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.
by: Joshua Stanton on March 4th, 2010 | Comments Off
On February 24, Rev. Paul Raushenbush issued a call for articles entitled “Dear Religious (and Sane) America” to inaugurate the launch of the Huffington Post’s new religion section. According to the article,
HuffPost Religion is dedicated to providing a provocative, respectful, and hopefully productive forum for addressing the ways in which religion intersects our personal, communal, national and international life. HuffPost Religion will demonstrate the vibrant diversity of religious traditions, perspectives and experiences that exist alongside and inform one another in America and throughout the world.
Huffington is clearly trying to expand its reach and become one of the big players in religion media, much as it already has in politics, popular culture, and even business. Based on initial responses to the section, it appears to be well on its way.
David R. Loy
David Loy is one of the most socially aware Buddhists that I am aware of. I don’t know that much about Buddhism, despite having various friends who are strong Buddhists. When I read Buddhist magazines, I find myself disappointed that there seems to be so little on social change as Buddhist practice and necessity. David Loy, who is Besl Professor of Ethics/Religion and Society at Xavier University in Cincinnati, is certainly a great exception (and I am not saying there aren’t many others out there, just that I am not aware of them). We have just posted at Tikkun Current Thinking a piece he has sent us about his response to Copenhagen. In it he calls climate change “the greatest threat ever to our species.” Some quotes:
The basic difficulty about responding to the “climate emergency” – and a host of related eco-crises such as desertification, and what is happening to the world’s oceans, and mass extinction (half of the earth’s plant and animal species may disappear by the end of this century) – is that climate change requires us to notice something we normally prefer to ignore or resist: that we are not separate from each other, but interdependent, and that we must therefore also assume responsibility for the well-being of each other…
In the past Western nations could use their technologies (including weapons, of course!) to dominate the rest of the world and exploit its resources, but suddenly we find ourselves in a new situation, where each nation is now directly dependent upon the good intentions of other nations, whether developed or undeveloped.
Red-and-white striped poles spring up in the vacant lot on my block every year, even before I’ve fully digested Thanksgiving dinner. Topped by floodlights, these oversized candy canes tower over the neighborhood, a blinding reminder that Christmas is coming. Next time I check, the tree sellers will have finished setting up shop there, erecting their bristling forest of dead pines under the dazzling lights.
Paired with the blitz of “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” ads that tend to flood my inbox and mailbox, this surreal invasion of my neighborhood always makes me feel like Christmas is breathing down my neck.
How did the commemoration of a homeless baby’s birth turn into this garish and materialistic extravaganza? And how can we start to reel the consumerism back?