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Monday, April 30, 2012

I'm a JeBu, and You?

Those of us who follow two traditions, or participate in what some are calling "dual belonging," often have a hard time explaining our spiritual perspective in a concise, coherent way. We tend not to have catchy names that explain our positions well. I must confess, however, that after looking as objectively as I could at catchy names that accurately reflect something about the people who attach those labels to themselves, those names probably only became convenient short hand with meaning after they caught on. In the beginning, those using these labels probably had to explain them at length. Whatever the case, it is certain that we can't move toward recognition until we have come up with a name.

Several years ago I read of a woman who identified herself as a Buddhapalian. She was a Buddhist-Episcopalian, and I thought that name was very catchy, and may have applied to me if I was still an Episcopalian. Then a little while later I was in an ecumenical book study with a woman who identified as a JewBu. Very nice as well, but I'm not Jewish. I settled for Christian Buddhist or Buddhist Christian, depending on which happened to tumble out of my mouth at the time. Buddhian didn't seem to have much staying power, and Chrisdist seemed to have the same problem - plus, it sounded an awful lot like a form of muscular dystrophy. "Did you hear that Bob's son has Chrisdist?" "Dammit, that's rough!"

Then I started to reflect on the fact that I really don't consider myself a member of institutional Christianity any more. Even a rat leaves a sinking ship, and I had jumped overboard a few years ago. So, while sitting on the toilet the other day (don't laugh, that's where Martin Luther wrote his 93 theses!) I pondered how to describe my spirituality. It occurred to me that Buddha offered me a way to work with my mind, and Jesus offered me a way of life, and both Buddhism and the teachings of Jesus equip me with the tools necessary for spiritual transformation. Jesus and Buddha. Then it hit me: I'm a JeBu! How cool is that?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Emotions, Christianity's Great Failure

The weakest link in Christianity is that it doesn't really deal with emotions beyond the most superficial commands that lack any hint of an instruction about how to follow the command. "Be angry, but sin not." Super. That's about as useless as a gallon of salt water to a person dying of thirst. "Righteous anger" and other similar nonsense is not only undefined, but a terrible idea. Love is talked about as desirable, more in its agape and brotherly/sisterly forms than in the romantic sense, but again - no instructions whatsoever, just commands to love one another. As a result of this profound lack of instruction in the Christian arena, I hear the most absurd things about emotions from the lips of Christians. In our culture, it seems that everybody is angry, and I hear Christians saying those who are angry have a right to be angry and have a right to their feelings. As far as that goes, I agree completely - but what's often missing is anything beyond the right to our feelings. There's no talk of dealing with feelings, of transforming those feelings, of responsibility for those feelings. It's as if it is perfectly fine to be an angry young man or an angry young woman and never seek to transform that anger - no doubt because Christianity never speaks of transforming anger. The result is that we currently have a nation full of angry people with no resolution in sight.

Fortunately, those of us whose spiritual journey straddles Christianity and Buddhism know better. Our practice calls us to transform emotions, and recognizes that the seeds we water are the seeds that grow. If we water the anger in our consciousness, we become more angry. If we water the peace in our consciousness, we become more peaceful. It sounds simple, and the theory is indeed simple, but it takes practice and commitment. It requires the willingness to really examine ourselves honestly and do the hard work of transformation. That transformation doesn't happen overnight and it usually isn't dramatic. No fireworks are likely to accompany our change. Gradually, however, we notice that we don't get hooked as easily, that we don't respond quite as quickly and aren't provoked quite as easily. Our "buttons" are harder to find and harder to push. We become kinder and gentler.

Nobody has the "right" to walk around acting out their anger. Rather, we all have the responsibility to transform our negative emotions and recognize them for what they are - unskillful responses to stimuli. We would do well to spend less time judging our attitudes and feelings, and more time transforming them. If we are to have peace on Earth, that peace needs to begin in each of us.

Monday, April 9, 2012

My Struggle with Cosmology

I have a love/hate relationship with cosmology. I suppose it's a chicken and an egg kind of thing, at least in part. Some people seems to believe you need to develop a cosmology before you can decide what you believe. I tend to believe your cosmology grows out of your beliefs. For those who don't know, and I could hardly blame you if you didn't, cosmology is the branch of philosophy dealing with the origin and general structure of the universe, with its parts, elements, and laws, and especially with such of its characteristics such as space, time, causality, and freedom. In other words, it's how stuff works. It is not, and I am sorry to disappoint some of you when I say this, the study of cosmopolitan martinis, no matter how much you wish it were.  

I mention all of this because I have had occasion to study with a somewhat controversial Tibetan Buddhist teacher. I like her very much, and some of her most senior students are quite wonderful - although some of her less senior students are profoundly immature, which concerns me - but my biggest problem is that I just can't get close to Tibetan cosmology, which she emphasizes. Tibetan Buddhism emerged when, oddly enough, Buddhism traveled to Tibet. As Buddhism enters a new country, it adapts somewhat to the local culture. In Tibet that meant that it absorbed some of the local, shamanistic practices. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, except that it leaves Tibetan Buddhism with a cosmology that's very hard for Westerners - or at least this Westerner - to access. There are also differences in the way Tibetans tend to do mantra practice or chant from the way just about every other Buddhist - and even some Tibetan Western Buddhists - or Christian does mantra practice or chant and I struggle with that, as well.

All of that having been said, I love the teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Lama Surya Das, Lama Sumati Marut, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, and a host of other Tibetan teachers who don't emphasize cosmology in their teachings to Western students, at least not on the level of their books, videos, public talks, and podcast teachings. What I am trying to sort out is whether we need a particular cosmology in order to understand the teachings of a tradition. I suspect not, because clearly the cosmology of the time of the Buddha (India in 2500 BCE) was not the cosmology of the time (or now) in any of the countries into which Buddhism traveled. What's more, the cosmology of First Century Palestine is hardly the cosmology of Twenty-first Century America, but that doesn't stop the teachings of Jesus from being understood and practiced.

In my more cynical moments, I think that many of the people attracted to Tibetan Buddhism are attracted to it because of the esoteric nature of the cosmology. All of that "secret knowledge" has great appeal to people who want to feel they are special without necessarily doing the difficult work of personal transformation. I have been trained to be nice to people no matter the circumstances, and that has not always served me well in life. I am much better than I used to be at walking away from people and situations that are harmful, but recognize that I have a harder time walking away from nice people who mean well but who offer something that, while it doesn't hurt me, doesn't really benefit me, either. On the other hand, I am not getting any younger and am not particularly inclined to give my time away just to make people happy.

One of the drawbacks of living in the Milwaukee is that there aren't many practice centers. There are plenty of Zen centers, a Shambhalla center, a Diamond Way center (don't get me started) and that's about it - but I am not really a Zen guy, and though I love Pema Chodron I am not so sure about Chogyam Trungpa, who had some pretty major personal issues for someone who was supposedly enlightened. If I lived in Chicago, or Madison, or Minneapolis, I could attend local Insight Meditation Centers - which is probably my true charism, as they work to establish American Buddhism - but with gasoline just under four dollars a gallon I really can't afford to make the one hundred fifty mile round trip journey to sit meditation with a group on a regular basis.

To be sure, this has been a bit of a rambling entry, but I suspect it reflects a struggle that many of us occupying the Buddhist/Christian spiritual space and don't live on either coast may be forced to confront. At what point does the benefit of sitting with a local group get outweighed by the eccentricities of that group and  therefore listening to teachings from remote teachers and sitting alone (my practice) become most sound. I suspect I know my answer, and I also suspect that answer may be different for each of us.    


Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday - I think I'll take a pass next year

Today is Good Friday. I did a special edition of The Christ Enlight Blog Talk Radio program this morning because it was Good Friday. I then went to an ecumenical Good Friday service to support some colleagues. After it was over, I came home and did a Christ Enlight Podcast because I was so disappointed - not really so much with the service, as with the whole issue of Good Friday. Obviously, I am still thinking through my issues because I am writing about it here as well.

I know I am not a Christian - I am a follower of Jesus and of Buddha. I think the whole problem I am having is really with the fact that once a person moves beyond the horrifically bad idea that is atonement theology, they eventually have to come to terms with the fact the liturgical season of Lent doesn't make sense any more, and Good Friday is in need of dramatic revision. Stay with me here, because I think I may be coming to some clarity.

Atonement theology holds that Jesus was sent to Earth and murdered by his heavenly Father, God, because God created humanity sinful, then God converted to Judaism which said to be close to God you had to keep the Jewish Law perfectly. Since no human being can do that, God had to find another way to avoid sending each and every human to God's customized torture chamber for all eternity. So, God looked at the Jewish Law and rituals and noticed that animals were offered as a sacrifice for sin. God then decided to send God's only Son to Earth, have him suffer a horrible death to pay for humanity's sinfulness that God had created humanity with, and then God would only have to send some people to the eternal, customized torture chamber - those people who Christian priests and pastors tell God to send there, because apparently God can't make decisions without help from humans.

It probably won't surprise you to know that atonement theology is on the wane. We are still left with the liturgical season of Lent, in which we are supposed to walk about very long-faced and punish ourselves because Jesus had to die for our sins. Except, we don't really understand Jesus' death in that way any more - so please tell me what all of this fasting and penance is about, again? Some will answer, "Oh, it's to turn our attention toward God." Well, that's nice, but aren't we supposed to be doing that all year? The whole thing culminates in Good Friday, in which we are supposed to be especially sad and mournful. To show us how sad and mournful we are supposed to be, clergy often gather and drag a large - but remarkably light weight - cross through the city streets to get attention for themselves. I mean, to show people what Jesus did, in case they didn't know already. Then they end up in a church telling a bunch 
of old people (who don't have jobs to be at so they can get to church on Friday) and fools like me a bunch of nonsense about how sorry they should be because we all killed Jesus with our sins - except that we didn't really, but I guess people don't find enough excuses to beat themselves up in daily living, so they look to religion for a few more reasons on Good Friday. I mean, it's not like we are living in a society filled with depression and eating disorders...

Ritual, and the symbols within it, have to have meaning for them to be useful. As I left the Good Friday service today the clergy handed us a section of purple ribbon as a token of our having been at the service. It's an excellent example of a symbol without any meaning or context - what in the world does a piece of ribbon have to do with anything even remotely connected with the execution of Jesus? Yes, it was purple and purple is the liturgical color of Lent, but that doesn't give a piece of ribbon meaning. People were tying the ribbon around their wrists, I suppose as a reminder of how self-loathing they should be on this day, just in case they missed the point not just today, or this Lent, but in all of the Lents combined in their lifetimes - but that doesn't make it a meaningful symbol.

You see, it's not Jesus that has lost his meaning - it's most of the Church that mindlessly repeats rituals year after year without either updating them or accompanying them with preaching that will update them that has lost its meaning. Rather than update the symbols, we add more symbols without meaning like letting adults draw on paper in a corner during worship, or dance in another corner, or God only knows what else - all of which creates even more symbols without meaning and on and on it goes in a seemingly endless circle of nonsense. In the midst of all of this what comes blasting through for me, loud and clear, is that my time would have better been spent sitting meditation for the hour that I spent in that church, because what went on there had no connection whatsoever to the reality which I inhabit. That's a stinging indictment of Church, and it's a stinging indictment of me for sitting there!

When we do things which contradict our deeply held beliefs we create what's known as cognitive dissonance. That's probably a pretty good description of what I am experiencing tonight. Finding the resolution of that dissonance is a spiritual practice in which I obviously need to engage!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Practice

One of the greatest losses in the Christian world is the loss of a spiritual practice. To be quite honest, the Reformed Church never had a practice because it chose to throw out everything that happened prior to 1500 or so. That meant that the contemplative tradition of the Church went out with the bath water. Protestantism tried to develop alternatives to contemplation and the daily offices with something called "devotions," a mostly self-serving and/or highly manipulative practice that usually involves reading a short scripture passage - most often selected by someone other than the person doing their devotions - saying a prayer or two, saying some intercessory prayers, and in a space of time more or less around five minutes you are done. That's not really a practice, it's more like something tucked in that doesn't really involve substantial commitment or meaning.

I believe the single most important gleaning from Buddhism in my spiritual journey is mantra practice. Since I am a prayer bead guy, I like to say my mantra with a set of mala beads, but the absence of the beads doesn't stop me from praying. Mantra practice IS meditation, and I especially appreciate my mala on long car rides, like the one we have made to Minneapolis and back twice in the last three weekends. On the way up last Thursday I was able to spend several hours with my mantra and it was simply delightful.

Christianity needs to recover a practice, and I would suggest they recover contemplative prayer via mantra practice. Christianity needs to transcend its image as something you plug into on Sunday morning and then disengage from until the following Sunday, and it also needs a spiritual practice one can engage in without the Christian community present. Human beings need to tap into their spirituality regularly, and my life stands as witness that mala practice can be transformative.

Centuries ago, the Catholic Church recognized that lay people needed a practice. At the time, monks in monasteries recited all one hundred fifty psalms each day. Since lay people were largely illiterate, and books were still extremely expensive because the printing press had not yet been invented, reciting the psalms was out of the question. For this reason, the rosary was born. The laity could pray one hundred fifty Hail Mary's and recall fifteen "mysteries" of the life of Christ in the process. The rosary had the dual function of being a doorway to contemplation and a tool for teaching the Gospel. As someone who prayed the rosary for years, I can attest that it is indeed a doorway to contemplation. For me, the "mysteries" and the interspersed "Our Father's" were a distraction to the rhythm of the prayer. Just when it seemed I was getting into the groove, I had to stop and knock out another mystery and an Our Father.

Mantra practice, on the other hand, is just the mantra - and you can choose your own or ask a spiritual friend or guide to chose one for you. I often recommend "Thank You" as a beginning mantra, because gratitude brings us to the present moment as well as being a spiritual quality worth developing. If you are inclined, you can direct your "thank you" toward a deity, but it isn't necessary. What is necessary is to do the practice. I'm a bit unorthodox in that I recommend buying or making yourself a small set of prayer beads and saying you mantra in the car, on a walk, while watching television, whenever you can find a moment, for at least the first thirty days. (Quite honestly, I take my mala wherever I go.) In that way, you build a habit and the mantra becomes a part of you. Of course, it would be ideal to also be able to find a period of ten to thirty minutes to sit quietly and intentionally to say your mantra in addition to praying it on the go.

Mantras aren't panaceas, and they aren't magic. The repetition of a mantra does lead endorphines to be released in our brains, which means it feels good. More importantly, though, a mantra brings us to the present moment over and over again. I have seen my personality transformed over the last twelve years of dedicated mantra practice. It wasn't like someone flipped a light switch, it was more like I had been soaked in a vat of calmness, compassion, clear vision, and peacefulness. Much to my surprise, one day I looked back and realized that transformation had occurred - and it keeps on happening. To me, this is a spirituality that works. It takes time, and dedication, but it isn't really all that difficult - and the rewards are unbelievable!