Ohigan and Effort the 4th Paramita

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Today is the Equinox, the heart of the Ohigan season, and today I’ll write about Effort.

By some accounts the Six Paramitas came about as a Mahayana response to what they felt was an over emphasis on development of self by only adhering to the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path, which are primarily focused on self.

Effort as one of the Six Paramitas is viewed slightly different than Effort as one of the Eight-Fold Path.  Here, Effort is our effort on behalf of others.   Effort is also sometimes translated as Striving.

What kinds of effort should w make is of course a legitimate question, and the answer can simply be stated as effort to bring good and prevent harm.  Effort is also the activity of doing the entire Six Paramitas, as it takes both physical and mental effort to live up to and follow these six guidelines.

Doing good and preventing harm can in some ways be seen as an extension to Dana and following the Five Precepts.  And indeed it is so.  We can not really separate one from all of the others.

By continually doing what is suggested in these Buddhist guides we become better able to do them better.  Over time, with continued effort we can become so good at following these guides that it becomes easier to do them than to not.  This is both effort and patience, is it not.

Whatever our faults may be, we did not acquire that fault over night.  We must expect to need to exert as much effort to change it as we actually exerted to create it.  In my case it has taken 60 years to create the kind of person I am, good points and bad points.  If I want to change something bad about myself then I will need to strive equally as hard to create new good to replace it.  Perhaps it will take less time, but only if I exert concentrated effort.  An overgrown garden where weeds have taken over didn’t become that way over night, and will not suddenly and magically revert back to a weed free and orderly state merely because we wish it to be so, but only by continued attention to its defects and nurturing of its perfections.

Speaking out against or preventing harm to others is often easier to do as a mental activity, and it certainly helps to begin there, however at some point the effort must be made to develop the kind of life that can move from thought to action.

There are many ways of looking at effort or striving, but they all amount to ‘just doing it’.  In many ways it is as Yoda says, there is no try there is only do, or something like that.  In Buddhism we do consider trying but ultimately trying is just another phase of doing.  Continually exerting effort in the trying phase allows us to accomplish the doing phase.

A good musician doesn’t become so, without effort.  We do not become better able to follow the Six Paramitas without first making those humble attempts and falling short.  There is no wasted effort in Buddhism.

I repeat, there is no wasted effort in Buddhism.

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Ohigan and Paramita 3

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The third paramita or perfection is patience.

Ah, patience….

That elusive trait that I have difficulties in giving to others and in giving to myself.

As I was thinking about this it occurred to me that it is different than being tolerant, at least as I see it.  Let me give an example to see if you can follow my thinking.  If I tolerate something that someone is doing then I am ‘granting’ them or ‘giving’ them my permission to not do it correct.  However, if I am patient with what they are doing I accept it as a gift from them, what they are doing.  Does that make sense.

In a way, one is something that I am giving another the other is accepting from them.

I may be muddying the waters even more here, so let me try again.  If, for example someone is moving slowly, I may tolerate it and in so doing I might say nothing externally but internally I am judging their actions.  If I am patient with what they are doing, I accept it from them with no judgement, no condescending attitude, no ifs ands or buts.

With patience I am better able to see the value of what the other person is doing, I am better able to value the other person, I am less likely to make judgements of superiority or inferiority.  A person moving slowly may after all be very methodical, if I am tolerant and not patient then I may miss the good qualities in everyone and everything.

Something I try to keep in mind is that everyone does the best they can, always!  How can I say that in face of people who are seemingly sloppy, or inattentive or any number of other faults we may ascribe to people?  Well it is easy, regardless of a person’s ability which is different from their actual performance everyone always does the best they can, even if not the best they are able.

To be patient allows me to be able to see perhaps the limiting factors on a person’s abilities.  Things such as a death in the family may cause someone to be inattentive, or perhaps some problem at home for which they are unable to resolve may prohibit a person from performing to the maximum of their ability, but at the moment they are doing the best they can.  I might be able to read, but without my glasses I can only see poorly and so have a difficult time reading.  A person may have just been chewed out by the customer in front of you unjustly and so now they are short with you, still they are doing the best they can, even if not the best they are able.

If we are patient then we allow ourselves to step into the other person’s shoes or life for a moment.  Perhaps we can see the problem and help to resolve it or maybe not, but we can be sympathetic at least.  If we are only tolerant then we are still holding them accountable to our standards and not granting them their own lives and problems.

We certainly want our extenuating circumstances factored in when people view us, why should we not be equally generous with others.

Ok, that is patience with others, how about ourselves?  Are we as individuals patient with ourselves, allowing ourselves the kind of space to be able to grow and overcome our individual challenges?

I suppose there is a lot more to say, others have said lots, but I’ll leave it with those thoughts and questions for you to consider.


Ohigan and Six Paramitas No. 2

Monday, September 21, 2009

The word paramita was originally translated into Chinese from two wordsparam and ita.  Param translated as “to the other shore” and ita as ” reached.”   It is believed that by observing the Paramitas one is able to cross the shore of birth and death and reach the shore of nirvana.

In this installment of my six part blog on the Six Paramitas I will talk some about number two, Observing the Precepts.

There are many precepts given in Buddhism depending often upon whether you are a lay practitioner or a priest and whether you are a female or male.  However, what we will focus on are the first five which apply to all.

The Five Precepts are; not to take life, not to take what is not yours, not to engage in sexual misconduct, not to tell and untruth, and not to use intoxicants.

Some of these are pretty straight forward and some are variously interpreted, sometime loosely and sometimes very strictly.  I guess it depends upon how much ‘wiggle’ room you want to give yourself.

I like to point out though that when ever we equivocate or try to make excuses or bend the rules then we are ignoring an inability to be honest with ourselves.  I personally don’t care one way or another how strictly a person adheres to these rules, after all it is not up to me to judge.  But what does concern me is when ever someone tries to dance around the point, rather than being honest with oneself and others.

The first one is not to take life.  It means what it says, period.  Now as to whether you must be vegetarian to be a Buddhist I would say no, you don’t, but I would say that you won’t be able to completely fulfill the first of these precepts.  There may be many reasons you have for not adhering to this precept, but you should at least be honest and admit to yourself that you are not.  Perhaps in time you will change, perhaps you will have a greater desire to change if you can be honest with yourself.

I am not perfect in adhering to being a vegetarian.  I can make all kinds of excuses, but they are just that, excuses. Can I do better, yes I can, should I do better, yes I should, will I do better, I will try.  This is my journey to enlightenment and it will depend on me coming to terms honestly and frankly about my inability to follow this precept.  I can’t do it if I am making excuses though.

The second precept is not to take what is not yours.  This sound easy, but there are some examples where I think for some people it becomes difficult to follow this.  One such example is finding money.  Do you take it, do you leave it, do you try to return it?  What do you do?  It is easy to leave it if it is a penny, but are you leaving it because it is not yours or because it isn’t worth your time?  What if it is a $20 or a $50 bill?  Do you leave it, or try to return it?  Remember it isn’t yours, just because someone else lost it.  Now if you pick it up are you a bad person, not necessarily it just means you didn’t observe the second precept.  ARe you making excuses trying to justify your action, saying things like “if I don’t take it someone else will and the person who lost it still won’t get it back?”  Are you trying to justify your action?  If so then you have a problem with being honest about what you are doing and this is at the heart of Buddhism.  Learning to be honest and true both with ourselves and to ourselves.

Not to engage in sexual misconduct can mean lots of things.  Originally when Buddhist priests were required to be celibate it meant maintaining that celibacy.  Today in many Buddhist denominations marriage is permitted so the precept now says not to engage in sexual misconduct.  Variously this is taught as to not cause harm.  So forcing someone to engage in sex, either physically or psychologically would be wrong.  Having sex outside of a relationship unless it was agreed upon mutually would be wrong.  The list could go on, and I don’t think I need to do that here.  It is often said that when the missionaries came to Hawaii they created a list of sexual activities and relationships that were taboo, which was interestingly funny to the Hawaiians because they had so many more than were on the list or else they invented others so the missionaries did little except to increase the creativity of Hawaiians.

The fourth precept is not to tell an untruth.  In Buddhism there is often a distinction between a lie and an expedient.  A lie is something that causes harm to the other or benefits only oneself.  An expedient is something that benefits the other.  We often engage in what some call white lies in order to make people feel better or to cheer people up.  We don’t do it for our own benefit, though husbands probably do when they say their wife’s hair looks great when they really can’t see any difference.  They just know that telling the truth will make the wife mad and get them in trouble.  Funny that.

The underlying factor is who benefits and what is the real motivation.  Again, we need to be careful about when we find ourselves making excuses about our behavior.  It is often a sign that there is an underlying problem we are unwilling or unable to look at with honesty.

Finally the last precept is to not use intoxicants.  For some this is further loosened up by adding the qualification of not to use them to the point of loosing control of ones mind or body.

In all of this I think the important thing is what kind of commitment you make to yourself and to the Dharma.  Are you true to your commitment and can you be honest about your failings.  This isn’t a game of impress others, or putting on false appearances.  It is about our own path to enlightenment and our ability to lead others to the Dharma.

If we say we are going to do something then we should strive really hard to do just that.  Admit our failure and strive harder the next time to succeed.

The better able we are to follow the precepts the better able we will to model the life of the Buddha and attain enlightenment and enable other to do so too.

Please note, that my intent here isn’t to hold up standards of behavior on which to judge another but to offer what the Buddha teaches us and what our model might be.  It is up to each one of us to determine to what level we can and are able to observe the precepts and follow the paramitas.

Tomorrow I’ll write some thoughts about the third paramita, my weakness, and that is patience.  I know there are many out there who are so much better at it than I and they won’t need to read what I write, so I’ll be mainly writing for myself.


Ohigan Time to Focus on the Six Paramitas

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Twice a year as the equinox occurs we celebrate Ohigan. This is a time during which we pay particular attention to our practice of the Six Paramitas, for the five days surrounding the equinox. While we are supposed to adhere to these Six Paramitas every day, in all actuality for many on a day-to-day basis we probably sometimes fall a bit short of the mark. So during the Ohigan season we are encouraged to refocus our attention on being mindful and practicing with greater diligence these six rules or guidelines.

The Six Paramitas are; 1. Giving – Dana, 2. Discipline – Five Precepts, 3. Patience, 4. Effort, 5. Meditation, and 6. Wisdom. The Five Precepts are; 1. Not to take life, 2. Not to take what is not yours, 3. Not to engage in sexual misconduct, 4. Not to tell an untruth, 5. Not to use intoxicants.

As an aide to focusing our behavior and our mind, or at least my behavior and my mind, I thought I would take some time out of the next few days and write about each of the Six Paramitas.

Today, I will start with number one which is Giving or Dana.

Americans are famous for our generosity and volunteerism. We gladly and without second thought rush to aid any and all throughout our communities and the world. It has been said that Americans can be some of the most generous people when it comes to aiding charities. I don’t know if that is true or not, it at least makes us feel good and perhaps prideful of our efforts.

I do know that there are many other countries where people gladly and willing make donations so I do suspect the claim that Americans do more than others. We certainly have had our great moments in history where we have given greatly, even at our own sacrifice.

This first precept of Giving or Dana, is somewhat different than perhaps most people are accustomed to thinking about, though I am sure some do.

Dana is the act of giving without ANY expectation of reward or benefit.

Think about that for a moment. No reward, no thanks, no benefit, no tax deduction, no write off, no name recognition, perhaps no appreciation, no self congratulations, no quiet satisfaction of performance, perhaps even no warm fuzzy feeling. How hard is that?

Just giving because you want to and in appreciation, giving as your thanks.

Imagine if you will, standing at a door (perhaps even a Wal-Mart greeter) and all day long holding the door open for people to walk through. How long could you do it without starting to feel a bit peeved because people didn’t say thank you? How long could you be the greeter at the Wal-Mart door and say “Welcome to Wal-Mart” and have people completely ignore you, or even scowl at you or treat you with disdain? And do it without pay! Just because you wanted to, who would want to?

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t do it for very long without developing a tension either in my mind or in my gut. I might be able to avoid saying something snarky but I am sure that after a while I would probably be thinking something snarky or worse.

In Buddhism we are not saying go out and be a “for free greeter” at Wal-Mart, but we are trying to learn to be generous with our selves, our time, our lives, our money for no other reason than to express our appreciation to the Dharma or teachings of the Buddha.

Dana, is about being generous. It is about taking to heart the first of the Four Great Vows of a Bodhisattva, which is to save all being no matter how numerous they may be, even before ourselves. What I like to affectionately refer to as the first of the Great Impossibilities. It may be impossible, but that is not an excuse for not trying.

Dana is about selflessness in gratitude. It may be hard, and it may be uncomfortable, but we as Buddhists have to try.

While there is nothing per se wrong with giving and expecting a tax write off, or expecting a thank you, it is important to realize that as far as the Paramita of Dana, that isn’t it.

As we enter the Ohigan season I hope we all strive with just a tad bit more effort to learn to be and to become more genuinely giving.


Why the Confederate Flag?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A lot of things are floating around inside my brain right now and it is difficult to know exactly where to begin getting them all out in writing this.  Back when I was in college, a few years ago, I had to write lots and lots of papers.  During that time I developed a strategy for writing, or I should say someone somewhere unknown now planted the thought, that simply the best way to begin is to just begin.  Letting the process of writing actually lead back to a beginning, and so it shall be with this post about racism.

Recently there was a demonstration in Washington DC about the on-going health reform legislation currently taking shape in congress.  At this demonstration there were Confederate flags as well as some of characterizations of President Obama that were if not down right racist were at least subtly so.  Former President Jimmy Carter has come out and said that he feels that there is an definite racist undercurrent in all of the protests, that many Americans simply cannot accept an African-American as president.

President Obama has subsequently come out and said that he doesn’t see it as racist.  My feeling is that he is being gracious and practical, unfortunate in that if he steps into the quagmire he certainly will meet with a typical white response that there is no racism and he is just playing the race card.  A sad and shallow cop-out used by white people to avoid challenging themselves and their views.

Heck, white men frequently don’t want to even consider the privelage that accrues to them just by the fact of their race and gender.

So, if this isn’t about race or if there is no racism then explain to me what place a Confederate flag has at a health care reform rally?  I can see no reason other than to convey a message that there are white people, perhaps hiding behind a myth of Southern heritage, who feel that there is no place in this debate or in America for a non-white president.

Further if the Confederate battle flag is not a symbol of hate then why is it that at every neo-Nazi, white supremacists, and Klan rally is it to be seen in abundance.  A good friend of mine several years ago said something profound to me that I had not considered and I have not forgotten.  If the Confederate flag isn’t a symbol of hate then why haven’t the Souther Heritage groups fought more vocally and strongly against its use at hate rallies?  Why is it that the heritage groups remain silent when it is used as a symbol of hate?

That flag, really only stands for one thing, at a fundamental level, and that is the continuation of slavery and the misguided pride in a slave holding south.  Oh yes, there are of course arguments that people make about it being about states rights, but what right is core to that argument other than slavery?

Again, where is the heritage voice when that flag is waved at rallies that have nothing to do with a remembrance?  It is no where to be heard, and so in that silence the heritage groups have lost their authentic claim to it NOT being a racist emblem.

I am from the south and for a few years when I was 7th and 8th grade I got caught up in the whole Confederate Southern Heritage idea, with even the thought to join the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  I researched our family and found many interesting facts.  Yes I had Great-Great-Grandfathers who fought in the Confederate Army.  I also found that our family owned five plantations in Georgia and Florida and each one had numerous slaves.  There isn’t a lot in that find to be proud of, is there.

I don’t condemn my deceased relatives for the past.  My rationalities and sensibilities have all been nurtured in a different world.  I don’t justify their actions either.  I guess you could say the best that I am is neutral when judging the past, there really isn’t any way I can judge it, is there?

I live today, and today I know that slavery is wrong.  I know that prejudice is wrong and I struggle constantly with a fundamental distaste and disagreement with the influences I lived under growing up.  I struggle with insuring that the way I live is in accord with my belief in equality.

I can not correct the wrongs of the past, but I am capable and I also feel responsible to do the right thing in the present.

Again, I ask what place does the Confederate flag have at a demonstration concerning national policy?  Simply stated, none!  Further, heritage groups, if they are sincere in their claims about the flag not being a symbol of hate do more to combat its display, and speak out LOUDLY, when it is being used when not appropriate to their self stated claim.

I though, feel that it only stands for hatred and racism!  The proof for that claim is too easy to find and the proof against it is virtually if not completely impossible to find.