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Barbara O'Brien

Barbara\'s Buddhism Blog

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Is Buddhism Still Hip?

Wednesday May 28, 2014

Dr. Andrew Skilton, Senior Research Fellow at King's College London, asks "Why is Buddhism so hip?"  And I thought, wow, we're still hip? I thought we had moved a bit past hip. Maybe London has different standards for hipness.

Of course, I'm not exactly a barometer of what's hip, and I suppose a senior research fellow at King's College might not be, either. According to the Urban Dictionary, hip in this sense could mean "The state of being in-the-know, including, but not limited to, being stylish or fashionable." Hmm, maybe we haven't gotten to "hip" yet.

Looking at Buddhism in the West over the past century or so, it seems to me it's gone through a lot of stages, some possibly more hip than others. The first Westerners to take an interest in Buddhism often projected Romantic or Transcendentalist ideals onto it. These ideals were not incompatible, but viewing dharma through a Transcendentalist filter often distorted how westerners understood the Buddha's teaching. I think in the early stages it was more nerdy than hip.

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Violence and Expression

Thursday May 22, 2014

A few days ago His Holiness the Dalai Lama called for an outside inquiry into the continuing self-immolations of Tibetan Buddhists protesting China's policies toward Tibet. There have been more than 130 such incidents in recent years, and most of the self-immolators have been Buddhist monks and nuns.

His Holiness has discouraged these acts, but he hasn't expressly forbid them. This is partly because the government of China claims he is responsible, and if he did inject himself directly into the protests China could use this as evidence. However, in his most recent statement he said that such acts may not be entirely wrong, if the person were motivated by compassion and not anger.

The reasoning behind use of self-immolation as a protest goes back to the anti-China riots that swept through Tibet in 2008. These began with peaceful protests by monks in Lhasa. Security forces quickly detained the monks, however, or kept them confined to monasteries. Some angered Tibetan laypeople reacted violently, and the rioting resulted in the deaths of several Han Chinese. The idea appears to be that by turning the violence on themselves, the self-immolating protesters are not causing others to be violent.

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Japanese Buddhists Rally for Pacifism

Thursday May 22, 2014

Clergy and lay Buddhists in Japan are protesting a proposed "reinterpretation" of the Japanese constitution. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to ask for Japan's strict limits on its use of military force to be eased. In particular, he wants to allow Japan's military to  fight alongside allies in the interest of regional security.

Buddhists are organizing to oppose this plan, calling for the constitutional limits on the military to be preserved. Among the leaders of the moment is Tainen Miyagi, head of the Shogoin temple in Kyoto, of the Shugendo sect. Shugendo is a school of Japanese Buddhism not yet much represented in the West. It combines esoteric Buddhist practices with elements of early Shinto and Taoism.

The lay lay Nichiren Shoshu group Soka Gakkai also is very much involved. Soka Gakkai backs a party in Parliament called New Komeito, which joined Prime Minister Abe's Liberal Democratic Party to form a majority coalition. If New Komeito and LDP part ways, it could result in a change in government and a new prime minister.

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Finding Yourself

Thursday May 15, 2014

Truly, how the world appears depends a whole lot on where you are while you observe it. Nathan at Dangerous Harvests has a post up about what he sees as "two camps" of American (convert) Buddhism, and while there are such camps, they are only a small part of what I see from here.

Basically, Nathan sees a dichotomy between a New Agey - "it's all about my experiences" approach, which downplays doctrine and sutras and even enlightenment, versus a kind of "prove it to me" technical approach that refuses to consider anything that can't be empirically proven. The latter camp a secular crew that rejects karma, rebirth, robes and rituals.

I know there are such "camps" in western Buddhism, but I'm mostly in contact with people who don't reject or downplay anything -- enlightenment, sutras, robes, rituals, karma, rebirth. This is not to say that everyone accepts, for example, rebirth as being "true." But neither do most Buddhist I know reject it as "false."

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Vesak Today

Tuesday May 13, 2014

Japanese Buddhism doesn't "do" Vesak, exactly, and if it weren't for the nice person who sent me a "happy Vesak" email I may have missed it. But it's today, folks. So happy Vesak! Here's a photo gallery of Vesak images from almost around the world!

War and Sutras, II

Thursday May 8, 2014

In the last post I started a critique of the essay "Making Merit Through Warfare and Torture According to the Arya-Bodhisattva-gocara-upayaisaya-vikurvana-nirdesa-Sutra" by Professor Stephen Jenkins. Beyond the inflammatory and inaccurate title, the essay does argue that the sutra condones violence. The arguments presented to support this view seem flimsy, however.

For example, Professor Jenkins describes the Cula-Saccaka Sutta from the Pali Sutta-pitaka at some length to claim the Buddha advocated capital punishment, but I say this is based on a gross misreading of the sutta. You can read the sutta for yourself, online, and make your own judgments.

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War and Sutras

Wednesday May 7, 2014

I recently read a Mahayana sutra with the unfortunate title Arya-Bodhisattva-gocara-upayaisaya-vikurvana-nirdesa-Sutra, which I understand translates as "The Revelation of Transformational Activities in the Range of the Bodhisattva." The only English translation, by Lozang Jamspal, is from a 9th century Tibetan translation of the now-lost Sanskrit original.

There were also Chinese translations of the now-lost Sanskrit original, but according to the translator the sutra was never influential in eastern Asia, and as far as anyone seems to know it has only been canonical in Tibetan Buddhism.

According to the translator's introduction, the original may have been composed as early as the 3rd century BCE. I am skeptical it's quite that old, but if it is, that would make it among the oldest of the "Mahayana" sutras. I put "Mahayana" in quotations because, strictly speaking, there was no Mahayana yet in the 3rd century BCE.

As literature it's not in the same class as the great Mahayana sutras -- the Lotus, the Heart, the Diamond, the Flower Garland, the Vimalakirti, etc. -- most of which date to the 2nd century CE, give or take. But I acquired a copy for a couple of reasons. One, according to Robert Thurman, this sutra may be the only Buddhist scripture that spells out anything approximating a Buddhist "just war" theory. The other is that some alarming things were being said about it in western academia.

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About the Blog

Thursday May 1, 2014

I understand that About.com is dropping the blog feature from our sites soon. I'm very sad about this, but I understand they are setting up some other system that will allow us to continue to keep talking to each other. So do watch for that.

Do sign up for the newsletter, if you haven't already, for any future announcements.

Nobody Owns the Dharma

Thursday May 1, 2014

Following up the "What to Do About Sri Lanka?" post from last week, and some of the comments -- Brad Warner had some similar reactions to his comments about the British woman deported for having a Buddha tattoo. "Most of the responses I got were pretty positive. But a few people objected. A guy on Twitter said, 'White Buddhist tells Sinhalese Buddhists about Buddhism.'"

Warner lived in Japan for several years and "got" Buddhism by working closely with a Japanese dharma master, and I dare say he has as good an understanding of dharma as most people, including those who were born into a culture dominated by Buddhism.

There's no question there are westerners who adopt Buddhism who can be unbearable snots about what Buddhism ought to be. And these people can be dismissive of much of Asian Buddhism, especially where it deviates from their idea of a "classic" or "ideal" Buddhism. Many Asian cultural practices that got entangled into Buddhism over the years -- something like the way bunnies and colored eggs got entangled into Easter -- may or may not ever be embraced outside of Asia, but that doesn't mean it's okay to denigrate them.

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The Panchen Lama Is Still Missing

Thursday April 24, 2014

These week Tibetan Buddhists are observing the 25th birthday of His Holiness Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, 11th Panchen Lama, who hasn't been seen since 1995. Tibetans still call him a political prisoner of China, but I suspect it's highly unlikely he and his family are still alive. We can always hope, of course.

If you aren't familiar with this story -- the Panchen Lama is a lama of the Gelug school and the second highest lama of Tibetan Buddhism. The highest lama is, of course, the Dalai Lama. In 1995 His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama identified six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the reborn 11th Panchen Lama, and a few days later he and his family disappeared. China chose another boy, Gyaltsen Norbu, and had him enthroned as Panchen Lama later that year. China maintains the fiction that Gyaltsen Norbu is legitimately serving as Panchen Lama, but if you read between the lines of press releases it appears Gyaltsen Norbu is kept sequestered from other Tibetan monks even when performing official ceremonial duties.

One of the Panchen Lama's traditional duties is to choose the reborn tulku of the Dalai Lama, so this whole farce is about Beijing's plans to name and enthrone the 15th Dalai Lama after His Holiness the 14th has died.

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