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Archive for June, 2008

About a month ago I was invited by the Muslim Student Association at my school to attend a talk given by a professor of Islam. The professor proceeded to give a beautiful image of Islam, its practices and meanings, its encouraging of pluralism over evangelism, and its humanistic values.

I had asked why Muslims were to pray five times a day towards Mecca. The practice itself is awe-inspiring, that upwards of 1 billion people perform this act of faith each day. He said, and reminds me that he has always said, “The nature of humanity if forgetfulness. We need reminders.” Prayer was one way of reminding oneself throughout the day about one’s faith and service to God. That it is done by so many people around the world in common spirit must also be a reminder of the communal fellowship that they all share.

That was all I needed to hear.

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I was asked to speak to a group of teenagers later today at a ‘Buddhist Family Night’ and, for a good long while, I was long about what to talk about.

Though I have worked with a few different programs targeted at Buddhist Youth, I have found a good number of roadblocks along the way. It seems that the concerns of Buddhism, that life is fundamentally unsatisfactory, that living a good life requires restraint and patience, are counter to a lot of what being young is about. I wondered if Buddhism really is applicable to young people, or if the role of these programs is instead to integrate people into the community so that, when problems do arise, they know where to turn to.

…Then I remembered, “Wait, being a teenager sucked.”

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So I was surfing the web the other day, looking up information on Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Basically I heard a personal anecdote about him from a friend in Boston, and I had to find out if it was true. Thanissaro Bhikkhu (or “Thaan Geoff”) is a Theravada Buddhist monk who lives at Wat Mettavanaram outside of San Diego. I first met him on a club field trip to Wat Metta in 2004. His writings have had a huge influence on many of my friends. I came across this delightful interview in the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, and I thought I’d share it with everyone: Being a Monk: A Conversation with Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

The interview is great in part because it asks many of the questions that I have always been too ashamed to ask because I know I’m not supposed to ask monks those types of questions. But it’s also always great to hear Thaan Geoff’s perspective on Buddhist practice. Here is one quote that really struck home for me:

The Forest tradition places a lot of emphasis on concentration practice, getting the mind to stay with one object. So that’s a lot of my time. And of course, if you’re sitting for long periods of time, pain is going to come up. Then the mind creates issues about the pain. Dealing with that is the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: There is pain in life. There is suffering in life. I think the reason he focused on that is that if you sit with your pains and suffering, if you have the tools of concentration and mindfulness, you start seeing these issues in your mind.

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Karma: it’s a funny thing.

I have been meaning to respond to my partner’s post on Karma for quite some time- aside from raising questions about whether the earthquake was a result of China’s karma or not, and whether it is proper to say that a disaster is caused by karma or not, I feel it begs the larger question about if this type of discussion is even productive.

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About a year ago, I went to visit a local temple for the first time. I was greeted by a friendly monk and he showed me the grounds. He had big ears and a warm smile of ease. Soft spoken as he was, the howling wind and chimes made it difficult to say much, so we decided to sit down. Settling in the main hall, I was struck by how simple it was. Nothing more than a small living room with a bare rug over a wooden floor. There was a moderately sized statue of Gotama against one wall, a bench and clock against another, and a short coffee table in the middle.

I sat and faced the venerable, who was no more than three feet away, as he gave a short dhamma talk. While his talk on the importance of kindness was good, he actually didn’t have to say anything. From the moment he let me in, showed me around, and sat down, his kindness and simplicity radiated. It seemed to me he lived and breathed with complete sincerity, just as he spoke. He was the very image of what he had taught. We could have just sat there and said nothing and it would have been just as nice.

The venerable then guided me through meditation. After tapping the bell, and throughout the meditation, he would occasionally utter the words, “May I be well, happy, and peaceful.” After some time, it would be extended to parents, teachers, relatives, friends, indifferent persons, enemies, and all living beings. For twenty minutes that’s all that mattered, sitting and hearing those words.

Wind blowing, chimes ringing, clocks ticking, my thinking, all subsided. All of it drowned out in the silence and in the soft words of love. I could not find anything like this in my books. Such lightness must have been what it was all about.

I had my first taste of freedom.

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I do not think it is an uncommon story that many Buddhists develop their spiritual leanings from their grandparents. The grandparent/grandchild bond is a special one – grandparents are wizened with knowledge without the day-to-day responsibilities of child-rearing, which seems like just the right combination to imbue an appreciation of peace and a proclivity to contentedness.

I also see grandparents as muddling that already terrible “heritage Buddhist” definition – where children grow up encountering the Dharma from their grandparents even through their own parents had rejected that very series of influences.

I am not part of that muddled category as neither my parents nor my grandparents are Buddhist. Still, I would not have ended up a Buddhist without the opportunity to know my grandparents. They taught me generosity, always being willing to give what they had simply for the reason that it was there to give. I learned patience, temperance, and that doing what is right for your family requires doing what is right by your family.

That being said, I only terrifiedly came out about my wacky religion to my grandparents this last year.

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This past summer I visited my main spiritual teacher, and he naturally inquired how my practice has developed since we last met three years ago. When I first met my teacher, I told him that I was Buddhist, and he asked me what that meant. I was still active in a college Buddhist association, and for me that was the chief example of what it meant to be Buddhist. I was Buddhist because I was in a Buddhist club.

My perspective on Buddhism has almost entirely been framed by my American upbringing, whether I like it or not. I classify Buddhism as a religion, on par with Judaism and Christianity (among many others). I call myself “Buddhist”, and I wear a symbol of my faith around my neck and wrist. I even use it as an excuse to avoid drinking (“It’s against my religion”) or to justify my behavior (“I’m Buddhist, I don’t kill bugs”).

But I recently stumbled across an interview with SN Goenka, a famous teacher of vipassana meditation, where he says, “I don’t teach Buddhism. I am not a Buddhist.”

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