Monday, April 3, 2017

Interfaith Dialogue – Part I

Recently the concept of “Interfaith Dialogue” has been confronting me from several directions.  Actually, it might be more accurate to say “interfaith dialogues” as there seem to be several concepts coming under this rubric.  There seem to be a number of purposes for engaging in interfaith dialogue: understanding, conversion, missionary assertion of one’s religion, and so on.  Most commonly it seems to point toward building bridges of understanding between faith communities. 

I am neither an “expert” on interfaith dialogue and engagement, nor a scholar nor an academic.  I don’t have a great deal of knowledge in this arena, and I do not have access to scholarly and academic works, except those that are available to the general public in libraries and online.  So, if you choose to engage in a discussion, I will be learning along with you. 

While I am not well versed in the topic of “interfaith dialogue,” I am not unaware that not all “communities of faith” in a given tradition – Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, for example – share the same reality, or share the same vocabulary, or even share the same definition of words.  According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, released in mid-2001, by Oxford University Press, there are 19 major world religions which are subdivided into a total of 270 large religious groups, and many thousands of smaller ones.  How do we even define a “faith community?” 

In Buddhism, we have Zen, and Tendai, Pure Land, and Vipassana, and . . . well it’s a very long list.  People immersed in, and/or adhering to a particular school’s doctrines will probably not approach interfaith dialogue from the same understandings.  For example, in Tendai Buddhism, the primary text is the Lotus Sutra, which teaches that the Buddha is "a transcendent eternal being, preaching to myriad arhats, gods, bodhisattvas, and other figures using all sorts of sermons, lectures, imaginative parables, and miracles."  (I find this statement on multiple websites.  If anyone knows an original source for it, would you be so kind as to post it in the comments?)  In Theravāda Buddhism, the Buddha is in an entirely separate category of being:  Buddha.  The Buddha is neither divine nor mortal; neither transcendent nor immanent.  The Buddha is a being sui generis.  A Buddha is . . . well, just a Buddha. 

The point to be made here is, that within a given faith group or denomination, some terms such as Buddha, Nibbāna/Nirvāṇa, Enlightenment, Kamma/Karma, Dhamma/Dharma, Dukkhā, Samādhi, and many, mnay more, may be clearly and specifically defined, given a single meaning.  But within the larger “religion” in which a faith community is embedded, agreement may not be so apparent.  Agreement may not even exist.  And we may find local usage, local conventions are at odds with the larger denomination. For example, from a Zen perspective, “enlightenment” is something quite different that what is understood in Theravāda sects. And when one goes “outside” the religion, such as when a Christian or a Muslim tries to understand Buddhism, authentic “Buddhist” understanding may be lost altogether.  This is true not only within Buddhism, but in other religions as well.  Such terms such as "soul" and "spirit," “Christian” and “Muslim,” “sin” and “salvation” and “love” and “compassion” may be clearly and specifically defined, given a single meaning, in some groups, but in other, closely related groups, and in the larger culture, or on the global stage, these words and others become rather goopy, having from 2 to a dozen or more meanings.

Unfortunately, it is often the case that people do not have an awareness of this nature of language, and quite naturally assume that the meaning that they have been taught is universally accepted, that the understanding they hold is absolutely correct and appropriate.  It is often the case that people operate with the assumption that we all share the same concepts, referenced by the same words.  Such differences in meaning and understanding often result in misunderstandings. 

In seeking understanding in any interfaith dialogue, it would seem therefore necessary to identify precisely the community of faith to which one belongs.  It would seem to be necessary to be mindful of language, and communication. 

A further note on the topic of “language” in interfaith dialogue.  As I have encountered interfaith dialogues, the language of the interlocutors has, for the most part, employed terms, concepts and categories of thought that are firmly rooted in Western Christian paradigms.  I’m not sure that imposing such conventions is really helpful in “building bridges of understanding.”   In fact, it may hinder the process.  Coming from a Buddhist perspective, using terms such as God, sin, salvation, etc. to describe Buddhist thought is inaccurate, and for some – Buddhist and Christian alike – is likely to be confusing.  And may impede interfaith dialogue.

That said, I think there are a multitude of “topics” around which interfaith dialogue could take place, and I welcome your comments.  Following are some of those topics.  This list is not exhaustive, merely a starting point.  Let’s see where things go, and please feel free to contribute different topics in your  comments.

1.  Cosmology & Cosmogony: the origin and general structure of the universe understood philosophically and/or physically.  Issue of “time” and the end of time/eternality of time/artificiality of time/cycles of time. 
2.  Deities/Pantheon:  Is there one god, multiple gods, or is “god” and empty concept?  If a god or gods exist, what is their nature?  What is their relationship with humans?  With nature? 
3.  The Human Condition:
a.  what it means to be “human:”  soul, spirit, body, mind, brain, etc.
What a person is made of.
b.  problem(s) in / with the human condition
c.  solution to the problem(s) in / with the human condition; efficacy?
4. Soteriology/Soteriological goal: religious doctrines concerned with salvation; the desired goal for participants in any given religion (eg. ‘heaven,’ ‘nirvana,’ ‘moksa,’ etc.)
5.  Moral Code/Moral Reasoning: what is the source of the moral code?  What is prescribed & proscribed?  Are there moral precepts to guide one in choosing well?  When it comes to choosing well, what does your faith say about the role of patience and wisdom in your faith community?
a) descriptive ethics
b) normative ethics
6.  Source of Religious “Authority:” 
            a. texts
            b. religious class
            c. the individual
7. Religious Observance: How do people of a particular faith tradition gather to worship, and what kinds of special religious things happen on special religious days? 
a.  sacred space
b.  sacred activity
c.  sacred objects/ iconography - conventionally agreed-upon ways of presenting deities, persons, or ideas visually
8. Orthopraxy/Orthodoxy vs. Heteropraxy/Heterodoxy: issues of authenticity/legitimacy of practice/doctrine. 

And there are specific issues of “doctrinal practice,” that is how one “does” one’s religion.  We might characterize this as “living one’s theology” [more on the term “theology” later].  As we live our lives, our mundane, day-to-day existence,  there are a multitude of important issues that can, and probably should, be addressed from a religious perspective.  For example:

Stewardship: concern about the preservation/conservation/exploitation/degradation of the environment;

Gender and Sexuality: how do we deal with the growing understanding that women are equivalent to men in every aspect of life, in every endeavor?  How do we deal with the growing understanding of biological diversity and genetic expression?   What is our practice – gender bias, gender neutrality, gender equity – with respect to access to resources and opportunities?  Does our doctrine support such access regardless of gender?  Or does our doctrine assert social, economic, political and religious stratification along gender lines? 

War and Violence: can either ever be justified?  What is taught regarding respect for life?
Goodwill/Inclusion: welcoming the stranger and attending to the needs of others: the hungry, the homeless, the poor, the sick, or the imprisoned?  what boundaries are important and necessary to protect the integrity one’s goodwill gestures?

Social/Political Organization: 
a) what does the doctrine say about how society is or should be structured??  Questions of marriage.  Question of “family”  What is the position on social stratification - the existence of different hierarchic levels in a society; a class or prestige-based social structure?
b) what does the doctrine say about how society is or should be governed?  Autocracy?  Meritocracy?  Democracy?  Olgarchy?  Anarchy?  Plutocracy? 

Vocation/Lifestyle: engagement/interaction with others throughout your various jobs, school involvement, service activity, and club/organization memberships?

Management of Resources/Finances: In a world that encourages the consumer mentality of craving and buying more “stuff,” what does the doctrine say about acquisition of things, and about the handling and management of money?  What does doctrine advise regarding support of the faith community?  Regarding generosity with your time, your talents and skills? 

It is my hope that over time we can explore some of these topics in blog posts.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Free Meditation Classes, March 2017

Spring is a season for new beginnings!

Throw open the windows, let in the light and fresh air, and make or renew a commitment to meditate.

We are offering free instruction in meditation on several weekends during March, 2017.  Participation is absolutely free, and all are welcome. 

Why Meditate?

Meditation is a means of transforming the mind, the way we think, speek and act.  Regular meditation helps develop concentration, mental clarity, emotional positivity, and a rock-steady calmness.  There are physiological benefits as well.  Regular meditation can have a transformative effect leading to more positive ways of being and a new understanding of life.

Join us, won’t you? 

Phothisomphan Meditation Monastery
2560 SE 14th Street
Des Moines, Iowa 50320

Schedule of Classes*

9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.  Meditation Instruction at Wat Phothisomphan

1:30 p.m. to 3:00 pm.  Meditation Instruction at Wat Phothisomphan

1:30 p.m. to 3:00 pm.  Meditation Instruction at Wat Phothisomphan

9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.  Meditation Instruction at Wat Phothisomphan

1:30 p.m. to 3:00 pm.  Meditation Instruction at Wat Phothisomphan

1:30 p.m. to 3:00 pm.  Meditation Instruction at Wat Phothisomphan

9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.  Meditation Instruction at Wat Phothisomphan

1:30 p.m. to 3:00 pm.  Meditation Instruction at Wat Phothisomphan

2:30 p.m. to 4:00 pm.  Meditation Instruction at Wat Phothisomphan

1:30 p.m. to 3:00 pm.  Meditation Instruction at Wat Phothisomphan

9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.  Meditation Instruction at Wat Phothisomphan

1:30 p.m. to 3:00 pm.  Meditation Instruction at Wat Phothisomphan

1:30 p.m. to 3:00 pm.  Meditation Instruction at Wat Phothisomphan

*Classes will only be held on dates and at times for which people have registered.  Please check the Ariya Magga Buddhist Missionary Society webpage for confirmation and notices. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017


Join us for meditation today between 5:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.

** I say be spontaneous 'cause we didn't plan this very far in advance.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Open Meditation

We are hoping to host "open meditation" from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. daily for anyone who meditates.

Drop in for 20 minutes, or for an hour as your schedule, your inclinations, and your practice permit.  There is no registration and no fee.

This sitting is for everyone who practices silent, sitting meditation, from any tradition; Christian, Sufi, yoga, TM, vipassana, Hindu, Zen, or any other.

We're just silently sitting together in peace.

Wat Phothisomphan - the sign says Phothisomphan Meditation Monastery - is located on the west side of SE 14th Street in Des Moines Iowa.  The address is 2560 SE 14th St. Des Moines, IA 50320.  The private drive is the first right turn south of Bell Avenue.

As noted, we are going to try to have the facility open daily from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.  If there are changes to this schedule, we will post them on the Ariya Magga Buddhsit Missionary website [ ], and on Facebook.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Cost of Living in Urban Iowa Today

Cost of Living in Urban Iowa Today

I’m kinda’ interested in what it costs to live in an urban area in Iowa, such as Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Des Moines, Council Bluffs or Sioux City.  I’d appreciate your help in figuring this out.  Do you (or anyone you know, and could put me in touch with) have a source for this kind of information that is unbiased, valid, reliable and accurate? 

I know there are lots of variables that can come into play, so let’s get the numbers for a basic “budget” for a single person, 20 to 50 living in an urban area in Iowa.  Let’s define “urban” as a population of 30,000 people or more.  Let’s define a “basic budget” as one that includes the categories in the table below, and that allows one to live a healthy life, and a life relatively free of worry and stress regarding these categories.  That is, the individual has sufficient access to quality products and services, in adequate amounts to sustain life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  (Okay, okay.  I just threw that last bit in because I like the sound of it.  Let’s don't get all political here, okay?)  We’re talking a decent standard of living.  The bottom of Maslow’s pyramid.[i] 

I’ve, rather arbitrarily, set up the following categories of expenses.  These are purposefully broad and inclusive because I want something that is pretty direct.  If these categories skew perceptions, let me know.  What would you suggest?

I consider the first five categories as requisite to a minimum quality of life.  Some folks will likely take issue with including Transportation as a requisite, but if you can’t get to the grocery store or the dentist . . . well?  Transportation can be public transportation, but the costs need to be considered.  There are those who will likely take exception to including Medical care as a requisite.  I say, “Let ‘em.”  I’m keeping it.  Again, don’t wax political on me.  I’m not advocating for a “right” to medical care, or a “right” to transportation.  This is just trying to figure out what “is,” not what “ought to be.”  Constructive suggestions are encouraged.




Medical care**




Food includes meals eaten out as well as non-grocery items usually purchased at the grocery store such as shampoo, dish soap, sanitizing sprays, and so on.  If we eat three times a day, that is 21 meals per week.  90 meals per month (30 days).  1095 meals per year (365 days).  Eating all meals “at home” (includes sack lunches) is cheaper than “eating out.”  Preparing food from scratch is usually cheaper than buying prepared foods or ordering in.  I don’t know what is “the norm” these days, so any input on this welcome.

†† Clothing includes not only purchase price, but also washing, mending, dry-cleaning, etc.  It would also include any accessories and adornments, such as jewelry, hats, scarves, gloves, and so on.  I would also include wallets, purses and the like.  I’m thinking make-up and perfume for the women, aftershave and cologne for men, would be included here.  If it’s not medicine, but you put it on, put it in this category.

* Shelter includes rent/mortgage payments, utilities, insurance, maintenance, repairs, etc.,  I’m considering the cost of internet and cell/mobile communication devices as utilities.  Again, if you live in a single family dwelling, the costs of equipment to mow lawns and clear walks goes here.  Or if you hire those services.  I’m looking for “immediacy” in these number, not long-range costs, so I’m not including depreciation, appreciation, capital gains, and so forth.

** Medical care includes the costs of dental and vision care, over-the-counter meds (e.g., sunscreen, lip balm, antacids, and such), dietary supplements such as vitamins, medical insurance, and all services from the healthcare industry. 

*** Transportation includes purchase/lease/rental, operating costs, maintenance, repairs and insurance.  I’m looking for “immediacy” in these number, not long-range costs, so I’m not including depreciation, etc.

**** Other includes education, recreation, etc.  If you have a book bag, a bicycle, a briefcase, it goes in “Other.”  “Other” also includes donations to charities, and worthy causes.  It includes gifts you give to family and friends for birthdays, holidays, and other occasions.  Arbitrarily, I’m putting computers of all sorts, and the software used on them here in “Other.”  “Other” will include any savings or retirement funds.  I’m excluding “investments.”  Yeah, it’s arbitrary.  

Here are my un-researched, off-the-top-of-my-head guestimates for a minimum standard of living in urban Iowa.  I have the raw figures and calculations on a spreadsheet: if anybody wants it, message me on Facebook.  Again, THIS IS NOT A POLITICAL STATEMENT.  I’m not advocating for an increase in the minimum wage.  I’m not advocating for tax reform.  I’m not advocating for some change in poverty levels.  This is not a statement about “take-home” pay, or “after-tax income.”  I’m just trying to get a handle on what it costs to live decently in urban Iowa.  Just seeking some perspective.  I’d appreciate your input.

Medical care


Food – if we figure $3.00 per meal, on average, that comes to $63.00 per week, $252.00 per month, or $3,168.00 per year.  That’s living pretty skinny.  I think a more realistic figure would be an average $5.00 per meal, which yields the figures shown.  If you have data that shows that these numbers are way off the mark, I’ll revise them.

†† Clothing – I haven’t a clue what the average urban Iowan spends on clothing, so I’m just making a wild guess here.  Let’s say three pair of jeans, 8 t-shirts, 8 regular shirts/blouses, 3 sets of work clothes (pants/skirts/dresses, shirts/blouses, etc.), underwear for two weeks,  footwear (1 pair sandals, 1 pair athletic shoes, 1 pair casual shoes, 1 pair dress shoes, winter boots).  It would also include rental of formal wear for those occasions calling for such (weddings, proms, funerals, visits to heads of state – just joking – and so on). Also, frequency of purchase, and so on.[ii]  I did some rough calculation on some rough guesses to come up with the numbers here.  As I said, I don’t have any really good numbers for this category, so this is a really rough guestimate.  Particularly for women’s clothing. If you find these numbers are way off, and you have data on specific costs, length of wear, and so on, that information is most welcome. 

* Shelter – just an estimate. There should probably be two lines for shelter; one if you rent, one if you own.  If I get good data, I’ll make that modification, if it’s warranted. 

** Medical care – just an estimate for a normally healthy 20 to 50 year old.

*** Transportation – an estimate based on the following parameters: 
Purchase/lease total of $20,000 (includes tags and taxes & interest) amortized over 36 months.  Forty-six cents per mile operating costs, and routine maintenance based on 7,500 miles per year.  Purchase, balance, install one set of 55,000 mile tires, and so on. 

**** Other – wild guess.

[i] Abraham Maslow, a psychologist, published a “hierarchy of needs” in the late 1950s or early 1960s.  I’m not sure if research has supported his hypotheses; I’m just using his pyramid for pedagogical purposes.
[ii] How long does a pair of Levis last these days?  When I was a kid, in the 1950s I grew out of my Levis before I outgrew them.  (In those days Levis had the button fly.  They were cut “loose,” and the first time you wore them, you put ‘em on soaking wet, and “wore them dry” for a good fit.)