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Barbara O'Brien



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Not Following the Crowd

Wednesday April 16, 2014

I understand Sam Harris is writing a new book called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, to be published in September. The spirituality-but-not-religious thing is hardly original, but okay. Harris writes about this book on his blog, and makes some interesting observations.

"Scientists generally start with an impoverished view of spiritual experience, assuming that it must be a grandiose way of describing ordinary states of mind," he says. He continues,

"New Age thinkers ... idealize altered states of consciousness and draw specious connections between subjective experience and the spookier theories at the frontiers of physics. Here we are told that the Buddha and other contemplatives anticipated modern cosmology or quantum mechanics and that by transcending the sense of self, a person can realize his identity with the One Mind that gave birth to the cosmos."

Harris says that this amounts to having to choose between pseudo-spirituality and pseudo-science, and his book will be a middle way.  To which I say, um, there are lots of other ways already.


Politics and Dharma in Sikkim

Thursday April 10, 2014

Sikkim is a small state of India located in the Himalayas, bordered by Bhutan, Nepal, and China. For several centuries it was a kingdom, and it became a state of India in 1977.  Sikkim is about 60 percent Hindu and 28 percent Buddhist.

Elections for seats in the Sikkim state assembly will be held April 12. One seat in the assembly is the "sangha" seat, reserved for a Buddhist monk elected by other Buddhist monks. Six monks are campaigning.

One of the campaign issues involves the 17th Karmapa, head of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The official seat of Kagyu is Rumtek Monastery, which is in Sikkim. The last Karmapa to be enthroned there was the 16th, who died in 1981. The Kagyu school is split over the identification of the 17th, and factions supporting each candidate claim the right to possess Rumtek. Indian courts became involved and barred both 17th Karmapas from Rumtek until the matter was resolved.

And there the matter stalled. There actually was a court decision in 2003 that somehow didn't actually settle anything. Both Karmapas -- Ogyen Trinley Dorje and Trinley Thaye Dorje --  are stilled barred from Rumtek, I understand. The monks currently in resident at Rumtek are Ogyen Trinley supporters, although Trinley Thaye supporters say that's because his supporters were forcibly evicted.

Anyway, the Buddhists of Sikkim believe they have waited long enough. The six monks running for the dharma seat are promising to bring the Karmapa to Rumtek, although they aren't necessarily committing to which Karmapa.

Mind Alone?

Wednesday April 9, 2014

A few weeks ago I bit the bullet, so to speak, and finally wrote a brief introductory article to Yogacara. I've been avoiding Yogacara all this time, frankly, because every time I tried to study it, it hurt my brain. I swear. My head fought back learning about Yogacara at every turn.

What finally helped me think I could understand it -- and I may be kidding myself -- was reading about current research in neuroscience and social psychology that appear to confirm at least some of what Yogacara teaches.

If you aren't familiar with the word - Yogacara is a school of Mahayana philosophy that originated in the 4th century CE. It is primarily concerned with the nature of experience. It is also concerned with vijnana, a Sanskrit word sometimes translated as "mind" or "awareness."


Causes and Reasons

Thursday April 3, 2014

Recently I heard someone say that she appreciated Buddhism because it taught that "things happen for a reason." I don't think so. I know it's a tempting thing to believe, especially when you're going through a rough patch. But to believe "things happen for a reason" suggests there is an intelligence out there directing "things" toward some predetermined result, and Buddhism doesn't teach that at all.

However, it's something else again to accept life events as learning experiences and to accept setbacks as well as successes as the fruition of one's karma. Maybe the thing didn't happen "for a reason," but we can still benefit from it.

I also think there really is a "way-seeking mind," as it's called in Zen, which I understand to be our own Buddha-nature seeking to realize itself. But this is a natural thing. A flower doesn't bloom "for a reason"; blooming is a manifestation of flower nature. It's what flowers do.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said, "Actually the way-seeking mind is the conviction to fly as a bird that flies in the air, to enjoy our being in this vast world of freedom." It begins with a glimmer of thought that, maybe, flying as a bird is possible. Enjoying a world of freedom is possible. And then the way-seeking mind seeks, even when we are not consciously aware of seeking.

So I suppose that's sort of a reason, but to think of "reasons" puts us in danger of assuming some unique path for our individual ego-ridden self, which usually is not a helpful way to think.

Violence Escalates in Burma

Tuesday April 1, 2014

Recent news stories from Burma say that  "Buddhist mobs" are attacking foreign aid workers, and that shots fired by police to break up rioters may have been responsible for the death of an 11-year-old girl.  Last week  40 buildings were attacked and 70 foreign aid workers were evacuated for their own safety.

The latest round of anti-Muslim violence in Burma was touched off last week when a foreign aid worker removed a Buddhist flag from in front of their offices. This was done the agency said, to express neutrality. There are warnings of a "humanitarian crisis" if the situation continues to spiral out of control.

I had hoped matters would calm down after a while but it seems they are getting worse.

The Feminist Future of Buddhism?

Thursday March 27, 2014

March is almost over, and I have failed to acknowledge that March is Women's History Month. It's a good time for some reflection on the role of women in Buddhism.

Now that Buddhism is becoming more visible in the West, all kinds of people are trying to "fix" it to make it more "western." Or maybe just less "Asian," or less "sectarian," or  more "secular" or more "natural." Most of these fixers mean well. But I also think most of their attempts at imposing a makeover will have little real impact on the future of Buddhism in the West, which in fact is evolving in its own way from the many Asian traditions that have been transplanted here.

It seems to me that the most significant contribution of the West is that women are becoming more prominent as priests, teachers, and leaders within Buddhism. This is not completely new, as there have been currents of women's influence in Buddhism all along, especially in Mahayana. I've written about women who are prominent in Zen history, for example. However, prominent women have been the exceptions.


Grumpy Spring Haiku Challenge!

Thursday March 20, 2014

Today is the spring equinox. At service this morning the officiating priest said this is a day when winter and spring stop and smile to each other. I'm not sure they're smiling, though. They both seem grumpy to me.

This has been an unusually nasty winter here in the greater New York City area. It didn't help that my car, parked on the street, was hopelessly encased in frozen snow from early February until just a few days ago. My spring equinox haiku:

Beneath tree limbs with
Small, hard buds,
Dirty old snow

Maybe the weather is more cheerful where you are. Do review the instructions for writing Zen haiku and see what you can do!

Buddhist News Updates

Tuesday March 18, 2014

There is a settlement in the case of the boy allegedly harassed by his Louisiana public school for being Buddhist. I say "allegedly" because the school has not admitted wrongdoing. Nevertheless, the judge in the case awarded money to the parents to pay for his transportation to another school and also enjoined the school from promoting religious beliefs in class or at school assemblies.

The judge also required school personnel to receive training in how to be in compliance with the First Amendment and why religious discrimination is damaging.

The other news update concerns the Wat Promkunaram homicides. After a third trial and third conviction, Johnathan A. Doody has been sentenced to 249 years in prison for the murders of six Buddhist monks, a nun, and two lay temple helpers in a temple near  Phoenix, Arizona, in 1991. He will not be eligible for parole. His two previous convictions were voided by higher courts, mostly (I think) because his confession was coerced.

I believe that Doody, a teenager when the murders were committed, was born in Thailand, and I understand there is strong sentiment in Thailand that he was a victim of racial discrimination and wrongfully convicted.

Misusing Mindfulness?

Monday March 17, 2014

I'm a bit late commenting on this, but on other Buddhist websites there have been ongoing discussions of corporate "mindfulness" training seminars, which I infer are mostly geared toward using mindfulness exercises to increase employee happiness (and thereby productivity). Today I read an article in which the author objected to these as well as to the  use of mindfulness in police forces and the military, on the grounds that such mindfulness would be divorced from the Precepts. (A web page on the U.S. Army site discusses the use of mindfulness meditation to help soldiers cope with stress and possibly reduce post-traumatic stress syndrome, for example.)

Sorry; I'm just not worked up into a snit about this. First, anything that might help soldiers in stressful deployments keep their heads on and come back whole is a good thing. If you object to the deployment itself, take that up with the civilian political leaders who make these decisions, not the soldiers.


Shinran in the West

Thursday March 13, 2014

The Rev. Patti Nakai of the Buddhist Temple of Chicago, who blogs at Taste of Chicago Buddhism, writes that sometimes outreach programs get people in the door but don't get them to stay. The Buddhist Temple of Chicago is Jodo Shinshu, and the Rev. Nakai says that many people who come to meditation classes don't stay for the Pure Land services or to hear about Shinran, the founder of Jodo Shinshu, or his teachings. And sometimes the people offering the meditation classes don't encourage the visitors to stay.

Shinran Shonin (1173-1262) was a fascinating guy whose approach to dharma was radically egalitarian. He didn't want people to be his disciples or to establish a formal organization with central authority. This seems to me to be an approach many Americans might appreciate.


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