Westboro Baptist Church protest (photo by JCWilmore)
Given the events happening around the world and in our own country, this may seem like a strange time to pause and ask questions about what kind of religion would heal the world now. To me, it is a perfect time. Our religious and spiritual commitments are undoubtedly influencing how we respond to the news each night; we could do worse than make that point explicitly.
Two weeks ago I proposed that we desperately need religions of grace and compassion right now. This week I would like to add another criterion for world-healing religion. This is extremely hard to live out but I think it is worth our consideration, and particularly worth some conversation given the state of our own society right now.
America Meditates 2010 - Lima, Peru
The international nongovernmental organization The Art of Living — founded in 1981 by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar — held a massive meditation ceremony last Sunday under the motto: “America Meditates — Because Peace Is Contagious.” Joining in for a synchronized meditation session were over thirty cities throughout the American continent, from Buenos Aires to New York City. Last year, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s event gathered over 20,000 people:
The aim was to soothe the suffering of people post a period which has seen economic challenges, political turmoil and natural disasters. Comfort, a sense of belonging and responsibility toward the community, and a positive approach were the natural outcomes when thousands of people united in an atmosphere of peace and calm. Some of the experiences of people: “Thank you for coming to my city and share this wonderful experience with us,” and “We need this kind of events in my country. Please keep doing them.”
Before or after the event, I could not find any information pointing to meditation sessions being scheduled in any West Coast city. Did any Tikkun readers hear about/participate in the event?
Here are some videos from last Sunday:
Yesterday an estimated 1 million people wore purple to raise awareness about bullying of LGBTQ youth. In light of the highly publicized series of suicides related to homophobic bullying, many of us are wondering how we can help LGBTQ youth. To answer this question, I’ve been reflecting on what helped me as a queer teenager in an aggressively homophobic community. By the time I was 15, nearly every one of my LGBTQ-identified friends had tried to kill themselves. I was alone in not attempting suicide. There are many factors of course, but I keep thinking of Noach Dzmura’s comment in the current issue of Tikkun,”Liberal religions save queer lives daily.” Having a loving, inclusive religious community was the biggest sources of inspiration and support that I had, one that my queer friends and peers lacked.
I grew up in a fairly rural small town in an extremely conservative state. Bullying because of queerness, perceived queerness or gender difference was common and ranged from verbal harassment, threats, and having our lockers defaced to being kicked, pushed, beaten, and pelted with rocks. In high school, one of my out gay male friends received death treats at school, and as far as I knew, nothing was ever done about it. Though the peer bullying was terrible, it was adult acceptance of our harassment that wore us down.
I had a handful of wonderful teachers who I knew cared about us and would fight for us, but many others who ignored or even encouraged homophobia. There was no gay-straight alliance at our school and starting one, even less than a decade ago, felt impossible and unsafe. More than one teacher told their class that homosexuality was wrong or that gender nonconforming people were “mixed up” and needed fixing. Most teachers and administrators simply said nothing, especially when they needed to speak up. This wasn’t limited to homophobia. They were just as silent when boys groped objecting girls in class or when racial slurs were casually used by white students, even when students asked them to intervene. My town was just a few hours away from the then-headquarters of the Aryan Nations, and I remember very few teachers ever speaking a word against the violent hate group. (As I left for college, the Aryan Nations was sued into bankruptcy for shooting at two Native Americans who’d pulled over near the group’s compound).
A favorite photo of two of our favorite people: the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Vancouver, Canada, 2004. Credit: Carey Linde.
I was surprised when a friend told me that the well known American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron’s talk this week in a 3,000 seat Bay Area venue is sold out, considering that it’s the same week when the Dalai Lama is teaching in the area for four days, including at a sold-out 11,000 seat venue. (You can get virtual participation in Chodron’s event via live-stream video.)
The Silicon Valley newspaper the Mercury News reports:
…the Bay Area appears eager to listen. Already rich in Buddhist traditions from Japan, Vietnam and other Asian countries, the region has become a mecca for religious thinkers of other faiths who are blending Buddhist traditions with their own, as well as a beachhead for the fledgling “interfaith movement.”
I know a lot of people who are blending elements of Buddhism into their lives, without ever saying “I am a Buddhist.”
“Interfaith” is a difficult concept, because it requires a different relationship with one’s own religion, quite apart from other religions:
The image of a hand pressed against thick glass, fingers outstretched, made its way onto Evan Bissell’s canvas because it still haunts one of his collaborators, a young woman named Chey who saw it as a child visiting a jail.
“My dad used to do that when I’d visit him,” she wrote in a note to viewers of the “What Cannot Be Taken Away: Families and Prisons Project” at San Francisco’s SOMArts space. “The glass was so thick that you couldn’t feel any warmth.”
Chey chose to include a lotus flower because "the muddier and darker the lotus grows from, the more colorful and beautiful it will be when it blooms."
The collaborative art exhibition, which seeks to open our imaginations to new ideas about why harm happens and how harm can be repaired, is itself a hand pressed to the glass of the prison system, a warm-hearted attempt to create new flows of communication and empathy between people shut inside and people shut out.
There are Buddhist prayers that say, “May I become a bodhisattva who is willing to stay in a hell realm for eons if it will help even one being.” Though Buddhism isn’t usually associated with the belief in hell, most Buddhist traditions in Asia speak of various heavenly and hellish realms of possible rebirth. An enlightened person who gave up the rewards of Nirvana to help people not just on earth but in hell would be an unselfish person of the highest order – a bodhisattva. Most of spiritual progressives, and a number of modern Buddhists, only ever use hell as a metaphor. This weekend at the third national Femme Conference in Oakland, a secular activist whom I greatly admire, Kate Bornstein, used the metaphor of hell in a way unexpectedly evoked for me the image of secular bodhisattva. In her keynote address she told us, “Do whatever you need to do to make life more worth living. The only rule is don’t be mean. And if you do this and get sent to hell for it, I will do your time for you.”
She paused and wondered out loud if this was a self-hating thing to wish. Was she really willing to burn in hell for everyone else? Wasn’t promising that devaluing herself? Then she said brightly, “Well, I’m a masochist. If I do go to hell, I’ll have a wonderful time.”
Though she didn’t use Buddhist language, I think Kate’s musings touch on some fundamental questions about bodhisattvas, those who work for the enlightenment of all instead of focusing on personal Nirvana. Does putting others first mean devaluing yourself? Is compassion being a doormat or a masochist? How does all this relate to patriarchal definitions of femininity that equate female with self-negating, always putting others ahead of self because she matters less?
American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron is our source of spiritual wisdom this week. Pema Chodron is a respected teacher in the Shambala tradition. She is also the founder of Gampo Abbey, a Buddhist monastic community in Canada. These quotes come from her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times:
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. ”
This week’s spiritual comes from Vietnamese Buddhist monk and leader in engaged Buddhism Thich Nhat Hanh. Both poems come from “Call Me By My True Names: The Collected Poetry of Thich Nhat Hanh.”
Take my hand.
We will walk.
We will only walk.
We will enjoy our walk
without thinking of arriving anywhere.
Our walk is a peace walk.
Our walk is a happiness walk.
Though they live as monastics, these Buddhist women in Burma cannot ordain
There is a huge movement going on in Buddhism today, one that could make Buddhism the only major world religion with gender equal access to ordination in nearly all denominations. All over the Buddhist world, women are battling for full ordination of nuns, something that is now only consistently available in one tradition and is hotly debated in the others. It’s also shockingly overlooked outside of these debates.
Consider an audience member’s question during a wonderful presentation by David Loy and Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi at the recent NSP conference. A long-time activist who’d been involved in Buddhism for a decade and a half wondered why most Buddhists aren’t also activists. The man noted that there were some exceptions, such as Thich Nhat Hanh, and “monks in Burma who were slaughtered, Tibetan monks who were slaughtered,” but that was about it. The way he phrased his question – and the way it was answered – is problem that must be addressed before we can consider other aspects of Buddhist activism.
Did you notice who was missing in those examples? David Loy didn’t catch it, and he’d just been talking about how a fear of death and nature relates to denigration of women. Neither did Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, who is a fantastic supporter of women’s rights. Oh, but maybe the term “monk” was meant include “nun” too, so Tibetan nuns passionately engaged in nonviolent resistance weren’t being ignored. (We’ll get to the question of nuns in Burma in a minute). The term “monks” implies the subset of “nuns,” just like “man” includes the subset of women, right?
Except we know it doesn’t.
Sometimes as a Muslim I feel suspect that the simplest, most effective way to begin to answer the many burning questions Westerners have about Islam and Muslims isn’t to give them a Quran or even the most erudite and engaging book on Islam. For many living in our postmodern world, such a discussion needs to start far closer to home, with a crash course in Western religious history and the basic ideas of the Judeo-Christian Tradition. Not only is that often a necessary remedial measure, but in this day of –to borrow an inspired metaphor once applied to U.S.-Iranian relations–“mutual Satanization” I think it is for many probably the only way to begin this critical conversation.
As an undergrad studying French in the early 1990s, I took a class on the Francophone literature of Quebec. Until recently in most Western societies literature was riddled with references to and assumptions of familiarity with the Bible, and this was especially true of Quebec’s literary output thanks to the province’s tradition of being *plus catholique que le pape*.
I was the only non-Christian in the class and my knowledge of the Bible is anything but encyclopedic, yet it sometimes seemed that I was the only student with even a rudimentary familiarity with the famous biblical narratives, events and turns of phrase that were mined at every turn by our Quebecois authors and film makers. During one class room discussion of the wonderful 1989 world cinema classic “Jesus of Montreal”, after painfully obvious Gospel allusion after painfully obvious Gospel allusion had appeared to be zoom over most people’s heads, I remember thinking, “My God, if these guys are so ignorant of their own tradition, what hope is there of explaining the yet more unfamiliar worldview of Muslims?” (For more on this trend, see Stephen Prothero’s stimulating Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t.)
In such a backdrop of abject religious illiteracy, the most effective introduction to Islam for the average American may not be a book on Islam at all, but rather an discussion of the parallels of Islam’s supposedly peculiar doctrines and practices that are to be found in one’s own culturo-religious heritage.