Dogma, the Kalama Sutta, and a Bad Book Review

Buddha teaching the first five disciples

Over the Christmas break a book review appeared on Amazon.com that amused me. It was a review of mine and Satya’s book Just As You Are: Buddhism for Foolish BeingsIt was a three star review, which I thought that was pretty generous, considering what the reviewer had to say…

I’m not sure I could read this book though I’m making an assessment from one sentence. “… he created community based on rituals, precepts, and dogma.” The Buddha was so against dogma that he gave a teaching called the Kalama Sutra, in which he said to question even what he had to say.

I think that might be from the introduction, or perhaps it’s from the chapter I wrote called Buddhism is a Religion, in which I quote David L. Mcmahan. Mcmahan deliberately uses the word dogma about Buddhism, in contrast to Anagarika Dharmapala who in the 1893 World’s Fair, described Buddhism as ‘free from theology, priestcraft, rituals, ceremonies, dogmas, heavens, hells and other theological shibboleths.’

David L. McMahan comments that ‘even a cursory knowledge of Sinhalese Buddhism on the ground belies Dharmapala’s characterization of Buddhism as free from ritual, priests, ceremonies, heavens and hells; yet this sentiment is often repeated by early apologists and its echo continues today.’[1]

Why did Dharmapala describe Buddhism in that way? To appeal to rational westerners and garner their support for Buddhism in Celyon, which he felt was becoming threatened by Christian missionaries.

That’s an aside really. The reason for writing this post was to give me an excuse to go back and re-read the Kalama Sutta. I know from past readings that it doesn’t really suggest cherry picking the bits of Buddhism you like, and leaving the rest (as it’s often used by westerners), but I wanted to see what it really says.Continue reading →

Free will, love and freedom

by Travis Morgan

There were a handful of Christmas cards on the mantelpiece. We had spent three hours cleaning the flat earlier in the day. Rain clouds were gathering in the darkening evening sky.

I was sitting on the floor, drawing a baby monster for my youngest niece. Satya and the older niece, and the niece’s mother were off doing something else somewhere.

The cats had been scared off by the children.

As I was drawing (something like a cross between a furby, a gremlin and false teeth) the brother-in-law and I were talking ethics. I’m not sure how it came up.

At one point he mentioned that he didn’t believe in free will. Then everyone else reappeared, the conversation moved on, and we didn’t come back to it.

I spent a while not believing in free will myself. Continue reading →

Reasonable attachments?

Are there such thing as reasonable attachments?

In the training community I lived in, one of the old rules was that people should not be attached to their rooms, and trainees were moved around every few months, keeping their belongings in a single box.

By the time I moved into that community that practice had ceased, and most people had their own rooms.

I lived and trained there for four years, as an Amidist Buddhist monk, before deciding to give up some of my vows and become a priest. (In our order we have two ordination tracks, one which is more friar like, and one which is more vicar like).

Although we are a Pureland Order much of the training I received was in a Zen spirit. My teacher trained with Jiyu-Kennett Roshi, a Soto Zen Master, before choosing the Pureland teachings as the most appropriate vehicle for his own teachings, and some of the style of training he received in the Zen monastery was passed onto us.Continue reading →

Absolute Love —Total Freedom

I became a Pureland Buddhist in 2006. I didn’t know anything about Pureland Buddhism at the time. I had been practicing Buddhism for a few years, and then I met Dharmavidya and the Amida community. I knew that I wanted to join this community and have Dharmavidya as my teacher. That was enough.

I learnt about bonbu nature: we are foolish beings of wayward passion; full of greed, hate and delusion. I learnt that Amida Buddha, the Buddha of wisdom and acceptance, loves us just as we are.

I saw the shadow of those teachings. What in medieval Japan was called licensed evil: if we are loved just as we are, if we are going to be reborn in Amida’s Pure Land regardless of our karma, why bother to do good at all?Continue reading →

Into The Junk Cupboard

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The process of creating this video almost mirrored the theme of the poem. I created an ideal in my mind, of myself as a film poet and of what I imagined the final produce might be (much better drawn than this), and nearly threw the whole project in the cupboard because of that ideal.

At some point during the middle of production, when I had scrapped my first ideal of filming the drawing process, and was trying powerpoint (powerpoint!) I nearly gave up. What was happening in reality didn’t match what I had imagined. After a break for lunch and a walk around the garden I went back to the original idea. I managed to talk myself into having lower expectations and finished the project. I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out.

There’s still a chance my filmpoet self will get shoved back into the junk cupboard (he’s been there before), but perhaps less so now I know that it’s usually idealism that shoves things in there. If I can come to terms with how things actually are (the fact that I can’t really draw, for example) I’m much more more likely to keep enjoying this persona, than throw it away.Continue reading →

Learning to stay sane around people

After a hard days work

After a very peopled few days it is quiet in the temple today. It is lunchtime, and the only other person I have seen waved at me from a top floor window, whilst I was in the garden, before disappearing again.

Satya got up at 5:30am this morning and went to a half-day yoga retreat at a converted flour-mill out in the countryside. I slept in until 9am, had breakfast and a cup of tea in the garden, and started the very good Ali Smith novel. The Accidental.

In a recent blog post, floatsam and jetsom, my teacher, Dharmavidya, writes about the difficulty of practising in the modern age: the pressures of work have increased with technology, rather than decreased, we are increasingly connected to each other and the world through social media, and the connections we do have are less personal.

I grew up in a world where this was already true, although it may have become more so, and I found it easier to take refuge in impersonal connections than to make meaningful relationships with people. That’s why my first experience of living in community was such a challenge. I was plunged into a world of real connection and intimacy. Part of my reaction to that environment was to draw in and protect myself, but at the same time I did begin to learn to trust people and to understand that it was possible to be vulnerable with another person, that not everyone would let you down, and that even when that did happen there was something that would hold me, and meant I would be okay.

On Thursday evening, after a day of seeing clients, Satya and I went out with some friends to support our new housemate who was playing at an open-mic night. On Friday morning we held our usual morning service, supported a friend who thought they had just received some bad news (it turned out to be crossed wires), supported another friend by going with them to their mother’s funeral, had our lively community meal, and hosted a quiz night. On Saturday we met friends for coffee, made new friends, my family came over for tea in the afternoon, and then we had a Eurovision Song Contest party in the evening. Yesterday (Sunday) we had morning service, I had a one-to-one with a Sangha member, and then spent the day in the garden with our volunteers.

A few years ago that amount of time spent with people would have exhausted me and in the midst of it all I would have been desperately looking forward to today, a clear day without much social activity. But I notice that not only have I survived the last few days, I enjoyed them, and I am looking forward to catching up with another friend at the Malvern Food Festival this afternoon.

Whilst I’m not clinging on to the quiet space of this morning like my life depends on it, it still feels important to have space to myself.

When I spend time with people (probably when anyone spends time with other people) inevitably some part of my ego is provoked. In the past, when I really struggled sometimes to be around others, there was a great deal of ego noise, worrying what other people thought, trying to protect my self-image, trying not to provoke other people because I didn’t trust their reactions, and so on.

There’s not just my own stuff at play. Whenever we spend with others they often unconsciously ask us to take on roles in their own ego-dramas, either to prove something they believe about the world (other people can’t be trusted, say, or other people will save me) or to try and disprove it by testing it to extinction.  For me, those unconscious invitations take some energy to decline, especially if they happen to provoke some of my own ego-noise. It takes energy to treat people even-handedly, and not buy into the games they are playing (and that I play too, of course).

Over the years my own ego-noise has quietened down and  it has become increasingly easier to become social.

What allowed that process to happen? Learning to have faith in others, and being around others who reward my faith in them by accepting me, mostly, just as I am; being interested in the specifics of my ego-noise, what exactly am I afraid of, and where does that fear come from; and learning to accept myself as I am and not worrying too much when I do find it more difficult to be around others. It can also help to be interested in other people’s process too, not so that I can judge them, but so that I can find a deep empathy for their position. When I have true understanding it is much easier to have compassion for others, and to gently decline their unconscious invitations to play ego-games.

I’m not sure I’ll ever get to the position of having completely clean relationships with people though, and that’s why spaces like this morning are important. When it’s quiet around me, my own stirred up ego has time to settle down and become quiet, ready for the next social engagement.

Dharmavidya has some good advice too, in that blog post I mentioned:

If we treasure simplicity and do not unnecessarily complicate our existence, the burden will be lighter. If we treasure both friendship and solitude, we will find opportunities for spiritual refreshment. If we have faith, then we can let go of many worries and take things as they come, trusting that there are always deeper purposes at work. However complex the system within which we live our lives, there is always some space, some emptiness, pauses in which a simple prayer may return us to peace and bliss.

 

 

 

 

 

Incommunicado

I have not deliberately been out of touch. I have not deliberately sent you to Coventry. I have not had my hands tied behind my back since December, but neither have I written anything here since then.

Next Thursday will be our six month anniversary of moving into the Temple, and in that time my energy has been focussed on the community here, on the people that live within these walls (seven of us, now) and the many people that pass through, rather than on the community out there.

I recently finished reading Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking, and I was impressed by how wonderful she is at creating a community, and how much this is  to do with communicating, how trusting she is of her community, and how powerful asking for help can be.

The temple is taking on a life of its own. It has always been bigger than me, and bigger than me and Satya,  but it that is much more obvious as the energies of other people and of the group take us into lovely and sometimes unexpected directions, like the garden transformation, the Quiz night and Adam’s monthly discussion group.

As the project grows it has become obvious that Satya and I need to ask for help more, instead of imagining that we can manage the whole kit and caboodle, and not only manage it but do all the work ourselves too. We’re getting better at this, Amanda’s book helped (I feel like I can call her Amanda, now that she very nearly stayed the night here) and the house-mates and wider community are stepping up and taking on more as the temple life grows around them.

I also need to get better at speaking to the outside world, I want you all to be part of the Amida Mandala community, but there’s no community without communication.

So I’ve set that intention – let’s see how I do.

In the last six months

  • My teacher Dharmavidya has led a retreat here.
  • We have had the roof repaired, and a new 40% more efficient boiler fitted.
  • I have dug a small veg. patch and the runner beans, potatoes, courgettes and kale are in the ground. There’s more turf to lift and soil to turn over, and the leek seedlings are nearly ready to be planted.
  • Ron has helped us take down lots of Leylandii
  • We have gone from three house mates (temple mates?) to four, to five.
  • I have just started playing my ukulele again
  • Satya and I are halfway through writing an introduction to Pureland Buddhism….

I could go on but that gives you some idea of life here. The Quiz is on Friday (we are raising money for a meditation hut), and on Sunday we have a gardening day. Today I am supposed to be writing more of that book – I’d better get back to it.

 

 

 

 

 

Foolish Beings in a Beautiful Land

There is a thin pink streak of light in the eastern sky. The sun is well over the horizon and that last thread of colour tells me what a glorious sunrise I would have seen if I had been up a little earlier.

The valley is heavy with mist; a few hilltops and the tips of the tallest trees stand above the almost liquid fog.  A little closer to me the fields and gardens I can see are covered with a heavy frost. Not for the first time I can understand why C.S. Lewis and Tolkien used to come walking here.

There is something magical about a morning like this one. Looking out to this view gives me a sense of a much bigger world, a world beyond my own concerns and even a world even beyond what I can see outside. Somehow the mist which covers up what is there gives my imagination the space to image what isn’t there too.

It is me looking out into this magical scene: me with my ordinary body that aches in the cold and complains when I eat too much at Christmas, and my ordinary mind that takes selfish concerns and makes them into the whole of the world.

And I am living with ordinary people. Although we live in a space which inspires us to connect with something greater (and I am sure that tempers the selfishness) each of us carries our own concerns and dysfunctions with us.

When I first moved into a Buddhist community nearly 10 years ago I remember imagining that I could leave of all my baggage at the door. Just by stepping over the threshold I thought I could become someone new.

I have become someone new – but that process was fuelled by all of the baggage (excuse the mixed metaphor) rather than despite it.

As we move into the New Year it feels important to me to remember both halves of this picture: the beautiful magical landscape and also the ordinary human beings that live within it.

It is all too easy to forget how beautiful the world is. We create our own suffering and our selfishness bumps up against other people’s and then turns in on itself again.

It can be easy to make the same mistake in the other direction as well. To only see the ideal and become blind to the suffering of ourselves and others in case it disturbs the sense of peace we have gazing at the landscape. This is another form of selfishness, harder to see, but equally problematic as what we don’t see piles up and eventually comes tumbling down on us much more heavily than if we had paid attention to it sooner.

I will make a resolution to keep the beautiful landscape in the corner of my eye, to sometimes gaze at it with both eyes, and also to see the ordinary foolish beings (myself included) inhabiting this landscape. It is from the relationship between the two that compassion appears.

 

This post also appeared on the Amida Mandala website

the end of stress – how to relax

This morning I was supposed to be giving a talk on how to relax. I had the flowchart of the talk I had prepared earlier in the week in one hand (‘flowchart’ is the grand name I gave my few scribbles on a page) and a cup of tea in the other. I watched as the clock ticked towards ten, and waited for people to arrive.

No-one turned up.

I might have been disappointed (Why on earth wouldn’t people want to come and hear me speak?) but in fact it felt like a gift.

Satya and I have just been given a tentative moving date. In four week’s time (or perhaps five) we’ll be given the keys to our new home: Bredon House. It has been a guest house since the 1820s and is about to become a Pureland Buddhist Temple.

One of the things keeping me from relaxing recently has been the ever expanding to-do list of jobs that we need to complete before moving, and the anticipation of a continually growing to-do list when we move.

Years ago when I first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance one of the few parts of the book that made sense to me was the advice that if worry about an outstanding job keeps interrupting your meditation, getting up from your cushion and completing the job might be the best course of action.

This morning, instead of giving a talk on how to relax, I decided to tackle some of the jobs on the to-do list that had been keeping me from actually feeling relaxed.

A few hours later and the garden is now ready to handover to whoever inherits this house from us, the contents of the shed are packed and ready to move, and I’ve started collecting assorted books from the corners of rooms and packing those away too.

As I closed the shed door at lunchtime one layer of worry evaporated  and I relaxed a little.

So thank you to whoever arranged the gift of a free morning.

In the talk I had planned to say how it’s taking refuge in impermanent things that keeps us from truly relaxing, and there was something of that going on in my worry about getting things ready. I had become attached to the idea of specific outcomes like keeping people happy, creating a beautiful looking space, and having a smooth transition from one place to the next without ruffling anyone’s feathers. With those expectations I was bound to become disappointed at some point, and part of me knew that – hence the worry.

If I can remember the spirit of the move instead, the compassionate impulse and the act of love, then all of those specific outcomes suddenly become less important.

The more I take refuge in what is not impermanent, the more I can step out of the cycle of attachment and disappointment.

Nonetheless, here’s to a smooth move and no ruffled feathers 😉

There is that dimension, monks, where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished unevolving, without. This, just this, is the end of stress

The Buddha, Udana 80 Tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu