Beliefnet
Mindfulness Matters

EB.jpgI am pleased to announce the publication of my next book, The Everything Buddhism Book.

You can look “inside” the book on Amazon and read the first couple of chapters. It is available in both a print version and is ready to read immediately on Kindle. It’s a great way to start the New Year.
It’s a fresh, sometimes irreverent, contemporary take on Buddhism and a good primer on the multifaceted aspect of Buddha and Buddhism. 
I completely rewrote the first edition and expanded it with three new chapters: “Brain of a Buddha,” “Can Buddhism Save the Planet,” and “Buddha and Daily Life.”
Here is the publisher’s description:
“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”–Dalai Lama

That’s easy for the Dalai Lama to say–but for the rest of us, understanding this mysterious, multilayered faith can be very difficult. With this updated and revised edition of the classic Buddhist primer, you can delve into the profound principles of nonviolence, mindfulness, and self-awareness. From Tibetan Buddhism to Zen, you’ll explore the traditions of all branches of Buddhism, including:

    • The life of Buddha and his continuing influence throughout the world
    • A revealing survey of the definitive Buddhist texts
    • What the Sutras say about education, marriage, sex, and death
    • Buddhist art, poetry, architecture, calligraphy, and landscaping
    • The proven physiological effects of meditation and other Buddhist practices
    • The growing impact of Buddhism on modern American culture

In this guide, you’ll discover the deceptively simple truths of this enigmatic religion. Most important, you learn how to apply the tenets of Buddhism to your daily life–and achieve clarity and inner peace in the process.

In the opening “Dear Reader” section of the book, I say,

Dear Reader,

In 1984 I was at Amherst College with the Dalai Lama for the Inner Science

Conference where His Holiness was lecturing on Buddhist psychology

and Western thinkers provided commentary. The Dalai Lama’s translator

took ill and his substitute wasn’t up to the task of translating the intricacies

of Tibetan Buddhist psychology of mind. The result was hilarious. This is

Buddhism in a nutshell; intellect ultimately yields to experience.

Inspired, I went to India after college and found His Holiness in

Bodh Gaya giving the Kalachakra Tantra. He also guided us through

Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, culminating in taking

the bodhisattva vows–“I vow to attain enlightenment for the benefit of

all sentient beings.”

It is in this spirit, dear reader, that I offer this book.

From the Introduction:


Buddhism traces its roots back to the Buddha, a yogi who lived more

than 2,500 years ago in northern India. The Buddha discovered a way to

live that radically transformed people’s lives, starting with his own. His revolutionary

insights have withstood the test of time and his methods can still

transform lives as they did in ancient India. The Buddha taught mindfulness,

kindness, and compassion. Buddhism, the family of religions that evolved

from the Buddha’s teachings, is one of the great ethical systems for the benefit

of humanity.

While Buddhism may be considered a nontheistic religion, it transcends

religious belief into practical experience. You don’t believe in Buddhism,

you practice Buddhism. In fact, you don’t even need to be a “Buddhist” to

practice “Buddhism.” You just have to sit down and meditate.

At a time when yoga enjoyed widespread popularity, the Buddha was a

prodigious yogi. He mastered the yogas of his day and then founded a way

that could go beyond all suffering. This way also goes beyond words and

needs to be experienced for yourself. The good news is that is available right

here, right now.

Jane Hirshfield, in the PBS documentary The Buddha, offers an explanation

of the Buddha’s teachings in seven words: “Everything changes; everything

is connected; pay attention.” This is a nice condensing of millions of

words attributed to the Buddha in the Pali Canon. “Everything changes;

everything is connected; pay attention.” Got that?!

Buddhism is flourishing in the West. It seems to offer a much-needed

antidote to the stresses of modern life. It provides a way to renovate your

relationship to uncertainty. It provides a way to renovate your relationship to

want. Christians and Jews alike practice aspects of Buddhism while retaining

their own traditions and marking their own holidays. From celebrities

to the clerk at the gas station convenience store, this vibrant religion is capturing

the hearts and minds of many. Buddhism carries within its belly the

power to transform individuals, societies, and the world. It is a practice of

interior and exterior revolution.

BS16001.JPGHappy New Year! One of the greatest cliches in the vernacular and an important one at that. One of my friends* shared the alternate term, “Happy New Instant” and I really dig that. 

On the one hand, the transition to the new year is special and reflects a physical reality — the earth has completed its rotation around the sun. On the other hand it’s a social construction; really just a day like any other day.
Each day is comprised of countless instants (you could count them, I suppose, but that wouldn’t be the point!). Each of the instants can be a happy one when we come to it with mindfulness. 
Time is so interesting. It has a reality and it also a fiction. It seems to move in only one direction physicists tell us (why is that?). Yet, psychologically, each moment has an equivalence until we make demarkations, separations, and boundaries. When we meditate we can feel the concept of time unravel into the seamless fabric of now. We come into and out of time just as we come into and out of form. There is a great freedom in loosening our grip on time — the freedom to experience each instant as a Happy New Year!
I think the Buddha would agree. And as we enjoy our Happy New Instants in the New Year we can build our community of interconnectedness and make the world a better place in 2011.
* Thanks to Noah for “Happy New Instant” Check out his badass web work at Modern Riot. Modern Riot is  a full service new media design, development and consulting firm. 

newyearseve.jpgI celebrated the New Year Zen style at a small Zen temple in a rural corner of Vermont. The evening consisted of meditation (zazen) starting at 5 PM. It’s always a good idea to start with meditation to settle into the form and intention of being awake (or at least aspiring in that direction). 

Following zazen, we were asked to reflect on the previous year, month-by-month, writing down events that stood out in memory. And as we wrote these events down we were also asked to look for patterns — things that reflected events, feelings, and behaviors that were skillful; that led to good outcomes for ourselves and others. Likewise, we looked at events, feelings, and behaviors that represented patterns that were not so skillful — that led to poor outcomes for ourselves and others. For the New Year, we make an intention to maximize the former and minimize the latter. Once completed we purified the folded slips of paper in incense and then took them out to the fire pit and one by one placed these papers in the fire, burning them in the flames of intention.
A little party followed. After the social gather, more zazen. At 10:13, 108 minutes before midnight, a bell-ringing ceremony began. Each participant had a bell to ring and at the dawn of minute each of the bells would be rung in sequences (this took about 30 seconds). The purpose is to mark time and to reveal the subjective nature of time. The entire evening is a meditation on time and our relationship to it. The sounds emanating into the dark night were ethereal and dynamic, like a minimalist composition. At midnight all the bells were rung at once. 
Then out to the fire pit once again where the Heart Sutra was chanted with great vigor, joy, and volume. The sounds of Heart Sutra mingled in the air with more conventional revelers shooting of fireworks and hopping and and hollering. 
Then another party! This time, traditional noodles with tempura. It’s hard to believe how such a simple bowl of noodles with shitakes, seaweed, and some fritters could taste so good, but it did!
To add to the excitement, it started to rain on this balmy night and iced the roads. So driving home was a continuation of zazen practice — being awake, being fearless, being safe.
While New Year’s Eve may be an auspicious time to reflect on the past year, you can do the exercise described any time. Do it today and place your written down reflections in the fire of becoming and dissolving.
Enjoy this first day of the New Year. 

Buddha_BCBS.jpg

Buddhism is a relatively new term, coined in the 19th century by Western “Orientalists” studying the cultures and traditions. Mu Soeng points out that, “Buddhism is not a unitary phenomenon.” It might be more accurate to say there are many Buddhist traditions that trace their origin back to the Buddha — Siddhartha Gotama — some 2500 years ago. 

The Buddha was not a Buddhist; he was not founding a religion and did not see himself as the leader of a religious movement. What was he doing then? Teaching the dharma to any and all interested parties (including members of any caste and later women). He viewed himself more as a physician offering medicine to cure the sickness that besets us.

In common parlance these two phenomena get mixed up — Buddha and Buddhism. I teach and practice Buddha rather than Buddhism. Buddha, recall, is a metaphor. When Siddhartha did what he did under the Bodhi tree that fateful night when he was 35 years old he became “Buddho” — awake. He had awoken from the delusion of existence and the constant gravity pull of craving to see things as they were. 

To refer to this as enlightenment is to use yet another metaphor and one that carries a different meaning. So he woke up that long night and after an agonizing struggle decided to help others to wake up too. He did so at first by teaching the Four Noble Truths. That’s Buddha and it is also an integral component of any Buddhist tradition.

Buddhism carries many connotations, appealing to some and off-putting to others. Buddha and the Four Noble Truths are, perhaps, universal, applying to everyone regardless of religious persuasion. It’s just that it’s hard to separate the term Buddha from the Asian images of a seated, half-smiling, androgynous figure. 

Certainly we are all situated in a personal context that is situated in a cultural context that is situated in an historical context. The cross-legged Asian Buddha comes with its own contexts. And while we are all shaped by these various contexts we all are born with the same neurological hardware and all succumb to one degree or another to the pull of desire. The case for universality of desire is strong, and this is why we all have the opportunity to awaken to a life that enjoys more freedom from the dictates of desire.

Meditation also seems exotic. Yet what is exotic about closing your eyes (or keeping them open) and paying attention to your breathing? What could be more prosaic? There is nothing mystical about this practice and nothing to bar access to any interested party. 

Indeed, we have all had our moments of Buddha whether we were aware of them or not. To practice mindfulness meditation is to make these moments more frequent and more accessible. We can go there at any moment, especially during the difficult moments of our lives. 

So, we are all Buddha. We all have the potential to awaken
(or we are already awakened and just cut off from that realization). Good morning!