Tuesday, October 20, 2009
New America Media, Commentary, Andrew Lam, Posted: Oct 18, 2009
While the Dalai Lama was snubbed by President Barack Obama, who refused to meet with him last week, there was an open door policy everywhere else in our nation’s capital – from congressional receptions to synagogues and schools.
One scene in particular is striking: the most famous monk of the 20th Century on the dais, lecturing on wisdom in the modern world as hundreds of enthralled monks and laymen look on below. The scene harks back to the golden era of Tibet, with the halls festooned with hundreds of strings of colorful Tibetan prayer flags, except the event took place at American University.
In the last half of the 20th Century, America cunningly exported itself overseas, marketing its images, ideologies, products and religions with ingenuity and zeal, but what it has not been able to fully assess or prepare for are the effects in reverse. For if Americanization is a large part of globalization, the Easternization of the West, too, is the other side of the phenomenon.
I take it as some cosmic law of exchange that if Disneyland pops up in Hong Kong and Tokyo, Buddhist temples can sprout up in Los Angeles, home of the magic kingdom. Indeed, it comes as no surprise to many Californians that scholars have agreed that the most complex Buddhist city in the world is nowhere in Asia but Los Angeles itself, where there are more than 300 Buddhist temples and centers, representing nearly all of Buddhist practices around the world.
Over the past 25 years, Buddhism has become the third most popular religion in America behind Christianity and Judaism, according to a 2008 report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Evidence of Buddhism spreading deep roots in America is abundant.
Last week CNN reported that, “programs and workshops educating inmates about meditation and yoga are sprouting up across the country.” There are more than 75 organizations working with some 2,500 people, most of them prisoners, and they inspired a documentary called “The Dhamma Brothers.”
This December, Thomas Dyer, a former Marine and one-time Southern Baptist pastor, will head to Afghanistan as the first Buddhist chaplain in the history of the U.S. Army.
The Supreme Court is currently deciding on Salazar vs. Buono. At issue is whether a cross that stood in the Mojave National Preserve is a religious symbol or not. The National Park Service had turned down a request to have a Buddhist stupa erected a few years back. The question to ask then: Why should the Christian cross be accepted in a national park as an icon that transcends religion but not a Buddhist symbol? And, what would the high court say about religious plurality if it decides that one religion is to take precedence over another on public lands?
Yet, despite Buddhism’s message of inner peace and compassion, it, in its own way, is a very radical spiritual practice for its refutation of the existence of a creator. In essence, the serious practitioner aims to extinguish the self by defeating his own ego and, thereby, seeing beyond the illusion spun by the ignorant mind.
The ultimate Buddhist experience entails neither god nor self, neither “out there” nor “in here,” for that membrane that separates the practitioner’s being and that of the world, upon awakening, has been lifted. All that remains is - ohm – absolute awe and bliss. Imagine, if you will, Moses not turning his face away from the burning bush that is god but approaching it then fully merging with that terrifying fire.
As ties deepened between the two continents, as immigration from Asia continues, and as the Dhamma [Buddha’s teachings] spreads beyond all borders, we are entering what many thinkers and philosophers call the second axial age, an age of pluralism where the various spiritual traditions co-exist.
In these global days, no single system can exist as a separate entity, nor can its borders remain impervious to change, all exist to a various degree of openness and exchange. And the old Silk Road along which so many religious ideas traveled has been replaced by a far more potent thoroughfare: unprecedented global migration, mass communications, and the information highway, which transcends geography.
I once kept on the wall in my study two very different pictures to remind me of the way East and West have changed. One is an issue from a Time magazine on Buddhism in America. In it, a group of American Buddhists sits serenely in lotus position on a wooden veranda in Malibu overlooking a calm Pacific Ocean. The other is of Vietnamese-American astronaut named Eugene Trinh’s space shuttle flight. The pictures tell me that East and West have not only met, but also commingled and fused. When a Vietnamese man who left his impoverished homeland can come very close to reaching the moon, while Americans are turning inward, trying to reach nirvana with each mindful breath, I think that East-West dialogue has come a long way.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Pattaya People, Oct 13, 2009
Pattaya, Thailand -- A merit making ceremony was held at Tungklon Talman Temple on the afternoon of the 11th October when Mr. Scott Tanner was ordained into the Buddhist monkhood.
Mr. Maurice Tanner from Texas, where Scott spent most of his early days, and Thai mother Mrs Chammian Tanner, were both in attendance to watch their son being ordained.
Many close friend and relatives turned up to take part in the ceremony held at the temple and later at the Tanner’s residence for a special lunch put on for the occasion.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
By PETER STEINFELS, The New York Times, October 9, 2009
Five decades ago, Paul F. Knitter, then a novice studying to become a Roman Catholic priest, would be in the seminary chapel at 5:30 every morning, trying to stay awake and spend time in meditation before Mass.
Last Wednesday, at the same hour, he was sitting on his Zen cushion meditating in the Claremont Avenue apartment he occupies as the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
A few hours later he was talking about his pointedly titled new book, “Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian” (Oneworld). The book is the outcome of decades of encounters with Buddhism — and of struggles with his own faith.
Born in 1939, Mr. Knitter began his path to the Catholic priesthood at age 13, studied theology in Rome during the years of the Second Vatican Council, was ordained in 1966, completed a doctorate in Germany and began a long and influential career as a scholar addressing questions of the relationship between Christianity and other world religions.
He received permission to leave the priesthood in 1975, taught for many years at Xavier University in Cincinnati and after his retirement was invited to Union Theological.
“Am I still a Christian?” he asks in his new book. It is a question posed over the years by others, including some unhappy officials in the Vatican. But the question, he writes, is also “one I have felt in my own mind and heart.”
“Has my dialogue with Buddhism made me a Buddhist Christian?” he writes. “Or a Christian Buddhist? Am I a Christian who has understood his own identity more deeply with the help of Buddhism? Or have I become a Buddhist who still retains a stock of Christian leftovers.”
The struggles Mr. Knitter is writing about are not the familiar ones about sexual ethics, the role of women or the failures of church leaders.
His focus here is on what he calls “the big stuff”: What does it really mean for Christians to profess belief in an almighty “God the Father” personally active in the world, or in Jesus, “his only-begotten Son” who saved humanity through his death and bodily resurrection, or in eternal life, heaven and hell?
However much he tried, Mr. Knitter found that certain longstanding Christian formulations of faith “just didn’t make sense”: God as a person separate from creation and intervening in it as an external agent; individualized life after death for all and eternal punishment for some; Jesus as God’s “only Son” and the only savior of humankind; prayers that ask God to favor some people over others.
Mr. Knitter’s response, based on his long interaction with Buddhist teachers, was to “pass over” to Buddhism’s approach to each of these problems and then “pass back” to Christian tradition to see if he could retrieve or re-imagine aspects of it with this “Buddhist flashlight.”
He was not asserting, as some people have, that religions like Christianity and Buddhism are merely superficially different expressions of one underlying faith.
On the contrary, he insists they differ profoundly. Yet “Buddhism has helped me take another and deeper look at what I believe as a Christian,” he writes. “Many of the words that I had repeated or read throughout my life started to glow with new meaning.”
Those new meanings will unsettle many Christians, as Mr. Knitter recognizes, even as they address difficulties felt by many others. This will vary, of course, from issue to issue. Mr. Knitter’s translation of Buddhist meditation into a call for a Christian “sacrament of silence” may be readily welcomed. His search for a “non-dualistic” understanding of God and the world may be only leading him through Buddhism back to Thomas Aquinas.
“Perhaps I could have come onto these insights without Buddhism,” he said Wednesday. Yet even in those cases he often expresses these insights in language that will be debated, like God as “InterBeing” or “Connecting Spirit.”
When his comparison between “Jesus the Christ and Gautama the Buddha” leads him to conclude that both are “unique” saviors but not sole or final ones, he is treading, as he well knows, in a theological minefield.
One can predict that this book will receive instant condemnation from people who feel their duty is to protect Christian doctrine from wandering off course.
One can also predict that those condemnations will, in turn, make others hesitant to voice more nuanced, thoughtful criticism out of fear of piling on.
Mr. Knitter and his book deserve better. It is easy to draw up a list of substantial criticisms. For one thing, Mr. Knitter’s Christianity comes laden with all the impurities of popular piety and workaday theology while his Buddhism seems to be that of the best and the brightest.
Some readers may detect the reflex of the lifelong recovering cleric in his recoiling from whatever might appear to be patriarchal or excluding. And most important are questions about the nature and use of religious language for pointing to a mystery that can never be captured in human words.
Yet serious critics, no matter how major their differences, will not be able to ignore the enormous, almost disarming honesty of this book. Mr. Knitter admits his painful puzzlements and conducts his search for answers out in the open. He does not hide behind academic abstraction but writes clearly and personally and leaves himself open to correction.
Although he argues for a kind of religious “double-belonging,” he does not hesitate to ask whether this is ultimately a kind of promiscuity — or, as one of his students put it, “spiritual sleeping around.”
Mr. Knitter doesn’t believe so. But he has written his book in part to see whether fellow Christians agree.
Will his “double-belonging” resonate sufficiently within his own faith community that he can continue to consider himself a Buddhist Christian? Or if not, as he explained this week, will he feel obliged to recognize himself as a Christian Buddhist?One need not have a stake in that outcome to find “Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian” a compelling example of religious inquiry.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
CNN Fri October 9, 2009
RIVERDALE, Georgia (CNN) -- In his darkest moment, Kenneth Brown lost it all. His wife and kids, the housebroken dog, the vacation home on Cape Cod all vanished when he was sent to prison for an arson in 1996.
Trapped in his gloomy cell and serving a 20-year sentence that felt like an eternity, Brown, then 49, found himself stretched out on the floor. He was silent. His eyes were shut. His body did not move.
Brown, a man raised as a Baptist and taught to praise the Lord and fear the devil, was meditating.
"I try to focus on the space between two thoughts, because it prevents me from getting lost," said Brown, who discovered meditation, yoga and Buddhist teachings three months into his sentence.
"This helped me stay on track and get me through prison," he said.
Eastern religions encompassing meditation techniques have captivated hippies, 20-somethings and celebrities like actor Richard Gere. But since the 1960s, the art of meditation also has found a growing number of unlikely followers behind prison bars.
The inmates say meditation -- an ancient practice that develops mental awareness and fosters relaxation -- is teaching them how to cope in prison.
"Mostly, the people in Buddhist community are going into the prisons, providing programs, and word of mouth gets from one inmate to another," explained Gary Friedman, communications chairman for the American Correctional Chaplains Association. "It's a break from all the hustle and noise of the prison environment."
There is no group tracking the number of inmates converting to Buddhism or engaging in meditation practices. But programs and workshops educating inmates about meditation and yoga are sprouting up across the country.
Meditation can help the convicts find calmness in a prison culture ripe with violence and chaos. The practice provides them a chance to reflect on their crimes, wrestle through feelings of guilt and transform themselves during their rehabilitative journey, Buddhist experts say.
In the past five years, books like the "Prison Chaplaincy Guidelines for Zen Buddhism" and "Razor-Wire Dharma: A Buddhist Life in Prison" have emerged.
"This is transformative justice, as opposed to punitive," said Fleet Maull, founder of the Prison Dharma Network, one of the largest support networks helping inmates learn meditation and Buddhist teachings.
Since its inception in 1989, Prison Dharma Network has grown from one person -- Maull -- teaching Buddhist principles to more than 75 member organizations corresponding with 2,500 individuals, many of them inmates.
For the past seven years, Maull's group has taught a weekly meditation class in Boulder County Jail in Colorado.
Some inmates follow Zen Buddhism, a practice that originated in China, and meet weekly to focus their minds. Others practice Vipassana, a Buddhist practice founded in India, which consists of completing hundreds of hours of meditation in a short period of time.
Buddhism has gained momentum in the United States over the past 25 years, becoming the third most popular religion in America behind Christianity and Judaism, according to the 2008 report from the the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. About 1.7 million Americans call themselves Buddhists, and many of them are converts, the study said. According to the American Religious Identification Survey in 2008, there were 1.2 million self-identified Buddhists.
Some inmates, like Brown, may not label themselves official Buddhists, but they meditate, practice yoga and follow Buddhist principles on truth, responsibility and suffering.
The practice of meditation seeped into the heart of the Bible Belt in 2002. The Donaldson Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Alabama, was notorious for violence. But a group of male inmates, including several murderers, completed a Vipassana meditation retreat that required more than 100 hours of meditation in 10 days.One inmate, who was featured in the 2007 documentary "The Dhamma Brothers," said Vipassana was harder than the 8½ years he had spent on death row. More than 120 men in Donaldson have gone through Vipassana at least once.
"They don't feel so close to exploding," said Jenny Phillips, director of the film. "They aren't afraid to have conversations with people and to express themselves. They aren't always on edge."
Critics, including some prison officials, doubt that meditation works. They worry that it may be a tactic to convince parole boards to lighten a sentence.
In areas that are heavily Christian, some wardens are uncomfortable with introducing Eastern religions. Alabama prison authorities were initially skeptical about meditation but next year will designate an open dormitory for inmates going through Vipassana, said Ron Cavanaugh, director of treatment for the Alabama Department of Corrections.
He said corrections officers have seen lower levels of violence among Donaldson inmates who meditate.
In California, a state where the swollen prison population has resulted in dangerously overcrowded prisons, teaching conflict management is critical, said Anne Seisen Saunders, a Zen Buddhist instructor who was raised Christian.
Her Prison Meditation Project, based near San Diego, began a decade ago in one prison yard. Today, the program has expanded to five prisons, with an average of 20 inmates participating in each location.
Last week, the autumn sky transformed from a deep purple to light blue outside Kenneth Brown's meager studio apartment. Inside, Brown sat on his bed, barefoot and deep in concentration, in front of a makeshift altar holding books a photo of the Buddha. Traces of incense billowed in the air.
Brown, now 62, resides in Georgia to be near his family. He says he was wrongfully convicted of arson. In 2005, a Massachusetts appeals judge reduced his sentence from 20 years to nine.
His body was motionless, his eyes closed and the palms of his hands facing upward.
These days, Brown's practice of mediation helps him tackle the challenges of being unemployed with a felony record. The college graduate has been rejected from jobs catching stray dogs and cleaning hotel rooms.
But he's got a lot to be thankful for: His daughters, his grandchildren -- and meditation, he said. "I finally feel at peace."
Friday, October 9, 2009
Richard Davidson, one of the world's top brain scientists, believes mental exercise, specifically meditation, can literally change our minds.
"Our data shows mental practice can induce long-lasting changes in the brain," said Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
His startling scientific research on the impact of meditation on brain function has implications that go beyond the physical.
Buddhist monks believe mental attributes and positive emotions such as compassion, love, kindness and empathy are skills that can be cultivated.
And science is beginning to back that up.
Davidson started meditating in 1974, when he was a PhD student at Harvard. Back then, meditation was seen as a somewhat faddish eastern import.
"The culture at the time was not so receptive," Davidson said, "nor were the scientific methods so well-developed."
It was when he met the Dalai Lama in 1992 that he "decided to come out of the closet with my interest in meditation."
He became excited about the possibility of applying rigorous scientific study to the practice of meditation.
"I made a commitment to do my best to take the tools we have so well honed in studying fear and anxiety and apply them to kindness and compassion."
Davidson began an ongoing study of the brains of Buddhist monks, the so-called "Olympians" of meditation, each of whom had accomplished at least 10,000 hours of meditation.
"The work was framed within the research on neuro-plasticity, the understanding that the brain is built to change in response to experience," Davidson said.
Just as an injured brain can adapt by mapping out new neuron pathways to accomplish tasks, "brain circuits (for) regulation of emotion and attention are malleable by the environment and are potential targets of training," he said.
Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery (fMRI), Davidson showed compassion meditation, even in short-term practitioners, induced significant changes in patterns of functional activity in the brain.
"The most important thing is hard-nosed evidence," Davidson said. "We were able to measure the results through experiments we did."
Davidson, who has published his findings on meditation in the world's most prestigious science journals, believes that even the so-called "happiness set-point" of a person's brain can be altered for the better.
The potential applications include non-pharmacological interventions or supplemental treatment for depression, as well as behavioural and stress-related issues.
Davidson hopes to convince educators to include meditation training as part of core curriculum in kindergarten to Grade 12.
"It's very clear that disruptive behaviour--bullying, ADD --dramatically affect learning and have led to progressive declines in North American institutes," he said.
Dr. Adrianne Ross is a Vancouver mindfulness and meditation leader who first turned to the practice when she experienced a serious illness.
She has practised meditation in different forms for more than 30 years, studied with mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn and taught the practice for more than a decade.
"The mindfulness program is for people who aren't sure they're interested in Buddhism, but want to learn to meditate," Ross said.
"It helps you to be able to live more fully and more effectively, so you're causing less harm to yourself and the people around you and you're happier."
Mindfulness can be practised while driving, or standing in line at the bank, Ross said, but it is not a panacea.
"Some people have depression that comes back. Some of us have the chemistry or life experience that make (difficult) thoughts come, but it can help us work with the thoughts," Ross said.
"Some people have severe illness. It won't make the illness go away, but helps them live a full life."
Ross has seen patients become happier and more accepting, in spite of difficult circumstances.
It begins with "learning to be with the breath," Ross said. Bringing focus to the breath and body. You don't try to eliminate your thoughts, but focus with "loving kindness" and watch your habitual thoughts--the ones that might hijack you emotionally.
"You learn to recognize my mind is really spinning right now, you're aware of what it's doing, you're not lost in what's happening. Then if your mind is not going in a useful direction you have a choice."
Davidson, who still meditates regularly, said he doesn't measure his own brain systematically. He doesn't have to. "My practice has given me a kind of equanimity and balance," he said.
"It may be a period of time, but by 2050 I believe mental exercise will be understood as being as important as physical exercise."