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.

April Ministry Theme: Reconciliation

Buddhist Group A Buddhist Perspective 

By Nancy Thompson

To reconcile is to bring back together two things that have been separated. It’s what happens when a couple that has separated decides to give their relationship another try, Or when you balance the checkbook and bring your numbers in line with the bank’s. Or in the Roman Catholic sacrament, when you confess your sins and do your penance, taking away the stain that has kept you separate from God and the church.

In Buddhism, we experience this type of reconciliation when we see the truth of interdependence and the false nature of our separate constructed selves. We experience reconciliation when we let go of thoughts that carry us to the past or future, ruminating or projecting, and come back to the present moment with kind awareness, when we awaken to our true nature — which is not separate from others’ true nature. All beings have buddhanature, the inherent dignity and joy that is our unfabricated state.  We build identities on that, constructing shells that we collect and defend from questions or contradictions.  When we see that those identities are illusory and impermanent — not the solid, weight, unchanging things we imagine them to be — we can relax into a state of non-self or non-duality.

“What is meant by nonduality? It means that light and shade, long and short, black and white, can only be experienced in relation to each other; light is not independent of shade, nor black of white. There are no opposites, only relationships. In the same way, nirvana and the ordinary world of suffering are not two things but related to each other. There is no nirvana except where the world of suffering is; there is no world of suffering apart from nirvana. For existence is not mutually exclusive.” (Lankavatara Sutra) Thich Nhat Hahn calls this “inter-being.”

But even as we inter-are, we are. Even if we all have joyful, wise buddhanature — if the process of Buddhist practice is simply to find a way home to that — we have separate bodies, we act in different ways, not all them seemingly the actions of wise, joyful beings. How do we reconcile this?

Merriam Webster’s second definition of reconciliation encapsulates the conundrum of Buddhist study: the process of finding a way to make two different ideas, facts, etc., exist or be true at the same time. Our natural enlightenment, our ultimate identity, is hidden under the muck of constructed identities and be­liefs, our relative identity. (The relative level of reality is the one where you deal with your relatives, one teacher says.) The challenge is to act in the relative world with the knowledge of the ultimate, to bring to­gether the beautiful truth of interdependence and our mundane existence.

The first step to that is to see that others, who appear to be separate from us, actually are connected. And just like us, they want to be happy and safe and at peace. Understanding that as the source of their ac­tions, we may be less inclined to be oppositional and more apt to find common ground.

March Ministry Theme: Surrender

buddhisticonA Buddhist Perspective
Ministry Theme for January: Evil

By Nancy Thompson

“Surrender Dorothy,” the Wicked Witch of the West wrote in the sky in the movie “The Wizard of Oz.” What she meant was, “Give up. Stop fighting. Stop struggling.”  Taken out of the “us vs them” context, that doesn’t sound so bad. No fighting, no struggling – sounds pretty good, actually.

In Buddhism, surrender is not about handing over our power to another entity or becoming subservi­ent. It’s about giving up, not giving in – as the song says, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield … ain’t gonna study war no more.” It’s about surrendering our small, limited concept of ourselves in order to see the larger, interconnected, fullness of being. We give up the things that keep us trapped and gain freedom. Surrender is similar to the concept of renunciation in Tibetan Buddhism. In “The Wisdom of No Escape,” Pema Chodron writes that “it has to go with letting go of holding back. What one is renouncing is closing down and shutting off from life. You could say that renunciation is the same thing as opening to the teach­ings of the present moment.”

What we surrender are the self-defensive strategies that keep us separate from others, that lock us into the self-other binary. Instead of measuring ourselves and our accomplishments against others, clinging to what we’ve managed to accumulate, we see that we can be OK without that. “The ground … is realizing that we already have exactly what we need, that what we have already is good,” Chodron says. It’s also seeing that everyone stands on that same ground, that everyone is inherently whole and worthy of respect and dignity. If we are truly living in that place, there’s no need to struggle, to fight for a bigger piece of the pie, to try to defeat everyone else and come out on top.

Letting go, surrendering the things that keep us apart and opposed ends the struggle and lets us relax. “The purpose of a spiritual discipline is to give us a way to stop the war, not by our force of will, but organi­cally, through understanding and gradual training,” Jack Kornfield writes in “A Path with Heart.” … “When we let go of our battles and open our hearts to things as they are, then we can come to rest in the present mo­ment.”

February Ministry Theme: Love

buddhisticonA Buddhist Perspective
Ministry Theme for January: Evil

By Nancy Thompson

 

In Buddhism, love is paired with kindness in the term metta, or loving kindness. It’s defined as the wish for other beings to be happy. That may sound weak, but it’s actually not.

“Metta is the protective and immensely patient attitude of a mother who forbears all difficulties for the sake of her child and ever protects it despite its misbehavior. Metta is also the attitude of a friend who wants to give one the best to further one’s well-being. If these qualities of metta are sufficiently cultivated through metta-bhavana — the meditation on universal love — the result is the acquisition of a tremendous inner power which preserves, protects and heals both oneself and others.”

The Buddha first taught metta meditation to a group of monks who had gone to meditate in the forest and were frightened of spirits they met there. In the meditation, you make the aspiration that the other beings will be safe, happy, healthy, and know peace. In the formal practice, you extend that wish to specific people and groups: a mentor, yourself, a loved one, a neutral person, an irritating person, a group, and all beings.

By practicing in this way, we break down the illusion of separate selves and find the connection with others that we crave, Sharon Salzberg writes in “Loving-Kindness:  The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.” The Buddha describes that state as “the liberation of the heart which is love.”

Buddhism talks about universal love for all beings. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have romantic and personal relationships, teacher Noah Levine says. “The awakened heart has room for all.”

Loving-kindness is seen as the basis for ethics; if you are making a deeply felt wish for other’s happiness, you can’t at the same time wish them harm or act in a way that would cause harm.

January Ministry Theme: Evil

buddhisticonA Buddhist Perspective
Ministry Theme for January: Evil

By Nancy Thompson

Buddhism proposes that everyone and everything has buddhanature—that everything is inherently peaceful and joyous and without stress. Good and evil are a duality that arises from confusion. Nothing by nature is good or bad (although Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used the term “basic goodness” to describe buddhanature to Westerners).

On a personal level, Buddhism talks about evil as stemming from the illusion that we have a separate, permanent self that has to be defended. Often described as “demons,” evil is seen as a psychological state. “Without ego, there could be no demons,” says Lama Tsultrim Allione, who has modified a traditional Tibetan practice for non-Buddhists, which she calls “Feeding your demons.”

The Buddha sent his first followers off into the woods to meditate, and they came back frightened of the demons there who tormented them. The Buddha taught them lovingkindness meditation – to wish happiness to their demons – and the fears were quelled.

In a story from a later school of Buddhism, Milarepa was meditating in a cave and was bothered by demons. He tried everything he could think of to get rid of them, and each method would chase some off. Finally, he invited the remaining ones to tea; they were satisfied and left.

Even Mara, the demon that tormented the Buddha on the eve of his enlightenment, can be seen as psychological – Mara tempts the Buddha with food, drink, and dancing girls; has armies shoot arrows at him, and finally tries to instill doubt. The Buddha declines each of Mara’s offerings, saying, “I see you, Mara,” a recognition that the distractions and dangers are in his head.

People who don’t see the impermanence and insubstantiality of their demons might perceive them as a real threat and in their confusion act in unskillful ways that cause suffering for others in the world. Again, those actions are seen as the result of confusion and suffering and don’t stem from any inherent evil in the person. Hitler had buddhanature, but he didn’t act from that – he acted from fear. Buddhism teaches that everything that happens (all compounded phenomena) arise from causes and conditions.

What we do as a society creates the conditions for what arises. In the Lion’s Roar sutta, the Buddha uses a parable to say that poverty and the failure to care for poor is the root cause of much of what we consider evil:

Thus, from the not giving of property to the needy, poverty became rife,

from the growth of poverty, the taking of what was not given increased,

from the increase of theft, the use of weapons increased,

from the increase use of weapons, the taking of life increased, and

from the taking of life increased, lying increased,

from the increase in lying,

the speaking evil of others increased,

sexual misconduct increased,

harsh speech and idle chatter increased, and

from the increase of harsh speech and idle chatter, covetousness and hatred increased, and

from the increase in covetousness and hatred, false opinions increased, and

from the increase in false opinions, incest, excessive greed and deviant practices increased, and

from the increase of excessive greed and deviant practices,

lack of respect for mother and father,

for ascetics and Brahmins, and

for head of the clan increased,

and in consequence, people’s life-span decreased, their beauty decreased.

November Ministry Theme: Journeys

buddhisticonA Buddhist Perspective

Ministry Theme for November: Journeys

By Nancy Thompson

One of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Noah Levine, says that Buddhism is not what happens in sitting meditation, it’s how you walk in the world. Buddhist study and practice has the idea of journey built into it, of constantly moving with intention – even while sitting still. The Buddha described an eight-fold path from suffering to liberation; to walk a path takes engagement and exertion.

But Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who did a lot to introduce westerners to Buddhism, describes it as “a journey without goal.” It’s not a path that leads to a place where you stop or ascend, and rest. It’s not a summit you achieve to great acclaim. It’s a path that you walk for many lifetimes, maybe with greater ease, with practice. (Trungpa wrote another book entitled “The Path is the Goal,” again emphasizing that the process is the whole game.)

The Eight-fold Path described by the Buddha as the way to liberation is not sequential, although the components do seem to build upon one another. The eight aspects generally are broken down into three groups: wisdom, ethics, and concentration. Wisdom includes view and intention, which are like taking out a map, choosing a direction, and deciding to set forth. The ethics group includes speech, action, and livelihood, the ways we move along the path. Concentration comprises effort, mindfulness, and concentration.

And if you walk the Buddhist path of reducing suffering, you’ll find it circles back again to view – because by working with the other aspects, your view of what is possible has changed, and you continue to walk the path, seeing things differently. Everything in life is part of the journey – you bring it all onto the path: work, speech, effort, intentions. Buddhist scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi says the Eightfold Path brings to life the intellectual teachings in the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. “The path translates the Dhamma from a collection of abstract formulas into a continually unfolding disclosure of truth. It gives an outlet from the problem of suffering with which the teaching starts. And it makes the teaching’s goal, liberation from suffering, accessible to us in our own experience, where alone it takes on authentic meaning,” he writes. (Dhamma is the Pali word for the Buddha’s teachings.)

The Buddha’s path provides a framework for moving from suffering to liberation, but it’s up to the practitioner to follow it. The path is like a blue line on a flat map – it gives you a general idea of where you’re headed, but when you actually go down it, you’ll discover hazards, twists, slopes, and vistas all your own. And working with your reactions to those is how you make progress.

October Ministry Theme: Abundance

For upcoming Monthly Ministry Themes, click here.

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“Abundance of Choices: Abundance of Ideas”

by Marlene J. Geary

Autonomy and freedom of choice are critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has be­fore, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologi­cally.

[from Ch.5, The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, 2004]

Is abundance always a good thing? Have you ever had too many options? Often having too many choices gives a person choice paralysis: we’re unable to decide any directions simply because there are too many options to analyze.

Humans often go with what we know. If we have 20 menu items to choose from when we’re going out to eat, we usually select our favorite. But why? Was our favorite meal simply the easiest option? Did our favorite become our favorite simply because it was the first choice? What if there’s a better menu item? How does one choose to change our favorite? Why would one want to break out of our favorite choice?

What’s more – do we use that same thinking and decision pattern when it comes to our beliefs and ideas? How do we react to the overabundance of choices and opinions that we’re exposed to?

In 1953, a philosopher named Isaiah Berlin offered up this light-hearted grouping of the writers and thinkers of the world, based on an analysis of Aesop’s Fable “The Fox and the Cat”:

“…uses the fable … to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea; and foxes, who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea.”

[Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fox_and_the_Cat_(fable)]

If you always order a particular pasta dish off of a menu, you might think of that restaurant solely in terms of that pasta dish. If you regularly order many items off of that restaurant’s menu, you might think of the restaurant in terms of your collective menu experience. But how do you then describe that restaurant to another person – in hedgehog or fox terms?

So, here are some questions to ponder this month: Each of us has a vast array of experiences, stories, ideas, and beliefs. Where in your ideas or beliefs are you a hedgehog? Where in your beliefs or ideas are you a fox? Are there hedgehog ideas that you have because they were simply your first idea, or because they were easiest? Are you a fox in some areas because you’re frozen by analysis paralysis? Where is the blend in your life? Does the blend serve you well?

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buddhisticon

A Buddhist Perspective: Abundance

By Nancy Thompson,
UUS:E Buddhist Group

Before becoming a spiritual leader, the Bud­dha was a prince who lived in a palace with an abun­dance of material goods, none of which satisfied his hunger for meaning. Before he became enlightened, he nearly died from the ascetic lifestyle he was fol­lowing. His revelation was the Middle Way, that path between the two extremes.

Abundance is a relative term that has mean­ing only by measuring it against scarcity. We have an abundance of what we need to be content and ful­filled, but we suffer because we don’t recognize it, we fear losing it, or we want more. The cause of suf­fering, tanha, is often translated as desire – but it’s more like grasping, clinging, or desirous attachment. It’s the sense that we have to have something in or­der to be safe and happy, and that we have to ensure that we will always have it, that if we can store up enough money or love or chocolate to last for our lifetimes, we’ll be fine. And that creates anxiety, stress, and fear.

“We have a largely materialistic lifestyle characterized by a materialistic culture,” the Dalai Lama says. “However, this only provides us with temporary, sensory satisfaction, whereas long-term satisfaction is based not on the senses but on the mind. That’s where real tranquility is to be found.”

Now, your experience of your mind may not be one of tranquility. More likely, it contains thoughts, plans, ruminations, snippets of songs, con­versations with people who aren’t present. In Bud­dhist terms, that’s not your mind – that’s stuff that you’ve stuffed into your mind, covering up the clear, luminous nature of mind. When all of that settles out (through meditation, in the Buddhist path), what’s left is ease and equanimity, the ability to be with whatever happens externally without being tossed about or tied up by conditions.

The nature of mind is limitless and infinite, beyond abundance. And it is always present. Bud­dhism provides practices to tap into that – starting with learning to settle your mind in meditation and continuing with practices to train your mind. Those include practices of lovingkindness, gratitude, and appreciation, all of which help us connect with the abundance that’s available to us.

“I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough condi­tions to be happy.” Thích Nhat Hanh

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