Sunday, February 28, 2010

May Bill Maher be happy, be peaceful, be liberated

A somewhat different perspective on this blog entry by Bill Maher over at The Huffington Post. The comedian has been catching some flack for getting Buddhism wrong. And undoubtedly, he got it wrong. But reading his words more closely, I find it very hard to feel offended.

A snippet:
"Christianity is for rubes. Buddhism is for actors.

"And it really is outdated in some ways - the 'Life sucks, and then you die' philosophy was useful when Buddha came up with it around 500 B.C., because back then life pretty much sucked, and then you died - but now we have medicine, and plenty of food, and iPhones, and James Cameron movies - our life isn't all about suffering anymore. And when we do suffer, instead of accepting it we try to alleviate it."
It's striking how easily Mr. Maher sweeps this question of suffering, of dukkha, right under the rug. Why suffer? Just alleviate. Yet it must be obvious to anybody who has come face-to-face with life's realities that "alleviation" is just another word for denial, aversion to suffering, the desire to remain ignorant, the desire to get rid of that which is not wanted. At best, "alleviation" is a temporary fix. At worst, it is suffering itself, pure addiction, a blind devotion to the impossible pursuit of just feeling okay about everything.

Who can escape old age, sickness and death? These must be accepted, because sooner or later, the drugs wear off, the face of reality shows itself, the end comes in short breaths, fading breaths. We can try to alleviate right up until the end, but we cannot alleviate the fading away that inevitably shadows every living, breathing moment.

The wonderful teaching of the Buddha that Mr. Maher has overlooked is that this suffering has an end, and there is a way to the eradication of suffering. Ironically, that path includes seeing things as they are, which Mr. Maher unfortunately appears to describe as "acceptance," a position he rejects:
"Craving for things outside ourselves is what makes life life - I don't want to learn to not want, that's what people in prison have to do. Buddhism teaches suffering is inevitable. The only thing that's inevitable is that if you have fake boobs and hair extensions, Tiger Woods will try to f--- you."
Prison. Mr. Maher imagines that this samsara does not constitute a kind of prison, where we are caged in by deep-rooted habits of greed, hate and delusion. Why do we want? We want because we perceive lack. What do we lack in this world of medicine, abundant food, iPhones and James Cameron movies? Perhaps we don't have the ability to know the basis of our wants, the underlying nature of our desires, of that insatiable appetite that we learn to live with, that we strive to alleviate. That is what Mr. Maher chooses to accept. A path that leads to more suffering.

Mr. Maher is right, but in a way he apparently has not yet understood: Craving for things outside ourselves is what makes life life. There are so many things about that statement that are true.
In this fathom-long body with its perceptions and thoughts there is the world, the origin of the world, the ending of the world and the path leading to the ending of the world.
-AN 4.45
The whole concept of "outside ourselves" points in the wrong direction, away from what needs to be done here and now.

Of course there are things that we want. When we observe our experience, we realize that these wants are present. They rise and pass away. They are not-self. They are simply wants. And the fact of the matter is that some wants can help us along the path. And here is one of them:
May all be well and secure,
May all beings be happy!
Whatever living creatures there be,
Without exception, weak or strong,
Long, huge or middle-sized,
Or short, minute or bulky,
Whether visible or invisible,
And those living far or near,
The born and those seeking birth,
May all beings be happy!

- Metta Sutta

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Emptiness and Jesus

Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

This striking utterance from Jesus left untranslated in Matthew 27:46 is a keystone passage that can bring one right up to engagement with the undesired, the unwanted, the things we usually try to avoid. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why have you abandoned me?

There has been an effort among some to reject even these very words as a false translation, arguing that σαβαχθανί (sabacthani) can mean "leave" in the sense of abandoning, or "leave" in the sense of sparing. And little wonder. This apparent despair expressed by Jesus, this questioning of God, raises challenging issues for those with certain fixed views about Jesus.

A more reasonable explanation of Jesus' words is that they reference Psalm 22, which opens with the very same phrase:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?

The psalm goes even further than that, mirroring occurances later retold in the New Testament passion story. The psalm speaks of being mocked, being insulted. "I am poured out like water," verse 14 begins, mirroring the New Testament story of a soldier piercing Jesus with a spear, and water pouring from the wound.

"They have pierced my hands and my feet," verse 16 reads. "They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing," verse 18 reads, mirroring again the New Testament description, in which those who attended the crucifixion cast lots for Jesus' clothes.

There are several possible conclusions from this. One could conclude that Psalm 22 was prophetic. One could conclude that the similarities are pure coincidence. Or one could conclude that the authors of the New Testament passion stories lifted details from Psalm 22 and inserted them into the narrative, without regard for whether those things actually occurred.

Another possible conclusion is that the story portrays Jesus bringing Psalm 22 to mind as he died, which would make sense, since the psalm is a hymn of praise. And here's a compelling idea: Why can't the words convey both despair and jubilation simultaneously? An expression of the death of self-identity, and an expresson of joy for that taste of nibbana?

The concept of emptiness is widely associated with Buddhism, and more specifically the notion of sunyata is associated with Mahayana schools. But this notion of the empty nature of all phenomena goes right back to classical Buddhism, with the core notions of anicca (impermanence) and anatta (not-self). These are not mere concepts, but visceral experiences. One experiences impermanence and knows it directly. One expriences the not-self nature of phenomena and knows it directly. Theories just don't cut it.

Fascinating to consider the Biblical story of Jesus' death on the cross in this light, as an illustration of the death of self-identity view, the extinguishing of sakkāya-diṭṭhi. As a sunyata moment. And its manner: for the benefit of all beings.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Where is the conflict?

The Tittha Sutta contains the wonderful tale of blind people trying to describe an elephant. One touches a leg and argues that an elephant is like a tree. One touches an ear and argues that an elephant is like a basket. And so on.

So it is with those of us with fixed views convinced that we are right. We cannot abide the person who has a different experience of the elephant. As the Buddha taught:

They don't know what is beneficial and what is harmful. They don't know what is the Dhamma and what is non-Dhamma. Not knowing what is beneficial and what is harmful, not knowing what is Dhamma and what is non-Dhamma, they live arguing, quarreling, and disputing, wounding one another with weapons of the mouth, saying, 'The Dhamma is like this, it's not like that. The Dhamma's not like that, it's like this.'


Why do we find ourselves so affixed to views? So identified with them? A common caricature of the Christian is the evangelizer who tries to persuade everyone else to hold to his own views: God is like this. Hell is like this. The human condition is like this. And of course there are some unfortunate Christians who do this, but where is the teaching presented that we must conform our viewpoints to some standard in order to have salvation in the Christian sense? Such a view is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Rather, we are told that by grace is one saved, through faith, and it is the gift of God.

Essentially, the Christian must presume that it makes no difference whether his particular viewpoint is right or wrong. It's completely beside the point! The crucial issue in Christianity is the relationship vis-à-vis the risen Christ. And even an uneducated child can be in such a relationship -- indeed, Jesus seems to emphasize that it is easier for a child than an adult in Matthew 19:14.

And classical Buddhists can be just as divisive, clinging to views and justifying this behavior with the label "Right View." But obviously, samma ditthi must be understood as much more than merely holding certain viewpoints.

What is the answer? To see the elephant in its completeness, the blind man must gain sight. We must open our wisdom eye and behold things as they really are. Until that time, we must assume that our view is imperfect.

Where is the conflict between Christianity and Dhamma practice? The more I look, the less conflict I discern. We all come to this moment with idiosyncrasies and viewpoints, and of course we know that we're subject to error and misunderstanding. Chief among them is our abiding concept of self -- which for the habitual Christian is always bound together with an abiding concept of God. This is crucial to understand: Any concept of God reflects an underlying assumption about self. There is no way around this. And so the Christian path is the path of reconciliation with God -- that means reconciliation of self and God, and this is a process of daily commitment and practice, not an intellectual game.

The person on the Dhamma path engages with what presents in this very moment, be it boundless despair or abiding faith or joy or pain or anything at all. For the habitual Christian, there will be that indescribable something which we might label "the experience of God," and regardless of what we label it, we know that it is a real experience we have had. Even if our understanding of it is imprefect. How to engage with that? The pat answer you'll get from some people is: reject it. It's based on wrong view.

And that is indeed one possible answer, but from the perspective of practice, it's not a very helpful one. It can be very convenient to walk down the aversive path of rejecting all of that stuff we were taught as children, all the stuff that we couldn't understand, or that turned us off, or that merely confused, or that evaded heartfelt questions. It can be very convenient to latch onto a different path that seems more rational, or more comfortable, or a better fit for us personally. And look what happens in that process: the underlying habit of clinging to views persists and grows stronger.

And the elephant is still in the room.

Let us take the Buddha's admonition seriously. What is beneficial? What is harmful? And that means beneficial to liberation, versus harmful to liberation. Clearly, clinging to views is not beneficial. So let us hold our views lightly. That applies equally to the habitual Christian as well as to anybody else.

When we set aside our views and regard them as impermanent, changing phenomena, subject to arising and passing away, as not-self, not me, not mine, then we understand: the path of practice has nothing to do with whether we have a correct understanding of God or God's absence. Through not-clinging, there is no conflict. And then we can appreciate that this little piece of elephant we touch might not be the same as the little piece of elephant our neighbor touches. And that can awaken empathy, because we realize we are the same.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Once while the Blessed One was expounding the Dhamma, surrounded by a large number of bhikkhus, he sneezed. The bhikkhus made a loud noise, saying: "Long life to you, Lord; long life to you, Lord." The noise interrupted the talk on the Dhamma. Then the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus thus: "Bhikkhus, when 'Long life to you' is said to someone who sneezes, may he live or die because of that?"

"No, Lord."

"Bhikkhus, 'Long life to you' is not to be said to someone who sneezes; whoever does so commits an offence of wrongdoing."

So then, when bhikkhus sneezed and householders said "Long life to you, Lord," they were embarrassed and did not answer. People disapproved, and they murmured and protested: "How can these monks, these sons of the Sakyans, not answer when 'Long life to you' is said to them?"

Bhikkhus told this to the Blessed One. He said: "Bhikkhus, householders are accustomed to such superstitions. I allow you, when they say 'Long life to you,' to reply 'May you live long.'"

—Cullavagga 5:33, as retold by Ven. Nanamoli

Habits are hard to break. Social conventions are hard to change. Long-held assumptions linger beneath the surface, unexamined, rolling along just as so many things tend to do in this samsara.

This passage from the Vinaya collection suggests that an appropriate response is one that does not hinder Dhamma understanding. Out of compassion and wisdom, the Buddha advised the monks to speak with these householders in the customary way.

In those unguarded moments when a person speaks or writes from his or her perspective of past experiences and habits, we need to be careful before we turn things into a confrontation of beliefs. There is a proper time and place and manner of speaking and interacting with others. In the Abhayarajakumara Sutta, the Buddha explains the characteristics of wise speech in more detail.

When we talk about the Dhamma with another person, we need to exercise this type of caution, particularly if there is the potential for bitter disagreement. We might think that we are right, and we might think that the other person is wrong, but what is the proper time to bring things to a head? Particularly in print, or on the Internet, where our words linger and are seen by many different people at many different times, we will do well to consider before we write: What will be the likely effect of my words? This starts with understanding. In my opinion, if we do not first listen and understand what the other person is saying, then we cannot know whether the Dhamma words we offer are beneficial.

Be gentle.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The delusion of self and other

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
—1 Corinthians 12:27

On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.
—John 14:20

There is the distinction between the ideal of "liberation" in the Buddhadhamma and the ideal of "salvation" in the Christian tradition. Both point to a kind of freedom, but the emphasis is different.

When we speak of liberation, we mean freedom from greed, hate and delusion. It is something to be attained, through skillful kamma. And this highest nibbana is not something that any saviour can win on our behalf.

When we speak of salvation, we mean freedom from the tethers of sin. It is something that cannot be attained, regardless of how skillful our actions might be. It is available only through the grace of God, when our old self literally dies and we are born anew, and described in Romans 6:4 -- "We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." And this highest salvation is something that only the Saviour can win on our behalf.

The argument sometimes is made that this Christian conception of salvation directly defies the Dhamma understanding of kamma, that is, volitional action that produces consequences. After all, if a sinful man need only repent and "accept Jesus" in order for all his sins to be washed away, where is the effect of kamma to be found?

The question itself is an oversimplification of the Christian understanding of salvation, which is predicated on a deep, complete annihilation of the old self in the rebirth in relationship with Christ. A similar transition can be found in the story of Angulimala, the serial killer whom the Buddha converted. Later, as a venerable monk, Angulimala proclaims: "Since I was born with the noble birth, I have never purposely deprived a living being of life."

The deeper issue raised in this dichotomy between "liberation" attained by oneself and "salvation" bestowed by another is the core delusion of self-identity view, sakkaya-ditthi. Who is doing the saving? The habitual Christian will answer, it is Jesus. The Buddhist, not understanding, might object that the Christian thereby abdicates responsibility for his own kamma and falls short of the requisite right view (samma ditthi) necessary even to take a few steps along the noble path. And the Christian, not understanding, might object that the Buddhist builds himself up as a false God, idolizing his own ability to effect that supreme victory over death.

All of these objections are based on ego, on conceptions of self-identity view. They must be completely set aside to arrive at a deeper understanding of the path of practice. And indeed we find in the Christian tradition it is based once again on selflessnes, as Jesus instructs: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself." (Matthew 22:37-39)

There is a transformation at work in these practices, a transformation to eradicate the delusion of self and other, to eradicate hatred, to radiate lovingkindness. If the habitual Christian is to make any sense of the Buddhadhamma, it must be recognized that the goals of salvation and liberation are identical: that supreme deathlessness. Then the question of "me," the question of where the line is drawn between self and Christ, simply doesn't arise, because it's not relevant.

"You have been given fullness in Christ." (Colossians 2:10) With this victory, what need be said of the self? Such a concept is unnecessary. And indeed shades of kamma are hidden in plain view in the Christian teachings, such as when we are told: "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." (Matthew 25:40)

Saturday, February 13, 2010


And just as in the night, at the moment of dawn, the morning star shines forth, bright and brilliant, even so, whatever grounds there are for making merit productive of a future birth, all these do not equal a sixteenth part of the mind-release of loving-kindness. The mind-release of loving-kindness surpasses them and shines forth, bright and brilliant.
—Itivuttaka 27, translated by John D. Ireland

And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
—2 Peter 1:19

I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.
—Revelation 22:16

Where water, earth, fire, & wind have no footing:
There the stars do not shine,
the sun is not visible,
the moon does not appear,
darkness is not found.
And when a sage,
a brahman through sagacity,
has known [this] for himself,
then from form & formless,
from (pleasure) & pain,
he is freed.

—Bahiya Sutta

This blog is an exploration, nothing more. It is not intended to persuade anyone that Buddhism is right, or that Christianity is right, or that they somehow are equivalent. It has nothing whatever to do with the distracting intellectual gamesmanship of trying to justify one point of view or another. It's much more basic than that.

This blog is about fundamental practice. Recognizing the reality that this heap of aggregates we call the "self" is bound up in long-held habits and reactions, viewpoints and predilections, the question arises: How to engage with the stubborn disposition that is present in this moment, and that seems to persist? How to start where we are?

In western cultures predominated by Christianity, many of us have grown up from childhood with the concept of "God." In the Buddha's Dhamma, there appears to be no place for such a being as ostensibly conceived in Christianity, that is, a saviour. Instead, we are instructed to work out our own salvation with diligence, we are the owners of our kamma.

And that is the crux. Because as Christians we are taught that there is nothing we can do to win salvation for ourselves. Rather, in the words of Paul, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God." (Ephesians 2:8)

Yet at its core, we also find among those who seem to advance far along the Christian path an inspiring self-abnegation, a lovingkindness in action that appears to manifest the Dhamma ideal of selfless love, without clinging. Can this be anatta in action, a practice of anatta cultivated through devotion (saddha) to that which is beyond understanding, that God?

It is not a question that deserves a yes or no answer, in my view, because at this stage we cannot know the intricacies of the workings of kamma. Put another way, this question is relevant only for oneself, not to ask of our perceptions of others, or of Christians in general, or of the faith as some object of analysis in a theoretical sense. From a purely practical point of view, can the habitual Christian hope to cultivate that supreme right view as described in the Buddhadhamma? Can the habitual Christian follow the path of morality, concentration and wisdom? Can the habitual Christian arrive at a direct understanding of the not-self nature of all phenomena? Of its impermanent nature? Of its suffering nature? Is it a possibility?

More to the point, is the Buddhadhamma to be found at all in Christian teachings and practice?

May this exploration benefit all beings. May all beings be happy, be liberated, and be peaceful.