By John

Working Your Way into the Buddhist Community

Over the years this blog has had plenty of questions and comments from people asking how to join a Buddhist community, or sharing stories of their failed attempts. Truth be told, it is not always easy to become part of a Buddhist community. For many people who do not live near major cities, the nearest temple or meditation center can be far, far away. But even people who have a temple in their own backyard can have a difficult time joining a community when they don’t have a friend to guide them into the fold.

A tip from someone who has stumbled through a number of communities: to become part of the community, sometimes you have to work at it. Literally. Read more

The Importance of Doing Yoga First

Most of my early meditation education happened in the shade of a tree. But in place of lotusly postures, I was sprawled, my legs some variety of akimbo. My body was emanating wavy lines in the summer heat, and I was covered in painful yellow cartoon lightning bolts.

I had just experienced my first yoga class. My car was a mile walk up a steep hill, and I was not going to make it.

I wouldn’t meditate in a serious way until a year later when I went to university, but the first day of laying in a destroyed heap was an underline beneath the lesson I would learn over the coming months: breathing mattered. Read more

I Am Not My Favorite Book: How Buddhist Education Really Works

I’ve known Arunlikhati for a number of years now, and he carries with him an ability common to old friends: he knows what things really twist my ears. And so I receive from my old friend this article from About.com’s Buddhism page, where the guide Barbara O’Brien wrote:

Schools that emerged in China and spread to Korea and Japan — e.g., Zen, Pure Land, Tendai — each have their own canon of Mahayana sutras and pretty much ignore the Pali Canon.

In the interest of full disclosure: I have an axe to grind. I am a member of a Chinese Buddhist temple and the Pali Canon means a great deal to me. So we exist. But behind the About.com article I see a great deal of misunderstanding regarding how Buddhists have educated generations of disciples, and what it means to value a text. Read more

Democracy’s Dharma and Buddhist Pluralism

Recently I read a really good Buddhist Book: Richard Madsen’s Democracy’s Dharma. I don’t read a lot of really good Buddhist books, because most Buddhist books are dreadful. This is because so many of them fly too close to New Age and self-help and are more concerned with making the reader feel good than communicating something new and vital.

Democracy’s Dharma has something to say. It is a study of four major religious groups in Taiwan: Tzu Chi, Fo Guang Shan, Dharma Drum, and a predominantly Daoist group called Xingtian. The three former groups, all very active in the United States, are often underrepresented in English Buddhist writing, and they each receive in-depth treatment in Madsen’s book. A study and analysis of each of these groups’ founders, culture, and history would be valuable in its own right, but the book is more ambitious: Madsen looks at how each group was fostered by the democractizing and industrializing forces of Taiwan over the last few decades, and how the culture and character of each group serves a specific segment of Taiwan’s changing society. Read more

The Dharma of Trick or Treating

As a Buddhist Sunday School teacher one issue of great importance to me is that my students see Buddhism as part of their lives, rather than a packaged and defined category that exists for a few hours on Sunday morning and then vanishes in a puff of smoke. So when I have the chance to relate Buddhism to something that is already a part of their lives, I take it. Last Sunday I talked about how Halloween secretly teaches awesome Buddhist principles.

Think about it: Halloween is the only holiday celebrated in the US in which we do not give exclusively to our family or loved ones, but to complete strangers. We give unconditionally. This is carried even further in the symbolism of Halloween through the use of costumes, for even if our loved ones arrive at our doorstep to trick-or-treat they would be shrouded in disguise. I talked about how giving was the first thing the Buddha taught as part of the gradual training, and how giving even the smallest thing teaches us how to help others and let go.

The next day no trick-or-treaters came to my door. This bummed me out significantly. Read more

The True Story of Winston Churchill’s Buddha Statue

While preparing notes for a lesson for this coming Sunday I recalled the story of Winston Churchill’s Buddha statue. It is a peculiar story, showing up in anecdotes and talks in a variety of different forms depending on who is telling it. It goes something like this:

Winston Churchill kept a Buddha statue by his bedside, or on his desk throughout the Second World War. Some versions of the story explain his reasoning for doing so, while others will even evoke words of Mister Churchill himself, and recall the serenity the peace that the statue gave him during the most trying of times.

None go so far to claim that Winston Churchill was a Buddhist; and that is not really the point. The story is trying to get at those self-evident elements of Buddhism that change minds and move mountains; things like compassion and harmlessness that sit on the surface of Buddhism, inspiring many to delve deeper, but moving far more people simply by their presence.

Its a great story; but it is the kind of story that sounds like a story. So I decided to see if I could get to the bottom of it! Read more

Snark Attack!

I have a new favorite piece of Buddhist snark!

I think a lot about the writing of seemingly uncomposed things—restaurant menus, instruction manuals, catalog copy, and all those things we assume are not the work of artists. They are, of course. I have been moved by a fine and readable terms of service (google writes the best ones) much like a poem describing a summer day. I enjoy good writing, and all the more when it is a type of writing we ask very little of, because such composition is an intense act of caring.

The Seeker’s Glossary of Buddhism, put out by the now websiteless Sutra Translation Committee of the United States and Canada, tries to come off as an uncomposed text: it is a amalgam of entries from different sources, indexed and cross-referenced. The selection of articles is extremely broad, though sometimes lacking in depth, and I keep one by my desk to turn to when more scholarly references works fail me.

If you begin to appreciate the writing of uncomposed things you realize two things: one is that a sentence describing vacuum cleaner assembly can be beautiful, and the other is that everyone, everyone everyone exerts authorial intent, and it is there to see for those who look. Read more

Made to Lose: the Red Green Game

I spend much of my time as a Buddhist Sunday School teacher trying to fit my lessons to the specific personalities of the class. For the three years I’ve been teaching each group of students has been so different that I seldom use a lesson twice. One exception, which I eventually try with any and every group is called the Red Green Game. I love it, and there is almost nothing on the internet about it, so I shall describe it for our lovely readership.

I first played the game in a Psychology class at a community college, and its magic works just as will with third graders as it does with back-to-school Moms: It is a game designed for you to lose, and to have no one to blame but yourself. Read more

Crazy Wisdom and the Imperial Examination

Right now I am editing a book of Chinese Buddhist Literature, and as such am chin-deep in Chinese Buddhist lore. I find the stuff immensely fascinating. I think that some Buddhists are much too quick to poo-poo the “cultural” elements of Buddhism. A religion is far more than its scriptural teachings: it is the teachings as read and practiced by its adherents. Buddhism is found in its aesthetics just as much as its orthodoxy.*

That being said, the one thing that shakes me is that, time and time again, it seems like the way to know that a given figure is enlightened, the way to know that they’ve really got it figured out, is when they don’t act anything like one would think an enlightened person would or should behave.

It makes so little sense, but, coincidentally, that seems to be the very thing that such a trope is least interested in making. The concept of the enlightened person as the antithesis of an enlightened person assumes that this latter ideal, the standard and agreed upon garden-variety, halo-wielding enlightened being exists.

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Master Yin Guang: Buddhist Epistolary

There are not many great Buddhist writers. This is not an accident; good writing is just not an aspiration for most Buddhist teachers. The Dharma is shared in words, practice, shared experience, and community. Writing carries with it the necessity of saying something new and valuable to as many people as possible, while the domain of a good teacher is to impart what is old and worn and true in the way which speaks to the heart of the individual whom most needs to hear it.

That is why I am fascinated by the curious case of Master Yin Guang (印光), a pre-Civil War Chinese Pure Land master. Master Yin Guang lived most of his life in seclusion on the Buddhistically sacred Mount Putuo off the coast of southern China. He did not perform lavish ceremonies or amass skads of lay and monastic disciples. But he did write.

He wrote letters.

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