Monday, December 23, 2019

Thoughts on reincarnation

Maybe the lesson of rebirth is not rejecting something that doesn't make sense to our modern scientific secular humanism mindset.

The system of Tibet identifies people to throw resources at to be spiritual leaders. In a way it's nice, but there's a random element to it, and the idea of a meritocracy is more appealing to westerners. Let the cream rise.

I am reborn every morning. I have had a million rebirths. I have changed my way of being and thinking a million times. Every death every rebirth, phoenix like, creates something new.

Metaphorical interpretation is what people object to? Literalism is probably the biggest problem in Christianity, as far as I can tell as an outsider who lives in a Judeo-Christian society. Why can't it be a problem for Buddhism?

It doesn't matter that you ate after noon, what is important is that you don't just give into your desire to eat sweet or salty crunchy things, that you don't eat animals and even better, anything from animals. The noon rule is pretty crude, just cut off the time, but as overweight monks in Theravadan countries show, you can eat more calories from sunrise to noon, than you need to sustain your body. The modern vinaya would be very different, and we need our critical abilities to update thinking on how to be.

Many westerners would probably like to be reborn, they have a survival instinct, they don't want to die. Thus they create heaven, to fantasy of living forever. Modern theologians talk about heaven on earth and grace. Live as though you are in the pure land of heaven.

The idea of delaying enlightenment to wait for everyone, to stay back to make sure everyone gets into the boats when the ship is sinking. Mahayana is reading the Buddha's actions, not his words, but in this aspect they don't follow the Buddha. The Buddha stepped outside causality, touched the transcendental. He could meditate all night and suffer little and get pleasure if he needed it--which he didn't. He would not go insane in traffic or the DMV or waiting in lines. He would be content, the world could not make him happy. Trump could not drive him mad.

His monks would tell him to go away, you don't understand. He wouldn't smite them like some angry god, for their hubris, he would just go away and meditate. Yea, maybe I need to let you figure it out.

People go to r/buddhism and ask for permission. It's kind of funny. Buddhism isn't about bossing other people around. It's about you taking responsibility for your life.

You look at "Buddhist" countries, as though a country can embrace the teachings as a whole, and what you see isn't Buddhism but genocide. Humans gathering will protect their tribe and persecute those outside the tribe. That is not Buddhism. Listen to your spiritual leaders? Only when it's convenient, and they say what you want them to say. And get them to say what you want them to say, find opportunists like yourself. The line of people waiting to take advantage of situations to get attention, power, influence, is endless. Unlimited supply.

There is no tradition that doesn't include rebirth and Stephen Batchelor isn't a sangha builder like Hannah. There are probably lots of ontological minimalists amongst the sangha, they just don't want to quibble in the sangha. There is a tradition of not quibbling in the true sangha because it doesn't move your towards enlightenment. Enlightenment comes out of meditation experience, not out of hair splitting statements of doctrine, as much as those branding exercises can make a name for one, maybe get a building built.

True spirituality isn't sexy, doesn't aggrandize you, makes you aware of hubris, narcissism and isn't a bypass or a short cut. If Pema Chodron chants the mantra start where you really are, then Joko Beck's mantra is that it's nothing special. You can take your internal experience as precious when you discover it, it can be fun for you to talk about it, but the point is self overcoming because there is no permanent self, and altruism is the best kind of hedonism.

So just don't go off the rails with reincarnation logic games, connect with sangha, sit in meditation, study the teachings with others, discuss face to face. Devotional activity is lovely. Mythology is lovely. Study the doctrine if it makes you sit more, connect with others. It's lovely to talk doctrine with other true believers. 

Sunday, December 15, 2019

How to become a Buddhist

Here is my response to "how do I start?" posts on Reddit r/Buddhism

My journey started with a meditation class. Then I read a lot and meditated. I found a community and hung out with them. Then I went on a 9 day retreat. From there it was all downhill. I feel I have learned enough to buffet fads and praise and blame. I have a kind of confidence in the path and a confidence in myself in finding the path, and enjoying the mistakes in the detours.

There are many kinds of Buddhists in the world. You could meditate. You could chant. You could work on being a good person. You could work for others. You could read and become a scholar. You could not read and just be.

The first step to me seems to be trying out the various sanghas or spiritual communities that teach. There are many different varieties, and if you only have a Tibetan or a Theravadan or a Zen center, then you will learn through those eyes.

Which is the best one? It will be hard to say without discussing one's own journey. I like and dislike things about each tradition, but on one level I love all traditions and I think there is one dharma. It all connects up somehow.

The guidelines for behaviors are contained in the 5 or 10 precepts. There are also positive precepts. Being a person who doesn't hurt others will help one advance, and not wanting to hurt others is an important realization on the path.

I'm the kind of person who likes to understand the whole story so I can figure out how everything fits in. Not everyone is like that. Maybe you like arranging flowers. Or tuning into your body. Or chanting. Or maybe you love classical music. Maybe you like the mosh pit. Maybe you are really young. Maybe you just retired. Maybe you have substance abuse history. Maybe you are in jail.

For me, I look at the Buddha's life story. He became disillusioned, went on a spiritual journey. He tried a lot of things. There were some false starts and dead ends. He kept plugging away.

Then he remembered an experience, where he sat watching the ceremonial ploughing of a field. Was it meditation? He tried it out, and sat and sat and sat. Sometimes I visualize the Buddha under a tree, and he beckons me to join him on the tree next to him, to sit and meditate.

What he did when he felt he'd found some answers is to share them with the world. From 35-80 he taught the Dharma, and took care of himself enough to do that.

There are many stories from the monks who memorized the teachings, that were written down hundreds of years later. They are not easy to read because they have a kind of repetition that helps people to memorize. We read translations. You can glean the spirit from them, and it helps if you read them with others in a group.

There is a vast literature, from these ancient teachings to present day advice for updating them into modern existence. There are all sorts of explorations of various ways of developing spiritually.

I don't think you can not know enough about modern society and what it has done to you, and you can't bypass doing psychological work to reduce some of your craziness, maladaptations and negative habit patterns.

At one point, people thought the world had degenerated so much that nobody could get enlightened. That was a theory, but it lead to some development of non-meditation practices. All the developments in the history of Buddhism are interesting to me, I can see how they fit in.

For me, the faith is that the Buddha really did find something special, even if it's hard to talk about and not easy to get there. There are many teachers who are not as advanced as the Buddha who give suggestions. What can we do? We do our best. For me closing the distance between me and the Buddha is a worthy goal.

So connect with others in a tradition. That is the first and most important step. Understand they may have a perspective of their sect, but that is not a bad thing. Maybe the florid mythology of Tibetan Buddhism isn't for you, so you want Zen. Maybe the harshness of Zen isn't for you, but you like to chant. Maybe you want to go on long retreats and really go for it. Maybe you just want a simple kind mindful life with positive people. Maybe you are in crisis and part of your health is to reach out for a spiritual solution.

You live in nowhere America, or any country, and the nearest sangha is a 10 hour drive. Plan your next vacation there, and learn as much as you can online. There are so many talks on YouTube. You live in NYC and can't figure out which one to try out? Try as many as you can. But connect with someone else because we can go off the rails when we are alone. And you might be able to support someone else's spiritual life, a great gift.

Finally, I had my deepest "peak" experiences on retreat, those are the ones that helped confirm to me that I was on the right path. I must say I perhaps always yearn for retreat, but mostly I try to make every day a retreat by being mindful and ethical.

Best wishes to those seeking to join a community.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Book of the Year

My favorite book this year was The Circle of the Way by Barbara O'Brien. It wins the annual Going For Refuge Blog Book of the Year Award. The prize is the recognition of a job well done.

This history of Zen Buddhism goes back to the Buddha and comes up into present time. Of all the books I read this year, this one touched at times, the intensity of the spiritual life, and explored the various possibilities and how circumstances change the Dharma to suit a time and place. Big overviews like this are very important even if the valleys between the peaks can feel tedious at times. Well done Ms. O'Brien.

Sunday, December 01, 2019


I'm reading Bloom on The Winter's Tale and Leontes nihilism is discussed. Bloom sees Iago and Iachimo and Edmond all nihilists to various degrees. When you believe in nothing, anything is possible, there are no limits.

That got me thinking about one of my favorite movies, The Big Lebowski. There are actual nihilists in the move. Nobody really espouses nihilism. I think even in the hope of anarchy and libertarianism, that underneath the humanity of people will self regulate.

Nihilism is to be avoided in Buddhism, it is seen as the polar opposite of eternalism.

Stephen Batchelor is seen as a materialist by some Buddhists. Of course nobody is a materialist, because you can't 5 sense the theory. There seems to be some push pull between modern skeptical people and the mythology of Buddhism.

I think the other default negative mind virus is materialism, the idea that material things make you happy. I think a lot of viruses take hold in the vacuum of nihilism: hedonism, egotism. The best way to be is altruistic.