Tag Archives: Buddhism

Buddhists Don’t Have to Be Nice: Avoiding Idiot Compassion

“Buddhists are supposed to be nice.” How many times have you heard that one? Buddhists are stereotyped as always being pleasant, soft-spoken and calm, and we aren’t always.

Of course, the Buddha taught us to cultivate loving kindness and compassion. The practice of Right Speech requires abstaining from rude and abusive language. Isn’t that the same thing as being nice?

Maybe not. Many Buddhist teachers have said that being compassionate and being “nice” are two different things. Most of the time, “nice” is mere social convention. It says nothing at all about relating to other people except on a superficial level. Even sociopaths can be nice (I have seen this with my own eyes).  Sometimes the guy who is yelling and throwing furniture around is the one who caresContinue reading

The Buddha’s Teachings on Tranquility


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The Buddha spoke often of the importance of calmness and tranquility. Tranquility — passaddhi in Pali — is one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, or mental states that support the realization of enlightenment.

Spiritual masters often are caricatured as being unceasingly tranquil, floating serenely in some blissed-out state detached from the edgy, messy world. And, of course, no living creature lives that way.

Whatever their spiritual status, living creatures must eat and wash and use the toilet. They stub their toes, catch the flu, and run out of mustard.

(There’s an ancient Zen story about a great master who was asked what he did before enlightenment. “I chopped wood and carried water,” the master said. And what did he do after enlightenment? “I chop wood and carry water,” he replied.)

Maybe because of the caricature, you don’t hear much about tranquility in present-day western Buddhism. Yet the Buddha said tranquility is very important. Note that he didn’t promise we would become wonderfully tranquil after enlightenment. He said that tranquility is to be cultivated in order to realize enlightenment.

The Importance of Tranquility

The Theravadin scholar Piyadassi Thera said,

“Hard it is to tranquillize the mind; it tre3mbles and it is unsteady, difficult to guard and hold back; it quivers like a fish taken from its watery home and thrown on the dry ground. It wanders at will. Such is the nature of this ultra-subtle mind. It is systematic reflection (yoniso manasikara) that helps the aspirant for enlightenment to quieten the fickle mind. Unless a man cultivates tranquility of mind, concentration cannot be successfully developed. A tranquillized mind keeps away all superficialities and futilities.”

 You might be thinking, “I meditate to reduce stress. Isn’t that the same thing?” Not exactly. Stress is, essentially, physiological arousal, or an overstimulated nervous system. Its opposite is relaxation.

Passaddhi, on the other hand, is calmness of mental properties — feeling, perception, volition — and consciousness. It’s an ability to be mentally and emotionally still, like a pond on a windless day.

There are two kinds of passaddhi, called kaya passaddhi and citta passaddhi. To understand these, refer to the Five Skandhas. Kaya passadhi relates to the second, third, and four skandhas (sensation, perception, mental formations) and citta passaddhi relates to the fifth skandha, consciousness or awareness.

The Seven Factors of Enlightenment are sometimes described as a progression, with each quality drawing on the one that comes before it and leading to the one that comes after it. Tranquility comes after happiness, which in this case is a deep contentment that comes from putting aside selfish desire. What follows tranquility is concentration, a one-pointedness of mind in which subject and object are absorbed into each other. In the Eightfold Path and Mahayana Six Perfections, concentration is the wisdom path, the door to enlightenment itself.

How to Develop Tranquility

Along with developing the first four factors of enlightenment — mindfulness, investigation, energy, and happiness — daily meditation practice is highly recommended. The Buddha also taught that there are seven factors that develop and support tranquility. These are:

A Healthful Diet. Nutritious food keeps you healthy and supports vigorous practice. You might also consider avoiding sugar if it makes you hyper, or any food that gives you indigestion. See also “Buddhism and Vegetarianism.”

A Comfortable Climate. In these days of insulated and temperature-controlled homes, this one may be less critical than in the Buddha’s day. But if you are prone to seasonal allergies or affective disorder, it’s certainly a consideration.

Good Posture. This refers not just to correct meditation posture, but posture whenever you are standing or sitting. Keeping your hips, spine and head correctly aligned really does help your organs work efficiently and reduces tension in your body. It also enables diaphragmatic breathing, which may help lower blood pressure. But your posture should not feel rigid or forced, but natural, balanced, and comfortable.

No Burnout, No Sloppiness. The Buddha said that the effort put into practice should be like the string on a stringed instrument — tight enough to play a note, but not so tight it will break. The key word is sustainable — your daily practice should be one you can sustain, through weeks and months and years, without burning out. But don’t be a slacker, either.

Association With Calm People. The Buddha spoke of choosing congenial companions rather than people who leave one feeling agitated. Fast forwarding to contemporary life — these days, you may spend more time with co-workers than with companions. Do your best to reduce agitation and acrimony.

Directing the Mind to Tranquility. Be vigilant and mindful in practicing the first six factors.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

Glossary of Defilements: Introduction to the Klesas

Klesa (Sanskrit, also spelled klesha; in Pali, Kilesa) are the afflictions or defilements that keep us from seeing reality as it is. You could think of the klesas as mental disturbances or unhelpful psychological habits.

The three primary klesas are the Three Poisons — greed, hate and ignorance. All the other defilements flow from those. In Theravada Buddhism, the most severe klesas are associated with the demon Mara and sometimes are called (in Pali) Kilesa-Maras.

Over the centuries various sages have proposed different lists of klesas, so there isn’t any one Official List of Buddhist Klesas. For example, the Pali Abhidhamma lists ten kilesas — using the Pali terms, these are greed (lobha), hate (dosa), delusion (moha), conceit (mana), wrong views (ditthi), doubt (vicikiccha), torpor (thina), restlessness (uddhacca), shamelessness (ahirika), and recklessness (anottappa). But in the Sutta-pitaka and in Mahayana scriptures there are other lists.

Beyond the Three Poisons — which you probably will hear about a lot no matter where you practice — the klesas are spoke of more in some traditions that in others. Depending on where you study and practice, you may hear about them a lot, or you may never hear them mentioned at all. These overlap a bit with the Five Hindrances, and like the hindrances, a review now and then doesn’t hurt, especially if you are going through a rough patch.

The defilements presented here are common ones taken from several sources. The names are Sanskrit; if the Pali differs from the Sanskrit that will be noted in the definition. Terms are in alphabetical order rather than order of importance.

 - © Gautier Willaume | Dreamstime Stock Photos

© Gautier Willaume | Dreamstime Stock Photos

1.  Ahrika, Shamelessness

(In Pali, ahirika) No sense of shame or conscience.

2.  Anapatrapya, Recklessness

(In Pali, anottappa) A lack of propriety; a lack of regret over misconduct. Uninhibited in regard to how one’s actions might harm others.

3.  Auddhatya, Exciteability

(In Pali, uddhacca) Flightiness; a tendency to be easily distracted.

4.  Avidya, Ignorance

(In Pali, avijjaAvidya is blindness or being unaware of the truth of reality. It is the first link in the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination.

5.  Dvesa, Hate or Aversion

(Also spelled dvesha; in Pali, dosa) This hate, anger or aversion is one of the Three Poisons.

6.  Kudrsti, False Views

(In Pali, micchaditthi) Views and opinions that are tainted by the Three Poisons. The most damaging of these are a belief in a self (atman) that is either eternal or is annihilated at death. Kudrsti can also be a view arrived at through speculation, something the historical Buddha warned us about.

7.  Lobha, Greed

Lobha is also one of the Three Poisons. In particular, lobha is the sort of greed that chases after possessions for gratification.

8.  Mana, Arrogance

Arrogance or conceit. In particular, mana is a compulsion to be top dog; to have a higher status than everyone else.

9.  Moha, Ignorance or Delusion

 Moha and avidya are close to being synonyms. Moha is the primary klesa; the one from which all others flow. It is ignorance of the nature of reality and a belief in a permanent, individual self.

10.  Pratigha, Hatred

(In Pali, patigha) Hostility toward other people; a sense of frustration with others, a tendency to find fault.

11.  Raga, Greed

Also passion or desire. Associated with lobha, above.

12.  Styana, Laxity or Lethargy

Gloominess; inability to focus; withdrawal. This is something like depression, perhaps.

13.  Thina, Sloth or Torpor

Also dullness of mind or sluggishness.

14.  Trishna, Craving

(In Pali, tanha) Trishna is craving or “thirst” and is associated with the Four Noble Truths, in particular the Second Noble Truth. This isn’t one of the more common defilements, but I did find it on one list.

15.  Vicikitsa, Doubt

This is a doubt that leads to indecision. The doubter may be of two minds regarding doctrine, particularly about the Four Noble Truths, and this leads to vacillation in practice.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

Investigating Dharma

The Buddha taught that there are seven factors that support awakening, or enlightenment. The second of these is, in Pali, dhamma vicaya. Vicaya refers to examination, analysis or investigation; dhamma is the Pali for dharma. In Buddhism, the word “dharma” most often refers to the teaching of the Buddha, but it can also refer to the nature of existence (see “What Is Dharma in Buddhism?”).

Notice that it says “investigation of,” not “belief in.” It cannot be stressed enough that the Buddhist path is not about adopting a belief system or accepting religious authority without question.

One of the most frequently quoted passages of all Buddhist scriptures is the Buddha’s advice from the Kalama Sutta — ” … don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.'” Instead, judge for yourself what is true.

However, if you read the entire sutta you see that the Buddha provided rigorous criteria for making spiritual judgments. The Kalama Sutta is called a “charter of free inquiry,” not “a permission slip to believe whatever you like.”

Why Believing in a Doctrine of Enlightenment Is not Enlightenment

Buddhism is built upon the proposition that the way we perceive ourselves and everything else is an illusion, and waking up to reality requires discipline and determination.

The Buddha taught that because enlightenment is different from our conventional experience and and outside our usual points of reference, it cannot be imagined or “figured out.” It is perceived only by one’s direct, intimately experienced insight.

The Buddha himself could not give enlightenment to someone else merely by describing what it is. For this reason, the Buddha did not leave us with a belief system but with a path of disciplined practice.

Working With Buddhist Doctrines

So there you are, walking the path, and before long you bump into one doctrine after another. You’re told about the Three Poisons, the Four Truths, the Five Aggregates, the Six Perfections, the Seven Factors, the Eightfold Path, and on and on. And you might wonder, If I’m not supposed to accept these as beliefs, what do I do with them?

And the answer is, investigate them. But how? Many people stumble on this point. Either they accept the teachings as beliefs — which isn’t terribly useful — or they try to figure them out intellectually, which also isn’t terribly useful.

We humans usually learn new things by a process that draws on what we already know. As we listen or read or watch, consciously or unconsciously we classify the new thing according to our existing taxonomy of knowledge. Most of the time this is a reasonably useful learning strategy. But if the new thing is utterly unlike anything we already know, this strategy gets in the way.

Often, if something doesn’t immediately “make sense” — meaning that it doesn’t correspond to anything we already know — we are likely to reject it pretty quickly. Or, we “interpret” the new thing so that it does fit into what we already know. However, to do that we have to distort the new thing to make it fit, meaning we aren’t seeing it as it is, but as we think it’s supposed to be.

Much of Buddhist practice amounts to opening ourselves up to new ways of understanding. In particular the practices of mindfulness and concentration quiet our minds so that we stop judging and comparing and classifying.

Thich Nhat Hanh said,

“We need to empty our mind, and be free of thoughts, ideas, and perceptions in order to listen to a Dharma Talk (Buddhist teaching). Comparing what we hear with something we already had in mind, and drawing “right” or “wrong” conclusions is a mental habit that limits our capacity of listening. To agree or disagree with what is said does not help us learn anything new. To listen deeply, we do not engage our intellect while listening.

To “not engage our intellect while listening” does not mean blind acceptance. It just means staying open. A teaching that baffles you the first time you hear it may open the door to realization the third or fourth of tenth time you hear it.

Over the centuries the several schools of Buddhism have developed many different approaches to dharma. Some of these approaches may seem “out there” — Tibetan tantra, Zen koans. Others are more analytical. Most schools combine some amount of “book learning” with meditation or some other concentrated practice to transform consciousness. Most schools also recommend working personally with a dharma teacher who can guide you beyond the boundaries of your particular projected reality.

So, exactly how you investigate the dharma depends on the school in which you choose to practice. And it may take some time to get the hang of it. But the Theravadin teacher Piyadassi Thera (1914-1998) said,

“One who goes in quest of truth is never satisfied with surface knowledge. He wants to delve deep and see what is beneath. That is the sort of search encouraged in Buddhism.”

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

The Role of Karma in Buddhist Morality

What is morality? How do we determine what actions are moral and which are not? These are questions philosophers and religious scholars have debated for centuries. What does Buddhism teach about the basis of morality?

Within the world’s religions, the basis of morality can be understood on many levels. At the most common — and I would say most superficial — level, morality often is judged by adherence to long-established external rules, such as the Ten Commandments.

And it can’t be denied that for centuries morality has been “sold” to laypeople by promises of a reward in heaven or a punishment in hell. It should be noted, however, that many of the great theologians have had other views on the matter.

More recently science has stepped in, suggesting that perhaps altruism is hardwired into human behavior, or that ultimately morality is about a kind of social self-interest. Psychologists have proposed a “moral foundations theory,” which says, for example,that some people frame moral questions in terms of fairness or caring, while others think in terms of loyalty and upholding traditional authorities.

Western philosophy has churned out many theories of morality. For example, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed that moral law could be determined by reason, and the rightness or wrongness of an act was not determined by its consequences but whether it adhered to those imperatives determined by reason.

The basis of morality is important to understanding the Buddhist approach to morality.

I see people claim that Buddhist morality is no different from that of other religions, because the basic rules are about the same (don’t kill, don’t lie, don’t steal). But in Buddhism, the way the rules are understood and applied are considerably different.

Buddhist Morality

As in other traditions, Buddhist institutions often have resorted to promises or threats about a next life to market morality to the laity. But this is something like telling your four-year-old that the stork brought her baby brother. You figure you’ll give her the real story when she’s ready for it. So let’s assume we’re all ready for it and look at what the Buddha actually taught.

Although Buddhism has Precepts, the Precepts themselves are not the absolute basis of morality. You could say the real basis is deep insight into the causes of wrong-doing — the greed, anger, and ignorance that cause us to harm others and ourselves. Until we fully appreciate for ourselves the truth of the Four Noble Truths, until we tame our own restless, grasping impulses, we will continue to do harm. And this is true no matter how many rules we follow.

In spite of how we may rationalize our actions, or however much our actions may conform to external rules, ultimately the action is kusala (skillful; correct) when it is not conditioned by greed, hate, or ignorance. It is akusala (unskillful; evil) when the action is motivated by greed, hate, or ignorance. So one important distinction is that one’s personal motivations and intentions are an important part of the context of determining rightness or wrongness of an act. The same act might be kusala in one context and akusala in another.

Another important part of moral context is causality, which brings us to karma.


The Sanskrit word karma (or kamma in Pali) refers to volitional action. A doctrine of karma, then, is one that explains the effects of volitional action. Many religions of Asia have doctrines of karma. However, they are not the same doctrines.

This is an important point, because I hear people dismiss karma as superstitious nonsense when I can tell they don’t actually know what Buddhism teaches about karma. Especially if you are new to Buddhism, I suggest putting aside any concept of karma you might already have and approaching the subject with an open mind.

First, the Buddha taught that karma is a kind of natural law, not directed by any sort of supernatural intelligence. The is no Big Giant Karma Director in the sky handing out rewards and punishments.

© Scott Cresswell, https://www.flickr.com/photos/scott-s_photos/7904846012

Karma can be understood on many levels, both mundane and mystical. At its most basic level, karma teaches us that the volitional actions created by our thoughts, words, and deeds have effects. These effects can be both immediate and far-reaching, and they can be both subtle and significant. And once set in motion, the karma of our actions can continue, triggering more actions and effects we may never know about.

It’s important to understand that, in Buddhism, karma is not fate. According to some other doctrines of karma, if you have done X amount of harmful things in the past you are fated to experience X amount of harmful things yourself. But in Buddhism, the effects of past actions can be mitigated by present action. We always have the choice to change course.

In his book The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character, Dale Wright says that karma is “a way to understand the relationship between moral acts and the kinds of life that they help shape.” In other words, an appreciation of karma is an appreciation of consequences, of cause and effect. The circumstances of our life right now are the result of all the choices we’ve made, all the thoughts and words and actions we have generated.

This appreciation of causality is critical to the Buddhist approach to morality. The Buddha taught his disciples to think and reflect on moral issues and not simply adhere to external rules, and consideration of the karmic effects of an action is central to that reflection. Although the Precepts provide guidance, ultimately the Buddhist practitioner is charged with analyzing his own intentions and motivations and considering possible consequences — and not just to himself — when making moral judgments.

Read More: Buddhism and Karma

Wisdom and Compassion

This is where wisdom and compassion come in. Wisdom, in this case, is the perception that self-and-other are not two, and beings are not just autonomous units living inside their skin-pods. Our lives are interconnected with the lives of all beings. And it is this sense of interconnection,coupled with an appreciation of cause and effect, that is the true core of Buddhist morality.

Read More: The Perfection of Wisdom

Compassion, in this case, is not just an emotion but a state of mind. It is an active caring and a willingness to bear the pain of others. In practice, wisdom and compassion give rise to each other and support each other. As the self-other dichotomy blurs, then caring for others is as natural as caring for oneself. And when we consider our volitional actions, we become more sensitive to how our volitional actions affect others.

At this point, the practitioner has put aside selfish concerns about a good or bad rebirth. Indeed, belief in rebirth really isn’t necessary to live a moral life.

Read More: The Importance of Compassion

This is an ideal, and human beings often fall short of ideals. You can find news stories about Buddhist monks and teachers involved in sex scandals and even encouraging violence — both of which violate the Precepts, big time. No moral system ever enjoys perfect compliance.

But long-time practitioners often say that an appreciation of karma, and an appreciation of how our actions affect everyone in the great web of being, has genuinely changed their behavior.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

Mind and Buddhism: Lost in Translation

Buddhist scriptures and commentaries are richly stocked with references to “mind” and its affiliates — consciousness, thoughts, awareness, and so on. Indeed, cultivating the mind is the primary focus of some schools of Buddhism. Buddhists of other schools will tell you there is nothing but mind, and phenomena are merely projections of mind.

So, mind is pretty darn important to Buddhism. But what do we mean by mind?

Lost in Translation

To English speakers of the cultural West, the word “mind” usually is associated with intellect. To say that someone has a “fine mind” usually means he’s smart, educated, and understands poetry. Mind also connotes free will — we “make up our mind” when we make decisions. When we speak of “the mind,” we are usually referring to consciousness combined with higher brain functions, such as reasoning and calculation.

In Asian languages, the equivalents of “mind” can mean those things also, but they can mean other things as well. Further, Buddhist scriptures and the seminal commentaries were written a long time ago by people who understood “mind” very differently from the way we do in the 21st century West.

For example, when we speak of mind in English, we usually are leaving out emotions and body sensations. We think those aren’t part of “mind,” but something else. But very often, in Buddhist texts, “mind” includes sensations — vision, hearing, touching, tasting — and emotions.. The mind referenced in the sutras sometimes includes all of our sensory and psychological functions, including subconscious ones.

Intellect and free will are in there, somewhere, and they are not unimportant. But they are only a small part of the meanings of the words the translators render as “mind.” The cultures that produced the great sutras and other teachings did not separate intellect and emotions, mind and body, the way we do.

Before we yell at the translators, we must acknowledge that they don’t have an easy job. The old Sanskrit and Pali texts, not to mention early Chinese, are just about impossible to render into sensible English. Many words have no English equivalent, so translators take a stab at getting as close as they can. As a result, the same word can be rendered variously in different translations as “mind,” “consciousness,” “heart,” or “thoughts.” And the original word probably doesn’t precisely mean any of those things.

Examples of Mind

The Vedic sages of India had developed elaborate models of mind long before the life of the Buddha. The Buddha and the sages who came after him adopted parts of these models, changed other parts, and added to them.

Buddhist scholars developed a remarkably sophisticated understanding of the processes we might call neurological as well as mental, including the many ways sense organs respond to sensory objects and our several subtle layers of consciousness. A vocabulary developed to label these separate processes, which in English mostly are lumped together as “mind” or “consciousness.”

For example, three words found In the Sutta-pitaka all get translated as “mind” (or heart, or awareness, or intellect, etc.). These are (in Sanskrit) citta, vijnana, and manas. In the Sutta-pitaka, often citta is used to refer to the mind that experiences subjectivity, manas is the mind of cognitive functions, and vijnana is the mind of sensory consciousness. But to fully appreciate how that is understood requires considerable time and study. And, unfortunately, most English translations don’t distinguish one from another.

Missing the Mind Boat

The relentless focus on mind — whatever that means — in many seminal Buddhist texts has led to a lot of misunderstanding. For example, when western scholars began to take an interest in Buddhism in the 19th century, they seem to have interpreted “mind” in the western sense.

Some then assumed this guy Buddha must have been a purely rational philosopher, and all that mystical stuff about karma and rebirth and nirvana and whatever must have been introduced to his teaching by later, lesser followers. And there’s still a strong whiff of that attitude in parts of academia and among some popular western authors of books on Buddhism.

But if you go back to the oldest Sanskrit or Pali texts and try to understand the words in the context of the cultural assumptions in which they were spoken — as much as that’s possible — a different picture emerges. There is a strong streak of rational philosophy in the Buddha’s teaching, yes, and I suspect he could have held his own with any philosopher the West might have thrown at him. But to limit him to the purview of the western discipline of philosophy, as many try to do, puts him in much too small a box.

Sometimes people misunderstand Buddhism in the other direction. One of the most uninformed opinions about Buddhism ever expressed in human history came from the late Christopher Hitchens, in his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens recalled a sign he had seen in the meditation room of a Hindu ashram — ‘Leave your shoes and minds at the door’ — and extrapolated from this that eastern religions are like institutionalized brain-sucking zombies. He specifically called out Buddhism as “A faith that despises the mind and the free individual.” And he told an interviewer,

“My objection was to the sign [at the entrance to one tent] saying, “Shoes and minds must be left at the gate.” It’s the idea that the whole effort of meditation is to try and dissolve your mind, which is the only thing you’ve got that’s unequivocally worth having.”

There is so much misunderstanding packed into that anecdote that it would take heavy machinery to sort it out, but the primary issue is that Hitchens lazily assumed that “mind” was used to mean intellect and free will, and that’s hardly ever the case in the eastern religions.

For the record, I do not know what the sign-writer meant by “mind.” My understanding is that the various phenomena that get labeled “mind” in Buddhism cannot be left, intentionally, anywhere, Some forms of “mind” cannot be separated from body, although other kinds may drop away sometimes. Or not.

Also for the record, Buddhism does not despise the mind and has no problem with reason and free will. In fact, the Buddha encouraged his followers to discern things for themselves and not accept doctrines on faith (see, for example, the Kalama Sutta).

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

Do We Really Make Our Own Reality?

The claim that “we make our own reality” pops up frequently in Buddhism, and the claim often is repeated in mind-body-spirit circles. But what does “make our own reality” really mean?

From a Buddhist perspective, it doesn’t mean that once you’re enlightened you can fly or step in front of speeding trains without harm. Whatever your spiritual status, expect to continue to be subject to the laws of physics.

So what does it mean? To a Buddhist, “we make our own reality” could be understood in different ways, and some Buddhists disagree with the statement entirely. It’s probably the case that Mahayana Buddhists are more likely to agree with it than Theravada Buddhists. And if you do find some truth in it, you may understand the phrase in different ways as your practice matures.

The Fruits of Karma

Some of those who object to the idea of making our own reality say that it’s a misunderstanding of the first verses of the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings of the Buddha found in the Pali Sutta-pitaka. One of the early translations of the Dhammapada, by F. Max Muller, begins All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.A more recent translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu begins “Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart.”

This verse is about karma. It is said karma is created by body, speech and mind.

But in fact mind comes first; whatever we do with body and speech begins with mind — a thought or an intention.  Note that the original Pali uses variations of the word manas for “mind.”

Read More: “Manas: The Mind of Will and Delusion

However, I think it can also be argued that karma creates our reality, or at least a lot of it. Karma is the action created by intention, and in Buddhism it’s understood that the life you have right now was built by all the choices, and the intentions, you made so far.

But when we say that karma created your reality, be clear that karma refers only to volition action. There are other natural laws in the world — such as physics — that are not affected by karma. Karma doesn’t create natural disasters, for example, but the karma of your life will affect how you handle being in one.

Projected Reality

At this point, you might be thinking this “make your own reality” thing isn’t so cool after all. But there are other ways to look at it.

One of these ways is psychological. People who are frequently angry create a lot of problems for themselves, while someone with a generous heart may inspire generosity in others. What you project out into the world is reflected back to you by the world.

The poet Walt Whitman expressed this when he wrote.,

I swear the earth shall surely be complete to him or her who shall be complete,
The earth remains jagged and broken only to him or her who remains jagged and broken.

It is sometimes said your “outer” reality is a reflection of your “inner” reality, although the “outer” and “inner” really aren’t two separate things.


The Six Realms are sometimes interpreted to refer to personality types or mental states rather than physical places. People driven by addictions might be said to be in the Hungry Ghost realm, for example. So in this case the “realm” you are in is an allegory for your mental state.


The Mahayana philosophy of Yogacara is primarily concerned with the nature of experience. In particular, it analyzes how a mental function called vijnana, awareness or consciousness, connects sense objects with sense organs to create experience. For example, vijnana intersects a visible object with the eye to create the experience of sight. Vijnana also connects perception (samjna) to ideas to create thinking.

Read More: The Five Skandhas

Yogacara is a sophisticated philosophy that takes most of us a long time to comprehend. It proposes that the sense objects we see, feel, taste or hear are not “real” but are creations of vijnana.

This isn’t as off the wall as it might seem. Today’s neuroscientists say that the way we experience all the phenomena “out there” really is mostly a fabrication of our brains and nervous systems. Color, for example, is something our brains create from sensory impulses. The red in a rose is in our heads, not in the rose. This is also true of the way the rose smells and feels.

So, according to Yogacara, we really do “make our own reality”; we’re just not conscious of it.

[This article, written by me, was originally published in the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has apparently removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

The Mindfulness Controversy: Work and War

The Buddhist practice of mindfulness is popping up everywhere, from mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs to corporate seminars on employee productivity. New self-improvement applications for mindfulness seem to emerge every week.

This mindfulness movement does have its detractors, however, and some of those detractors are Buddhists. Let’s take a look at some of the issues surrounding mindfulness in the workplace and the military. For a look at the use of mindfulness in psychology, see The Mindfulness Controversy, Part 2: Mindfulness Therapy.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a direct, whole-body-and-mind awareness of the present moment. This awareness is pure awareness; it is not filtered through thoughts or interpretations. This awareness includes awareness of one’s body, of sensations, of one’s mental states, and of, well, everything.

In the context of Buddhism, mindfulness is one of eight “folds” of the Eightfold Path, which is the framework of all of Buddhist practice. For now, the important point is that all parts of the Path support and affect all other parts of the Path. So, for example, our intentions and ethical conduct have an impact on our practice of mindfulness, and vice versa. For that reason, from a Buddhist perspective, when mindfulness is practiced in isolation of the rest of the Path it already becomes something different from Buddhist mindfulness.

It’s also important to understand that as a spiritual practice, stress reduction may be a pleasant side effect of mindfulness practice, but that’s not what it’s for.

However, its not being “Buddhist” is not necessarily a problem. If mindfulness exercises based on Buddhist mindfulness are helpful to people, that’s great. So what are the objections?

Mindfulness in War and Work

Buddhists practice mindfulness on the job all the time. And now businesses, especially large corporations, are being sold on mindfulness as a great productivity tool. Mindful employees are focused employees. And mindful employees are less stressed employees, which leads to happier employees and even fewer sick days. Win/win!

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But some are disturbed when they hear about giant corporations or even the military sending personnel to mindfulness seminars. This is partly because beneficiaries are nearly all upper level executives or valuable production staff, such as software engineers. People assembling products in third-world factories are not invited.

I have also heard objections to mindfulness training in the military. Are we training soldiers to be more focused and effective killers? I have no opinion without knowing more specifically how mindfulness is being used. If mindfulness is being used to help soldiers cope with traumatic stress, or to be more aware of surroundings and more likely to survive and come home, then let us not withhold our compassion from soldiers because we don’t approve of war.

Mindfulness and the Self

There is real concern about making mindfulness into a way to get ahead in the corporate world, which is considerably removed from its roots in Buddhism. In Buddhism, the practice helps us see the ephemeral and evanescent nature of the self. When mindfulness is practiced to improve or enhance the self, however, that really is a very different thing.

This takes us back to separating mindfulness from the rest of the Eightfold Path. Within Buddhist practice there is always a context shaped by the Buddha’s teaching — on ethics, on compassion, on selflessness. Mindfulness practices can have a powerful and unpredictable effect on the psyche. What happens when it is completely removed from those contexts?

It’s hard to say, frankly. Many Buddhist teachers have expressed concern that mindfulness uncoupled from teachings on the release of greed and anger and cultivation of loving kindness for other beings could reinforce negative qualities instead of positive ones.

Stirring the Soup

In an article at Wired.com titled “Enlightenment Engineer,” Noah Shachtman quoted Kenneth Folk, an influential meditation teacher in Silicon Valley: “All the woo-woo mystical stuff, that’s really retrograde,” Folk said. “This is about training the brain and stirring up the chemical soup inside.”

Teachers of the many Asian meditative disciplines have centuries of experience dealing with the effects of stirring the chemical soup. For most people, spending ten minutes a day doing mindfulness exercises will have only beneficial effects, yes. But it’s also the case that most of us have some nasty stuff in that chemical soup, and for some of us it doesn’t take much stirring to bring it to the surface. One suspects many recently minted mindfulness enthusiasts lack appreciation of this.

It’s also the case that, as with anything valued, lots of people with sketchy credentials are rushing forward to supply the demand. I’ve run into articles and advertisements about meditation instructors who do not appear to know what mindfulness is. For example, mindfulness has been promoted as a way of blocking out intrusive, negative thoughts, but that’s not right at all. Genuine mindfulness requires awareness and acknowledgment of negative thoughts and anything else going on in your head or senses. “Blocking out” is, by definition, just the opposite.

Note also that in Buddhism “mindfulness” and “concentration” are not the same thing. Indeed, Right Concentration is another section of the Eightfold Path. Focusing all your attention on a dot on your monitor, as one mindfulness expert advocates, is a concentration exercise, not mindfulness. Concentration exercises can be beneficial also, but one does wonder if these so-called experts have any idea what they are talking about.

That said, if you are not a Buddhist practitioner and your employer is making mindfulness training available, I wouldn’t hesitate to check it out and give it a try. Chances are you will get some good out of it.

[This article, written by me, was originally published on About.com’s Buddhism site, but since it was removed from their servers all rights revert to me, and I am posting it here.]

Practical Zen: An Approach to Secular Ethics

[This is a talk more or less as I gave it at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture on October 23, 2016. It is based on a chapter in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.]

Hello. I’m so pleased to be here today. Many years ago I lived in New Jersey. And in those days I often attended lectures hosted by the Ethical Culture Society in Teaneck. So I come here with an appreciation of what you’re about.

I have been a formal student of Zen Buddhism for nearly 30 years. Zen is my spiritual path. However, let me assure you I’m not here to sell you on Buddhism, but simply to offer a perspective adapted from Buddhism for your consideration. I’m calling it “practical Zen” because I intend to avoid the enigmatic one-hand-clapping stuff and keep this talk grounded in our common experience.

Let’s begin with a quote from a Chinese text that is not Zen, but Daoist. This is paraphrased somewhat from the Dao Dejing, verse 18 in most translations. This passage describes a series of fallback positions.

When the Dao is lost, we fall back on virtue.
When virtue is lost, we fall back on humanity.
When humanity is lost, we fall back on morality.
When morality is lost, we fall back on religion.

If I could provide an executive summary of this talk, it would be that to move toward a more ethical culture we need to climb back up this ladder, at least to virtue. And if you want to go for broke and aim for the Dao, great.

So let’s talk about how we might do this.

There’s a basic Buddhist teaching that says what we might call psychological impulses, including our emotions and thoughts, are the forerunner of all actions. One aspect of that is that the way we conceptualize the world around us conditions how we relate to the world. So the first step in considering a moral course is to look very closely at how we conceptualize morality.

I looked “morality” up in an English dictionary and found “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.” Another definition says morality is “beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior.”

But the fact is, we don’t agree about what’s right and wrong or good and bad behavior. Especially as our communities and nations become more diverse, we more and more often are butting heads with people who have entirely different beliefs about what right and wrong, good and evil even mean.

Where do these beliefs come from? I never heard of people putting them to a vote. Some of us are stuck in the idea that morality is about following absolute rules that are eternal and unchanging because God said so, even if those rules are making everyone miserable. And to an increasing degree, that rigidity is tearing us apart.


Is there another way to define morality? The Sanskrit word found in early Buddhist scriptures that is translated into English as morality or ethics is sila. Sila has a connotation of harmony; it’s acting in a way that allows people to live in harmonious families and communities. Sila involves cultivating an atmosphere of trust, respect, and security. Rules can be useful to help with that cultivation, but by themselves they are not the be-all and end-all of morality.

Buddhism does have moral rules, of course. Monks and nuns have hundreds of rules. Laypeople have five. We call them Precepts. The Precepts for laypeople are very basic ― don’t take life; don’t take what is not given, don’t misuse sexuality, don’t deceive others, avoid intoxicants. Those are the five Precepts every school agrees on; Zen throws in a few more. The Precepts are something like training wheels. We practice the Precepts in order to cultivate morality, humanity, virtue, compassion, kindness, and all that stuff, which is where true morality originates.

There’s an American Zen master who is also a Unitarian Universalist minister named James Ford. James Ford wrote about the Precepts recently,

“Frankly, there are times we just need the rules. Much of our lives we’re wandering around in the thickets. Haven’t a clue. We’re lost. And the precepts can become a life line thrown out to us. Sometimes we just have to grab that line. Sometimes we just have to follow the rules. …

… But if we live only in the realm of rules we are strangled by dead letters. And not only are our own lives constrained, we become caricatures of our true potentiality.”

Some rules really are necessary. Rules about theft and homicide, for example. Without some rules, we humans would never have left the caves. We’d still be huddled around our little fires, guarding our flint arrowheads from those people in that other cave. Civilization wouldn’t be possible.

But we’re still left with a lot of rules that seem to serve no useful purpose. We’re fighting over who can use which public restrooms, for example, because of some people’s rigid ideas about morality. We’re fighting about reproductive rights, about who can get married, and who has to bake wedding cakes.

What’s the point? What does denying people the right to follow their hearts, or in the case of the restroom issue, their bladders, have to do with cultivating an atmosphere of trust, respect and security? In this case, rigid rule-following is having the opposite effect.

Another way to understand the religiosity-morality connection is explained in a book I bet some of you have read, which is The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt provides a rigorously tested argument that we feel before we judge. The moment we are confronted with a moral question, something in our subconscious or intuitive mind churns up feelings about the question that determine our position. Our rational mind then constructs a narrative that explains to us what we think and why we think it. This happens so quickly we usually aren’t aware that’s what we’re doing.

Haidt’s explanation of how we respond to moral questions is very similar to what many Buddhist philosophers have taught for centuries, so it’s good to see science catching up.

Anyway, according to Haidt’s hypothesis, as much as we all want to think we are rational and logical and think the way we do for serious reasons, the fact is that we all allow rudimentary emotions to dictate what we think, at least about some things.

When you understand that much of “morality” is about rudimentary emotions and biases, you might also understand why conservative and dogmatic religions of all persuasion tend to get hung up on sex and on keeping women under control. This tells me that the men in charge of things are channeling their own anxieties about sex and women and projecting them into their scriptures. In doing so, they sometimes wander quite a distance from what their scriptures actually say, revealing how pathologically deep those anxieties are. And because they have the authority of institutional religion behind them, these men are given great moral authority in our culture. But in truth, often what we’re seeing from religious authorities is plain old bigotry. And religion is just being used as an excuse for it.

I feel strongly that one of the many steps we need to take to restore some sanity to this fractured nation is to de-authorize religious authorities from dictating morality to all of us. As a diverse society, we require a secular basis for our common ethics.

While we’re on the subject of thought and actions, I want to talk about good and evil. The way we conceptualize good and evil has real-world consequences.

For example, on September 14, 2001, President George W. Bush said this at a prayer service at the National Cathedral:

“Just three days removed from these events, Americans do not yet have the distance of history. But our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

Rid the world of evil? That really should have set off a lot more alarm bells than it did.

Here’s another quote: In a New York Times column published February 11, 2004, David Brooks wrote, “Some liberals have trouble grasping evil, and always think that if we could take care of the handguns or the weapons of mass destruction, our problems would be ameliorated. But I know the problem lies in the souls of our enemies.”

Now, what might we infer about “evil” from these quotations? The first suggests that “evil” is something tangible, with some sort of finite mass and material substance, and if we just work hard enough we can whittle ‘er down and be done with it.

The second suggests that evil is a quality or attribute that some people possess, and others don’t. And once evil has infected “the souls of our enemies” there is nothing to be done but to eliminate them.

Of course, it’s likely “our enemies” feel exactly the same way about us.

People are seduced into evil because they don’t recognize evil as evil. They mistake it for justice, or righteousness, or even God’s Will. And the seduction begins with the thought that “I’m a good person,” and “his hatred of me is evil, but my hatred of him is justified.” As soon as we identify ourselves as “good” and the Other, whoever they are, as “evil,” we’ve well on the way to giving ourselves a cosmic permission slip to do whatever we want to be rid of them. You see the problem.

I say this seductive impulse is at the root of most of the mass atrocities humankind has inflicted on itself through the ages. That’s why the way we conceptualize good and evil has real-world consequences.

Please understand that I’m not saying people or nations shouldn’t defend themselves from those who intend to do them harm. What gets us into trouble is thinking that we’re entitled to Holy Retribution, or that we are somehow qualified to pass judgments and inflict brutality on entire populations, because we’re the good guys.

I used to run into the words good and evil in Buddhist sutras, and these words often nagged at me as being out of place. So I had something of a breakthrough when I found out that the Sanskrit or Pali words being translated as good and evil actually mean “skillful” and “unskillful.”

I’ll give you a mindfulness exercise. Very Zen. Sometime, either now or while you’re sitting in a quiet place, think the word “evil.” Don’t contemplate what it means, just hold the word in your consciousness. And as you do that, pay close attention to the subtle emotional cues within your body that are triggered by the word “evil.”

Now, think the word “unskillful.” If you are tuned in to yourself, you might notice a different reaction. It’s very subtle, but it’s real.

At the very least, maybe we’d be less likely to bomb people for being unskillful.

Zen teachers say it’s important to appreciate that “evil” really has no substance and no independent existence. It is no-thing. It does not infect people. Evil “exists” only in intentions, actions and consequences.

If we understand that neither we nor our enemies are intrinsically good or evil, does that change how we see traumatic events? Speaking as an eyewitness, as I’m sure some of you are, the collapse of the World Trade Center towers easily was the most terrible thing I ever saw, but I honestly don’t see why hanging the label “evil” on it makes any difference. It was what it was. But my perspective enrages some people who clearly think it is vitally important to label the event as “evil,” and if we don’t we’re somehow being soft or letting the terrorists win.

There’s some kind of magical thinking lurking around in there, somewhere.

I don’t agree entirely with the postmodernist view that good and evil are purely relative or matters of subjective judgment. Skillful or unskillful are not just relative. Causing harm to another is unskillful. Wasting natural resources or adding to global climate change are unskillful, even if they aren’t covered by the Ten Commandments. That’s the problem with moral rules left over from the Bronze Age; we’ve got different problems now.

And then there’s “moral clarity.” In the U.S. many religious conservatives place great value in “moral clarity,” which I define as a state of mind achieved by staking a fixed position on a presumed moral high ground and then ignoring the details of human life that fog the view.

For example, I have read many essays arguing for criminalizing abortion that go on and on about the humanity of the fetus without mentioning the pregnant woman at all. If she is mentioned, she is considered to be a kind of niggling technicality. Or worse, she is portrayed as weak-minded or otherwise unqualified to make her own moral decisions.

The “moral clarity” crowd must never admit that the woman is a valuable and intelligent human being who may be in a terribly difficult situation, because empathy and compassion for her would block their “clarity.”

In short, moral absolutism requires ignoring genuine human life experience. This makes its rigid application anti-human and oppressive.

I want to cite the late Robert Aitken Roshi, who was one of the most revered patriarchs of American Zen. In his book The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics, he said, “The absolute position, when isolated, omits human details completely. Doctrines, including Buddhism, are meant to be used. Beware of them taking life of their own, for then they use us.”

Does moral absolutism even work? There is data showing us that rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock pregnancy are higher in conservative “Bible Belt” U.S. states than in more liberal ones, and this pattern seems to replicate itself worldwide.

Reasonable people may disagree about whether abortion is immoral, but note that rates of abortion in overwhelmingly Catholic Latin America, where abortion is nearly everywhere illegal and harshly punished, are higher than in the United States and a lot higher than in mostly liberal and allegedly decadent western Europe.

And what does his tell us? It appears that when absolutist morality is enforced, either by public shaming or by law, actual human behavior — heterosexual behavior included — is driven into the closet, leaving actual humans with no practical guidance in their actual circumstances.

I say the absolutist approach to morality gets everything backward. It creates too wide a gap between public righteousness and what people are really doing in their private lives, so that the moral rules are not really guiding anyone. And when we cede the presumed moral high ground to the absolutists, too often we squelch open and honest discussion of our real-world circumstances and behaviors.

Again, “The absolute position, when isolated, omits human details completely. Doctrines are meant to be used. Beware of them taking life of their own, for then they use us.”

Secular moralists sometimes propose a utilitarian or consequentialist approach to morality. Very broadly, utilitarianism is the view that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good. There are many variations of utilitarianism, however, mostly because people disagree on what constitutes “good.” Further, this approach often fails to provide an incentive for “being good.”

Author and neuroscientist Sam Harris has proposed that science can provide a basis for morality. Harris is a smart guy and he says many things worthy of consideration. But he’s written that science can “tell us what’s objectively true about morality” and “give us answers about right and wrong.” I think that’s right up there with thinking we can rid the world of evil.

I have a more radical proposal here. Some things people need to work out for themselves.

Human life is infinitely complicated and messy, and circumstances have a way of confounding application of one-size-fits-all solutions. Some things people need to work out for themselves. And that’s okay.

I propose that given the infinity of variables, no two human beings ever faced completely identical moral dilemmas.  When faced with questions about ending a pregnancy, or a marriage, or when to discontinue life support, or whether to intervene in a friend’s problems or let things sort themselves out — we need to be able to apply some subjectivity to matters that will change our lives and the lives of those around us, because we’re the only ones familiar with most of the variables.

We’re the only ones who have our medical history, or our parents, or our financial or physical resources, or our marriage, or our job, or our special needs child. Etc., etc. I think that in some circumstances we need the freedom to be subjective, to consider complex moral questions not just in the abstract but in the light of our particular life and situation.

The challenge to us as a society is to distinguish between those behaviors that cannot be allowed ― such as homicide ― because allowing them would damage civilization; and those problems that people need to work out for themselves, even if we don’t all personally approve of all the solutions. And then we have to persuade the absolutists to back off.

We can, as a society, draw parameters around moral questions — medical guidelines determining when life support is futile, for example. And I agree that science can help with much of that. And then we’ll continue to do what we’ve always done, which is argue among ourselves about where the parameters should be drawn. Maybe arguing with each other is the price we pay for freedom.

If all this sounds terribly ambiguous — yeah, mostly, it is. That’s because you and the world and human life generally are very complicated, and where there is complication, there is ambiguity.

I realize people often are uncomfortable with ambiguity. They want clear rules and sharply defined boundaries. They want all phenomena to be properly sorted into their socially acceptable conceptual boxes. That’s why some people prize moral absolutism. That’s a mostly workable strategy for getting through life, but it’s not real. It’s an artificial order superimposed on the messiness of reality.  And sometimes failing to accept reality causes more trouble than it solves.

One of the great humanistic philosophers of the 20th century, Erich Fromm, wrote that people often escape into authoritarian mass movements because they fear freedom. A lot of that fear of freedom is a fear of ambiguity, a lack of clear, bright lines that make your choices for you.

I think we see a lot of that fear in America today. And notice that some of the same people who talk about how they want to protect their freedom seem hell bent on destroying everybody’s freedom to do that. It’s like they’re protecting their freedom to be not free. But those clear, bright lines are not likely to come back, so this is a situation we’re going to have to deal with for a while.

Just about any psychologist will tell you that you can’t force other people to change. We can only look to ourselves. How do we find our own moral compass in the messiness of life?

And to answer this question I want to wade a little more deeply into Zen.

Here’s a question for you. “Can you identify yourself without reference to a relationship?”  This is a question I first heard in a sociology class. I’ve never heard anyone provide an answer; I don’t think it’s answerable. It’s something of a koan, because if you work with it you end up exploring the paradoxical nature of the self, which is a very Zen thing to do.

Many schools of Buddhism, including Zen, have a doctrine called the two truths. The two truths describe what seems to be a paradox. On one hand, we are all precious and unique individuals, worthy of respect and compassion.

But at the same time, we take our very uniqueness, our identities, from our relationships. From our roles in our families, from our professions, from the interests we share with others, from the arts and intellectual pursuits we enjoy, with our circle of associations. We are who we are because everyone else is who they are. We are not the entirely self-contained, stand-alone people units we think we are.

This interdependence extends to our biological existence as well. We depend on other life forms to sustain our lives and to maintain the conditions on this planet that make life possible. All beings are interdependent. All beings inter-exist. This comes directly from the teaching of the Buddha.

A metaphor used to help resolve this paradox is attributed to a Chinese master named Dushun who was born in the 6th century. This is called “Indra’s Net.”  Imagine a vast net that stretches infinitely in all directions. In each “eye” of the net is a single brilliant, perfect jewel. Each jewel also reflects every other jewel, infinite in number, and each of the reflected images of the jewels bears the image of all the other jewels — infinity to infinity. Whatever affects one jewel affects all of them.

This means every jewel matters. Every person matters. You matter. And everything you do affects everyone else. This is the most essential thing to understand. Everything you feel and think, everything you do or say affects yourself and everyone else. Most effects may be extremely subtle, but they’re still effects. And sometimes even subtle effects can have big real-world consequences.

And at its most basic, an ethical life is a life that produces beneficial effects.

Now, it may seem inconsistent to say that we need to be allowed some subjectivity in our moral choices, while at the same time everything we do impacts everyone else. So let’s take this to another level.

Twenty-five centuries ago, the Buddha emphasized purifying oneself of what he called afflictions or defilements. The chief afflictions are greed, hate and ignorance. This ignorance is ignorance of the inter-existence of all beings, because most of our problems come from thinking of ourselves as separated from everything else. We think that whatever is within our skin is “me” and what’s outside our skin is “everything else.” It’s this misperception that is the chief source of our fear, our greed, our anger, our hatred.

You can follow moral rules to the letter, but if you are harboring greed, hate, and ignorance, you are not living a beneficial life. You are not living an ethical life. You are not cultivating an atmosphere of trust, respect, and security.

The Buddha taught many practices, including meditation and mindfulness, to reduce our afflictions.

There’s nothing magical or supernatural going on here; it’s all about becoming more intimate with yourself. You become more aware of what jerks you around and pulls you out of harmony. You learn to let those things go. If you don’t have some sort of meditation or mindfulness practice already, I encourage you to look into one.

Finally he encouraged us to develop four particular virtues above all others. The first is metta, goodwill, or loving kindness to all beings. The second is compassion, which is the active desire to reduce the suffering of others. The third is called “mudita,” which means “sympathetic joy.” This is joy in the good fortune of others. It’s the opposite of envy.

And, finally, equanimity. With equanimity, we are not being constantly pulled back and forth between things we want and things we want to avoid; we accept what life brings us. We learn to remain in balance in the middle of chaos. We learn to be comfortable with ambiguity. And we learn to not be pulled into one-sided views. The Buddha gave many, many sermons about all of these virtues.

Now, developing these virtues isn’t something you can do in three easy steps, and none of us is ever perfect, and that’s okay. Just making the effort, even if you fall short, makes the whole universe a better place. And while Buddhism provides a lot of tools for cultivating these virtues, it doesn’t have a patent on them.

Every day we have opportunities to actualize goodwill and compassion, and to share the joy of others. Every day, there are opportunities to develop equanimity. I propose that these virtues harmonize well with the commitment of Ethical Culture to “always act so as to elicit the best in others, and thereby yourself.”

For several years I was the student of a Zen teacher named Jion Susan Postal, who died in 2014. She founded the Zen Center in New Rochelle. Susan taught us to be grateful for these opportunities. She said,

“For all beneficent karma ever manifested through me, I am grateful. May our gratitude be expressed in our body, speech and mind, with infinite kindness to the past, infinite service to the present, and infinite responsibility to the future.”

And to all of you, metta.

Western Buddhism and Cultural Appropriation

Brad Warner reports getting this email from somebody:

“No please white American dude tell me again what Buddhism is. He knows white Buddhism, he’s culturally appropriation, he makes money off defining a culture that does not belong to him – which he tried due to his many failed business ventures and bands – and I have no problem with his identifying as Buddhist but with any white American defining Buddhism when that culture doesn’t belong to them.”

Never mind that Warner put in years of study in Japan with Gudo Nishijima; according to some, Buddhism doesn’t belong to white people.

As Warner points out, Buddhism itself has already been established  in many different cultures — the move from India to China, for example, required a huge cultural adjustment — and doesn’t belong to any one. I’d add that Buddhism itself transcends culture. I’d also like to point out many western Buddhists are not white; “white” and “western” shouldn’t be synonyms.

But this is an issue with many, many facets. “Western” Buddhists are a broad range of people, from those who have taken ordination vows and dedicated their lives to dharma, to those who are superficial practitioners and don’t know dharma from doughnuts. But you can find the same range in Asia. Somehow, superficial Asian Buddhism doesn’t raise anyone’s hackles.

Even so, I’ve seen enough people sneer at “western Buddhism” to know that in many circles, Buddhism isn’t taken seriously if it isn’t Asian. It is assumed that if a westerner, especially a white one, embraces Buddhism as his or her path, that person is not serious. Their spiritual path is just an affectation, something they’ll get over someday when they grow up.

I came to realize at one point that this perspective often is all about the presumed superiority of western civilization. From this perspective a westerner, especially a white one, who turns his back on the Default Religion of Christianity and turns to Asian philosophy and spirituality cannot possibly be serious. Some things are all right for Asians — until we get around to converting them, presumably — but if a westerner converts to an Asian religion, that person is an obvious flake. He’s just trying to get attention, or something.

I’ve also run into similar attitudes within western Buddhism, however. One finds people who cannot wait to stamp out all vestiges of Asian culture in western Buddhist practice right now, for example. And I’m not saying that Buddhism must somehow be stylistically Asian, or that there’s something wrong with expressing dharma in a western cultural context. But to me there’s often a strong whiff of western cultural arrogance, if not downright racism, behind these efforts.

Western Buddhism will evolve and develop its own ways of doing things, and already there are Buddhist centers and western teachers that have left off the traditional robes and non-English liturgy, and that’s fine. But right now mostly we’re like new piano students who need to master the old, standard scales and exercises before we get experimental with style.

And I also think that if an individual feels uncomfortable with traditional Asian forms, that discomfort usually is a symptom of clinging. Demanding that Buddhism change to become more “comfortable” is not addressing the real problem.

On the other hand, when more traditional Buddhism is practiced by westerners — robes, Asian liturgy and all — I’ve heard it derided as “orientalism.” Orientalism is a particular kind of cultural appropriation — the stereotyped representation of Asian culture, especially when it reflects a colonialist attitude. Orientalism becomes fashionable from time to time.

lesser-evil-buddha-bowl-himalayan-pink-popcornBut in my experience, in actual dharma centers that retain Asian liturgy, robes, art and similar forms, it’s mostly because the teacher, or the teacher’s teacher, or the founder of the center, was Asian, and the Asian accoutrements are maintained because they are what the members know.  Certainly, there’s a lot of frivolous use of Asian sacred art, but western Buddhists usually are not the perpetrators.

There are examples of appropriation that aren’t necessarily cultural; the mindfulness fad comes to mind.

There are the Buddhist “naturalists,” who want to change Buddhism so that it makes sense “within a thoroughgoing materialist worldview.” I’d say one of the functions of Buddhist practice is to help us stop clinging to a thoroughgoing materialist worldview; see this Brad Warner interview, for example.

The Buddhist idea is revolutionary, because if you take it to its logical conclusion, it really overturns all religions and makes materialism seem ridiculous.

The naturalists apparently are stuck in the notion that material is “real” and what isn’t material is not real, but even science doesn’t go there any more (talk to a quantum physicist about this). And Buddhism certainly doesn’t go there, especially Mahayana, which considers phenomena to be neither real nor not real. And don’t get me started on yogacara, which considers nothing to be “real” except vijnana — the level of consciousness that connects senses and sensory objects. The naturalists are not trying to “correct” Buddhism to remove its “superstitious” elements, as they imagine it. They are trying to gut it and turn it into a handbag for their own western-centric views.

And there are the infamous Buddhist Geeks, who have been called out many times for their apparent reluctance to invite ethnic Asian teachers to speak at their conferences.

When I was writing about Buddhism for About.com, I sometimes heard from ethnic Asians — some living in Asia, some not — who had been lectured by white western Buddhists that the Buddhism they had grown up with was not real Buddhism. This opinion often centered around the common misunderstanding that all Buddhists meditate, when in fact, most do not.

Part of the problem, too, is that many of us who practice within a particular tradition don’t get exposed to other traditions and have little appreciation of how different they can be. Or, they may assume “their” version of Buddhism is the correct one, although generally this attitude is discouraged. And then there are “book store Buddhists” — people who have read about Buddhism but who have never formally taken the Refuges or practiced with a teacher or sangha.

I’d say the longer one practices, and the more one is exposed to other schools of Buddhism, the more humble one gets about it. That’s certainly true for me, anyway.

For a lot of reasons, the merging of Buddhism into western life and culture is not happening all that smoothly. But it is happening. And some of us are very serious about it.