Thursday, July 2, 2020

toward a worldwide culture of love

I enjoyed this recent article from bell hooks, which connects Buddhism, love, and social engagement. I think that what she's talking about is what led me to become politically and socially engaged in the first place. I think in many cases, developing compassion, empathy, and love will naturally inspire one to address the suffering of others when possible, and that many of the ways love is expressed coincides with what we'd label ‘leftist’ political and social movements precisely because such movements are often motivated by love and a desire to protect and uplift others. They're less focused on 'me' and more on 'us' in the sense of all of our lives and predicaments being interconnected.

Love compels us to move away from things like greed, selfishness, and competition and towards generosity, compassion, and cooperation. That's at least why I was drawn towards social engagement and more to left-leaning politics, because that's where love and compassion directed me. A mind suffused with love, for example, will see someone struggling with injury or illness within a system that makes it difficult for them to afford and access care and be inspired to help, whether through charity or through supporting a more accessible and universal healthcare system.

That doesn't mean I think that only people who are political active or on the left end of the political spectrum are capable of love, only that I see why she connects love to the end of domination, and how that tends towards movements and ideas that we associate with the label 'leftist' today. Alternatives to capitalism. Universal healthcare. Addressing climate change. Gender equality. Black Lives Matter. Etc. Because much of that domination is rooted in fear and anger and greed. Systems and institutions and cultures have been built to protect what we have from others and to maintain positions of privilege for certain segments of the population, and love compels us to confront and end those things because of the suffering they engender—from sexism and racism to imperialism and militarism and the profit motive.

I'd even go so far as to say that, after studying and practicing in multiple spiritual traditions, I've come to the conclusion a truly spiritual person who follows the underlying message of their respective faiths will necessarily be empathetic, inclusive, and ultimately, intersectional in their politics, but more importantly in their actions regardless of what their politics are. I think this can be seen from the lives of people like Giro Seno'o, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, Oscar Romero, Malcolm X, Thich Nhat Hanh, Gustavo Gutierrez, MLK Jr., Rachel Held Evans, and countless others. As Franciscan friar and author Richard Rohr puts it:

"If we are going to have truly prophetic people who go beyond the categories of liberal and conservative, we have to teach them some way to integrate their needed activism with a truly contemplative mind and heart. I’m convinced that once you learn how to look out at life from the contemplative eyes of the True Self, your politics and economics are going to change on their own. I don’t need to teach you what your politics should or shouldn’t be. Once you see things contemplatively, you’ll begin to seek the bias from the bottom instead of the top, you’ll be free to embrace your shadow, and you can live at peace with those who are different. From a contemplative stance, you’ll know what action is yours to do—and what is not yours to do—almost naturally."

Love moves us to act against suffering and injustice, because love motivates up to try and heal rather than harm. Love moves us to swim against the current of what she terms "dominator thinking and practice," which "relies for its maintenance on the constant production of a feeling of lack, of the need to grasp"; and that conversely, "Giving love offers us a way to end this suffering—loving ourselves, extending that love to everything beyond the self, we experience wholeness" and through that "we are healed." And that love can be expressed in many ways, not just in the realm of the political. It can be expressed in any number of daily personal interactions and small acts of kindness and generosity.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

thanksgiving

Thanksgiving. It can be hard for many to appreciate the mindset of gratitude or thanksgiving when they're confronted by the history of the holiday itself. The mythologized celebration at Plymouth in 1621, for instance, belies the tragic fate of the indigenous peoples of the Americas that unfolded under colonialism, Manifest Destiny, the 19th century policy of native population removal, and countless broken treaties. And Lincoln's creation of a national day of "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens" in 1863 was set within the bloody context of what many consider to be the deadliest war in American history, containing within it the hope of some future peace and harmony.

Today, it seems like it's more about food, football, and a prelude to the consumeristic orgy of Black Friday than a recollection of all the things that we're grateful for, mythologized or not. At least that's how it seems to me. But the idea of gratitude itself is something I've grown to appreciate. My life hasn't always been the best, and I haven't always been the best person; but there are numerous people and things I find myself grateful for if I reflect on it, yet I find that I rarely seem to have the time or mindfulness to cultivate that sense of gratitude and appreciation. It's not really a priority in our culture, and it's an easy thing for us to overlook. I'm reminded of the Buddha's words in AN 2.118: "These two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful and thankful for a kindness done."

The world can be a harsh and lonely place sometimes, and there are so many people I'm thankful for, too many to list. I just feel terribly grateful at this moment for the many acts and words of kindness given to me over the years. I'm especially grateful for the people who have helped me expand my knowledge over the years, so that I'm not only aware of the somber history that my high school textbooks completely glossed over but my own agency in fighting to change things and right past wrongs. And I'm also grateful for the many people who have entered my life and made it one worth living, including those who sent me such kind messages today.

Monday, November 26, 2018

nonduality

Many Buddhists, as well as those in other contemplative traditions, often speak about nonduality, but what is it? And is it something we can experience living a worldly life?

Nonduality literally means 'not two,' implying oneness, unity. More deeply, it means seeing past conventional wisdom, conventional ways of seeing, speaking, and understanding. It means seeing left as being relative to something else from a certain point of view, but that such a thing as left doesn't ultimately exist. It means being able to see beyond our limited, human perspective, glimpsing the greater whole and totality of life, its oneness where our experience is relative and ephemeral, like globs of foam floating down a river.

Nonduality means being able to take in the present moment, as it is. It means that, in the words of Richard Rohr, "You learn not to divide the field of the moment or eliminate anything that threatens your ego, but to hold everything—both the attractive and the unpleasant—together in one accepting gaze." And that is something I think one can certainly do living a worldly life, although such a life can present challenges to developing (or uncovering) such a way of seeing.

Things arise and cease, but things are also empty, like globs of foam on a river—and nonduality is being able to switch our gaze from one reality or mode of seeing to the other. This idea of two ways of seeing brings to mind the line, "These are the world's designations, the world's expressions, the world's ways of speaking, the world's descriptions, with which the Tathagata expresses himself but without grasping to them" (DN 9).

Language itself is conventional, limited, and incapable of fully describing what we're talking about; it can only point us towards such experiences. Generally speaking, however, we don't tend to see life through the prism of nonduality, but quite easily see and make distinctions, likely due to the evolutionary advantages of such. Nevertheless, we do seem to have the ability to perceive the world from a nondualistic (or one might say, unobstructed) POV, penetrating into this ultimate reality or whatever you want to call it, while still functioning in, and speaking about, regular, conventional, everyday life.

To use another image from SN 22.95, one can see and interact with the mirage of dualistic experience (existence/non-existence, etc.) while apprehending its underlying emptiness.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

dhamma

What is the Dhamma? In Buddhism, Dhamma is twofold. It refers to (1) the teachings/symbols pointing towards (2) a profound truth. That truth is an experience/way of perceiving reality that leads to a new mode of being; and that new mode of being is an existential transformation lifting us above the fear and suffering we experience through our ignorance and craving, the reality of things as they are when seen with a calm, clear, and ultimately selfless mind—a mode of being where, in the words of Jean-Pierre de Caussade, we're able to "embrace the present moment as an ever-flowing source of holiness."

Although I began my journey into Buddhism with meditation, I think my journey truly began when I read Food for the Heart: The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah, which inspired me to read the suttas starting with the Majjhima Nikaya and got me seeing things from a whole different perspective. I was inspired to practice, to change myself for the better.

But somewhere along the way, I fell into a sort of intellectual rabbit hole, and began to accumulate views rather than weed them down. I felt it important to be authentic and orthodox, which caused me to have a very closed-minded and narrow point of view, clinging to the finger rather than seeing where it was pointing. The Dhamma became just another possession; and it's only been through a combination of practice and interfaith dialogues and study that I've finally found myself slowing climbing out of that hole.

I realized things were different when I started to see through the appearances of the words and symbols and began catching glimpses of what they're pointing towards; and I eventually came to the conclusion that there's a universal truth which underlies the foundation of most spiritual traditions in some shape or form. For me, Buddhism opened my eyes to this truth, and contemplative Christianity, I think, is helping me to realize it.

From that perspective, then, I'd say that the first aspect of Dhamma is the study of the symbols pointing towards 'knowledge and vision of things as they are.' The next is the application of the various methods of achieving this gnosis until, eventually, everything becomes reflective of Dhamma, which isn't the same thing as saying everything is Dhamma. You just get better and better at recognizing it hiding in plain sight, at seeing through all the illusory distinctions and perceiving the fullness of the emptiness beyond.

But paradoxically, that emptiness isn't empty, it's full. And it's the fullness of that truth we're all seeking, whether it's the luminous mind defiled by incoming defilements due to ignorance, the light of the sun that's obscured within the cave of ignorance, or the presence of God dwelling within the temple of our bodies. The teachings of the wise (like Jesus, the Buddha, Caussade, Ajahn Chah, etc.) point the way; and all we have to do is pierce the veil of ignorance and discover it for ourselves.

Friday, July 10, 2015

some reflections on the passing of my mother

On June 24th, I got the call that I'd been dreading for years—the call that my mom was dying. She'd had a lot of health problems, and there'd been a number of close calls over the last couple of years ranging from illnesses to open heart surgery. Each time I thought, "This might be it. This might be the time I lose her." Looking back, I suppose one of the few graces of having a family member with a history of serious health problems is that it can help prepare you for the inevitable. At least it doesn't hit you out of the blue; you have the time and impetus to imagine the possibility, to emotionally prepare, to build up the reserve of strength needed to face one of the most painful experiences of your life, that of losing someone you love, without being completely overwhelmed.

Even still, I wasn't really prepared; I wasn't really ready for the fear, anger, and sadness that was looming over me, and my family, like a gigantic tidal wave about the crash down and all but obliterate my fragile being, sweeping away everything in its path—all of my hope, joy, and faith in the future. As I sat there in the airport Wednesday night, in the midst of struggling to deal with the reality of my mom's situation, I remember being struck by the nonchalantness and even callousness with which we often treat death and dying in our culture. It's as if, in our fear of death, we do everything in our power to deny it, hide it, romanticize it, or joke about it, anything to take away the power of its sting. But while these things may help us cope with its existence and inevitability, they rarely do much to prepare us for the reality and actual experience of watching a loved one die, of holding their hand as they spend the last few hours of their life gasping for breath.

I suppose that death can be beautiful or heroic depending on the circumstances; but in my experience, death is painful, torturous, heart-wrenching, full of monitors, needles, moans, tears, and parades of names and faces who do their best to be compassionate and supportive when they're not too stressed from being overworked, under paid, and/or trying to push your loved one out as quickly as possible in order to free up a bed for the next customer/patient. For anyone who's spent enough time in them to notice, hospitals are revolving doors of the sick and dying, although they could (and should) be more. Money should have nothing to do with caring for the sick, the elderly, and the dying. Money shouldn't dictate the level and quality of care, or the concern with which they're administered. And yet it does. Reflecting on everything my mom had been through and endured, not the mention the mountains of red tape, bills, and collection notices, I was saddened by how we've cheapened life, how we've made life more about making money (mostly for someone else), or else worrying about not having enough, than actually living. All those wasted years...

Suffice it to say that I was lost, heartbroken. My faith in something greater than myself was tested and destroyed before being raised up again like Lazarus. I had nothing to hold onto. All my prayers had seemingly gone unanswered. Any purpose to life I once believed in seemed all but imaginary. Only the pain and sadness I felt were real. I watched Aliens on the flight; and with every bump of turbulence, I thought that at least my pain would end if I were to die. Midway through, they called for a doctor. Someone was having a medical emergency. I'm not sure how serious it was, but after we landed a lady was helped off by EMTs before the rest of us could exit, and I hoped that she'd be OK.

Tracey, one of my closest and dearest friends, picked me up from the airport and took me to my parent's house. I thought it'd be better to go up with my dad, although now I kind of wish I'd just gone straight to the hospital to spend as much time with my mom as possible. As I sat there, waiting for my dad to drive us up to the hospital to see her, trying to let it sink in that we were possibly just a breath or two away from losing her, I felt sick, shaky, alone, wanting to cry and scream at the same time and hating myself for not coming sooner. I felt empty of everything except this sickening fear and guilt. I think I was still in shock, and I imagine that what I felt in that moment was similar to what someone who's just experienced a natural disaster might feel—half confusion and half terror. It was all a blur, and the next thing I knew, I was at the hospital, winding my way down corridors and past room after room while trying to mentally prepare myself for the worst.

No words can adequately describe the sheer emptiness I felt, nor the pain, grief, and despair that came bubbling out of that ineffable darkness. The sadness and tears came in waves that threatened to drown me. I was buffeted by anguish, and it was felt as if some sort of cosmic sinkhole had opened up beneath me, swallowing every ounce of goodness and stability from my world. By then, she was barely conscious/cognizant, but still seemingly in a lot of pain, moaning and what almost sounded like crying at times. I think part of her knew what was happening. When they came in to tell us they recommended putting her in hospice, it felt like everything was spinning. I couldn't think straight. I couldn't talk. I couldn't do anything but hold her hand, afraid to let go, as if she'd drift away the moment I did.

They said that everything was starting to shut down — her kidney, her heart, her respiratory system — and that there wasn't much more they could do. Once my dad signed the papers, they put her on a steady drip of pain medication to help keep her comfortable. I think it was hydromorphone, also known as Dilaudid; and after they started her on it, she slept heavily, which seemed to us better than the alternative. But at the same time, I was afraid, afraid that she'd never wake up again, afraid that I'd never be able to tell her one more time how much I loved her or hear her tell me the same.

My dad and sister were equally as devastated, as was my aunt Debbie. As we all sat there, taking turns holding her hand and talking to her, we were each overwhelmed by grief. A part of me wanted to die with her. Every time I tried to talk to Annie on the phone to let her know what was happening, I broke down into tears. Words would turn into sobs. Trying to find both privacy and decent cell reception, I passed by the gift shop where only a year ago we'd gotten something for my mom when she was in for her heart surgery, and the memory was like a dagger in my heart, letting my sadness bleed out in uncontrollable spurts over the phone. Annie got a flight that night and flew in the next morning.

Tara and I spent the night at the hospital. Neither one of us wanted to leave her side. Orlando, a friend of Tara's from school, came up to visit for a while. The next day, my mom's eyes were open, though she wasn't blinking, and her breathing had become more laboured and shallow. They said, in so many words, that it was only a matter of time, hours or maybe days, but definitely soon. People came and went — her cousin Cindi, her childhood friend Carol, some of Tara's friends who had known her — but what I remember most is sitting by her side and holding her hand, telling her that I loved her and that she wasn't alone. I remember crying a lot. It was like I was stuck in a bad dream I couldn't wake up from. My dad said some really touching, heartfelt things and I wished that she could hear them. At the same time, I was angry at him for not telling me sooner how serious things were. Maybe he didn't want me to worry, or maybe he didn't fully realize it himself, but neither thought comforted me or assuaged my feelings of anger and guilt.

By this time, Annie had arrived, alternating between being a silent watcher, a fellow griever, and an angel of mercy and comfort. She took time with each of us, and seemed to always say or do the right things, having the compassion of a bodhisattva and the patiennce of a saint, enduring her own grief and the burden of ours with a strength I still marvel at. Her presence was my only refuge, the only thing that kept me sane. That night, June 27th, my mom passed away sometime after midnight with Annie, Tara, and I by her side, her hand in mine.

I can't remember who called him, either me or Tara, but we let our dad know, who'd left only an hour before to let the dog out and get some rest. He came and said his goodbyes, signed some papers, and had the chaplain on duty come to say a prayer. I wasn't enthused about the idea of some random person who didn't know us saying generic things and quoting cliche scriptural passages at such an intimate and emotional time, but I figured if it'd make my dad feel better, what's the harm? Afterwards, my dad, who was close to inconsolable, went out to talk to the chaplain alone and, while expressing his grief, also managed to share his theories about aliens seeding life on Earth and possibly being what we believe to be angels/God with him. That poor man. We left the hospital around 3am, and headed home in the somber darkness and mournful rain.

For the next few days, almost every waking moment was consumed by worry and all the funeral arrangement. All I felt like doing was crawling into a hole and crying, but bureaucracy demanded otherwise. And the whole time, I had trouble believing that she was really gone. Her presence permeated the house, and I kept half-expecting to see her sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee. It killed me every time I reminded myself... Making all the arrangements was a surreal, as well as painful, experience; and in between all the phone calls and running around, I was trying to think of something to say at her memorial, but the words refused to come. In some ways, I don't think I wanted to make it final. I eventually settled on Rudy Funeral Home in part because it doubles as a small nautical museum. My mom loved lighthouses, and I love weird things, so it seemed like the right choice. In addition, Kathy was really nice and helpful.

We decided to have my mom cremated. It was her wish, which worked out well since it was also the only thing we could really afford to do. It's extremely expensive to bury someone once you factor in the cost of preparing the body, caskets, burial plots, and all the other related fees and expenses. Cards. Flowers. Food. You also need like a hundred copies of the death certificate (usually $15 each, although you get a discount after the first couple) because everyone will want one. Annie helped out with the planning and cost more than I expected, and I don't think I could have done any of it without her. Looking back, she was like a heavenly messenger, guiding us all through the darkest days of our lives with perfect love, compassion, and patience.

The memorial service itself, which we scheduled for July 1st (inadvertently falling on the full moon), turned out really nice. A lot of people showed up, many that I didn't even expect. Tracey helped pick out the main flower arrangements and paid for them, a pair of garden-variety flowers, one with 'mom' and one with 'beloved wife' on the ribbons, which were lovely. Annie's parents sent roses that were equally as lovely, and a few others sent arrangements as well, including the video game club Tara was the president of at Macomb Community College. We chose a picture of my mom from 1975 to display next to the urn. It was one of her favourites. She was young and beautiful and I know that that's how she'd like people to remember her. Like my dad said, it was more about celebrating her life than memorializing her passing.

It was a solemn occasion, but the day wasn't without humour. My dad's sisters mistook my friend Chris, who can't speak well due to a stroke, for me, and told him they were sorry for his loss while I was standing nearby. I just smiled, declining to correct the error, happy for the temporary respite from the obligatory stream of condolences. Kathy got a semi-retired Catholic priest, Fr. Dennis Nowinski, to lead the service. He was nice and soft-spoken, with a good sense of humour. The service was a lot like daily mass, with prayers, a couple of scriptural readings, and a short homily. The only thing missing was communion. It was a little awkward, though, since most of the people there weren't Catholic or even necessarily religious; but I think he did a good job nonetheless.

My dad, Tara, and I, along with my mom's cousin Cindi, Mrs. Sylvester, one of Tara's teachers from middle school, and Barbara, a long-time friend of my mom's, all got up to say something about her. My dad went first, and was surprisingly eloquent, if a bit long-winded. Next up was Cindi. Between the two, they said everything I'd planned on saying, although I did my best to follow them without being too repetitive. I talked about how my mom was our rock, an extraordinary source of comfort and strength who was always there for us, whether we needed advice or a shoulder to cry on or someone to bail us out of jail (definitely not one of my finer moments). I talked about how the Finnish word sisu (a stubborn kind of courage, strength, and resilience that characterizes the spirit of the Finnish people) summed her up perfectly, how her life was an example of sisu, and how she did her best to instill that quality in all of us. And I talked about how, now that she's gone, it's our turn to follow her example and be rocks for one another as much as possible, regardless of whatever else life decides to throw at us.

It's been almost two weeks now since she passed away, yet I still don't feel like I've had the time or space to let it all sink in, to really grieve or whatever it is that you're supposed to do. Instead, I feel numb, empty, and it kind of scares me. Then again, I've often had trouble expressing my emotions. Everything tends to get bottled up inside, like a pressure cooker, until it eventually explodes in a violent eruption of tears and anguish and self-loathing. It's the way I've always been. Thankfully, some of it came out at the hospital. But the moment she died, it became all about my dad, my sister, and the funeral. Once that was over, though, I was left feeling hollow.

I'm trying to go on with life as usual, taking things one day at a time, but it's not quite working. I can go through all the motions OK, but everything feels different, less real or fun or important. I'm just kind of sad all the time and doing my best to distract myself from the emotional void that's growing inside of me. On top of all that, the world seems even crazier and more absurd to me than before; and the people I find myself increasingly relating to the most are the religious hermits who turn their backs on the world because the world has turn its back on itself. The only thing that's helped to fill the void, the only thing that's helped to heal the hurt and pierce the numbness, has been the love and support of others.

Monday, June 22, 2015

climate change is a moral issue

Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote a response to the pope's recently-released encyclical on the environment, echoing the pope's call for everyone to take climate change seriously and take action:

On June 18, Pope Francis issued an encyclical letter, Laudato si’ (Praised Be), “On Care for our Common Home,” pointing to climate change as the overriding moral issue of our time. The encyclical boldly proclaims that humanity’s capacity to alter the climate charges us with the gravest moral responsibility we have ever had to bear. Climate change affects everyone. The disruptions to the biosphere occurring today bind all peoples everywhere into a single human family, our fates inseparably intertwined. No one can escape the impact, no matter how remotely they may live from the bustling centers of industry and commerce. The responsibility for preserving the planet falls on everyone.

The future of human life on earth hangs in a delicate balance, and the window for effective action is rapidly closing. Tipping points and feedback loops threaten us as ominously as nuclear warheads. What heightens the danger is our proclivity to apathy and denial. For this reason, we must begin tackling the crisis with an act of truth, by acknowledging that climate change is real and stems from human activity. On this, the science is clear, the consensus among climate scientists almost universal. The time for denial, skepticism, and delay is over.

Our carbon-based economies generate not only mountains of commodities but also heat waves and floods, rising seas and creeping deserts. The climate mirrors the state of our minds, reflecting back to us the choices we make at regional, national, and global levels. These choices, both collective and personal, are inescapably ethical. They are strung out between what is convenient and what is right. They determine who will live and who will die, which communities will flourish and which will perish. Ultimately they determine nothing less than whether human civilization itself will survive or collapse.

Since religions command the loyalty of billions, they must lead the way in the endeavor to combat climate change, using their ethical insights to mobilize their followers. As a nontheistic religion, Buddhism sees our moral commitments as stemming not from the decree of a Creator God but from our obligation to promote the true well-being of ourselves and others. The Buddha traces all immoral conduct to three mental factors, which he calls the three unwholesome roots: greed, hatred, and delusion. Greed propels economies to voraciously consume fossil fuels in order to maximize profits, ravaging the finite resources of the earth and filling its sinks with toxic waste. Hatred underlies not only war and bigotry but also the callous indifference that allows us to consign billions of people to hunger, drought, and devastating floods without batting an eye. Delusion—self-deception and the deliberate deceiving of others—is reinforced by the falsehoods churned out by fossil-fuel interests to block remedial action.

We thus need to curb the influence of greed, hatred, and delusion on the operation of social systems. Policy formation must be motivated not by narrow self-interest but by a magnanimous spirit of generosity, compassion, and wisdom. An economy premised on infinite expansion, geared toward endless production and consumption, has to be replaced by a steady-state economy governed by the principle of sufficiency, which gives priority to contentment, service to others, and inner fulfillment as the measure of the good life.

The moral tide of our age pushes us in two directions. One is to uplift the living standards of the billions mired in poverty, struggling each day to survive. The other is to preserve the integrity and sustaining capacity of the planet. A rapid transition to an economy powered by clean and renewable sources of energy, with transfers of the technology to developing countries, would enable us to accomplish both, to combine social justice with ecological sustainability.

At the very outset, we must start the transition by making highly specific national and global commitments to curb carbon emissions, and we must do so fast. The Conference of the Parties meeting in Paris this December has to show the way. The meeting must culminate in a climate accord that imposes truly rigorous, binding, and enforceable targets for emissions reductions. Pledges and promises alone won’t suffice: enforcement mechanisms are critical. And beyond a strong accord, we’ll need an international endeavor, undertaken with a compelling sense of urgency, to shift the global economy away from fossil fuels to clean sources of energy.

Pope Francis reminds us that climate change poses not only a policy challenge but also a call to the moral conscience. If we continue to burn fossil fuels to empower unbridled economic growth, the biosphere will be destabilized, resulting in unimaginable devastation, the deaths of many millions, failed states, and social chaos. Shifting to clean and renewable energy can reverse this trend, opening pathways to a steady-state economy that uplifts living standards for all. One way leads deeper into a culture of death; the other leads to a new culture of life. As climate change accelerates, the choice before us is becoming starker, and the need to choose wisely grows ever more urgent.


It adds a moral/ethical dynamic to a threat that faces all of us, one that urges all of us to recognize our interconnectedness and responsibility to one another and our home. I don't think Bhikkhu Bodhi is exaggerating when he says, "Pope Francis reminds us that climate change poses not only a policy challenge but also a call to the moral conscience. If we continue to burn fossil fuels to empower unbridled economic growth, the biosphere will be destabilized, resulting in unimaginable devastation, the deaths of many millions, failed states, and social chaos."

Climate change is something that affects all of us; and both argue that a collective response to it is imperative. I, for one, am inclined to agree.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

investigations

Friday night, I went to Matthew's sitting and discussion group for the first time in a long time. They were in the middle of exploring MN 2, which elucidates several methods of mental training devised to eliminate the defilements obstructing the realization of awakening. And as it happened, a few students from Jesuit High School were there, most likely as a part of a comparative religions course.

It felt good to meditate. I haven't sat and meditated in weeks, maybe more. It was also a bit challenging as the focus happened to be the three characteristics, i.e., impermanence, suffering, and not-self. Theravada Buddhism sees nothing in the world as fixed, static. All is in flux. One could even say all is flux. The only 'permanent' is nibbana, which is permanent precisely because it's unborn, unmade, unconditioned, etc., meaning it lies outside of space and time and is free from conditionality, from change and flux.

This is one of the more difficult areas to reconcile Buddhism and Christianity, although it's not entirely impossible. Suffering arises when we cling on a deep, psychological level to that which is inconstant, when we base our happiness on things that have the nature to change. But when we constantly examine our sensory experience, we can begin to cultivate a sense of dispassion that cuts through our clinging and opens us to something transcendent.

Although the dominant belief in Theravada is that there's no soul or self to be found, and the Dhamma and experience of nibbana are talked about in impersonal terms, neither is said to be impermanent, and each contains aspects and functions commonly attributed to God. Moreover, other traditions do have teachings about our buddha-nature (tathagatagarbha) or true self, which is a positive expression of emptiness. While paradoxical, it's not unlike the way Erigena approached the paradoxical nature of God:

Erigena used the dialectical method of Denys in his own discussion of God, who could only be explained by a paradox that reminded us of the limitations of our human understanding. Both the positive and the negative approaches to God were valid. God was incomprehensible: even the angels do not know or understand his essential nature but it was acceptable to make a positive statement, such as "God is wise," because when we refer it to God we know that we are not using the word "wise" in the usual way. We remind ourselves of this by going on to make a negative statement, saying "God is not wise." The paradox forces us to move on to Denys's third way of talking about God, when we conclude: "God is more than wise." This was what the Greeks called an apophatic statement because we do not understand what "more than wise" can possibly mean. Again, this was not simply a verbal trick but a discipline that by juxtaposing two mutually exclusive statements helps us to cultivate a sense of the mystery that our word "God" represents, since it can never be confined to a merely human concept.

When he applied this method to the statement "God exists," Erigena arrived, as usual, at the synthesis: "God is more than existence." God does not exist like the things he has created and is not just another being existing alongside them, as Denys had pointed out. Again, this was an incomprehensible statement, because, Erigena comments, "what that is which is more than 'being' it does not reveal. For it says that God is not one of the things that are, but that he is more than the things that are, but what that 'is' is, it in no way defines." In fact, God is "Nothing." Erigena knew that this sounded shocking and he warned his reader not to be afraid. His method was devised to remind us that God is not an object; he does not possess "being" in any sense that we can comprehend. God is "He who is more than being" (aliquo modo superesse). His mode of existence is as different from ours as our being is from an animal's and an animal's from a rock. But if God is "Nothing" he is also "Everything": because this "super-existence" means that God alone has true being, he is the essence of everything that partakes of this. Every one of his creatures, therefore, is a theophany, a sign of God's presence. Erigena's Celtic piety—encapsulated in St Patrick's famous prayer: "God be in my head and in my understanding"—led him to emphasis the immanence of God. (A History of God, 198-99)

I find the similarities between the two ideas interesting, and I suspect that mystics as a group tend to share a common point of view and experience of the transcendent that's often overlooked because of the divergent terms and concepts these ideas and experiences are filtered through. I don't think that all religions are one, but I'm starting to think that all religious truths are, or at least they're pointing towards the same proverbial moon.