Friends, Good and Bad

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

To be surrounded by friends is fortunate, to be surrounded by friends who are religious or spiritual and open minded is of even greater fortune. To be secure in ones faith I believe allows one to be open to the faith of others. When I see people who are closed minded or intolerant of other people’s beliefs I always think that they are very insecure in their belief. They seem as frightened of other ideas as a child who hides under a blanket, pulling it over the eyes.

Intolerant and closed minded people shut themselves off to other ideas. Someone who is confident and at peace with their belief has no need to fear other ideas, has no need to open up to examination not only the other ideas but even those personally held.

When I was younger and in the Marine Corps stationed in Hawaii I had two really close friends in the barracks I lived in. One a Mormon, one a Bahai, along with myself a Buddhist we lived in an open bay barracks with a heroine addict and dealer at one end and about 80 others indulging in various pursuits to ease the pain of life.

We, the three of us were really close to each other, every evening after our duties were finished we would each grab our bicycles and head out to various parts of the Windward side of the island of Oahu, Hawaii. We would each be headed to our various religious activities for the night. We lived with a sense of purpose and mission. Two of us were conscientious objectors, one the Mormon was not. We were very different from each other in many ways and yet we were very much a like.

When we were unable to go off base or had to remain in the barracks for one reason or another we would ‘huddle’ together and talk. We would have very lighthearted religious debates or rather deep philosophical explorations. I know that each of us felt certain that what we were doing was the correct thing. And while we perhaps wished that the others would subscribe to our individual views we also respected the commitment the others had.

In many ways we formed our own religious academy, training ourselves. We practiced explaining our beliefs even trying to ‘win’ over the others. We honed our skills in many ways. Not the least of which was just tuning out the drugs and suffering, yet wishing and praying that we somehow might be a positive example for the others. In some ways as I look back perhaps because of our focused dedication we may have seemed unapproachable, too ‘perfect’, too ‘religious’.

Part of that feeling has hopefully helped me realize that sometimes the people whom we wish to help are often afraid of our help because they feel they may not live up to some perceived expectation.

If we are uptight, or judgmental, or intolerant then we are certain to be off-putting to many people. They may think we are too ‘perfect’ and yet they also know it is a lie, for no one is perfect.

In Buddhism we practice Dhana, which is selfless giving. I say practice because I really want to emphasize that we try, we struggle with and practice not always successfully. To give something to someone is a very complicated process. Made even more complicated by the fact that we must embrace the other person as a truly respect worthy person who’s life is nothing less than equal to our own. Any hint of anything less sours the giving, taints it with potential feelings of charitable giving.

The gift has to be given freely and with no expectation of any reward or benefit. The gift must be given so freely that even if the gift is refused or even misused then no thought can be given, no regret no anger, nothing. Imagine holding the door open for someone, something that we do here in the US, especially in the South, without even thinking twice about it. Imagine holding the door for countless people, some of whom thank you, some of whom completely ignore you and most of whom cuss you out or slander you for your effort. Would you be able to continually hold the door for people without feeling the slightest bit of some emotion other than great and limitless joy at having been able to and expectation of doing it again? I know I could not, though I wish I could. And holding the door is only the smallest of effort compared to helping others to eliminate suffering.

People who are insecure in their faith are unable to place themselves in positions of possible inferiority, especially when it comes to their own ego or their own ideas of what is right or wrong. People who are intolerant certainly can not. When we are acting in those ways we have a need to be or feel superior, we depend on and defend positions of correctness and right-ness, we become righteous, self-righteous. In that position we are far less approachable than if we are welcoming, embracing and respecting.

I have an absolute conviction in my belief, a conviction that allows me to embrace and appreciate and respect other peoples conviction. And yet when someone is so resolute that they become intolerant they cause suffering and they are, I believe, living a suffering life.

The three of us, friends in the Marine Corps, because we were committed to our own beliefs but also open to other people’s conviction, welcomed and embraced and even encouraged each other. We all grew from our relationship, I learned so much from those two other guys, and even from the others in the barracks who weren’t ‘religious’, whatever that really means. I learned things that I would never have learned by surrounding myself with like minded people.

The blowing rock at Blowing Rock, NC

while I know it isn’t always easy and I don’t always succeed I do in my heart believe that whenever someone has a view that is contrary to my own, there is something there none-the-less that I can learn. I know it is easier to open up to or learn from those who agree, often times the greater learning can come from the places where it is the most difficult.

In Buddhism we have two terms used to describe friends. We say they are either good friends or bad friends. Good friends are the ones who help us grow and may at times seem like bad friends possibly. That is, someone may persecute us or hinder us in our faith or practice, and yet by their so doing we are motivated with even greater resolve to strive harder. So the person who is doing bad things then become good friends.

People who make us feel good and whom we may think are good friends may be bad friends because they may not really encourage us to grow and learn, they may not challenge us.

So, the determining factor as to whether someone is a good friend or a bad friend is not in the other person but in our action in response to that other person. In a fashion actually the other person in neutral, it is up to us if they are good or bad.

Written while flying from Charlotte to Denver



VA Healthcare

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Other than the GPS not knowing where this place is the morning is going good. So far the experience has been positive. I am impressed by the facility and the staff so far.

I am not sure what I expected, perhaps not something as nice as this. Maybe I was expecting something on the order of a delapidated wooden building with antique equipment.

My last experience with large scale government medicine was at Tripler Army Hospital in Hawaii, but that was in 1972. That was when they thought they wanted to operate on my knees and remove my knee-caps. Thankfully they finally decided not to do that.

Now I am sitting here in the waiting room – nurse just called my name. That was fast.

What a very friendly nurse. I just answered all the preliminary questions and now waiting for the doctor.

The nurse was so apologetic that the VA doesn’t provide every new and latest drug that comes out. For myself I am not sure that every new drug that comes out is good anyway. Some drugs are just old ones rebranded and recommended for uses for which they were never originally intended with only minimul research into the new use. All to keep making money off a drug and to keep it from going generic.

OK, the worst part of this so far is not the waiting, its the waiting in waiting rooms with televisions.  I haven’t watched TV in ages and ages and today I feel like I overdosed on it.  All that was on were the Health Insurance Reform town hall meetings.  What a farce.

People were so fake-mad and tossing out all sorts of wild claims about the current administration.  Most of the time speaking in wildly over-inflated generalities to which there really is no sane rational response.  Saying things like “their tearing this country apart” or “return America to the people (would that be Native American’s)”  or taking away our liberties (would that be like the warrentless wiretaps done by the Bush administration).

It is clear that they really want nothing done.  They would it seem prefer  health care as it is distributed now to the ones who can afford it and then nothing for anyone else.  Which is pretty much how the system works now, especially with so many people un-insured.

Though I have been eligible for VA healthcare all my adult life I have never taken advantage of it, thinking that well I had insurance so I would leave that for those who need it.  I am saddened that even now I have to use the VA, I wouldn’t if it weren’t for “pre-existing” conditions that make health insurance impossible for me to afford.  I could afford to pay for some health insurance but there is nothing I could buy now that would give me any coverage at all and I do need the coverage.

It reminds me of the time when I was in my early 20’s living in Hawaii.  I broke my foot and lost my job because of it.  I had medical bills to fix the foot and when I received them they were in the thousand dollar range (back in 1973 – pretty steep).  So I applied for welfare and they in turn paid the bill to the hospital which was reduced to $190.  I could have paid that but no I couldn’t be billed that.

So now I am taking advantage of my veterans benefit.

As I was leaving today the receptionist called me back and said that she needed to check to see if I qualified for transportation reimbursement.  I thought for sure I wouldn’t be, I only live 6 miles away.  Yet low and behold they gave me $7.  I don’t know yet what my co-pay will be for sure but the lady thought it was $8 per month for ALL of my medications (7).  I won’t get rich from this but at least I won’t go broke either.

It would be nice if there was some way we could all get together and come up with something for everyone.  You would think that with as large a country as this, with all of our technology and clever people we could work something out.  Looks like maybe we can’t.

Living with them

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Frequently in life we find ourselves living or working or engaging in commerce with people who don’t believe, think, or act like us; and it can be most frustrating.  In almost all things the thing we find most uncomfortable is to be exposed to people different from ourselves.  We find comfort in sameness and likeness.

As Buddhist, or any other minority belief, it can be especially challenging when faced with very dogmatic and strident believers of another religion and even more so if they are family.  I have on more than one occasion been asked by a practitioner how they should go about practicing and believing when all of their family does not agree and in some cases are intolerant of anything other than the family tradition.

Generally speaking my advice is given on a case by case basis but I was struck the other day by something I recalled that St. Francis had said when giving advice to his Lesser Brothers on how to live with what where then called Saracens, or Arabs and non-Christians.

“Let any brother who desires go among the Saracens and other non-believers.  They can live spiritually among the Saracens and non-believers in two ways.  One way is not to engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake, and to simply acknowledge that they [the friars] are Christians.  The other way is to announce the Word of God…For love of him, they must make themselves vulnerable to their enemies.” Reluctant Saint; the Life of Francis Assisi by Donald Spoto

Bears getting along

Bears getting along. (photo taken traveling to Hokkaido Japan)

Notice in his instruction he says “not to engage in arguments”.  I think this is a very important point to keep in mind.

Sometimes arguing can be the least effective way to influence someone to your way of belief. And frequently we are most persuasive when we are actually living our belief silently by example.  We think that making ‘noise’ so to speak is louder than ‘silence’ and yet it is ‘silence’ that is more hearable than ‘noise’.

In the Lotus Sutra the Buddha advises us as follows:

“When you see anyone who does not receive this sutra by faith, you should show him some other profound teaching of mine, teach him, benefit him, and cause him to rejoice.  When you do all this you will be able to repay the favors given to you by the Buddhas.” Lotus Sutra Chapter XXII

“I am always thinking: ‘How shall I cause all living beings to enter into the unsurpassed Way and quickly become Buddhas?'” Lotus Sutra Chapter XVI

“Medicine-King! How should the good men or women who live after my extinction expound this Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma to the four kinds of devotees when they wish to?  They should enter the room of the Tathagata, wear the robe of the Tathagata, sit upon the seat of the Tathagata, and then expound this sutra…To enter the room of the Tathagata means to have great compassion towards all living beings.  To wear the robe of the Tathagata means to be gentle and patient.” Lotus Sutra Chapter X

What we are instructed by the Buddha to have is compassion towards any and all beings.  We must develop those traits first in order to really genuinely be able to lead anyone to the Buddha path.  If we are compassionate then we will be gentle towards them, understanding their lives and respecting all others. If we respect others then we value them and that means we also respect and value their differences.

Next we must be patient in all things, especially when interacting with other people.  Just as St. Francis says not to argue, we too should not argue.  If the strength of our faith and practice lies in argument then we have a very weak foundation.  For if we are truly resolute in our faith then we can be expansive enough to include respect, tolerance and patience.  When we view life from the Buddhist perspective we have an infinite amount of time, life after life.

We must also remember that many paths lead to the one objective of Enlightenment and the attainment of Buddhahood.  If folks can not accept our belief but can respect us in our belief then they have made wonderful causes for the future.  If however people do not respect us in our belief then we have actually given them every reason to not believe as we do, why should they.

The Buddha instructs us to show them this or show them another thing.  Emerson said something to the effect that what is most important is not what religion we belong to but to encourage the religiousness in each of us to work towards eliminating suffering.  There are many ways to alleviate suffering, and the most effective way to continue suffering is if we are too hung up on ‘converting’.

Let us, together, walk along our paths.  If you should decide that you wish to go along my path then together we can encourage each other?  On the other hand should you choose to follow another, the how can I encourage you along your way?

From the perspective of the Lotus Sutra we all are Buddhas and whether a person realizes it in this lifetime or another that potential will be manifest.  Let us have tolerance, compassion, and patience toward one another.  There should be no problem living, working, or interacting with others.

Cause and Effect – False Causes

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

In Buddhism the terms ‘Cause & Effect’ are constantly tossed around.  People even of non-Buddhist religions ascribe to certain interpretations of the concept of cause and effect.  I was re-reading a book titled Basic Buddhist Concepts by Kogen Mizuno in which he talks about views of cause and effect that were prevalent during the time of the Buddha and for which Buddhists at the time found many faults. One false interpretation of cause and effect is the fallacy of the ‘false cause’.

The false cause is the attribution to an effect a cause for which no demonstrable relationship exists.  In other words upon close examination there is truly no connection between an effect and the cause ascribed to it.  An example of this is the belief of outside forces such as gods or deities which control the fate of man or reality.

“the idea that both the world of reality and human fate are determined by such gods as Brahma or Indra is false because no causal relation can be shown to exist between such deities and what people do or become.  Into the same category falls fatalism, the notion that destiny is determined irrevocably…at the instant of one’s birth or by the social class into which one is born.” Basic Buddhist Concepts by Kogen Mizuno

If the case was true that gods and deities or fate determine our future then there would be no hope of ever changing our situation, of becoming enlightened.  We would be hopelessly locked into situations or a life for which we could never expect to change.  Yet this is often how people speak of karma, saying things like “it’s my karma….” as if something outside of ourselves is controlling our effects, or as if there was no hope of changing the situation.

Buddhism teaches that we are solely responsible for both what happens to us and how we respond to things in our life.  If we are blaming our circumstances on things outside of ourselves and thinking of ourselves as victims then we are operating under the delusion of the false cause and so will never be able to fundamentally change our situation.

“They do not seek the Way to eliminate sufferings.  They are deeply attached to wrong views.  They are trying to stop suffering by suffering.” Lotus Sutra Chapter II

“To those who are ignorant of the cause of all sufferings, and who are too deeply attached to the cause of suffering to give it up even for a moment, the Buddhas expounded the eight right ways as expedients”. Lotus Sutra Chapter III

Only when we see the true cause will we be able to make future causes that will bring desired effects. Understanding what causes have been made and what causes need to be made will ensure us of the ability to change our circumstances.  To assist in making correct causes to end suffering even when we are unable to discern the true nature of cause and effect the Buddha taught the Eight Fold Path as a guide for us to live by.

Bodhisattvas From Underground

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

When the Bodhisattvas from beneath the ground make their appearance as told in Chapter 15 of the Lotus Sutra one of the first things they do is to greet the Buddha, enquire about his well-being, and ask how the teachings he is engaged in our progressing.  This is in marked contrast to how others had approached the Buddha, those Bodhisattvas in the provisional part of the Lotus Sutra, Bodhisattvas in preceding chapters, where people asked the Buddha for a personal prediction of future enlightenment. Those Bodhisattvas asked the Buddha for something for their personal benefit as opposed to the Bodhisattvas from Underground who came asking for nothing but instead promising to do something.

“In the presence of the great multitude, they joined their hands together towards Sakyamuni Buddha, looked up at him and inquired after him saying: ‘World-Honored One!  Are you in good health?  Are you peaceful or not?  Are the living beings, whom you are to save, ready to receive your teachings or not?  Do they fatigue you?'” Lotus Sutra Chapter V

Frequently when people begin to practice Buddhism they find themselves in remote or somewhat isolated circumstances.  In fact the odds are that most people who want to practice Buddhism and who don’t live in a fairly large city will find themselves probably isolated.

Numerous times I have been contacted by different individuals who find themselves in such a situation. I find that generally they fall into one of two different categories.  Those who practice as Bodhisattvas from underground and those who practice as those Bodhisattvas who are not.  Those who are not are generally the ones who when they find out that there is no Nichiren Shu temple or priest who either lives in their area or who can’t travel there very frequently either do not respond back or throw up their hands and either give up or complain.  Their thinking is “what will Buddhism do for me” or “what will minister X do for me” or “what will Nichiren Shu do for me”.  It generally doesn’t extend beyond their personal needs and almost never to understanding what a Bodhisattva from beneath the ground would do.

Then there are others who when they are made aware of the limitations of an organization will make extra effort to practice in their area connecting when they can and staying in touch all the while working to establish a sangha or practice group close to them.

In Chapter 15 it clearly outlines the different kinds of these Bodhisattvas, describing their associations saying some come with a large multitude all the way down to those who come as single individuals.  “The Bodhisattvas who preferred a solitary live came alone”.  What this tells us is that if you believe you are a Bodhisattva from Underground and if you are practicing alone then it must be because either you prefer it that way, you vowed to practice that way, or you have not yet developed your capacity to attract others to Buddhism and join with you.

tree bark.jpeg

If we consider how other religions have spread and propagated we see time and time again how from the efforts of single, isolated, and remotely located individuals congregations have sprung up.  Why is it that Buddhists will complain about such circumstances and then do nothing.

If we believe in the Lotus Sutra, and if we have begun to internalize the teachings contained within, and if we wish to practice in accord with the time and the teaching then we need to take personal responsibility for our situations.  If we are alone then it means we either chose that way or else we have not really begun to understand that as a Bodhisattva from Underground it is our pledge to spread the Dharma to others.

Remember the Bodhisattvas from Underground did not beseech the Buddha to give them anything, they vowed to do something for the Buddha and the Dharma.  It is our personal choice which way we choose to practice, are we provisional Bodhisattvas or Bodhisattvas from Underground?

Is it easy to practice alone or in isolation?  Certainly it isn’t, and that is why most ministers are willing to work with and help people to the best of their ability given the limited resources available.  Yet it also takes a commitment on the part of the person to make the effort to change the situation they practice in themselves and not expect someone else to do it for them.

Remember it says in the Lotus Sutra:

“These Bodhisattvas have great powers, virtues and energy…

They are good at answering difficult questions.  They are fearless and patient.  They are handsome, powerful and virtuous.  They are praised by the Buddhas of the worlds of the ten quarters.  They expound the Dharma clearly.” Lotus Sutra Chapter XV

Do not be discouraged, though your circumstances may seem less than favorable, for without fail you can change them.  This is actually true for any circumstance we find ourselves in, but more about that in a future posting.  For now remember if where you are practicing isn’t the Buddha Land then the Buddha must not be there,  Become a Buddha yourself and your land will become the Buddha Land!

On the back of our enemies – not by my effort alone.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Well not exactly our enemies, or at least I hope we don’t have enemies.  Maybe just folks that don’t view life the same way we do.

In Buddhism we often speak of interdependence, or dependent origination a concept that points out how we are connected on some level with everyone and everything else in the universe.  The visual analogy used it Indra’s net.  Picture if you will a fish net with a gem in each of the intersections of the cords of the net.  While each cord comes together to form an intersection of four cords, when we look at the gem at the intersection we see reflected in its radiant surface, the facets, the gems and intersections from other areas of the net.

Change Break Fast

Change Break Fast

Keeping in mind this interconnected relationship is important for us because it reminds us that our actions do not come without the expense or aid of others.  I attended a lecture this past June at Rissho University in Japan where the lecturer talked about how our life is not really our own, it belongs to many other people as well.  He pointed out how none of us came into life without the aid of at least two parents and we certainly didn’t live our first few years with out care and being fed by other people.  A few weeks ago I heard a story on the radio about whole departments in some major cities devoted to dealing with the deaths of individuals who die alone.  I think that I recall that in Los Angles there are over 1000 people who spend their days trying to wrap up the details of people who die alone, who die without any apparent family or friends, no next of kin or loved ones.  So while it may be obvious that we don’t come into life alone it isn’t always obvious that we also don’t die alone, even if we may think we are alone.

In our daily existence we are connected with other people and benefit from their efforts in ways that all too often we take for granted or may even ignore.  Almost none of us grow our own food anymore.  Instead we go to the store and buy packages or cans that contain what we wish to prepare.  Even we buy already prepared food, either something we need to heat up or something served to us ready-to-eat.

We travel, either in our own vehicle or in a public conveyance.  We travel on roads or surfaces that have been prepared by countless unnamed individuals.  The fuel our vehicles consume, either private or public, is transported from its original location to the point of distribution in our community.  The clothes we wear most likely were not made by ourselves so their manufacture and distribution also was dependent on other people.  The list goes on and on, we just are not here in this life without the aid of many many other people.  There really is no such thing as a self-made person.

Yet, how many of us, when we reflect on our lives have a certain amount of self-satisfaction with our accomplishments, our successes, our achievements ever think about how all of these things are made possible because of the efforts of others.  On the reverse though frequently it is very easy for us when we confront our failures to find countless ways in which to shift the blame to other things or even other people.  Why do we do that?

Are we less connected to other people when we succeed than when we fail?

For people who like to think that they are living their lives in wholesome, good, or mindful ways it is often easy to forget that even our ability to do good or live according to our own personal convictions is benefited by those who may not prescribe to our same values.  For a Buddhist who may try to practice Right Livelihood it isn’t as easy as saying that on a personal level we do so without truly considering the many ways in which that practice is aided by others who may not practice as we do.  Whether we are Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or any other religion we do not practice our belief in a vacuum and without the aid of others who may not share our belief.  Do we extend our thanks and appreciation to those individuals?  do we even consider how we are able to live because of their efforts?

It is easy for us to become smug or complacent in our belief thinking that we are doing good, when in reality any good we do by our own standard comes about because of the effort of others that we may condemn as not living up to our belief or standard.

It is never as easy as saying well I am living good, or I am a believer, or I am faithful without also being willing to transfer our benefit to others knowingly or unknowingly.

I encourage everyone who has ever thought, “I am good” or “I am doing good” or “I am saved, or blessed or whatever” or “I am practicing correctly” to also consider how it is all made possible by others who may not believe as you do.  We need to also share our benefit our merit with them as well and realize that without countless others we could not live as we do.

Nothing we do is done without the aid of countless others – we do not live or be in isolation. Let us give thanks and be willing to transfer our merit to others with a generosity befitting our deeply held conviction, matching our desire to do good with our desire to pass on the benefit to others.

20 Minutes A Day

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The past couple of days I have been reading and re-reading Chapter 15 in the Lotus Sutra, “The Appearance of Bodhisattvas from Underground”. I have even pulled out all of the various translations that I have of the Lotus Sutra to compare how each translator has dealt with this chapter.

It isn’t a very complicated chapter, so I don’t know exactly why I felt compelled to look beyond the one translation that I normally use, the Murano. I mainly was interested in seeing how each translator described the Bodhisattvas that make their sudden and first appearance in this chapter.

Here are a couple of quotes describing these Bodhisattvas:

“These great Bodhisattvas have studied and practiced the Wisdom of the Buddha for the past innumerable kalpas.”

“These sons of mine studied my teachings strenuously day and night in order to attain the enlightenment of the Buddha”

These quotes are actually descriptions of those who practice the Lotus Sutra in this age, and one challenge of our practice is to realize that this is the case.  So, if we believe this is about ourselves how do we cary out this practice and fulfill these descriptions.

When I was much younger and just beginning my practice of Buddhism I was given the encouragement to make a sincere effort to study something about Buddhism just 20 minutes each day.  At the time I sincerely tried to do this every day.  I set aside time right before going to bed and read from books about Buddhism.  At the time I was in the military and living in an open squad-bay barracks, so reading at that time was challenging to say the least.  Either someone would complain about the light or else there would be a rowdy group at one end blasting music from a record player, concentrating was challenging to say the least.

Anyway, I continued to do this and after a year or so it dawned on me that almost as if by magic I had accumulated a large amount of knowledge and had read quite a number of books.  Now this reading was in addition to other reading that I was doing and so was dedicated strictly to topics on Buddhism.  It was then that I realized that I had been tricked into studying 100 hours a year.

Imagine if someone suggested to you that you study or do anything for 100 hours.  We would I suspect feel that it was not possible, that we couldn’t do it, or that it would be beyond comprehension to schedule so much time.  And yet if we devote 20 minutes a day regularly to one thing for a year we would actually accumulate over 100 hours towards that goal.

At Buddhist temples part of the daily activity is cleaning the temple every day.  When you go to temple grounds in Japan they always look so beautiful.  Even in the fall season when leaves are falling you almost never see leaves piled up or laying on the ground.  The morning routine at temples does not include hours and hours cleaning, instead usually the clean up is for half an hour or forty-five minutes.  It is the accumulated effort of only a few minutes that yields these results.

So the trick to think about when ever we set out to accomplish some large goal or some major change or self improvement is not to think about all the accumulated effort required but to think about the small chunks of effort we can pile up every day.

20-minutes-a-day sounds small but over a year the amount of time accumulated is phenomenal, so don’t become discouraged.

“Arouse your power of faith, and do good patiently! You will be able to hear the Dharma that you have never heard before.” Lotus Sutra Chapter 15