Historiography and How to Talk About Buddhism

When I find myself in the company of loud and proud Buddhists during a quiet moment, I like to ask the question: How do you talk to people about Buddhism for the first time?

I have gotten many answers, and coupled with most responses is an acknowledgment of the difficulty of the endeavor. Buddhism is a huge topic, awash in a jargon whose impenetrable status drops farther and farther from mind with each attended retreat.

I’ve seen Buddhism described in opposition to other religions, stressing the non-godliness of the Buddha and the rationality its teachings, but this seems to be not stating Buddhism on its own terms. I’ve seen explanations grounded in the Buddha’s life which do a great job of framing the concerns of Buddhism, but can make Buddhism seem less immediate and relevant. I’ve seen and attempted personal appeals, drawing out the differences and benefits measured in my own life. This approach is only effective for people who are willing to listen to me describe the intense Buddhist significance of giving up potatoes.

Of course, people have been answering this question since the time of the Buddha, in one form or another. My favorite are historical accounts of interactions with Buddhists; because they answer a related but slightly different question: How does a non-Buddhist talk to people about Buddhism for the first time? What are the most pertinent details. Continue reading “Historiography and How to Talk About Buddhism”

Calling Dr. G

Yesterday I found out that a man we will call Dr. G suffered a stroke. He lived, though he has lost a great deal of mobility and his doctors are unsure how much he will recover.

Dr. G had been my mother’s employer for over twenty years and occupied a space in our family that I think few families have, and that is filled by a scant number of people. I have never shared a meal with Dr. G, though he has mussed my hair and gave me a sincere congratulations when I was admitted to university. Though I know the man, I know little of the content of his past. I know that he grew up in the midwest to parents of modest means and played football in his youth. I know that he did not play golf. Continue reading “Calling Dr. G”

Something Old, Something New

Ordinary_bicycle02This weekend I had the pleasure of listening to Dr. Lancaster, the brilliant and pioneering professor of Buddhist Studies, who gave a lecture at Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights. The title of his talk was “How Religions Learn,” though in the same way as many of my favorite speakers he used the talk as an opportunity to weave together his most recent thoughts and questions.

But Dr. Lancaster’s topic is a point of interest for me. It points to an uneasy contradiction in any religion’s self-composed history: religions must learn and change to respond to the spiritual needs of the people, but one of these fundamental needs is to have an absolute and unchanging truth to anchor ourselves to.

I worry that this contradiction is becoming increasingly insurmountable, and that religion is entering a place where it can no longer learn.
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Well-worn Words: The Brahma-viharas

I’ve found that the hardest Buddhist concepts to understand are those which predate Buddhism in one way or another. One of these is the Buddha’s teaching on the four Brahma-viharas: metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha.

In the Pali suttas they are almost always mentioned as a set without additional descriptions, such that it is hard to know where each begins and ends.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s article Head and Heart Together: Bringing Wisdom to the Brahma-viharas does a really great job of explaining the Brahma-viharas and their interrelationships in a way this hapless practitioner can understand:

Of these four emotions, goodwill (metta) is the most fundamental. It’s the wish for true happiness, a wish you can direct to yourself or to others. […] The next two emotions in the list are essentially applications of goodwill. Compassion (karuna) is what goodwill feels when it encounters suffering: It wants the suffering to stop. Empathetic joy (mudita) is what goodwill feels when it encounters happiness: It wants the happiness to continue. Equanimity (upekkha) is a different emotion, in that it acts as an aid to and a check on the other three. When you encounter suffering that you can’t stop no matter how hard you try, you need equanimity to avoid creating additional suffering and to channel your energies to areas where you can be of help.

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Sects and Sectarianism

UnityEdictSarnathweb-fullThe problem with free eBooks is that, for all the gains in access they offer by removing the constraints of traditional distribution they remove some of the methods of traditional promotion. For Buddhist monastic authors this is usually not a problem since free access is greatly prefered to fame and fortune, but this means that many great eBooks fall through the cracks, unnoticed.

Thus, attention all Buddhist nerds: read Ajahn Sujato’s Sects and Sectarianism immediately. I cannot think of a more important book written for the cause of Global Buddhism.

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One Shattered Story

broken_glassI spent the last week sick in bed at my Mother’s house, and among the panicked bathroom trips and bubbly fever dreams I clawed at a paperback of some of the dialogs of Plato.

It was a book from a critical writing class I took in community college, from one of my very favorite professors who taught me so much of what I know. It was then, reading Phaedo, that I remembered the story of his own encounter with Buddhism.

My memory betrays whether he was a layperson or a monastic, but his teacher had come to Buddhism directly via the first noble truth. He was a trucker, crisscrossing the country with the lived in experience of his own separation and sorrows and the stories of the hardships of others.

He knew this is suffering. Then, probably through some bookstore somewhere, he found the Dharma.

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Buddhist Hybrid English

I came across the murky but fascinating idea on Wikipedia, and it goes a little something like this: just as we got Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit when Classical Sanskrit was affected by Prakrit vocabulary and grammar, and we got Buddhist Hybrid Chinese when Classical Chinese was affected by the former, the language of English Buddhist Literature is new and different because it tries to convey the concepts in Buddhist canonical languages using English language structures.

Presenting: Buddhist Hybrid English.

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Words for Milo

Last week, a dear friend’s dog died. He only had the opportunity to know him for a week: he had been abandoned at a temple, left and unwanted. He only had three legs.

My friend named him Milo after the chocolately drink. The temple took him in, and the devotees washed him, fed him, played with him, and gave him a home.

Then one morning they found him – lifeless, with blood strewn about. Some guessed a coyote had come down from the hills during the night but, regardless, after one week at the temple his life was over.

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In Defense: Enlightened Teachers

When discussing the need to defend Buddhism against the impending tyranny of other religions, or even worse, the true Dharma against the backwards teachings of those other Buddhists, I have always taken the position that what is true does not need defending because, more often than not, when confronted with a teaching that leads to peace, to kindness, to contentment, to freedom – it doesn’t need any defending at all.

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One Purple Note

Tucked in my desk drawer, or somewhere, encased in a plastic sandwich bag and carefully dated, is a note. It is a note about anatta.

The night the note was dated I was shooting pool with an old friend, and being beaten, again and again. The hall cleared up and the people cleared out, walking into the dry early morning air that was rain-slick so recently. I walked back to my car and, pinned under my windshield wiper, was the note:


Written in purple ink, with big loopy letters.

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