Saturday, June 4, 2011

Some thoughts on "Popular" Buddhism

Following are some generalizations, based on personal observations and discussions with practitioners, both ordained and lay. Be mindful that these are generalizations, and do not fit with every Buddhist practitioner.

We humans say and do stupid things and we say and do bad things. (More and more, I hear Buddhists referring to this as ‘sin,’ a concept borrowed from the Judeo-Christian traditions. Look up “sin” in a good dictionary of religion or philosophy. You will be edified!) When we say and/or do a dumb or mean thing, there are consequences. One of these consequences is some sort of “residue” or “residual,” often referred to with the term “karma.” This residue/residual clings to us for a very, very, very long time. This residual clinging to us (or perhaps it’s the clinging of the residual) causes us to be “impure.”

Both the "severity" or "intensity" and the "duration" of the karma generating behavior play a part in the degree to which the karma weighs us down and sticks around. Also the degree of "heinousness" of our actions has an important influence on the nature of the residue.

The “reason” we do and say stupid and bad things is because it is our nature. Our nature is to be unwise (avijjā) and be driven by unwholesome desires and cravings (taṇhā) and delusional clinging, attachment and grasping (upādāna).

We humans sometimes say and do “smart” (read “wise”) and good things. Doing smart and good things has consequences, too: Doing smart and good things generates / earns us “merit.” Merit, in some way or another, counters karma. This results in us becoming more “pure.” I recently heard a Sinhalese (Sri Lankan) bhikkhu describe this process as functioning “enzymatically.” Merit breaks down, or dissolves the residue/residual, thus ridding us of karma (or karmic effects, or sin). This, according to the Sinhalese bhikkhu, proves the scientific nature of Buddhism.

It seems that "strengh" of the goodness of, and the "frequency of occurance" of merit producing behavior plays a role in the efficacy of merit in reducing the karmic debt load.

I don’t know why we sometimes do smart and good things. I think that this also is probably in our nature, just not as prominently, therefore we have to constantly and consciously practice doing good and being smart.

All of this is very important because of the cosmology of popular Buddhism. That cosmology has multiple levels or planes of existence / reality, all of which are populated by sentient beings of various sorts. There are heavens populated by Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and devas. And there are hells populated by such beings as “hungry ghosts.”

The popular Buddhism cosmology asserts that we are born again and again, and again. And we may be born into/onto any of the levels / planes of existence. The reason we are reborn is the aforementioned “residue/residual” (karma). The particular level / plane we are reborn in/or is determined by our accumulated residue/residual. The more residue/residual we have, the lower the level / plane of existence. The less residue/residual, the purer we are, and the higher the level / plane of existence.

So, for popular Buddhism, functionally speaking, the “problem” is rebirth, caused by the accumulation of karma due to malicious and/or unwise behavior on our part. The solution is to act wisely with loving kindness (mettā), with compassion (karunā), and with selfless generosity (dana) toward all sentient beings, thus generating merit. Merit counters karma, and if we generate / earn enough merit, then voila! we are reborn in heaven! So, popular Buddhism Buddhists assert, our “fate” is in our own hands. It is through our own actions that our future rebirths are determined.

Many popular Buddhism Buddhists also believe that the aforementioned Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and devas are endowed with extraordinary, supra-mundane powers. They are imbued with compassion and beneficence as well. Therefore, if “prayed” to, in the manner prescribed, these divine beings will give us an “assist,” a boost up, if you will, in getting reborn in their particular heaven (e.g., Sukhāvatī; the western Pure Land of the Buddha Amitābha).

Being reborn in heaven is good for two reasons: One, there is no suffering (dukkhā), no unpleasantness, and two; in heaven one accumulates only merit, thus completely eradicating karma. This leaves us “pure,” and we all know what happens when we attain “purity.” NIRVĀNA!

Oh, yeah, there is also Enlightenment (with a capital “E”). Enlightenment seems to be understood as the “realization” of some sort of (spiritual or religious) understanding. It is often asserted that this “realization” is NOT cognitive, but occurs in some sort of “higher mind” beyond the rational, ordinary mind. It also seems to be a “state” attained when the cycle of rebirth ends. Some say it is a “state of mind,” bearing in mind that this is a non-rational, non-cognitive “higher mind” state. Others seem to say it is a “state of being,” either some sort of “purified” being, or some sort of “pure being.” (If you want to spend some time in confusion, study up on the Mahāyāna concept of “Buddha Nature” or “True Nature.” Different lineages; different understandings. Have fun!). And some (mostly Theravāda lineages) connect Enlightenment with the elimination or transcending of all human desire (taṇhā) and suffering (dukkhā).

All of the schools, traditions, lineages, etc., of which I am aware employ “chanting” or “recitation” to a greater or lesser degree. Most advocate for meditation in some fashion. And each has a “devotional” aspect to it. These are all considered “practices” which will get one where one wants to go – heaven, Nirvāṇa, or Enlightenment, however understood or defined.

I was once told by a Tibetan lama (and I paraphrase), “Every valley has a lama. Every lama has a dharma. Every dharma has Truth.”

What would an “American” or “Western” Buddhism look like? What would be an “American” or “Western” dharma?

More to come . . .

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Visitor's Guidelines

Hey, Everybody!

AMBMS, the Ariya Magga Buddhist Missionary Society, maintains Ariya Magga Vihara, an “abode” of the Noble Path, located at 123 S. Center Street, in Sioux City, Iowa, USA. As a Noble Path Abode, the vihara is a place of instruction and practice, where everyone is welcome, whether for meditation practice, to learn a bit about practicing the Noble Path, to learn about the many paths called Buddhism, or just to visit. We note that, while some social functions take place here we not a social gathering hall. We try to keep the atmosphere at the vihara quiet and relaxed, and we ask that you help us in that effort. Please enter quietly, turning off cell phones, pagers and any other devices which might make a disturbing noise. If others are “sitting” in the Buddha Hall, speak as little as possible, and speak softly when you must.

Our practice falls within the family of disciplines called "Buddhist," but despite what you might have read, or heard, or might be anticipating, when visiting Ariya Magga Vihara you will not be required to bow, to chant, to participate in meditation or to do other things which are unfamiliar or uncomfortable. At Ariya Magga Vihara we follow certain customs and traditions, and we do ask that you be respectful of them. If you are not sure of what would be respectful, please ask.

One thing that stands out for some people is that as they enter the vihara, the entry room is sometimes full of shoes. This is due to the custom of removing one’s shoes when entering a vihara building, and especially before entering a Buddha Hall. There are lots of different explanations for this practice, some of which seem more plausible than others. One explanation is that for centuries in Asia people removed their shoes before entering any building, as their shoes were usually dusty or muddy or otherwise “dirty.” So it was both hygienic and respectful to leave the dirt at the door. Another explanation is rooted in ancient mythology, which held that impish and/or evil spirits or beings lived in the earth. Walking outside in shoes disturbed them and they would subsequently cling to the shoes’ soles. Carrying these imps/spirits into one’s house, business or temple was just bad form. Another explanation is derived from logical reasoning. Shoes are dirty. Wearing shoes indoors brings dirt indoors. Indoors we sit on the floor. We don’t want to sit in dirt. Ergo, we don’t wear our shoes indoors. For some people removing the shoes is an action which assists them in making the mental transition from a noisy “outside” world to the more peaceful atmosphere of the vihara. Removing one’s shoes is the first preparatory step toward their practice. And finally, people who practice the Noble Path frequently sit on the floor with their legs crossed in either a “full-lotus” or “half-lotus” position. It is very uncomfortable to sit in either of these positions wearing shoes. So we leave them at the door as we come in.

We encourage the custom of removing shoes at the door, but if there is some reason you would rather not, we can live with that, too. And if you are more comfortable in a chair, we have those too. Please don’t let these customs deter you from coming for a visit or a sitting. You might find our vihara a refuge from the “sturm und drang” of our modern world.

Ehi passiko! Come and see!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Some thoughts on Kamma

I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations lately about “kamma” – do I believe in it, and if so, what do I believe about it.

As with any discussion of “things Buddhist” we must consider a few basic principles, such as the Noble Truths, the Three Characteristics of Things, and so forth. One of the most basic guiding principles is that we do not speculate on “things metaphysical.” Such speculations are without merit.

So, do I believe in kamma, and if so what do I believe? Well, yes and no. I do not “believe” in the sense of taking something on faith, but I do have confidence in the evidence which supports the concept of kamma. So, what is “kamma?” Kamma is a Pāli word (“karma” is the Sanskrit) which means literally ‘action.’ The “law” of kamma is a principle that states that for every action there is an effect, or consequence, or outcome of that action. And in the orthodox Buddhist traditions, kamma indicates “intentional” actions – that is actions which result from our choices. And we do not need to resort to metaphysical speculation in order to understand that kamma is at work in our lives.

Kamma is a principle, not a “thing” or a “stuff.” So Kamma does not accumulate like dust accumulates. But it does shape our lives as follows: We come to an intersection of two roads. We have a number of possible choices: straight ahead, right, left, back, or just stop. Our immediate future is contingent on whichever of those choices we make and act upon. A “left” choice puts us in a different place that a “straight ahead” choice. As we move down our path in life we are constantly making such choices, thus leading us in one of a multitude of directions.

Another example of kamma – intentional action and the consequences – is in my interactions with other people. If I am direct in my speech, honest in my speech, clear and concise in my speech, I will have far better communication (and relationships) than if I am coy, gamey, cutsie and insinuative in my speech. If I act with benevolence, compassion, joy in the successes of others and, with equanimity towards others, my relationships will be much more enjoyable than if I act needy, selfishly, and with emotional instability.

It is important to note that we can not always predict the results of our decisions, the full consequences of our actions. As a Dhamma teacher, I point out dukkhā and the workings of kamma in people’s lives, with the intention of facilitating their mindfulness and expanding their awareness, and encouraging them to practice. But some people take umbrage at these efforts, and respond with anger or hurt feelings.

It is important to note that kamma is not the sole determinant of place on the path of life. There are other people acting in ways that affect me, and there are natural forces and events which play a part in who, what and where I am. For example, I was on a path which I hoped would lead to me being a rock star. I was performing on weekends and studying music in college, when I got a letter over the signature of President Nixon, beganing something like:

You have been selected by your friends and neighbors to serve in the armed forces of the United States of America."

It was a life changing event! Eight years later, I was well on my way to becoming a psychologist with a commitment to living the noble path. No more thoughts of being a rock star. While I am responsible for the consequence of the decisions I made which took me down that path – kamma – there were many, many, many events over which I had no influence or control, but which affected the “trajectory” my life path followed.

Kamma does not explain my birth circumstances, nor my DNA makeup. Kamma is not determinative of anyone’s life. But it is an important principle we should be aware of and make our choices with due consideration. Kamma is a shorthand way of saying “What we do matters.”

Struggle on! But don’t suffer.