Embodied Buddhism – in an on-screen world

As I sit here, I have a body. That’s perhaps self evident, but when most of our communication happens on screens, it might be easy to forget. I’m on both sides of that equation: I make a living online, which means I meet my colleagues on the online water coolers of Facebook and forums. On the other hand, when sciatica kicks in as it did last week, my body can not be ignored. Don’t worry: it seems under control, but it does reinforce the limitations of on screen living. Unless I ‘share’ those troubles, no one can see them.

In my community of online publishers Kathy McGraw recently noticed that it is hard to keep track of online friends when they go off the radar. We make these connections online, but our line to them is thin as spider silk: when they go offline for whatever reason, we have no way of knowing what happened to them and if they’re ok. Take the online world at face value and we’re all just bits and online conversations. And mostly filtered to share only the positive. When the real world interferes – when our embodiment forces itself on us – our online friends have no way of knowing what happened.

As a culture we’re coming to grips with the effects of living through screens. As concerned father Steve Almond writes in the New York Times. Will his daughter remember that actual cardinal that appeared on their porch railing in a flash of impossible red? 

The fact is: kids or adults, for many of us real-life-sensory experiences are no longer our primary access to the world. And I wonder what that does to our spiritual development and emotional health.

‘Just Sit’, as a Zen Buddhist instruction is probably a great way to get people to pay attention to themselves and develop some self-awareness and self knowledge. They will experience the body through the aches and pains of trying to sit in an unfamiliar position for an hour. But will it help people reconnect with the world through the senses?

One of my Tibetan Buddhism teachers Ondy Wilson often stresses how the Buddhist path is in moving from head to heart. That is, I think, moving from cerebral to fully felt and integrated emotionally. This is relevant for us Westerners because our education stresses the cerebral a lot.

Sitting still and studying Buddhism – however valuable those practices are – will not help much towards activating the heart chakra. Meditations like the ‘Nectar Rain’ meditation (*) do work very well, however I think there is a reason many of the so called ‘preliminary practices’ are physical. Continue reading Embodied Buddhism – in an on-screen world

Bodhicitta meditation for skeptics

I’m a Mahayana Buddhist in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. This tradition has many features that baffle my scientifically trained mind. Unfortunately, some are at the heart of the tradition. Navigating my skepticism is part of the challenge of being a modern Buddhist.

However, I’m not quite as much a skeptic as the Bachelor’s. I do believe in rebirth, I do believe (with caveats) in the possibility to become a Buddha.

Those two beliefs are necessary for meditating on Bodhicitta in a way that approaches what the tradition meant by the word.

So let’s start with the basics: Bodhicitta is the Mind of Enlightenment. It’s the deeply felt intention or choice to become a Buddha to save all sentient beings from Samsara. It involves developing kindness for all beings, including your boss, and the awareness that nobody is going to be rushed to Nirvana. Patience is therefore an essential part of the story.

Note that in this tradition you are motivated to become a Buddha, not merely a Bodhisattva. A Buddha, after all, is more capable of helping people, being omniscient and all. A Bodhisattva is a being who is training to become a Buddha.

And that’s where my skepticism rears it’s ugly head: omniscient, all powerful – even accepting the limits of karma – do I really believe all that? Continue reading Bodhicitta meditation for skeptics

Taking refuge: vows, commitments, belief and faith

Since I took refuge, I find myself explaining what that means to me to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Because, after all, I did not suddenly become less of a skeptic. There are aspects of the Buddhism I’m being taught that I don’t relate to much at all. The main example is, always, the enormous amounts of rituals in Tibetan Buddhism.

A practicing Buddhist friend of mine said yesterday that he hadn’t taken refuge. His reason? How could he take refuge in a Sangha consisting of some obvious fools? I told him: it’s not about promising to believe everything every monk comes up with. It’s about respect for those who practice Buddhism as a path. It’s about realizing that you don’t know which Buddhist fool is realized and which isn’t, so that respect is there as a precaution against disrespect towards an enlightened being.

Respect is a bit difficult for us Westerners, especially for Dutch people like myself. I was raised, as was my whole generation, on children’s books glorifying disrespect. I think the most famous example world wide is Pippi Longstocking(*). But let me tell you: compared to other characters in Dutch children’s books – Pippi is a veritable gold mine of good manners. Come to think of it, since my grandmother collected children’s books, I read stories from all over the world. Still, nothing beats the Dutch Annie M.G. Schmidt I think: not a bit of respect for adults in there to be found.

I’m in the mood for stories I guess. One story our Geshela (Sonam Gyaltsen) has already told several times in my hearing is about the famous Indian scholar-monk Atisha. He had studied and mastered all the Buddhist teachings available to him in India. Pondering how to gain enlightenment he walked around a stupa and had a vision of the characters in the decorations around the stupa talking to each other: ‘how can one gain enlightenment quickly? You need Bodhicitta!’. So he went to Sumatra, a perilous sea journey at the time, to study with the monk famous for that realization:  Dharmarakshita. Atisha studied with Dharmarakshita for 12 years.

The point? Well, Atisha had already realized the emptiness as taught by Nagarjuna and Dharmarakshita was a Chittamatrin of the Mind Only School. So the two differed in their opinion on one of the most basic philosophical points in Buddhism. Still, Atisha was a devoted student of Dharmarakshita.

This is a very relevant story for us Westerners, because we come to Buddhism with a mind full of Western knowledge. Do we have to leave that behind to take refuge? Absolutely not. Refuge is saying: “The Buddha became enlightened by a path I trust. I trust no other spiritual path as much, so I take refuge in the Buddha, his teachings and the spiritual community he founded. I want to travel along that path as best I am able in this life”.

There are implications to the Refuge vows though and I do think some belief is necessary before taking refuge:

  • You have to believe in karma and rebirth to be a Buddhist
  • You have to believe that Buddha really existed
  • You have to believe the dharma he taught can lead to enlightenment. However you can choose whichever Buddhist tradition you want to get there, from devotional Nichiren to meditational Zen, traditional Theravada or contemplative Gelugpa. In practice your beliefs and practices will probably be a mix.
  • You have to respect the sangha of ordained monks and nuns, knowing that while individually they’re simply people just like you, collectively they are necessary to preserve the teachings. Individually monks and nuns have to be respected for taking that step of renunciation from the world: that commitment in itself is worthy of respect, even in the case of monastics who can’t manage to live up to the ideals they’re trying to embody.
What becoming a Buddhist does NOT imply:
  • Believing that the earth is flat, that there is a mount Meru at the center with 4 continents around it, us living in the Southern continent. The Dalai Lama has made it very clear that whatever there is in Buddhist mythology that flatly contradicts the outcome (not the speculations) of Western science should be discarded. This is an obvious example.
  • Believing everything in the Buddhist sutras literally: Buddhist scholars past and present have realized that the dharma Buddha taught was not always clear, nor was it always internally consistent. The conclusion was: Buddha taught what was necessary for a particular audience. Since these texts were written down a few centuries after the Buddha passed away, it’s very likely that not all of the sutras contain the words as Gautama Buddha spoke them. Notwithstanding the quality of memory of the brahmin-born monks in his retinue. Of course there is even less certainty about the Mahayana Sutras.
Personally I believe there is real wisdom in the Buddhist teachings as they come down to us after more than 2000 years. It’s obvious that the cultures of Tibet, China, Japan and even Sri Lanka influences the Buddhism as it gets taught to us today. Similarly Western culture has been influencing Buddhist practice and doctrine for over a century. This is to be expected. In fact it’s to be cherished. However, each of us gets to decide which aspects of the Buddhist traditions we are taught will work in our lives and which won’t. We get to pick and choose as long as we don’t lose sight of the essentials.
Devotion is more central than most people in the West are comfortable with. I mention devotion without mentioning what one is devoted TO. The Buddha, as a perfected being full of loving kindness to humanity, is obviously the most ideal object of devotion one can think of. You would not be reading this if you thought Christ was more ideal – if you do, do become a Christian. That devotion is the essence of taking refuge.
Wikipedia, which after all represents the average voice of humanity on a topic, has this to say about the objects of refuge (checked Feb 2012):

The Three Jewels general signification is:

  • the Buddha;
  • the Dharma, the teachings;
  • the Sangha, the community of (at least partially) enlightened beings, often approximated to community of monks and nuns (Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis).

(*) I do not mean to imply that Pippi Longstocking is Dutch. She was conceived by the Swedish author Astrid Lindgren who also wrote other great books I liked a whole lot better as a child. Ronia the Robber’s Daughter comes to mind.

Universal Buddhist Refuge Prayer

In the Gelugpa Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism of the FPMT one is expected to take refuge in the three jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) twice daily (three times each), especially if one has already taken refuge formally.

For me, as a former theosophist, anything sectarian is a problem. On the other hand, I did pick Buddhism as my spiritual path of preference for a reason and I do trust my teachers when it comes to the path to enlightenment and buddha-hood. So I took formal refuge and became a Buddhist.

In order to not lose touch with the foundation of my path: universal wisdom and remind myself of my new commitment, I composed the following refuge prayer for my daily practice:

“Till my enlightenment I take refuge in Buddha, all Enlightened beings and my own Buddha Nature;
I take refuge in the Dharma, the universal truth and the path towards enlightenment;
I take refuge in the Sangha, the community of those who are ahead of me on the path.”

Refuge is a universally Buddhist ritual, practiced by Theravada, Zen and Tibetan Buddhists alike. In itself it does not yet determine which type of Buddhism one has chosen.

In the FPMT taking refuge, like other vows, is sometimes also taken as choosing a particular guru as one’s teacher. This part is definitely not mandatory: no teacher would expect you to wait with taking refuge till you are ready to choose a particular teacher as ‘your teacher’.