up that occupies your mind. Relaxation allows for our natural response, rather than the kind of tension and fear that can often control our lives.
My second instruction is, especially when things are difficult, try to hold your experience with compassion. Whether a crying child is keeping you up all night, or a car accident has just happened, or you are trying to get along with someone who is difficult, you can respond appropriately if you hold all of it -- your own body, mind and those around you -- in compassion. And your life becomes much wiser as a result.
That sounds simple enough, but how easy is it to do?
Well, the beautiful thing about compassion or mindfulness, the things that we are talking about, is that they are innate to us. Even the most hardened criminal would reach to pick up a child who'd fallen in the street in danger. Something in us knows what compassion is, but it gets covered over by our busy lives and our fear.
I want ask you about your personal story. You were born into a Jewish family. What sort of religious orientation did you have?
It was somewhat limited. We observed the Jewish holidays. I studied for my bar mitzvah and attended Sunday school. It was about being culturally and historically part of the Jewish people and then being a good person -- that's kind of the gist of it.
There is a phenomenon of many Jews becoming Buddhists, or "Jewbus" as they are called, especially here in the Bay Area. Why do you think some Jews are drawn to Buddhism?
I really don't know. I do know that within my family and the community there was a great tradition of learning and understanding that is common among Jews. And I see the same love of learning and understanding among other Jewish people who have become Buddhist practitioners. So maybe that is one part of it.
Do you retain any connection to Judaism at this point?
Yes. My daughter was brought up learning about Jewish history and celebrating the holidays. She is also Christian from her mother's side, so she was baptized at San Francisco's Glide Memorial church. And we also lived in a Hindu country for a long time, so she has that influence as well.
When my daughter was younger, she was asked, "Well, what are you?" And she said, "Gee, I'm Christian and Buddhist and Jewish and Hindu" and some other things -- I don't know what else was in there. In her simple answer -- she was like nine years old at the time -- was a reflection that underneath all these different religions there is a commonality that at best involves treating one another with great care and respect based on love, virtue and integrity.
What initially drew you to Buddhism?
I was at Dartmouth College, studying premed. I was interested in healing, medicine and science -- my father was a scientist. And I took a course in Asian philosophy with an old man named Dr. Wing-tsit Chan, who had been a professor at Harvard before that. He was born in the 1890s in China, and he had gone through the classical Confucian Chinese education system. He sat cross-legged on the desk and lectured about Lao-tzu and the Buddha and Confucius, and it felt so nourishing to hear the wisdom of these sages.
My family life had been difficult. My father was a very brilliant but troubled person who was paranoid and angry and abusive, especially toward my mother. And I knew very early on that intellectual success with professors and universities or financial success didn't necessarily mean you would be happy.
So when I heard teachings about how to live a wise life, how to deal with the pain of your life in a way that brings greater compassion and understanding rather than keeping it in, I was immediately intrigued. I ended up majoring in Buddhist Asian studies. Then I went into the Peace Corps and asked to be sent to a Buddhist country so I could train in a monastery. I went to Thailand, worked on rural health medical teams in the Mekong River valley for two years and eventually became a Buddhist monk.
You were a monk for several years. What was it like coming back, after being in a monastery in Asia, to the United States? Was that a difficult transition?
At first it was strange, because I had been living so simply -- basically barefoot and with a begging bowl. I tell the story -- in my book "Path of Heart" -- of meeting my twin brother's wife in New York after returning to the United States. She was at Elizabeth Arden's day spa, and I went up there in my monk's robes.
Here were all of these women thinking I'm the weirdest thing they have ever seen, which is probably true, and I looked back at them, and they have got mud and avocado on their faces and all of these curlers in their hair and things like that.
So yes, it was culture shock to go from the simplicity of living in the monastic forest temples of Asia to the cities of New York and Boston. It took me a while to relearn how to engage in American culture with the same spirit of compassion that I had brought into it.
You just turned 60. What are you learning in your later years about life?
Turning 60, if you're paying attention, you do reflect on your own death and how much longer you have. What dances do I have left to do? Is it three or is it 20 years?
One of the things I've discovered over the years in myself and others is that we don't change so much in personality as the body ages. What really changes is the heart. There are certain people who become quite beautifully conceived with a kind of generosity of spirit, a graciousness of wisdom as they get older.
I was just teaching with Huston Smith at a conference. He's in his late 80s, and he had such a dignity and a generosity of spirit and wisdom for every question that was asked of him. It was so beautiful.
Are there things that you want to do that you haven't done?
I'm pretty pleased. I could die happy now. My life has been a very blessed one. I have tremendous gratitude for the experiences, the relationships, the love I've felt. There are things that I would like to do or I hope I can do -- but we'll see.
There are a number of wonderful possibilities of teaching in other parts of the world, of integrating what I've learned with people in other communities, like scientists. I will have to see how that unfolds. I think most people find a great satisfaction in offering what's of benefit to the world around them.
Is that what you consider your life's purpose?
I don't really think in those terms. I don't know what my life's purpose is. I know that I want to be able to love well and to find an inner freedom to be of benefit to other human beings like myself.
3. FINDING MY RELIGION
Buddhist writer and teacher Cheri Huber says we all have plenty of reasons to give thanks – David Ian Miller, Special to SF Gate
Monday, November 20, 2006
It's Thanksgiving, time for another nationwide gratitude wake-up call. On this one day each year, Americans feel free -- or some might say compelled -- to openly express thanks for life's blessings. On the other 364 days, we are left in peace to mumble and grumble about the minor annoyances of life, interspersed with occasional quick thanks to the powers-that-be when something truly spectacular happens.
But gratitude is something we can and should feel year round, says Cheri Huber, a Buddhist teacher in the Soto Zen tradition. Huber says every day should be filled with focused appreciation, both for what we have and for what we don't have. Doing so, she believes, is the best way to both grow spiritually and achieve more of what we want in the mundane world.
Huber, who founded the Palo Alto Zen Center and the Zen Monastery Peace Center in Murphys, Calif., is the author of 17 books, including "Suffering Is Optional: Three Keys to Freedom and Joy" (2002, Keep it Simple) and "Unconditional Self-Acceptance" (2005, Keep It Simple). I spoke to her last week by phone about the importance of gratitude, the nasty little voices in our heads that ruin a perfectly fine day and the Buddhist precept of non-attachment ("way overrated," according to Huber).
What is the most important thing that you've learned about gratitude?
That it's a matter of turning my attention to what there is to be grateful for, instead of allowing my attention to wander to what's wrong. We have, no matter what our life circumstances, an overwhelming amount to be grateful for -- all the time. And it's so easy for us to lose sight of that.
Why is that? You would think we would want to dwell on what's going right in our lives.
If we take a look at how our mind works, most of us will tune in pretty quickly to the fact that there is a conversation going on inside our heads. Sometimes we think of it as thought, but when we really start listening, folks are talking in there [laughs]. And that conversation is often about what we didn't do, what we should be doing and so forth. That's because so much of our childhood conditioning causes us to be focused on what's wrong -- so that we can be the right person, have the right thoughts, have the right feelings, do the right thing.
How do you remain focused on the things that you are grateful for?
One of my great spiritual heroes is St. Teresa of Ávila. Apparently, her whole religious life consisted of saying "thank you." That was the content of her prayers. So I spend a good deal of my day just reminding myself of that, noticing what's beautiful, what's kind, what's polite and what's caring.
That said, most of us want things that we don't have, and that longing can become pretty desperate and scary, like not having enough food to put on the table. How do we balance those unmet desires with a sense of gratitude?
Not having enough food to put on the table has never been an issue for me. And yet if I listen to that conditioning, my needs could have the same desperate quality. Depending on who I am and what I'm doing, that voice that tells me there's not enough and that there's something wrong could get pretty desperate because, let's say, everybody else is driving a BMW and I'm not. So it's really pretty important to sort out what's a legitimate need and what's not.
And what about people who really are hungry or homeless?
I spend a great deal of my time with people who don't have food to put on the table, who starve every day. And yet in my experience -- and I think that they would say the same thing -- that fact doesn't have anything to do with the amount of gratitude that they feel. They are grateful for all of the things that life is, for the sunshine, for the trees, for the people in their lives and for the hope of a better life for their children.
I think it's a mistake to say that focusing on what we don't have is a way to get what we want. In fact, the opposite is true. Focusing on not having is the fastest way to not have it.
What do you mean?
If we want to have, then we need to focus on having. That might sound very New Age, but it isn't. If we focus on what we have, it grows. If we focus on what we don't have, that grows, too. So the most expedient way to move toward more of what we want is to be grateful for and focused on what we have.
Can you tell me about a time when gratitude made a big difference in your life? Maybe it turned a situation around or changed your way of thinking?
One example is the birth of my daughter. That taught me about loving a human being unconditionally. Through that unconditional love for that one child I came to see all children the same way. To me every child is as worthy, as desirable, as important as the one that I gave birth to.
Another place that happened for me was with religion. Through seeing the [spiritual] transformation that's possible in my life I grew to love all spiritual practices and religions.
All of them?
Yes, because at their heart, at their core is the same desire to be one with that which animates us, that which gives us life.
Have you always been a Buddhist?
No. Actually I grew up without any religion. But I feel very fortunate that when I got to be about 13 or 14 and started kind of questioning life and how all this works, my parents gave me absolute encouragement to go find out.
And so I would beg all of my friends to take me to church with them and that sort of thing, and it was a process from about the age of 13 to 28, before I came upon Zen and realized that it was the path for me.
How did you discover Zen?
Well, it's a funny thing. When I was a kid, I can remember thinking: "What I'm being told is that I need to get good grades, so that I can get into a good school and get a good education, so that I can get a good job. And then I need to meet the right person, get married, have children and prepare for retirement." And I thought: "That's crazy! Here we're rocketing around on this clod of dirt, in space, and we don't know where we came from or where we are going, and my whole life should be focused on retirement? That's insane! I need a lot of other questions answered before I'm going to buy into this program."
So I continued studying in earnest, and when I picked up a little book by a fellow named D.T. Suzuki -- it was called "What Is Zen?" -- I had really found something interesting. I didn't know exactly what he was talking about, but I knew he did. He wasn't theorizing. He wasn't speculating. He was talking from an experience of clarity. And I really wanted to know what the heck he knew and how he knew it. So I just -- I fell in love with Zen. And many, many, many years later, I'm as in love as I was then.
Buddhism teaches people to detach from the illusions of the world. But it seems like practicing gratitude might strengthen those attachments. I mean, if I'm giddy about my family and friends, my work and the world around me, I'm less likely to want to be detached. So how does that work?
Well, I think that detachment thing is way overrated. I really do. I don't actually even believe that that's what the Buddha was teaching. I think that what's happened with the idea of attachment is that people are completely attached to non-attachment, and they spend their lives trying to be detached.
For me, rather than saying, "I must have a new car," or trying to learn to be happy with the old car or with being a pedestrian -- what I need to do if I want to be free of all of that is to figure out what I believe having a new car is going to do for me. And as I begin to work through it, I will find that my ego believes that if I have that new car, I will feel a certain way that is going to make a difference in my life.
And in that process, if I'm really paying attention, I will realize that I can then just have that feeling and it's not dependent upon a new car. This frees me up to have a new car or not have a new car and be fine either way.
So you could still have that car, and not be attached to it?
No attachment to it whatsoever. It's the kind of thing you have to prove to yourself, but Mother Teresa's way of talking about it was: "If God puts you in a mansion, live in the mansion. If God puts you on the street, live on the street."
Wherever you are, be there and be present about it.
That's right. Be present. And if we are present, if we are really present, then we will be grateful for that experience, whatever it is. I speculate that we only have the experiences that are perfect for us. And we miss the opportunity to be grateful for those experiences because conditioning has us focused on how life would be if it were the way the ego says it wants it to be.
This Thanksgiving, is there anything in particular that you're particularly grateful for?
Yes, our work in Africa. I live in a little town called Murphys, up in Calaveras County, and for some time I have hoped and dreamed that our town would support a cultural exchange with Kantolomba, a small town in Zambia where we are helping feed and care for children who are living in deep poverty.
This year, two local merchants in Murphys approached me and said, "We would like to focus on your project in Africa for the holiday season." They are putting pictures of the kids up in their store windows, they have created T-shirts that say "Gratitude Wants to Give" and they are doing this whole campaign to let the people in the community know about the project. It's growing into this really beautiful expression of generosity, and I am deeply grateful for that.
4. FINDING MY RELIGION
Buddhist pastor Heng Sure talks about his 2½-year pilgrimage up the California coast – David Ian Miller, Special to SF Gate
Monday, May 2, 2005
Rev. Heng Sure likes to talk. Wander into the Berkeley Buddhist monastery where he resides as pastor, and if you're lucky enough to find him there, he might ask you to sit down for a cup of tea and conversation about anything from ancient Chinese Buddhist texts to the pros and cons of the latest Macintosh operating system. Before you know it, you've been chatting for two hours. Actually, you've been listening while he does most of the talking.
That's why it's hard to believe that Sure, who grew up in a Methodist Scots-Irish family in Ohio before converting to Buddhism while attending graduate school at UC Berkeley in the '60s, went six years without saying a word. He took a vow of silence in 1977 after being ordained as a Mahayana monk.
At that time, Sure also began an arduous, 2½-year walking pilgrimage from downtown Los Angeles to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, in Talamage, near Ukiah, with a fellow monk. Along the way, he completed a full prostration, or bow to the ground, every three steps.
In part one of a two-part interview, I talk with Sure about how he became a Buddhist and his experiences during his long journey. Next week, I'll speak with him about how Buddhism fits into his larger worldview.
Monks in the Chinese Buddhist tradition are given a new name after they're ordained. Often, it's designed to help them progress along their spiritual path. What does your name mean?
Heng Sure means "constantly real." I was in theater before I became a monk. As an actor, the quality of your role is determined by how well you portray the illusion. My bad habit was to continue the illusion offstage. So the name is a reminder to always get back to the truth, get back to what's genuine and real.
What kind of acting did you do?
I was in summer stock -- Broadway musicals, mostly. I was Guy Masterson in "Guys and Dolls," J. Pierpont Finch in "How to Succeed in Business" and Mr. Applegate in "Damn Yankees."
That's quite a transition -- from musical theater to a Buddhist monastery. How do you relate to your former life as an actor?
You know, theater is theater. It was great fun. I still remember all the songs and a lot of the librettos. But I've been a monk now longer than I was a layman. So I think there's a place for entertainment, but I also know there's also a time for looking deeper.
How did you discover Buddhism? I'm guessing there weren't many Buddhists in Toledo, Ohio, where you grew up in the 1950s and '60s, right?
The key to my spiritual path, the turning point, was the Chinese language. My mother's older sister worked in Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Information Agency. And her beat was Asia. She sent me a catalog -- I was 13 years old at the time -- of a Chinese painter's exhibit. I saw the Chinese characters in the catalog, and something about them really caught my eye. It was -- I don't know -- like I had seen them before.
So you started learning Chinese?
Yes. I was lucky enough to study Chinese language in high school. It was one of three programs in America at that time, I think. And my parents, bless their hearts, said, "Go ahead -- it will be broadening." So that was the path I followed all the way through university. I got my master's at Berkeley in Oriental languages. And, at that point, I met my Buddhist teacher, Venerable Master Hsuan Hua.
How did you meet him?
My former college roommate had come out to California and met him at Gold Mountain Monastery, which was located in, of all places, a converted mattress factory in the Mission District. One day he called me up and said, "Hey, remember we used to talk about how someday we wanted to go find a patriarch of Buddhism?" We used to talk about meeting such a person in the Himalayas -- maybe Rishikesh [in India,] or Indonesia. But my friend said, "No. he's right here in San Francisco. Come on over and meet the abbot." So I drove my Volvo across the Bay Bridge and walked into this old building on 15th and Valencia. And I had a very unusual experience.
At the time, I had come gone through two years in my graduate program, and the Vietnam War was raging. I was thinking, "Do I want to be an academic? Nah, too sterile. Do I want to be a folk singer? Nah, too risky, too dirty. Do I want to go to Canada? Nah, that's not the right thing." All of this was running through my head. But when I walked in the door of the monastery and smelled the smells, felt the chill in the air, heard the bells and saw the stillness in there, all of that stuff racing around in my mind fell away. The doubts and fears just drained out through my toes. And I distinctly heard a quiet voice say, "You're back. Go to work. You're home."
So you began studying with Master Hsuan Hua at the monastery. What did he teach you?
He was from Manchuria -- a Chinese Buddhist monk who was the real deal, practicing dharma. It was not, you know, "We're doing Zen because it adds to our lifestyle." He taught it from an ethical foundation: How you were as a person was as important as what you practiced; it was the source of what you practiced. He taught us as much about Confucius as he did about the Buddha. The other thing he drilled into me was the importance of education. I'd been in school continuously for 18 years, but I wasn't really interested in the life of the mind. When I met Master Hsuan Hua, I could just see that he had this love of learning. There was joy for him in watching young people's minds encounter knowledge and growth. Pure joy.
Let's talk about the pilgrimage you made after becoming a bikshu, or Buddhist monk, in 1977. Over a period of 2½ years, you and a fellow monk walked from Los Angeles up the coast of California, doing a complete prostration every three steps along the way. That must have been incredibly difficult.
Yeah. The bowing was hard enough, but the toughest thing was being silent. I took a vow of silence for six years [beginning with the pilgrimage].
What was the most challenging part about being silent for so long?
The hardest thing was being patient, watching my mind want to talk. We're really hardwired to communicate. One of the joys of being human is this gift of speech -- it's magic. So, when I just bit that off and stopped talking, it didn't subside for a long time. There was a moment when I noticed that I hadn't been forming words for about a week. At that point, the sutra (religious text) that I carried on my back -- it's the sutra that I was bowing to -- came alive. It was funny -- the words on the page became like a commentary to the world I was seeing around me once my mind was really quiet. What I discovered was that, strangely enough, we are wired to connect to the outside world in really subtle and powerful ways, but once we come inside to live under a roof, all that goes to sleep.
If you couldn't speak, how did you communicate while you were on the road?
I didn't have to say much -- the other monk did all the talking. My job was to concentrate my mind.
So, why did you go on the pilgrimage in the first place?
I decided that if I could transform my own greed, my anger, my delusions through walking, staying silent and doing the prostrations, then maybe I could do something to make the world more peaceful. I would work on the part of the unpeaceful world that I could control, my own thoughts and words. So the pilgrimage was for world peace, but starting with my own mind.
You mean that by controlling your own behavior, you were symbolically promoting world peace?
It was more than symbolic. You have to understand that I was very involved with politics as a college student. I saw my friends getting their heads broken during the Chicago police riots at the Democratic National Convention. I was in school when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and Robert Kennedy died. So here I was as a grad student, trying to figure out what in the world made sense to do, how I should respond to these events. And my thought was, "Well, the traditional Buddhist answer is that you work from the inside. You start from your own mind." Everything is made with the mind alone in Buddhism -- that's one of the idioms. I thought if I could actually understand my own confusion, then that's real. That's not theater. It's not trying to shake my fist at the military-industrial complex. It's not dropping out and getting stoned. It's actually getting to the root of the problem, my own thoughts of greed and delusion.
What was it like out there on the road? What kinds of people did you encounter?
We met every kind of person you can imagine. Many showed acts of kindness and generosity. Some were not so nice. We had guns held to our heads three times.
People held guns to your head? Were they hoping to rob you?
No. We were robbed half a dozen times, but not at gunpoint. Some people just decided to cock a gun at us -- I don't know why. Marty [the other monk] would say to them, "Hi, we're Buddhist monks on a pilgrimage for world peace. Can we offer you some literature?" And somehow they never pulled the trigger. But what happened much more often was that people would spontaneously offer to help us.
What's an example of that?
We were going through Santa Cruz. It was early in the morning, and as I came up from a bow, I noticed this 10-year-old girl riding her bike toward us. She was carrying a package, and she said, "Mister, this is my sandwich. I think you're going to need if it you're going to go all the way down there. Here you go." So she handed it to me. Those kinds of encounters way outnumbered the hostility we experienced.
Were you ever in serious danger?
There was a time around San Luis Obispo when these kids made it their job every day after school to buzz us with their trucks. They'd go by in a cloud of dust, and the gravel would just cover us. It was real scary, because who knows who these kids were? And I took it, you know, because I'm supposed to be the bowing monk, I'm supposed to be in charge of my mind. But after a while, like weeks, I would be thinking, "Oh, my God, it's four o'clock. Got another hour to bow, and here they come. One afternoon I noticed these kids pulled their cars up, their pickup trucks, in the parking lot. So I started reciting a mantra about compassion. But really I was thinking, "Come on, Bodhisattva, smash them. Protect me." And suddenly I opened my eyes, and there was the abbot, my master, Hsuan Hua, standing in the parking lot in sandals.
What was he doing there?
I think he had driven down from San Francisco that day. Anyway, he smiled at me and walked over to the pickup trucks with the kids. He started chatting with them. They were thrilled to have this guy who looked like a kung fu master come over and talk to them. He gave them beads or something, and they gave him a Coke. Afterward, I realized I had been using this great compassion mantra like a weapon. I had seen myself as a victim. I was not paying attention to my work as a monk. One thing about the abbot was that his teachings always came right on time. And he said to me that afternoon, "That's not compassion." The next day, as I was bowing, the same kids came by, but they were just parked there, watching. Later, I heard one of them say, "Good luck, monk. You're still weird, but good luck."
Where did you sleep while you were traveling? Did you stay in people's houses?
Actually, we took a vow not to go indoors during those three years. We had a '57 Plymouth station wagon that we'd sleep in at night because it would hold our Buddha image, our sutras and our cooking pots.
What did you eat?
We mostly ate wild plants, wild greens on the roadside. We got a copy of Euell Gibbons' "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" from a high school biology teacher in Santa Barbara who was worried we might not know the difference between, say, Queen Anne's lace and hemlock.
What were some of the main lessons from your time on the road?
I learned a lot about my own mental habits. I kind of caught on to my mind's tricks. We learn these stories about ourselves, these perceptions that we get from our folks, from our TVs, from our friends. And I saw the dimensions of that. I saw the limits of my understanding of right and wrong, of self and others. These are all things that our mind makes. They aren't the whole of the mind. The sutras compare this to bubbles on top of the ocean. The mind is the ocean, you know. By bowing and being quiet, slowly, slowly, I went deeper into the ocean. It's deep, deep water.
Do you ever go back into that deep water? I mean, will you ever hit the road again?
It's kind of like spelunking. When you meditate, you go down into your mind, and you put a mark wherever you stop. Then you come back up to the surface. Eventually, you go down, and you mark it again. I don't know if I'll ever hit the road again, but I still meditate; I still bow. So you could say I'm still on the pilgrimage. But it may take lifetimes -- who knows how long? -- to get to the bottom.
5. The Dalai Lama's visit spotlights the fact that, with 1.5 million adherents, Buddhism is America's fourth-largest religion. – By Jane Lampman | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
That genial face has become familiar across the globe - almost as recognizable when it comes to religious leaders, perhaps, as Pope John Paul II. When in America, the Dalai Lama is a sought-after speaker, sharing his compassionate message and engaging aura well beyond the Buddhist community.
After inaugurating a new Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education in Vancouver, B.C., the Tibetan leader this week begins a visit to several US cities for public talks, sessions with young peacemakers, scientists, university faculty, corporate executives, and a California women's conference. But he'll also sit down for teach-ins among the burgeoning American faithful.
Buddhism is growing apace in the United States, and an identifiably American Buddhism is emerging. Teaching centers and sanghas (communities of people who practice together) are spreading here as American-born leaders reframe ancient principles in contemporary Western terms.
Though the religion born in India has been in the US since the 19th century, the number of adherents rose by 170 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to the American Religious Identity Survey. An ARIS estimate puts the total in 2004 at 1.5 million, while others have estimated twice that. "The 1.5 million is a low reasonable number," says Richard Seager, author of "Buddhism in America."
That makes Buddhism the country's fourth-largest religion, after Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Immigrants from Asia probably account for two-thirds of the total, and converts about one-third, says Dr. Seager, a professor of religious studies at Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y.
What is drawing people (after that fascination with Zen Buddhism in the '50s and '60s)? The Dalai Lama himself has played a role, some say, and Buddhism's nonmissionizing approach fits well with Americans' search for meaningful spiritual paths.
"People feel that Buddhist figures like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh of Vietnam are contributing something, not trying to convert people," says Lama Surya Das, a highly trained American lama in the Tibetan tradition. "They are not building big temples, but offering wisdom and ways of reconciliation and peacemaking, which are so much needed."
Even a larger factor, he suggests, is that Buddhism offers spiritual practices that Western religions haven't emphasized.
"People are looking for experiential practices, not just a new belief system or a new set of ethical rules which we already have, and are much the same in all religions," Surya Das says. "It's the transformative practices like meditation which people are really attracted to."
At a sangha "sitting" in Cambridge, Mass., last week, some 20 devotees sat cross-legged on four rows of large burgundy-colored cushions before a small candlelit altar. A practice leader led a quiet hour of meditation interspersed with the chanting of prayers and mantras. The group then gathered in a circle for a half hour of discussion.
Carol Marsh, an architect who served as practice leader for the evening, had an interest in finding a spiritual path for years, but was "resistant to anything nonrationalist," she says afterward in an interview. "Then I read 'Awakening the Buddha Within,' [Surya Das's first book on 'Tibetan wisdom for the Western world'], and it spoke to me directly.... My ultimate aim is liberation."
After eight years of practicing, "I am happier, more grateful, more able to roll with whatever punches or moments of annoyance may present themselves," Ms. Marsh says.
What's so valuable to Jane Moss, who's been practicing 15 years, is learning how "to be in the present moment." And also to accept that reality involves perfection and "to view the world as good and people as basically loving." Each month, the group holds a meditation focused on love and compassion.
The sangha has been meeting since 1991, when Surya Das opened the Dzogchen Center here after decades of training with Tibetan teachers. Before becoming a lama, he was Jeffrey Miller, raised in a middle-class Jewish family in Brooklyn. An anti-Vietnam-War activist while at the University of Buffalo (N.Y.), he was stunned when his good friend Allison Krause was shot and killed by the National Guard at Kent State in 1970.
"When I graduated in 1972, I was disillusioned with radical politics - I realized fighting for peace was a contradiction in terms, and I wanted to find inner peace," he explains. Instead of graduate school, the young Miller headed off on a search that ended up in the Himalayas, where he spent the rest of the '70s and '80s learning from Buddhist teachers while teaching some of them English.
There were plenty of struggles and moments of doubt, but also illumination, he says. Following a centuries-old path to cultivate awareness, his training included two three-year retreats of intensely focused practice.
"One of the great lessons of that monastic brotherhood was learning to love even those people I didn't like," he says, speaking by phone from a retreat in Texas where he's training others.
There are many schools of Buddhism, but "everyone agrees that the purpose is the individual and collective realization of Enlightenment," Surya Das continues. "That is defined as nirvanic peace, wisdom, and selfless love. It involves a practice path that depends on meditation, ethical behavior, and developing insight and active love."
Buddha means "awakened" in Sanskrit, a language of ancient India, where Siddhartha Gautama founded the faith and an Eightfold Path some 2,500 years ago. Buddhists believe that through that path one awakens to what already is - "the natural great perfection." They do not speak of God, but of the human or ego mind with a small "m," and the Buddha (awakened) Mind with a big "m."
"Healing energy takes place through an agency far greater than, yet immanent in each of us," Surya Das has written. "We are all Buddhas."
One doesn't have to subscribe to a catechism or creed, or be a vegetarian. Nor do people have to give up their religion. That's why some Americans speak of being Jewish Buddhists, for instance.
The Dalai Lama, in fact, often encourages people to stay with the faith of their cultural upbringing, to avoid the confusion that can sometimes result from a mixing of Eastern and Western perspectives.
Yet others are going more fully into Buddhist study, particularly as the writings and training by American-born teachers increase its accessibility.
The Dzogchen Center (Dzogchen means "the innate great completeness"), which has sanghas in several states, teaches an advanced Tibetan practice; annually, it offers numerous retreats, from one-day to two-week gatherings. Surya Das - whose Tibetan teacher gave him his name, which means "follower or disciple of the light" - is the spiritual director.
Thirty devotees are currently cloistered in a 100-day retreat for advanced students at the Dzogchen retreat center outside Austin, Texas. They are in the third of a 12-year cycle of silent retreats - which will likely produce new teachers.
Several Tibetan teachers helped introduce Buddhism in the US, and one, Chogyam Trungpa, founded Naropa University in Boulder, Colo. But the teacher succumbed to excesses that tempt clergy of various faiths - alcoholism and sexual misconduct.
The Dalai Lama has warned, too, of some teachers who seek leadership for financial rather than spiritual reasons. The issue of students and teachers is today one of the most controversial in transmission of teaching from East to West, says Surya Das.
Still, a healthy American Buddhism with its own characteristics is emerging. It is less doctrinal and ritualistic than in the East and more meditation oriented, less hierarchical and more democratic and egalitarian. It is more lay-oriented than monastic, and more socially and ecologically engaged.
Perhaps most noticeably, "the role of women as leaders and teachers is very significant here," Seager says.
The Dalai Lama speaks of Buddhism naturally taking new forms in each culture. As he travels the globe, he also emphasizes building bridges between faiths, as well as finding nonviolent means for resolving differences. This weekend, the Nobel Peace Laureate will spend time with youths in Denver engaged in conflict-resolution projects. He'll bless the Great Stupa, the largest example of Buddhist sacred architecture in the US, located at Colorado's Shambhala Mountain Center.
Next week he'll speak to 20,000 at a football stadium in Buffalo, and at the alma mater of Surya Das, who was one of his attendants for several years. The American lama will also speak.
"Buddhism made me a mensch and brought me happiness," Surya Das concludes contentedly, "and helped me find my place in life and the universe."
6. Reasons to Convert to Buddhism? Why I Can't Give You Any – By Barbara O'Brien, About.com
After reading a heartfelt essay listing reasons to convert to Christianity, I began to play with the idea of listing reasons to convert to Buddhism. And I decided against it. Writing the list, I mean.
The truth is, I don't necessarily think everyone should convert to Buddhism. As a religion -- and, yes, Buddhism is a religion 1-- Buddhism can be aggravating. It takes discipline and dedication, many of the doctrines are bleeping near impossible to wrap your head around, and non-Buddhists often will size you up as some kind of post-Flower Child flake.
What is it to "convert," anyway? I suppose I should know this, since I was raised in one religion and now practice another one. But I had left my religion-of-origin and was used to being "Not a Christian" long before I stumbled into Buddhism and realized I was home.
If "converting" means abandoning one religious path to take up another, I didn't covert. Although my path led from Christianity to Buddhism, it was all one path. Jesus still teaches me, just as Dogen and Nagarjuna and the Buddha do.
People who are eager to convert others to their religion usually believe their religion is the "right" one -- the One True Religion. They think their doctrines are the true doctrines and their God the real God, and all others are wrong. Such a view makes two assumptions that I reject.
The first assumption is that an omnipotent and omnipresent entity such as God -- or Brahma, or the Tao, or the Trikaya -- can be completely understood by human intellect, and that this perfect understanding can be expressed in words to form doctrines that transmit this perfect understanding to others with unfailing accuracy.
And I say that's nonsense. I say no doctrines of any religion, including mine, are the complete truth. All fall short of perfect understanding. All are frequently misunderstood. The truest doctrines are just pointers, shadows on a wall, or a hand pointing to the moon.
At the same time, it may be that most of the doctrines of most of the world's religions reflect some small part of a great and absolute truth, so they aren't necessarily false, either. As Joseph Campbell may have said, all religions are true. You just have to understand what they are true of.
The Search for Transcendence
The other false assumption is that thinking the correct thoughts and believing the correct beliefs are what define religion. I'm with historian Karen Armstrong2 when she says that religion is not primarily about beliefs. Rather, "Religion is a search for transcendence."
Of course, transcendence can be conceptualized many different ways, also. We might think of transcendence as union with God or as entry into Nirvana. But I don't think the conceptualizations are all that important, since all are imperfect. Maybe God is a metaphor for Nirvana. Maybe Nirvana is a metaphor for God.
The Buddha taught his monks that Nirvana cannot be conceptualized. In Exodus, God refused to be limited by a name or represented by a graven image. It may be hard for humans to accept, but there are places our almighty imaginations and intellects cannot go.
Lights in the Darkness
I'm not saying beliefs and doctrines have no value, because they do. Doctrines can be like a flickering candle that keeps you from walking in total darkness. They can be like markers on a path, showing you a way others have walked before.
Buddhists judge the value of a doctrine not by its factual accuracy but by its skillfulness. A skillful doctrine opens the heart to compassion and the mind to wisdom.
Rigidly fixed beliefs are not skillful, however. Rigidly fixed beliefs seal us off from objective reality and from other people who don't share our beliefs. They render the mind hard and closed to whatever revelations or realizations Grace might send our way.
The One True Religion
I believe the world's great religions have all accumulated their share of both skillful and unskillful doctrines and practices. I also have observed that a religion that's good for one person can be all wrong for someone else. Ultimately, the One True Religion for you is the one that most completely engages your own heart and mind. It is that engagement that enables transcendence.
I left Christianity because it no longer engaged my heart and mind. Well, the heart maybe, but the mind said "Nope." But just because I walked away from Christianity doesn't mean I think Christianity or any other religion is wrong for everyone else.
Just yesterday I had a lovely conversation with the cantor of a nearby synagogue. As he spoke of being a cantor is was clear that Judaism illuminates his life and is his One True Religion. I'd have been the world's most boorish ass to even think of "converting" him.
It's been twenty years since I found Thich Nhat Hanh's Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism 3. The first one is:
"Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth."
I knew then that Buddhism was a religion I could enter into with my entire heart and mind without leaving my critical thinking skills at the door. And it's also why I feel no deep compulsion to convert anyone.
If you are looking for a spiritual home, I'm happy to help you learn about Buddhism. But I can't give you reasons to convert. You'll have to find those within yourself.
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