May 2015 Ministry Theme: Compassion

Buddhist GroupA Buddhist Perspective

By Nancy Thompson
Compassion is the heart of the Buddhist teachings. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, head of one of the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and the face of Buddhism to much of the world, says that the purpose of life is to be happy, and the way to attain that is to develop compassion.

“The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes. Cultivating a close, warm-hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. This helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we 5/have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the ultimate source of success in life,” he says.

Compassion is listed as one of the Brahma Viharas, or Divine Abodes, along with lovingkindness, empathetic joy, and equanimity. While lovingkindness is defined as the wish for all beings—ourselves and others—to be happy, compassion goes a step further, seeing suffering and aspiring to end it.

Looking deeply at others’ suffering 5/sound depressing, but the Dalai Lama says it’s what gives us the ability to face our difficulties without getting swamped:

As long as we live in this world we are bound to encounter problems. If, at such times, we lose hope and become discouraged, we diminish our ability to face difficulties. If, on the other hand, we remember that it is not just ourselves but every one who has to undergo suffering, this more realistic perspective will increase our determination and capacity to overcome troubles. Indeed, with this attitude, each new obstacle can be seen as yet another valuable opportunity to improve our mind!

Thus we can strive gradually to become more compassionate, that is we can develop both genuine sympathy for others’ suffering and the will to help remove their pain. As a result, our own serenity and inner strength will increase.

Compassion develops on three levels: aspiring (we see others’ suffering and wish it could be removed); active (we take action to alleviate the suffering); and absolute (we see no difference between ourselves and others, and every action we take is for the benefit of beings).

How do we develop compassion? We allow our hearts to be touched. Compassion is sometimes described as being tender-hearted—it’s the “aw” we feel watching cat videos on the Internet or looking at pictures of babies; the tears that fall when we hear another’s pain; even the anger at injustice. (Using anger as skillful means is a topic all its own.) There are specific practices in which we imagine exchanging places with another person or taking their suffering into our own hearts and transforming it.

By developing an attitude of compassion—of seeing suffering rather than ignoring or denying it or blaming the person who is suffering—we behave differently in the world. That’s important. That’s world-changing.

The 17th Karmapa, head of another of the Tibetan Buddhist lineages, speaks frequently about the need to act to protect the environment. Intellectual knowledge of the threat to the planet has not produced action because our heartfelt awareness, known as bodhicitta, hasn’t kept pace. We care more for consumer goods than the Earth.

“The weakness of our compassion, and the weakness or outright lack of our bodhicitta has placed this world in grave danger,” he said. “We know this, it is all around us and we are responsible for it. And yet we lack enough compassion to care. We lack enough bodhicitta to do anything about it. We need to work on that.”

Compassion depends on a personal, felt connection. When we act from that deep level, we respect the interdependent web of existence, cherishing all life as much as our own.

April 2015 Ministry Theme: Transcendence

Buddhist GroupA Buddhist Perspective

By Nancy Thompson

You often see lotuses in images of Eastern religions or philosophies. They stand for beauty, peace, purity —in Tibetan Buddhist iconography, the buddhas sit on lotuses with as many as 100,000 petals, symbolic of their great wisdom and compassion.

But lotuses, as lovely as they are, grow in unlovely mud, not pristine pools. They live in the mud and the muck; they thrive there. They don’t transcend the mud. They exist together, inseparable. As Thich Naht Hanh says, they inter-are. No mud, no lotus.

Merriam-Webster defines transcendent as “going beyond ordinary experience.” But Buddhism celebrates the ordinary as the path to liberation. Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck started the lineage of Ordinary Mind Zen. Popular teacher Pema Chodron advises us to “start where you are.” You work with what you have—emotions, fears, irritations, pleasures—and use that to wake up to the way habitual patterns rule your life and keep your from directly experiencing the world. “When nothing is special, everything can be,” Beck writes.

Our tendency is to avoid those feelings, to pretend the lotus exists independently of the mud. That leads to suffering, as we blindly follow habits, doing the same things over and over to distract ourselves and wondering why it doesn’t make us feel good. Buddhist psychologist John Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypassing,” which refers to that tendency to use spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with the discomfort of life. Denying suffering or bypassing it without examining it, processing it, loving it, doesn’t provide liberation from suffering, and you’re likely to find yourself stuck there.

The Buddha taught that nirvana—or liberation—is not separate from samsara, the world of habit and struggle. They exist together, like the mud and the lotus. It’s about all in how you see and understand it. If we see the mud as an unacceptable, unpleasant aspect of life that needs to be cleaned up or covered over, we’re creating suffering, trying to do what can’t be done. If we accept it, we can appreciate fully the beauty of the lotus.

January 2015 Monthly Ministry Theme

Buddhist GroupA Buddhist Perspective

By Nancy Thompson

Ministry Theme for December is Justice

At its core, Buddhism is a path on which everyone gets their due. All that we have is our actions, the Buddha said, and all those actions have consequences that we have to live with, maybe for many lifetimes.

But Buddhism doesn’t stop with the idea that justice will be handed out to each person over time. It challenges us to live in a way that is blameless, that does no harm to other beings.

“He who has understanding and great wisdom does not think of harming himself or another, nor of harming both alike. He rather thinks of his own welfare, of that of others, of that of both, and of the welfare of the whole world. In that way one shows understanding and great wisdom.”

— Anguttara Nikaya (Gradual Sayings) Fours, No. 186

Early Buddhists were concerned with the creation of social conditions favorable to the individual cultivation of Buddhist values. “Buddhism arose in India as a spiritual force against social injustices, against degrading superstitious rites, ceremonies and sacrifices; it denounced the tyranny of the caste system and advocated the equality of all men; it emancipated woman and gave her complete spiritual freedom.” – Walpola Rahula

The path of our own liberation doesn’t detour around a place of others’ slavery. While Buddhism has always been concerned with individual responsibility and working with your own thoughts, words, and actions, the path is relational – the merit of your actions comes from the effect on others. The Eightfold Path of “right” ethics, action, and contemplation is all about interdependence.

Today, “engaged Buddhism” is a strong strand, particularly in the west. If we cultivate wisdom and compassion – said to be the two wings that bring us to enlightenment – how can we not notice that others are being systematically injured? How can we not use our wisdom and compassion to work to change that?

Roshi Bernie Glassman of the Zen Peacemakers Order has been at the forefront of engaged Buddhism, leading “street retreats” in which practitioners live temporarily as homeless people, and developing “Bearing Witness” retreats in which practitioners have gone to Rwanda and Auschwitz, among other places, to contemplate what has happened there.

Zen Peacemakers uses the idea of “not knowing” or “beginner’s mind.” Many times, activists have an idea, based on their own biases or filters, of right and wrong and what is just. First we have to look at our own prejudices and ideas. Then we bear witness to what is there. And that leads to compassionate action – which may be something different than we initially imagined.

“The insight and equanimity that can come from spiritual practice should open our eyes to the problems of people around us and make us more effective.” – Roshi Bernie Glassman

December 2014 Monthly Ministry Theme: Hope

Buddhist GroupA Buddhist Perspective

By Nancy Thompson


Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron describes hope – December’s ministry theme – as an addiction to the idea that things would be better if they were somehow different. That keeps us from seeing and working with things as they are, which is the only way we actually can create change.

“Abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning,” she writes. The hope we’re giving up, she says, is the idea that we could “be saved from being who we are.”

“Without giving up hope – that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be – we will never relax with who or where we are,” she writes in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.

When we do relax and look around without a judgmental eye, we begin to see what is there, to realize that we are sufficient and the world is not out to get us. Life becomes workable.

Pema notes that hope is the other side of fear, and that pairing is the root of our pain.

“In the world of hope and fear, we always have to change the channel, change the music, because

something is getting uneasy, something is getting restless, something is beginning to hurt, and we keep

looking for alternatives.”

If instead we stay with the feeling of discomfort, get to know our true selves, we can find confidence in our basic nature and our ability to be ourselves in the world. We can identify the source of the discomfort, rather than escaping it or covering it over, and work with that.

November 2014 Monthly Ministry Theme: Faith

Buddhist GroupA Buddhist Perspective

By Nancy Thompson

The Buddha famously told his followers, Don’t believe anything just because I say it. Try it for yourself. If it works, use it; if not, discard it.

So what is the role of faith in a tradition whose founder says not to take anything, not even his words, on faith?

In Buddhism, faith starts as interest, or curiosity. You see something, meet someone, read something, hear something. It sparks a response in you. You want to know more – how does that person attain that sense of calm amid chaos? How does the First Noble Truth – that suffering touches everyone – explain the world? How can I apply Pema Chodron’s teachings to my life?

That’s called aspiring or desirous faith. Sharon Salzberg, in her book Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, calls it “bright” faith. It isn’t fully formed, just a sense that there’s something there.

The next level is yearning, which Salzberg calls “verifying.” You ask questions at this stage. You do some investigating. You listen to more talks, you try some meditation techniques, you read more books. And it still makes sense. In a scientific framework, aspiring faith is the hypothesis. You have some reason to believe that something is true, that it makes sense, based on other things you know. Then you do more research or experiments to test it out. That’s the verifying stage.

If it holds up, you reach resolute or abiding faith. You trust in that which you’ve studied and experienced.

Buddhism places a lot of weight on the experience part of that equation. You can read about emptiness and understand it intellectually, but until you have a felt experience of that, you can’t know it.  The Buddhist path, with all its lists and interpretations, its 88,000 doors, is simply intended to help you peel off the conditioned layers of society and self to access your inner wisdom.

The Buddha also said that you are your own best teacher. When his followers asked what they should do after his death, he replied: Be a lamp unto yourself.

Ultimately, faith in Buddhism means having faith in yourself, trusting in your own innate goodness and wisdom and ability to discern what creates harm and what creates contentment. As Salzberg writes, “Whether faith is connected to a deity or not its essence lies in trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely.”

October 2014 Monthly Ministry Theme: Attonement

Buddhist GroupA Buddhist Perspective

By Nancy Thompson


Buddhism is a path of personal responsibility. The concept of karma details how we are responsible for our actions -­across many lifetimes, if you want to take the long view. Buddhist teachings recommend that we constantly take stock of our actions to determine whether they create harm or benefit for beings. The goal is to create benefit, but, inevitably, there is harm done too. Someone interrupts our train of thought, and we snap in anger. We don’t listen closely to someone and say something unkind.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there is a set of 59 slogans, called Lojong mind-training practices, that offer practical guidance for refining and purifying one’s actions. They include the recommendations to start the day with the intention to do no harm and to end the day by reviewing our conduct to see if we’ve followed through.

And what if we have not? It’s not an excuse for recrimination or beating ourselves up. It’s possible to purify the effects of harmful actions. It starts with acknowledging the unskillful action, seeing that it has harmed us and others, and setting an intention not to repeat the behavior.

The idea here is to change habitual patterns –anger, sarcasm, arrogance, envy –that harm ourselves and others. We take responsibility for our behavior, acknowledging our unskillful response and not blaming the circumstances or the devil who made us do it, and see that we can choose to behave differently –and promise (to ourselves) that we will try to do that.

Atonement, or purification practices, involve the two wings of Buddhism: wisdom and compassion. The recognition of our behavior and its effects requires wisdom, clear-seeing that is unfiltered by justification or judgment. Having recognized our behavior as harmful, we vow to change for the benefit of all beings, which is called compassion.

In Zen Buddhism, there is a formal atonement ritual. In Tibetan Buddhism, there are several purification rituals, including Vajrasattva practice. Both of those practices involve visualizing a deity who purifies the karma –the deity is a symbol for your own inner, pure nature.

The practices don’t require a deity. It’s a simple reflection. The trick is to do it without getting caught up in the stories we use to justify or explain our behavior, and sometimes picturing an outside entity helps with that.

Another of the lojong slogans says: Drive all blames into one. That means that instead of blaming the weather or the traffic or the email from your new boss for your bad mood, you take responsibility for it. If someone backs into your car and dents it, you take responsibility for your reaction (but not the repair bill). Do you yell, call them names, moan about why this always happens to you? Or calmly make the calls and then move on? That’s your choice, and that’s what atonement or purification practice brings to light.

“We are not compelled to meditate by some outside agent, by other people, or by God. Rather, just as we are

responsible for our own suffering, so are we solely responsible for our own cure. We have created the situation in which

we find ourselves, and it is up to us to create the circumstances for our release.”

-Lama Thubten Yeshe, Wisdom Energy

September Ministry Theme: Vision

A Buddhist PerspectiveBuddhist Group

By Nancy Thompson

I start each day with a brief recitation recommended by Thich Nhat Hahn: Waking up, I smile. Twenty-four brand-new hours are before me. I vow to live fully present in each moment and to look at the world with eyes of compassion.

Often, I find myself contemplating the phrase “eyes of compassion” as I get ready to start my day. What does it mean to see with eyes of compassion? Do things look different? How would I view a particular situation through the eyes of compassion? Would it be different if I looked with critical eyes, eyes of judgment, eyes of hatred?

Think of a plant. It could be seen as a beautiful living thing, an out-of-place invader, a potential source of suffering for those with allergies, and more. That’s how it is with most things — how we see is the result of not only how well our eyes work but the interpretations we bring to the physical action of seeing.

September’s ministry theme is Vision. It generally refers both to the physical process of apprehending visual stimulation in this moment and to the view of what we want to see in the future.

Buddhism is more concerned with the present moment and seeing clearly what is happening in the moment, including the arising of prejudices, memories, and conceptions that affect our direct experience and lead to more preferences and judgments that affect the future. Many of the practices associated with Buddhism, including various methods of meditation, are intended to help us become aware of those filters and to lead us to direct, unfiltered experience of our world.

Direct experience is the foundation of the Buddhist path. The Buddha himself said not to take anything he said on faith but to test it out and determine by your own experience whether it is valid. He laid out a path, but you have to do the work of walking it to know if it is true. The many wise teachers out there can point the way and help keep you on the path, but you have to put in the “joyful effort,” as Pema Chodron calls it, to move toward liberation.

The Buddha named Right View as the first step on the Eightfold Path to liberation from suffering. Right — also called Wise — View includes an understanding of impermanence and interdependence, that everything is always changing, and in the interdependent web of existence, those changes ripple out and affect others. Buddhist monk and scholar Bikkhu Bodhi lists Right View as the ninth step on the path because by working through the other steps our view becomes more refined and subtle as we realize and drop our filters.

An enlightened person is said to see clearly what is happening, both in the immediate moment and the causes and conditions that led to that. That wisdom naturally results in compassion — and Right Action, which is action that leads to liberation from suffering for ourselves and all other beings.

August Monthly Ministry Theme: Identity

Buddhist Group A Buddhist Perspective 

By Nancy Thompson

Ministry Theme for August is Identity

Last month at a group meditation retreat, in silence, among people who aren’t familiar with me, I was known to some as the woman with coffee — coffee was something of a contraband thing, not prohibited but not provided. I brought my own. To others, who shared my assigned daily work of cleaning the community center, I was the one who obsessively went over the checklist each day to make sure everything got done. I was a meditator, a student, a roommate.

Without the usual social cues of speech and context, identity gets stripped down to behavior and appearance. Name and history and stories don’t mean much when you aren’t having conversations. And that’s part of what happens when you sit in silence — you get glimpses that identity is mutable, relational, contextual, rather than something solid that you own. The stories that we think define us carve habitual patterns that can be hard to break out of, but our minds are the only things forcing us into those ruts.

“If you’re determined to think of yourself as limited, fearful, vulnerable, or scarred by past experience, know only that you have chosen to do so. The opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available.” —YongeyMingyur Rinpoche

In any given day, each of us has many identities — spouse, pet owner, parent, householder, employee, customer, etc. — even though we’re only one person. We can’t be all things to everyone but we can be many things to many people.

Seeing the multiplicity of identities and the lack of solidity in each one allows us to wear our identities loosely, leaving room for things to move in a different way. A boss doesn’t always have to be authoritative; sometimes listening to others’ ideas is appropriate. A parent doesn’t always have to know the answer — knowing how to look something up or being willing to try something we’re not expert at can be a good lesson too.

“Misfortunes and obstacles to practice do not exist intrinsically. For something to be a misfortune for me, I must identify it as such,” Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace says. If we refuse to identify something as an obstacle but see it instead as an opportunity or a challenge, we approach it differently. “We can then rebound from these calamities with courage and understanding, instead of wilting under their pressure,” Wallace adds.

The Buddha said that there is no solid, permanent self or identity — all we have are our actions, our karma. And we can always choose to act differently.  We can’t chose our race or whether we have a disability that affects how we move or other visible characteristics, but we can choose how we relate to that identity, just as others choose how they relate to that in us. Do we define ourselves by what others see in us or do we focus on showing them something that’s hidden? Do we chose to spend time with others who share an aspect of our identity or to vote in a bloc — identity politics — or do we cast a wider net?

June Monthly Ministry Theme: Family

Buddhist Group A Buddhist Perspective 

By Nancy Thompson

The historical Buddha left behind his family — parents, wife, and infant son — when  he snuck out of his palatial home to look for the causes of and liberation from suffering. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t talk much about family except metaphorically: Regard all beings as a mother regards her only child.

The Buddha taught to anyone who wanted his teachings, but he intended them mainly for monastics. (His son, Rahula, became a monk and the aunt who raised him after his mother’s early death was among the first nuns.)

While biological family isn’t seen as important, the community, or sangha, is so vital that it one of the three gems in which Buddhists take refuge — Buddha, dharma, sangha. Thich Nhat Hahn describes sangha as “the community that lives in harmony and awareness,” in one version of the refuge vow. That description is more of an aspiration that a statement of reality, as anyone who’s been part of a community knows. Interactions with people, even those related to us by blood or choice, can create friction.

That’s not seen as a problem, however. In fact, when the Indian sage Atisha went to Tibet to teach, he was concerned because he had heard that the Tibetans were so pleasant and easy to get along with that he might become complacent and stop working on himself. To guarantee that wouldn’t happen, he brought along the most annoying person he could find — an irritable Begali tea boy.

People who we find irritating or annoying show us where we’re stuck, where we’re clinging to ego or to a solid sense of self. When you think, “How could he do that to me?” you’ve created two solid, very separate selves. You’re not seeing the common humanity — and confusion — that colors relationships. You’re assigned praise or blame based on your perceptions of the situation without knowing all of the causes or conditions that created it. And you’re closely off your options for responding compassionately.

Families can be particularly good at pointing up old habits, places where we’re stuck. They’re also places where we can practice extending unconditional kindness — I love you no matter what — and boundless compassion. Relationships are where we test the truth of the realizations we’ve had in study or meditation practice.

I recently attended a weekend retreat on relational mindfulness. Half of each day was spent in silent, internal mediation practice, and half in interactive practice: feeling out the boundaries of our physical comfort zones, speaking briefly, listening. It was an intense experience to notice how quick we are to judge ourselves and others, to make assumptions, to fall back on habits and conventions without awareness of how we really feel.

It’s not realistic to expect to live always in harmony. That likely means covering over incidents or emotions that might disrupt that. But we can use our awareness to live with less stress and strife, seeing what is our projections, deciding how we want to respond to slights., cultivating kindness rather than staking out status.


May Ministry Theme: Devotion

Looking for some help on the Buddhist perspective on the May ministry theme, devotion, I looked through the indexes of several Buddhist books, but none had a listing for devotion. It’s not a common topic. The dictionary defines devotion as a strong sense of love or loyalty. But Buddhism tells us to look closely, to question. Don’t believe anything just because I say it’s so, the Buddha said. Examine it for yourself and see if it’s true.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche says devotion is often characterized by a feeling of inadequacy, that we are less accomplished or less able than the object of devotion. There’s a sense of separation and distance. In tantric or Tibetan Buddhism practitioners cultivate devotion to a guru or a deity – but that’s really a way of seeing the qualities of the deity in themselves. Devotion to the guru or deity is a way of cutting through the ways we cling to a sense of having a separate self. It’s connected with surrender, one of our previous minis¬try themes.

Another way to look at devotion is as abiding or unwavering faith. Sharon Salzberg defines abiding faith as “the magnetic force of a bone-deep, lived understanding, one that draws on us to realize our ideals, walk our talk, and act in accord with what we know to be true.” (“Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experi¬ence” by Sharon Salzberg.)

For Buddhists, unwavering faith or devotion is related to buddhanature, that which has inherent worth and dignity, that which is innately compassionate and kind. “Unwavering faith knows to call upon the trustworthy earth of our own nature,” Salzberg writes. Devotion to our own potential for waking up leads us to see that in others, to feel compassion for others, and to want to help them.

The dictionary offers a second definition of devotion: “the use of time, money, energy, etc., for a particular purpose.” In Buddhism that purpose is enlightenment or liberation from suffering. And all of life can be used toward that end. The way to do that is outlined in the Eightfold Path, which lays out practices for living life with wisdom, ethics, and contemplation.