September 30, 2010

World On Fire (MDIV 555)

Journal for September 30, 2010

In the beginning of Chapter 6: Beyond the Skandhas, Brazier reminds us that “Buddhism is not a matter of just going with the flow. It is about changing course.” I think sometimes this point becomes lost among admonishments to see the world “as it is,” to “let go” of expectations and attachments, and to “just sit.” People anesthetize themselves with reassurances that the world is already perfect, we just don’t see it that way or that giving up attachments to outcomes means forgoing action altogether. But that’s just another way of abdicating one’s moral responsibility.

This week Danny chimed in on the subject of Islamaphobia via a post at Shambhala Sunspace. The second comment responding to Danny’s call that Buddhists should not stand silent in the face of another religious minority’s persecution quoted Kyle at Progressive Buddhism blog: “I don't want this to come across as yet another rant against politics or social justice, as these are all fine undertakings…But when we attempt to justify these endeavors as the purpose or goal of Buddhist teachings, then the practice becomes something other than Buddhism. They are at best, distractions from our practice and are just more squirrel mind running ramped. And at worst, they are delusional additions to Buddhist teachings in order to create an artificial goal of happiness, or social change or whatever the extra desires may be.”

Just to be certain I wasn’t taking the author out of context, I found the original post, “What is the Essential Meaning of Buddhism?” from September 20, 2010. The very first paragraph (following the cartoon) states: “One of the greatest dangers I see as an emerging trend regarding Buddhist practice is this notion that Buddhism is the means to obtain an end beyond that of overcoming dukkha [suffering]. Whether it be a pursuit of happiness, or metaphysical attainments, or political goals, or social justice or even racial parity, these kinds of expansions on Buddhist teachings are misguided and very much beside the point.”

What I wonder, is why Kyle believes we can overcome dukka without the pursuit of political goals, social justice, or racial parity (leaving aside the rest of the list for a moment)? Everything is interconnected, right? The very word compassion means “to suffer with.” Therefore, if the least of my brothers or sisters is suffering, whether from disenfranchisement, injustice, or inequality, am I not also suffering?

Now, I should say, I do understand Kyle’s point to some extent. These things may not be the goal of Buddhist teachings. Dukkha begins and ends with the mind. The Buddha was said to have transcended dukkha. Surely, throughout the years of his life between his enlightenment and his death he encountered situations of great suffering, many of which no doubt had one or more of the relative causes listed above, but in reacting to that situation without grasping, aversion, or delusion, he was able dwell within it free of dukkha, so I’m given to understand.

A simple truth is that we are incapable of offering the Dharma to everyone who is suffering and not everyone who is suffering is capable of understanding the Dharma. However, in that political goals, social justice, or racial parity have the ability to cause or relieve suffering and in that the Dharma is about suffering and its alleviation, to my mind, concern for these things is never “misguided” or “beside the point.” They may not be in the service of ultimate ends, but they are beyond doubt skillful means.

They also carry with them the risk of gross misuse, but so do meditation, monasticism, Dharma studies, ritual, and most any other activity more commonly ascribed to Buddhist practice. The difference is that the dangers of these practices have been deeply studied, understood, and accounted for, while the dangers of political involvement and social activism have not. How could they be? Let’s face it, none of the countries in which Buddhism developed over the last two and a half thousand years had a political system or culture like modern America.

The alleviation of suffering starts from within, which I believe is Kyle’s essential point. Change, both inner and outer, is also inevitable, but that does not mean we should not attempt to guide the process (both inner and outer) to create a physical and social world more hospitable to the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha instructs us to practice as if our hair is on fire, but under such circumstances, how many people would realistically be able to achieve enlightenment? The Dhammapada says “First establish yourself in the way, Then teach,” but can you teach in a classroom that’s on fire?

Well, guess what, the world is on fire.

September 28, 2010

This Missing Feeling (MDIV 555)

Journal for September 28, 2010

I am enjoying the unmistakable sound of Creedence Clearwater Revival spill from my speakers as I sit staring, once again, at this blank page. I opened the Word document over two hours ago and got as far as the heading. I pulled out Brazier’s book, flipping through the pages in hopes of inspiration. I put the book down. I stared at the page as CCR gave way to The Beatles. Then I got up and began rearranging my bookshelves. I unpacked the last six boxes I had shipped from Nebraska, which had been sitting in a corner of my bedroom waiting until I hung two more shelves over the weekend.

All my Dharma books are on one shelf above my desk, the top shelf. With a little creative arranging, they fit into a space roughly three and a half feet long. They make for a colorful collection, mostly paperbacks, most with the marks for Shambhala, North Atlantic Books, and Wisdom Publications on their spines. I’ve probably read half of the words written in them. Several are anthologies, from which I’ve read select articles. A few are gifts I haven’t gotten around to yet. And two or three are just plain boring, but I keep them anyway, thinking I’ll get back to them someday.

The way I arrange my books is very important to me. I suppose it says something about my personality, or I want it to say something about my personality. They are grouped by category, then by size. Only the novels are grouped by author. My office takes up a corner of my bedroom, with a large bookshelf making the long leg of the L and my desk making up the short leg. The bookshelf is the longest, tallest, and deepest available from Ikea, divided into twenty-five squares fifteen inches deep.

In the upper right-most square, on a direct eye line from the door to my room, my undergraduate diploma from the University of Nebraska sits framed by its red folio. Behind it are some of my larger architecture books. Architecture books dominate the right side of the bookcase, giving way to general topic books in the center, including philosophy, poetry, memoirs, reference books, and coffee table books. The left side of the bookcase is dominated by office supplies and my school folders. The top of the shelf includes all my magazines, fiction novels, and the stuffed animals of my childhood I could not bear to part with.

The matching Ikea desk sprouts directly from the bookshelf, hiding four of the cubes beneath the knee space, a good place for loose papers, files, and the uglier binders. Above the desk are the two newly hung wall shelves, the first with my printer and office organizer full of pens, pencils, and paper pads. The one above that with the neat line of Dharma books, tallest on the right, smallest on the left, with a stack organized horizontally on the end. The only other thing on that shelf are two tattered old collars, each with a single snap-closed pouch filled with fourteen years’ worth of vaccination and license tags.

Other odd spots, nooks, crannies, and corners are filled with knickknacks. A statue of a sleeping griffon, a small gold unicorn music box, an empty vodka bottle with Cyrillic letters, a paper crane, a framed photograph of a Kuan Yin statue reflected in a pond all stand out among the colorful rows of books. An old typewriter sits on the top in the corner. My laptop on the desk rests on a large piece of granite left over from the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya in Colorado. My cat sleeps next to the keyboard I type on, every once in a while stretching and forcing me to scoot over just a bit.

I know this long description might not make a lot of sense. What is important is that every one of the things in these bookshelves is somehow important to me, important enough that I paid over a thousand dollars to have them shipped to California. I sold my car, my television, my furniture, and my home, but these things I kept. They seem like small things, physically speaking, but they are each dear to me, even the intangible things, like the music that still pours out of my speakers (America singing A Horse With No Name). It would bring me pain to part with any of them.

That leads me to wonder about the physical detritus of identity. I am very invested in that place I call ‘home,’ that physical representation of my self, that place where I feel most at ease. I gave up much of that when I came here. Logistically speaking, I have a home, but really it still feels like Harry’s home more than my home. My roommate, Harry, has been very welcoming, but what remains of my home is relegated to a single bedroom with its attached bath and closet. It’s very comfortable, and, truth is, I could live with less, much less. But I still miss what I had, not the stuff so much as the feeling I had in that place. I try to get it back by arranging and rearranging and by contemplating the contents of those shelves. I speculate on what it all says about my current level of ego-attachment.

But mostly I just wonder how much longer this missing feeling is going to last.

September 27, 2010


A belated posting of the benediction for the service in remembrance of the Pakistan flood victims. This was a formal Buddhist service held on September 21 by the chaplaincy students at University of the West. Venerable Tommy Nyugen opened the service with a Mahayana invocation. Our first chaplaincy graduate, Lt. Somya Malasri, returned to offer a beautiful Pali chanting of the Metta Sutta, with English translation read by Betty Chan. Holly Hisamoto led the group in the Tibetan practice of tonglen.

Each of the seven students (and Somya) participated in their own way, but I single these few out as an interesting example of how an interdenominational Buddhist service may be conducted. We briefly considered whether an interfaith service might be more appropriate, but we decided we wanted to send a strong message that members of specific faith traditions can reach out in their own ways toward members of other traditions. Just because the victims of the floods our Muslim does not mean we should not pray (if you'll permit the word) for them in a Buddhist sense.

I closed the service with the following benediction. Then Irem, our student body president and a practicing Muslim, came forth to tell students how they could help and collect donations for a local mosque whom she is in touch with that is helping directly with humanitarian relief.

Buddhist Benediction for Pakistan, September 21, 2010

We close, once again, with words from the Metta Sutra, the Buddha’s instruction on loving-kindness, and ask that you hold all the suffering victims of the Pakistan floods and other natural disasters in your hearts.

“In gladness and in safety,

May all beings be at ease.

Whatever living beings there may be;

Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,

The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,

The seen and the unseen,

Those living near and far away,

Those born and to-be-born —

May all beings be at ease!”

Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha's Words on Loving-Kindness, translated from the Pali by The Amaravati Sangha © 2004–2010

May all beings be at ease and may we, as Buddhists, support our brothers and sisters in whatever way we can, wherever they may be, whatever tragedy may befall them, irregardless of color, nation, gender, or religious creed.

September 24, 2010

Musings On The Nature of Phenomena ... And Cheese

For whatever reason, people seem to have a problem with the idea that the material world is all there is. This is it. There is no God, no substrate consciousness, no soul, no reincarnation, no metaphysical karma, no magic, and no inherent meaning in the universe at large. Or, as Huston Smith put it in Why Religion Matters, “Hopes and fears, pleasures and pains, successes and disappointment – the sum total of the lives that we experience directly – are for science epiphenomenal only, the foam on the beer, which requires beer (matter) to exist but not vice versa.” People have a problem with this.

I have recently had my definition of metaphysics expanded. I have previously used it here in the blog to describe things of a supernatural or magical nature. However, a professor has correctly pointed out that almost all aspects of language, philosophy, thought, emotion, value, and meaning belong to the real of metaphysics. Physics involves only two things (which are really the same thing): matter and energy and is observed and quantified by science using mathematics. Well, there is no mathematical formula for “good.” Nor does this quality have either mass or energy. Whether a physical thing like say, a television, is good or bad does not depend on how many atoms it has and in what order. It depends on the subject judgments of subjective creatures – namely us. Therefore any discussion of good or bad is by necessity a metaphysical discussion.

When confronted by this idea, that all things metaphysical are subjective and all that exists in the universe is the phenomenal (matter and energy) and the epiphenomenal (thoughts, emotions, values, and meaning generated as byproducts of the interaction of matter and energy in the brain), people tend to freak out. Either they reject the conclusion entirely, often pointing to a power that is either higher (God) or deeper (consciousness) that exists objectively and independently, but beyond the realm of the physical. Or they accept the conclusion, fall into nihilistic despair, and declare the world meaningless, hopeless, purposelessness.

My question is – IF, and this is a big if, the universe is only phenomenal and epiphenomenal, so what? Is there something that fundamentally alters upon one’s conception of the universe being one way as opposed to another?

I stumble over the logic. One side asserts that if epiphenomena is all there is, then the world is meaningless because it is epiphenomenal. While on the other hand, if epiphenomena is all there is, then the world is meaningful because it is epiphenomenal. Both are circular arguments. This first argument privileges inherent meaning over assigned meaning and objective value over subjective value. While the second argument declares it good news that meaning and value exist by virtue of the epiphenomena which cannot be disproven.

Now, I am not prepared to declare that all things metaphysical are merely epiphenomenal, though I have already stated my disbelief for things of a supernatural or magical nature. I have also stated that I am perfectly prepared to be wrong on such accounts. I am only prepared to state, that should the universe prove to be only the interaction of matter and energy and all thoughts, emotions, concepts, meanings, and values dependent on that interaction – I see no fundamental problem in this.

That the little packets of energy that make up the binary code that carries these words out into the universe or the tiny atomic distortions on the servers of some unknown data center that record them for posterity (that sucker) have no meaning in and of themselves, cannot serve to robs the words of meaning. That this meaning is subjective cannot serve to lessen it, despite the nihilists claims. That this meaning has no divine origin does not alter it (though I am prepared to argue the point). That my brain as I’m typing is merely the interaction of neurons and chemicals does not make it stop working.

There is only one place where this entire system of the phenomenal and epiphenomenal breaks down, that I can see – free will. If all that exists is the physical interaction of matter and energy, atoms hitting atoms hitting atoms, then the destiny of the universe for predetermined. The moment the Big Bang happened, or even before that, the wheels were set in motion along an already laid down track from which they will never deviate. Which mean fate dictated this words over thirteen billion years ago.

And while I might be willing to chalk up love to the action of oxytocin on the brain without diminishing either its power or grandeur one iota, I simply cannot bend my mind around the idea that free will, that choice itself, is nothing but an illusion. To say that I have no freewill is to say that I do not exist. (Leaving aside for a moment the Buddhist idea of non-self, which is slightly different than saying people do not exist or have no free will at all.) Deleting choice from the equation is to render us all machines merely (merely!) carrying out our biologic programming.

But what room is there in the materialistic world for free will? Perhaps enough.

Quantum physics can only discuss the materialistic world in terms of probabilities, leaving room for the possibility that the universe is not deterministic. However, this is far from affirming free will exists. Rather it is more akin to affirming that randomness exists. If it is equally likely for an electron to be in one position or another then where the electron ends up is a random chance between those possibilities. Whether if a conscious agent wants that electron to be in one place rather than another has any effect is debatable. But at least it is debatable!

In some sense my actions are predetermined. After all, I am a product of my biology and genetics. I walk upright on two feet. I'm right handed. Other aspects of my personality may likewise be hidden in my genes and I am limited by the capacity of my brain to store and access information. But in broad strokes, I still like to believe I have enough free will to choose whether I shall be a doctor or a lawyer or whether I shall eat Cheerios or Frosted Flakes.

Now here’s the thing, whether I have a problem with the idea of a deterministic universe (if not a materialistic universe) is no more or less likely to change the truth of the matter. Either the universe is utterly deterministic or it is not (in which case it may still have aspects of determinism without being wholly determined). But if the universe were to prove deterministic would that alter my behavior?

That’s always what it comes down to for me. Will the proof or disproof of any idea (to one’s own satisfaction, if not others) alter one’s behavior? If it would not, then there is no problem with that idea. If yes, then there is a problem with that idea and when people have a problem with an idea they will go to almost any lengths to either prove or disprove their side of it, irregardless of facts. I may muse over the materialistic nature of the universe because I find it interesting, but I have no problem with whatever the final answer may be, either yea or nay. I may muse over the deterministic nature of the universe because I find it rather more vexing, but I cannot say for certain what the outcome of that puzzle may cause.

On the one hand, if determinism proves true and free will is an illusion, can anyone, myself included, truly be held responsible for their actions? On the other hand, if it is true then it was true all along, so really what has changed? If nothing has changed, then why should my behavior change at this late date? I might as well go about my business under the assumption of free will, whether it is true or not. After all, on a moment to moment basis, we can only operate with the knowledge on hand. My emotions and ideas and goals are no less real for having been determined thirteen billion years ago than if they were outcomes of random chance or if they were chosen by me personally this morning when I got out of bed.

I guess that’s where my answer lies – in what is real. My reality is subjective and delusional and likely incorrect, but that is a far cry from being nonexistent. So I act on what exists because no one, no thing even, can operate in any other manner.

It’s like those commercials that ask “Don’t you like ‘real’ cheese on your macaroni?” Who ever replied “No. I like imaginary cheese. I like nonexistent cheese.”

We’d all prefer real cheese to fake cheese, but no one can eat nonexistent cheese.

September 23, 2010


What happens in process, stays in process. This is the law, laid down very early. That being said, I’m going to talk a little bit about process, if in an abstract way.

First of all, I never expected process or anything like it to be part of the curriculum. However, I am very glad that it is, most days. I say “most days” because process can be emotionally draining and there have been a few weeks I schlub through the remainder of Wednesday afternoon in recovery mode. Process, I’m learning, is a process of barring one’s soul. (If we forget for a moment we are all Buddhists and don’t properly believe in any such thing as a soul.) And even when occasionally draining, especially for an introvert like me, it is still beyond doubt a positive experience. It is an exercise in compassion.

Process is where we bring the things that are going on in our lives and talk about them in a circle of our fellow chaplaincy students and our teacher, Danny. Relationships, family, work, money, sleep, class, stress, joy, frustration, grief, fear, anger, and hope are all given shape in words and expressions and gestures. It’s where I broke down crying two weeks ago when I learned I wouldn’t be receiving my financial aid on time. It’s where Corey talked about breaking up with his girlfriend. It’s where we hash out conflicts with one another. Basically, process is where we “chaplain and are chaplained to,” in Danny’s words.

We are learning and practicing reflective listening, conflict mediation, and myriad other skills. Sometimes we are more successful than other times. We are also supporting each other, building deep friendships, and drawing together into a cohesive unit that will very likely survive beyond graduation.

If you have found yourself here, you have no doubt learned that I hold very little back. I count very little in my life as private, sacred, or taboo. However, I am concerned to safeguard the privacy of others. For that reason, most of the friends and acquaintances I mention here on the blog are those who have some kind of web presence of their own, such as Danny and Corey. By creating their own blogs they have chosen to open a part of their lives (though by no means all) to public consumption. The bravery of this choice should never be underestimated (except in my case where I’m just too stupid to know better). But for the rest, though they are dear to me and hugely influential, I shall likely make very little mention of them, except as an abstract collective - my classmates or the chaplaincy students. Yet know that very quickly we are all coming to have a somewhat closer relationship to one another than I, at least, would ever have expected, even among such a small cohort at such a small university.

This is, I believe, a very good thing and due,in large part, to what we call “process.”

Addiction II (MDIV 555)

I have attempted to write about the issue several times over the years, but have only succeeded in hinting at it now and again. Previous drafts always took the form of a confessional, but in the end I deleted them all. If you have read the blog for any length of time, you'll know this is a rarity. I barely edit my posts, let alone censor them, but for reasons described below, this issue was just a bit more sensitive to me than it might seem at first glance. This treatment is by necessity short, factual, and contextual, which is perhaps for the best, though it may lack the scope of how broadly this has and does affect my life. I hope as these studies continue, I might gain some insight, but if it offers the reader a good laugh, that is also worthwhile.

Journal for September 22, 2010

On Tuesday I said a bit about addiction, specifically my own, but when abruptly confronted by the end of the page, always more swiftly realized than expected, I concluded my entry. The story doesn’t end there, of course. Later in class we discussed what we might learn about Caroline Brazier’s viewpoint based on her background. Some suggested that her characterization of “addiction studies” is perhaps out of date or less nuanced than the actual discipline.

However, when I first read her second chapter describing our suffering as a perpetuation of addictive behaviors, the strongest of which is ego addiction, I thought they made perfect sense. That’s because what Brazier was describing, sensory pleasure used to mask suffering becoming itself a source of suffering in a self-perpetuating cycle, matches personal experience.

Shortly after the start of the semester, we had an extra day off for the Labor Day weekend. Stress in my life was low. I was happily moved into my house here in California. I like my roommate. I was caught up on my homework and had a reasonable amount of reading to do for class over the long weekend. But what did I do? I spent over three entire days watching Bleach via the internet.

Bleach is a Japanese anime with (then) two-hundred and eighty five, twenty-four minute episodes. I started from where I had left off over the summer on episode one-forty-two. That’s fifty-seven hours of video in a little over seventy-two hours. Unlike American television, I can’t listen and read homework at the same time because Bleach is subtitled. Even I have to recognize that’s slightly crazy.

This isn’t the first time it has occurred, not by a long shot. I plan these ‘binges’ for breaks in the semester or the school year, but I always tell myself, “I’m just going to watch three episodes, then I’ll do homework/clean the house/work on a project.” But then the last episode is a "to be continued," or I forget my promise to myself, or I tell myself I don’t really have that many chores so a few more is okay. Sometimes it’s a series of novels, sometimes of television shows, sometimes movies, but the major characterization is that once I start I seem to have almost no control over when I stop. I don’t stop until the subject material is exhausted, until I reach episode two-eighty-five.

And yes, there’s shame, compounded by the thought that it seems such a silly thing to get carried away with. For a very long time I couldn’t even bring myself to apply the word addiction. After all, there are people with real problems, real addictions, real suffering out there. For the most part, I’m still a fully functional member of society. When I’m not chained to the couch. And I feel guilty for the things I leave undone, the homework, chores, and projects. Sometimes, I spent more money on iTunes or at the bookstore than I can really afford because, after all, there's another season or three more books in the series. That’s more guilt.

I set strict limits on myself. No new authors and no new television shows during the semester. If a new episode comes out once a week, that’s okay, or a new novel once a year, fine. But no hunting for a new series with twelve books already out or, heaven forbid, two-hundred and eighty-five episodes (I can blame my brother for introducing this one). Yet, somehow, I slip up, and it starts again.

As shame and guilt compounds and my undone work piles up and begins to look daunting, I slip deeper and deeper into escapism. It’s a self perpetuating cycle and I recognized it long before reading Brazier’s psychological characterization. If her's is a mischaracterization of addiction, I would be interested to know in what way and also explicitly how it relates to spiritual formation.

And I'd like to think I can get out, but fear I know better.

September 21, 2010

Addiction to Fiction

We have moved on from Stages of Faith by James Fowler to Buddhist Psychology by Caroline Brazier. Journal entries will reflect topics covered in that book.

Journal for September 21, 2010

I have loved the Four Noble Truths since I first heard them. They were simple, clear, and hopeful. Suffering happens. It happens for a reason. It doesn’t have to happen. And I’ve got a plan to stop it. I’m particularly fond of number three. It’s very empowering, this idea that we have the ability to put a stop to our own suffering.

However, as I’ve continued to study the dharma and learned about the habituation of desire, aversion, and delusion, I’ve had to confront many less savory things. Mostly these things come from within my own nature. The dharma helped point them out and once that happened, ignoring them, retreating back into delusion, became much more difficult. Understanding the Four Noble Truths was almost instantaneous. Understanding the nature of my addictions took much longer.

Outwardly I’m not a candidate for what pop culture and Western psychology defines as addiction. I don’t drink alcohol to excess or smoke or indulge in illicit drugs. Gambling has never held any appeal and too much food actually makes me feel sick. I’ve no unhealthy fetishes to disclose. I’m very self contained, level-headed, and easy going. I’m also stubborn, mildly contentious, and often oblivious to sarcasm and the emotions of those around me.

And that’s where my addiction comes from. I want to know what others feel and I want to feel myself. But I don’t always pick up on those things from individuals. I don’t read expressions or body language and sometimes I miss verbal cues entirely. I spend too much time deep inside my own mind, living on a little ego-ride that just goes round and round. People baffle me, but I want to understand.

When I do pick up on their emotions I often don’t know what to do about it. And more often than not that impulse to do something about it is itself not quite correct, but powerful nonetheless. So I sit there uncomfortable, confused, frozen but wanting to move, while someone I care about bawls their eyes out. I’ve learned to deal, to some extent, to sit and hug and ask questions or be silent. But for the most part, I sublimated their and my own powerful emotions. I save them up for a safe, constructive, outlet of expression – stories.

I am addicted to stories, to fiction. (Slightly ridiculous, but no less true.) I used to read obsessively. As a teenager, the only book I carried to and from school every day was the novel I was reading. When I was sixteen, a close friend died and I retreated into funny movies and the comfort of my couch. When I had a migraine, I put Star Wars on the television and fell asleep with it playing, the flickering images so familiar I could still see them behind my closed eyelids. I spent at least six hours every day on the couch with a book. This habitual retreat was well entrenched before I graduated high school.

When I returned to the University at the age of twenty-two, I quickly learned I could not read novels during the semester. I could no longer control my impulses. I would sit down with a book by a favorite novelist and not get up for eight hours, homework and classes be damned. Heaven forbid it was a multi-book series (and most of them were).

But the addiction just mutated. I couldn’t do homework unless there was something on my television, some movie I’d already seen half a dozen times, a television show with ten seasons on DVD, or a documentary about the making of either. Luckily, most of my homework was in the form of projects, not reading or studying. I would draft a new construction documents almost mindlessly while watching the eighth season of Friends or Lord of the Rings.

This addiction persists to this day and I am still struggling with it in the face of a new set of challenges and opportunities.

September 20, 2010

Church of My Childhood (MDIV 555)

Journal for September 16, 2010

I never disliked church. We began attending the Elkhorn United Methodist Church when I was six. I hated getting up in the morning, any morning, but my mother insisted on attending the early service. When she stood to sing hymns, I would lay down in the pew behind her. After the opening hymn, remarks, and scripture, the children would gather on the steps of the dias for the children’s service and Reverend Bill, the first pastor I remember clearly, would tell us a little story. Afterward, if we wanted, we could go to the play room with one of the teenage girls, rather than stay for the next forty minutes. As bored as I sometimes was, I rarely went. The other children were loud and babyish. The rest of the service was orderly and soothing, if not terribly exciting.

Afterward, we would gather in the fellowship hall for donuts and coffee, or juice for us little ones. Then it was off to Sunday school. I got an award for memorizing and reciting all the books of the Bible that year. But very soon I was discontent with that as well. My mother (a smart woman) got me to put up with Sunday school by making me a “helper” in a class with younger children. She was able to go to adult Bible study as a result without worrying about me.

When I was in seventh grade and my brother, Brandon, in eighth, we attended confirmation class with Reverend Bill. I liked Bill. He was tall and blonde and outdoorsy with three tall, blonde, outdoorsy children just a little younger than I. One of them always had a cast on some body part. They were as accident prone as they were adventurous; only Bill’s calm, strong wife seemed imune. I saw Reverend Bill preach with his arm in a cast to the shoulder, his elbow at a ninety degree angle and hand stuck up in the air. He preached on crutches and in wheelchairs and attached to an intravenous drip and when he could barely talk. He never seemed an ounce less cheerful or less trusting in God for all the misfortune that befell him and his three rambuncuous kids. (All of whom are still alive and well, so far as I know.)

Most of what I remember from confirmation class were the outings, bicycle rides, camping, and hiking. If we were instilled with good Christian values, beyond just getting along and having fun, I don’t remember them. I was a little young for confirmation, only twelve, but Heaven forbid Brandon got to do anything I couldn’t do. During the confirmation ceremony, in front of the entire church, we stood up in our white robes and promised to be good Christians, whatever that meant. I stood between my tall brother and an even taller boy his age. When it was my turn, Reverand Bill skipped me, and I had to speak up, rather indignantly as I recall. (I grew six inches the next summer.) If I believed in signs, that might have been one of them.

But now that I was an “adult” member of the church, I was at loose ends. I could go to youth group after church, while Mom was in Bible study. (Dad was there, but I really don’t recall where. He didn’t go to Bible study, but he couldn’t leave the church without us. I suspect he found a quiet place to read and listen to sports on the radio.) I really didn’t like teenagers, even though I was a teenager. It gave me time to think. And for a change, I actually started listening to the sermons.

That, all things considered, might have been a mistake.

Mythmaking (MDIV 555)

Journal for September 14, 2010

Fowler errs in confining (largely, if not wholly) mythmaking to his “Stage 2” of spiritual formation. When, in fact, we are always in the process of retelling the stories of our self, creating and recreating them. New myths blossom daily, and if we do not re-order our lives around each new myth, they all weave together into a singular story tapestry. This tapestry is not a perfect fabric. Other parts are always being unraveled; sections are patched and torn. Yet somehow every new myth is woven both from and for this tapestry. We are constantly reifying ourselves.

The standard definition of reification is the treatment of an abstract thing as if it were real, physical. However, though we do possess physical bodies, I tend to think the thing we most reify is our self. We take this conglomeration of experience, memory, culture, thought, body, relationships, and identity and turn it into a real, solid thing. The way we do this is by over and over telling ourselves the story of this self. Just as fictional character can seem to become real to us, we become real to us.

I know this because I do this. But I do it differently than the average person. I don’t just do it in my head through the repetitive incoherence of inner monologue. I write it down. This has a tendency to do two things. It reinforces the myth, makes it more real, and it deconstructs the myth, makes it less real. They myth is stronger, singular, more coherent, more easily understood, described, and communicated. Yet at the same time, the more I construct my own myth, the more I see it as constructed, to some extent arbitrary, and, most of all, fictional.

The nature of this fiction is independent of the facts. There are facts in my story. I am thirty years old. I have blue eyes. I was raised in Nebraska. I studied architecture. The fiction is the idea that any, all, or some of these facts add up into a self that is inherent and eternal. This is little different from characters in books. That’s another fact – I love books. My family are all bibliophiles.

When I was about twelve, I was bored with the youth novels I had been reading, the Nancy Drew and Black Stallion books. So Mom took me downstairs and gave me the first of the Dragonriders of Pern novels by Anne McCaffrey. That opened a whole new world for me, but the author who really turned that world upside down by Denis L. McKiernan. McKiernan wrote the books Tolkien would have written had Tolkien been an author and not a professor of dead languages. But in all of his books, as his group of heroes were on their journey to save the world and defeat the enemy, they would debate a philosophical question. “What is a nature of evil?” “What is free will?”

As I read those books, so compelling and so mythic, it made me question. Why do people believe the Bible is any more true than the Hobbit? Why would God drown the entire world just because he was pissed off? Why do people claim to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit?

In the end, the myth woven by the Bible and the Christian church just didn’t hang together for me. That piece of my tapestry unraveled and left a large hole where an entire ethos, moral system, and culture had been. That hole has by no means been replaced by Buddhism. Rather, Buddhist thought has woven a new section of story and helped me see my Christian upbringing in a better light, so the hole, if still a hole, is much less ragged than it once was.

And I continue to tell my stories. I’m no longer the angry atheist. I’m not the mellow agnostic I matured into. I’m an engaged Buddhist on my way to becoming a chaplain. I’m still a skeptic. I’m vegetarian and I’m moderately liberal and I want to save the planet and travel everywhere. I contrast this with my conservative, Christian, stable, Nebraskan, beef-eating heritage. And in that contrast I find the story of who I am.

Moreover, I state it very explicitly. The tagline of my blog reads: “The journal of a normal white girl from a conservative Christian family who found herself to be a liberal, vegetarian, tree-hugging, Buddhist in the middle of Nebraska beef country ... and then moved to big, bad Los Angeles to become a Buddhist chaplain much to everyone's consternation, including her own.”

This is what I claim I am presenting to the world is a very public way and so, to a certain extent, I feel compelled to be that person. I also realize that person does not really exist, at least, not as a separate, concrete, and certainly not unchanging self. I made her up.

Which is yet another reason I eschew talk of “faith.” My faith is as made up as the rest of me. It is constructed from ideas, myths, and notions I need to make my world coherent and manageable. Belief has a certain utility to it. Belief and faith should not be conflated, but they are nonetheless intertwined.

A grandmother (in a story by Eric Flint) once explained it this way: If a child believes there is a monster under the bridge, they won’t stray too close to the edge. By the time they are old enough not to believe in monsters, they are also old enough not to fall off the bridge. There was a certain utility to that belief, and because the child had faith in her grandmother who told her there were monsters under the bridge who eat little children, she believed it.

I don’t merely believe people are good because I have witnessed it. This may be true and serve as a very strong foundation of my faith. But I must admit to myself that I believe people are good because this belief serves the purpose of my life at least as much as my life serves the purpose of my faith.

I act a certain way because I believe people are good. That action allows me to get along and move forward in an otherwise ambiguous and inherently meaningless world. Did I believe otherwise, I would act otherwise and the world that I have so painstaking constructed over thirty odd years, the tapestry I have woven, would all come apart. It may yet at some future time, and I may reweave myself into some new story. It has happened before.

When I write these journals, I am practicing storytelling as much as exploring. When I write about trying to see my own face when I was five years old, trying to feel Jesus love when I was six, or the questions I began to ask myself when I was thirteen, I am mythmaking. I weave a story around my angers and triumphs to explain to myself how they came about and, more importantly, where they fit within the larger context of my faith. If I tell a story about my Uncle Vernon stealing Aunt Alberta’s pumpkin pie and weave that into the part of the tapestry that displays my heritage, but it also shows these people, my people, as essentially good (if mischievous). Somehow it all gets added in. No one ever really moves on from this stage. We dwell in it day by day. We hold it in us as we continue on through Fowler’s other stages (if one can suppose we do).

We are always mythmaking.

September 18, 2010


I don’t know what I’m doing. I face this fact daily and muddle through somehow. I suppose in most ways this is no different than anyone else. We all do anyway. And we pretend we know, even to ourselves. But I really don’t know what I’m doing and sometimes I look into the face of that and my heart quakes.

This week I stood upon a green hill and looked out towards the San Gabriel Mountains. It was a clear day, or clearer than usual, and I could see each rise and fall of their great shoulders, the weft and warp of their sides, the dominance of their presence usually so hazy. I looked below to the crawling concrete infestation that had failed to tame them. On foot, I could reach those mountains in a day, yet they hid in the clouds of our discontent, all but forgotten. I turned and looked in the direction of the ocean, too far to see or smell or hear. I imagined the sound of the wind in the grass and thunder calling.

And a small voice said “I’ve been here long enough. It’s time to go home.”

But there is no home to return to. It is gone. And this is home. I don’t feel it. I may never feel it. And I don’t know how to make myself okay with that. And I don’t know why I long to be okay with that. Time will pass and I will remain.

So I went to the place I call “home” but don’t feel home. I sat in my small room which looks out onto nothing and faced a blank blue wall and my reflection in a darkened screen. I lit that world up and dove in, trying to build a connection I can neither see nor feel nor taste nor touch.

Ah, touch. To be touched, not by the soft swish of fabric or the cool caress of wind or warm fall of water or solid feel of the dusty earth beneath my feet, but to be touched by those who can feel touch. I miss that. Sometimes I miss it more than I miss home.

So I sit before that flickering screen and enter the facts of my life, all those little things that supposedly make a “me” no words can ever convey. I pay good money to give myself away and hope there is another who seeks the same connection and that my courage will hold long enough to find him. I embark on another journey without knowing where I’m going or who I’ll meet or if it will fill that want I feel or make the hole wider.

My body is nomadic and my heart is haunted and my hands reach out and I don’t know what I’m doing but that I’m searching without knowing what I’m searching for. I dwell in this. It is a place and a time and a person and a feeling and somehow it is also anchorless. And nothing.

And a small voice asks “Haven’t I been here long enough? Can’t I go home?”

Not yet.

September 14, 2010

Notes on a Homily

First of all, if you have not read the homily, go do so. It is not long. It being the very first homily I have ever written or delivered (intentionally as such), I have a few thoughts.

I was surprised when Danny approached me at the outdoor café tables just off the courtyard where I was studying. It has become the general meeting place for the chaplaincy students before and just after class. We said our hellos as he sat down.

“I want you to do the sermon for the 9/11 service that’s coming up. I read what you wrote on your blog the other day and thought it was very interesting and appropriate,” Danny said with what I’m coming to think of as a characteristic straight-forwardness.

“Okay. I can do that.” Mind, I did not say it nearly as confidently as it reads, not because I didn’t think I could do that, but merely from surprise (and, yes, I was flattered). I’d only been here two weeks after all. And, I’d never once in my life pictured myself giving anything to anyone that could be remotely described as a “sermon.”

I was also surprised with myself for not thinking the situation would occur. I am going to school to be a chaplain, after all. Buddhist teachers give dharma talks all the time, which are akin to sermons. However, I may graft many labels onto my identity, some more appropriate than others, but “Buddhist teacher” is not one of them.

“A sermon, huh?” I repeated.

“Well, we can call it a dharma talk or a homily or what have you.”

“Oh, can we call it a sermon? That way I can tell my Mom I’m giving a sermon and she’ll be all like ‘What? Do Buddhists do that?’” I always smile at the thought of flustering my relatives. Half the time it doesn’t work, which only makes me try harder.

“Sure. I just liked the take you had in your blog on recent events surrounding the Park 51 project and thought it was relevant to this year’s remembrance.”

It still amazes me that anyone reads my blog. It doubly amazes me that anyone finds value in it. Truth be told, I would write it whether anyone would read it or not, but I can’t say I don’t enjoy a little ego stroking from time to time. I’m still human (I think).

We met the next week to discuss the memorial service and set a program. I took notes regarding what other people said the service should be about and wove those together with what I had written earlier. I wrote the homily that afternoon and sent it off to Danny, checking in with him later for feedback. Holly and I met on the Sunday prior to the service to discuss her dedication and my homily, which would follow, to avoid repetition but still tie things together.

With Danny I discussed the difference between a sermon and a dharma talk. The sermons I had experienced in my United Methodist upbringing had been largely prescriptive, while most of the dharma talks I had attended in recent years have been descriptive. What we should do versus what we do. This is not to say that dharma talks aren’t normative and don’t carry with them advice for living, but the dharma teachers I have had generally spend more time helping us understand how things work, how things are, so that we may see for ourselves ways of dealing with them. Whereas, the sermons of my childhood called us to action dictated by a central authority.

The post I had written was very much a journal entry – a description of the thoughts and feelings I had experienced surrounding the Park 51 controversy. The homily turned out to be very much a sermon, as reflected in the repetitive language of “let us” in the second half. I was concerned this wasn’t the “proper” way of giving a homily in this tradition, whatever this tradition was, not quite Buddhist but certainly not Methodist. However, Danny assured me it was fine.

Holly and I puzzled over the contentious language. Can one advocate nonviolence using the language of “enemy” and “fight?” Can one “fight violence?” The contentious language is powerful and simple, while more nuanced language might be less powerful (or more difficult for an inexperienced speaker to make powerful) and also lengthier. In addition, it is fraught with my own urges as a contentious person. Perhaps one cannot “fight violence,” but damned if I won’t try.

The final point is the struggle of we and I. The post started from a place of I. “I thought this…I think that…” The homily begins from this place as well, and I struggled with where this transition should take place. I am exhorting people to some kind of action for a purpose we all share. Should I begin with we? But I don’t want to assume others experience is like my own. So where does the language change?

If you read the homily, you’ll see where it changed, but if you look at the written speech I printed, you’ll see all kinds of last minute hand written notes. You’ll see where I changed I to we in the last sentence of the first paragraph. You’ll see which sentences are underlined and words starred, where I emphasized “violence” and “fear” and deemphasized “enemy.”

I haven’t taken the homiletics class yet where, apparently, they are going to teach us how to do these things properly. I definitely started in the deep end of the pool, but I really don’t mind. It’s all learning. Next time, memorize more, read less, use hand gestures, consider longer, etc.

But I can’t help wondering (and smiling while I do): what would that angry teenage atheist think of me now?

Homily for Sept 11

This homily, my first, was given for September 11, 2010, at a service held at University of the West on Monday, September 13, 2010.

We are here to memorialize the events of September 11th, 2001. This day is, for my generation at least, the greatest national tragedy in living memory. Yet, I do not memorialize it merely to honor the innocent dead, though certainly this is their due. I memorialize this day so as to learn from what happened on September 11th, that it may never be repeated. We remember the past to safeguard the future.

There is now much controversy regarding the area around Ground Zero, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood in New York City. This controversy casts a shadow it casts not only on our remembrance of past, but potentially our future as well. The controversy has been mislabeled the “Ground Zero mosque,” but is properly known as Park 51, a planned Islamic Community Center two blocks from the World Trade Center site in an old retail store. The founder’s have called it an “Islamic Y,” in reference to the Christian founded YMCA’s and YWCA’s that dot our country.

However, when I first heard about the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” I was delighted. I thought they intended to build an actual mosque within the memorial itself, not a meeting place a few blocks away. I thought “What a wonderful way to demonstrate the true spirit of America by embracing the religion that was perverted in order to commit atrocities.” Then, as the newscaster went on about this project, I was terribly discouraged by the fear mongering and intolerance I heard. Many powerful people in influential positions seek to make this “War on Terror” into a war on Islam, not from personal conviction, but for political gain.

They fail to realize that the way to prevent another September 11 is not to shoot all the terrorists, but to ensure no person, be they fundamentally religious or irreligious, can call America an enemy on religious grounds. We must ensure no Muslim, no matter how misguided, can ever view America as an enemy of Islam.

Islam is not at war with America. Islam is not a threat to America. Violent people are a threat to all. And violent people, filled with hate and anger, driven by politics and economics and desperation, will beat religion into a sword. They will use violence and the fear of violence, terror, as their weapons. While others, filled with greed for political power, will take and use that very same fear of violence for their own ends. In their haste, they will point to an obvious enemy, one easily identified if only by their difference.

Let us make violence our enemy. Let us make fear our enemy. Let us fight hate with love, which is what all religions preach. The Dhammapada says in Chapter 1, verse 5: “For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love, this is an old rule.”

So, let us build a mosque at Ground Zero, and a church, and a temple, a gurdwara, a shrine, a synagogue, and place of contemplation of the nonreligious. Let us make peoples of all religions our friends and show the world that the great experiment of America is a success. Let us read each other’s holy books rather than burn them, so we can fight fear with knowledge.

And let us remember September the 11th, 2001, and the people who died in the Twin Towers, at the Pentagon, and on the airplanes, that we might honor their memory by doing our best to ensure such reckless hate does not continue.

September 09, 2010

Childhood and All That (MDIV 555)

Journal for September 7, 2010

Last week Tommy asked “How do we know we have buddhanature and what knows?” I’m going to skip that question for now as, firstly, the reading was over how faith develops during child and young adulthood and, secondly, I don’t know quite yet. It is something I will have to let stew a bit longer, but definitely a question I wish to return to.

I always find myself skeptical of researchers’ descriptions, either observatory or normative, of childhood development. I have strong memories from a very early age and often their observations and characterizations run contrary to my experience. When making normative statements as to what adults should or should not do in the raising of children, I often think “That would not/did not work with me.” My mother had a few such books on her shelves I scoffed my way through in elementary school. This being said, I must still give a lot of credit where credit is due for in some cases being spot on and also acknowledge that my memories of childhood are those of a child.

That being said, let’s start at the beginning. It was running through the academic community for some time that children are blank slates ready to be molded (if you’ll pardon the mixing of metaphor) into either good or bad people depending on their environment. This kind of thinking, if not stated outright, seems to underlie Fowler’s text. However, my mother, a source I hold far more reliable than Fowler, tells me that even as a very small baby, only a few months in age and certainly younger than Fowler’s eight or nine month first cognitive transition, I did not want to be held. I would scream and cry not until someone picked me up, but until someone put me down.

“Feed me and put me down! That was Monica,” Mom remembered.

“Even with you?” I asked.

“Even with me,” she confirmed. “Made your grandmothers very unhappy because they wanted to cuddle their first granddaughter, but you didn’t want any of that.”

Now scientists and researchers are beginning to believe children are born more formed or perhaps predisposed than previously thought. From a scientific perspective we might conclude that more seeds of the personality lay within the genes than previously believed. From an Eastern perspective we might blame infantile predispositions on the accumulated habituation of past lives. I’m inclined to give more credence to the former, but not to entirely dismiss the latter.

As a very young child I remember believing everyone knew everything I knew. Therefore, I became very frustrated when people didn’t understand me or what I was doing. I recall learning it was necessary to verbally explain my wants, needs, thoughts, and actions to others and being very annoyed by this necessity. This seems to have something in common with the egocentrism of children Fowler describes.

At the age of four or five I was absolutely certain everyone could see their own face at all times (because I could see their faces, I suppose) but that I could not see mine no matter how hard I tried. I remember very vividly trying to overcome this problem while riding in the cab of my Grandpa Dale’s pickup truck with my brother. Imagine trying to explain to them that you’re crying because you can’t see your own face while everyone else can. Hoo, boy.

As a child I was told that if I loved Jesus and asked him to come into my heart I would feel his love. So I lay in bed praying for Jesus’ love and I felt … nothing. I cried myself to sleep several nights at the age of six believing the deficiency was mine and resolving to be a good Christian until God felt I was worthy of his love. But even that young, the seeds of doubt were sown.

They were in full flower by the age of thirteen, well developed by fourteen, and in open rebellion at fifteen when I told my mother I would no longer be going to church. There was yelling and the slamming of doors. Despite the prodding of my family, I’ve not been back since. I do not regret it, though I sometimes wonder about it now. But I’ve reached my one page limit, and that is a longer story.

All I’ll say in closing is I also think I either skipped Fowler’s Stage 3 entirely, or paused their briefly when I was twelve. Conformity and authority never played much role in my life, unless you count them in terms of opposition.

September 08, 2010


By all objective standards it had not been a good day.

My cat sat on the other side of bars admonishing me for my absence though I was but a few feet away. Sometimes I would speak to her.

“Hello. Oh? What? Are you sure? Really? No, I can’t come in. I know. Yes.”

Between each response she would retort in her characteristically harsh voice, yellow eyes glaring at me through the metal screen, ears twitching at the sound of my voice. She sat prim and proper, with her tail curled about her feet, whiskers forward, head angled down. Every now and then she would wander off, but shortly return and our conversation would continue.

The sky was overcast and I turned my tall collar up against the chill breeze. I was glad I was wearing my blue bomber jacket instead of my lighter corduroy. I had run out of coffee that morning and now it was afternoon. I was tired in that emotionally wrought way which surpasses physical exhaustion, but my warm bed was squarely on the other side of that locked door.

I knew it as soon as I did it, of course. I stood with my hand on the silver door handle and cursed. Not only was I locked out, but my keys were locked in, leaving my bicycle securely chained to the front gate. Did I have enough time to make it to class? I didn’t know, as I left my helmet on the table behind me and walked down the drive, avoiding the tree full of bees at the end.

I missed my bus. It was on one side of the busy intersection and I on the other, with no hope that the light would change before it pulled away. I sat at the bus stop for half an hour, reading my assigned text and trying in vain to stop the story running through my head, worry that long predated the mornings events. Woe is me, woe is me, woe is poor, poor little me. How can I feel sorry for myself sitting here reading about the Holocaust? But the mind is a fickle bitch who preys upon herself.

As I fed my very last dollar into the till, the bus driver lectured me on proper etiquette for hailing a bus, as if it were a foregone conclusion that busses the world over must be hailed. Apparently it is. I thanking him and found a seat near the rear exit, watching the time scroll by on the automated display. I had ten minutes left to get to class. I would be late. I hate being late, but there was another stop I must make, driven by that long-standing worry.

I pressed the palms of my hands together firmly as I begged the young man behind the counter if there was anything he could do.

“Not this Friday? Next Friday? The … 17th? Is there anything at all you can do to get my disbursement quicker?”

“Well, I can get the checks, but they need two signatures. Sometimes it’s hard to get those people. You could try again in a few days, but I can’t say I’ll have it until next Friday. I’m sorry you’re inconvenienced,” he explained in the baffled tone men tend to fall into when they’re confronted with a woman just barely failing not to cry.

“By next Friday I won’t be inconvenienced. I’ll be hungry. This is already weeks later than I expected. Is there anything at all that can be done?” But I was bound to be disappointed. I left with my head down, trusting the brim of my hat to hide my eyes and responding curtly to greetings in the courtyard.

I walked straight past the open classroom door and headed for the women’s room to blow my nose and dry my eyes. Then I went to process. Our weekly process meeting is a place in which the candidates in my program can “check in” with each other about what’s going on in our lives. I tried to make it into a joke and managed to get through the bit about no coffee and locking myself out and missing the bus, but could barely choke out the news regarding financial aid before hiding my face in my hands and falling silent.

I respond very badly to a small number of things in my life. In situations of danger, I keep my cool. In the face of other people’s suffering, I am outwardly calm even when inwardly suffering. When injured or in physical pain, I am silent and controlled. During times of relative deprivation, I can find humor in lack. But in the face of anger directed at me, when my competency is called into question, or when my financial stability, a precarious enough thing already, is threatened I – do – no – respond – well.

Nor did I have time following the delivery of the bad news to employ my most common coping mechanism – isolation. I could not go find a nice empty corner in which to silently rage and cry and collect myself before calmly explaining my most recent setback with a flippant tone and a Gallic shrug. I couldn’t be Monica, the one who always has it together, who can handle any situation life throws her way, who doesn't burden other people with her negative emotions. Not today, anyway.

But people are good. And thanks to those good people, I’ll last until my aid comes.

“Thanks.” It seems like such a feeble word in the light of good people’s grace. This is my hallelujah. This is my God – that people are good. Just good. That’s all. That’s everything. It doesn’t even matter why people are good, or how they got that way, or that sometimes they forget they are. People are good. Hallelujah.

Even on this day, this objectively bad day, there was laughter and smiling, good talks and good times with good friends. And though I sat three hours waiting for my roommate to come home from work, my cat complaining all the while, and though worries and fears still preyed on my mind, and though I tried again and again to cut the story line and even succeeded in large part to concentrate on my reading despite my emotional exhaustion and caffeine deprivation, though all of that, now at the end of it, I can think only one thing of my objectively not good day.

It wasn’t so bad.

September 07, 2010

Concepts of Faith (MDIV 555)

Third in an ongoing series for my Spiritual Formation class. See the first post, The Faith Delusion, for details.

Journal Entry September 2, 2010

The more I read of Fowler and his predecessors’ definitions of faith, the more I go back and forth from believing it sounds like a the construction of an internal conceptual reality separate from the world as it exists and an experiential manner of knowing that world as it exists through our capacity for intuition. As a Buddhist, I find only the later to be helpful and the former a hindrance to the cultivation of wisdom.

“A strong theme in the theological writings on faith of H. Richard Niebuhr and Paul Tillich has to do with faith as a way of seeing the world. Faith for them is a kind of knowing, a constructing of the world in light of certain disclosures of the character of reality as a whole that are taken as decisive,” Fowler explains on page 98. To say that knowledge is “constructed,” as Fowler does more than once in this section, is to imply it is conceptual. Concepts are what knowledge is constructed with.

Later on, Fowler also points out that knowing is an exercise of intuition and the imagination (page 104), the later implying that some things we ‘know’ are self-generated. One of the synonyms listed in the OED’s definition of imagination is ‘expectation.’ Part of the definition clearly states “4. The tendency to form ideas which do not correspond to reality; the operation of fanciful, erroneous, or deluded thought.”

This leads me to fear that, at the worst, a greater part of faith is made up of those things we wish to be true. Earlier I called them delusions. At best, it steeps whatever faith we have in ways of knowing built on concepts. Many Buddhist teachers warn of concepts’ deceptive nature. “Nirvana means extinction – first of all, the extinction of all concepts and notions. Our concepts about things prevent us from really touching them. We have to destroy our notions if we want to touch the real rose,” Thich Nhat Hanh advises in The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching, page 129. So in either case, might not this so-called faith do more harm than good?

On the other hand, B. Alan Wallace points out that contemplation is “the silent perception of reality” and a “form of knowing arrived at not by thinking but by seeing.” He quotes Christian theologian Josef Pieper as saying “Intuition is without doubt the perfect form of knowing.” Wallace goes on to claim that “…unlike objective knowledge, contemplation does not merely move toward its object; it already rests in it.” (Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge, page 1.)

In addition, making up fun fictional realities is not the sole province of imagination. It is also “the power or capacity by which the mind integrates sensory data in the process of perception.” (OED) As pointed out on page 25, “…our knowing registers the impact of our experiences in far more comprehensive ways than our own conscious awareness can monitor.” Therefore, intuition and imagination are essential for the integration of all that which we perceive, a truly overwhelming amount of sensory data.

Because we cannot articulate the manner by which we arrive at intuitive conclusions, the process being largely subconscious, we are forced, in many ways, to take these conclusions on faith, a faith in our own abilities. As we test their truthfulness and reliability against actual experience, we are constantly revising both the conclusions and our faith in them, leading to the dynamic quality of faith about which Fowler speaks.

It seems that the intuitive form of knowing that rests in the object of its contemplation, of which Wallace speaks, and the faith constructed of concepts about the “ultimate conditions of existence” (p. 98) of which Fowler speaks may be two ways to perceive faith that, if not entirely mutually exclusive, are significantly different from one another.

People Are Good (MDIV 555)

Second in an ongoing series for my Spiritual Formation class. See the previous post, The Faith Delusion, for more details.

Journal Entry for August 31, 2010

I come to faith in the Three Refuges in a roundabout way. At least it seems so to me, but perhaps everyone comes to faith by a crooked road and only later realize it. If one were to ask if I have faith in the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, I would have to say “Not really.” My heart is not set on these things. By that, I mean when I contemplate the Three Refuges, I feel very little emotion. They are not “mysterious and awesome” nor do they “draw me” as Fowler spoke of God (perhaps with another’s words) and why people have faith in Him. But I do have faith in what they are about.

Early in the book, Fowler asks what it is we trust and commit ourselves to, as I mentioned before. I trust that people are good and commit myself to working in a world to I reveal that goodness and foster its growth. (A Shambhalan might call this “basic goodness,” though my conception of it is slightly different.) The Buddha was a living example of a good person, perhaps the best a person can be. The Dharma teaches that people are good (we are all Buddhas) and the Sangha is both example and vehicle for doing good in the world through community. By taking refuge, I acknowledge this truth as the touchstone of my life. And though I am taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, where I place my faith is that these three things are manifestations of a single truth – that people are good.

Of course, this begs the question “What is good?” I have only a very simple response. Good is that which reduces suffering and increases happiness. I recognized this is not a very nuanced answer. People could spend days arguing what constitutes suffering and what constitutes happiness. By this definition, illegal drugs might be considered good, in that they make one happy in the moment, though they breed great suffering later. Therefore we need two tools in order to know what is good: compassion and wisdom. Compassion helps us recognize suffering when we see it, in ourselves as much as others, and motivates us to act. Wisdom guides us to understand the causes and skillful alleviation of that suffering in the long term and for as many as possible.

Therefore, to say that people are good is to say that all people, regardless of their outward actions, have the capacity for compassion and wisdom. Moreover, that people, by and large, all seek to cultivate these capacities to at least some degree. That people are good at all, is mysterious, awesome, and draws me in like nothing else.

To me, institutions like the Three Jewels and the Refuge Vow are tools for the public acknowledgement and cultural prolongation of this idea, something that people trust in and commit their lives to. Do I have faith in the Buddha himself? Sure, but it is not the “ultimate concern” of my life the way the goodness of people is. Nor is the Dharma or the Sangha. These things exist because of and in service to that “ultimate concern,” but cannot take its place.

To crib Huineng, the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.

The Faith Delusion (MDIV 555)

To introduce this introduction, I should say this is the first of what will be twice weekly journal entries for my MDIV 555 Spiritual Formation class at UWest. They will often reference class readings. At the moment, we are working our way through Stages of Faith by James Fowler, a somewhat dated book commonly used in pastoral care curricula among monotheistic seminaries. Although it has lately fallen out of favor, it is a solid foundation from which to begin. Our professor, Victor Gabriel, has requested these journal entries be a page in length, so they may be somewhat shorter than my normal post. I have written on a few of these topics previously here in the blog, and will try to link back to them as appropriate. These first few posts are journals from the last two weeks. Enjoy!

Journal Entry for August 26, 2010

By way of introduction, I should say I have a problem with “faith,” the word and the deed. Mostly this is baggage. I was raised in the United Methodist Church, a protestant Christian tradition with a very simplistic view of faith (at least as presented to children). Either one has faith or one does not. There is no room for doubt. It is an all or nothing gamble. I was told I would feel a certain way if I had faith. When I failed to feel the “love of Jesus” permeate my being, as children do, I assumed the fault was mine and redoubled my efforts. Years later, as teenagers do, I threw up my hands in rebellion and walked away. I have never returned.

This leaves me in a quandary. On the one hand I have cast faith away as worthless rhetoric, but on the other hand, I live it every day. In the absence of mystical explanations for the universe, I could still not deny the inexplicability of phenomena. The rational mind can only account for so much. Some things are held true without reasonable explanation. I still hold two competing conceptions of faith, but the faith I do have, prevents me from panicking over it.

Firstly, faith is synonymous with delusion. (Or perhaps it should be Faith with a capital ‘F’?) Faith is our loyalty to a concept of the world as we want it to be. This is a delusion we must transcend in order to see the world as it really is. Does anyone ever have Faith in something they don’t want to be true? People believe in the devil, but only in conjunction with something greater they want to be true (i.e. God). Faith is a way of explaining the inexplicable to create a sense of comfort and surety in our lives. The explanation need not correspond to reality to have the power to do this.

“For most of us, most of the time, [faith/delusion] functions so as to screen off the abyss of mystery that surrounds us.” (Page xii of Stages of Faith.) This sounds very similar to a description of the cocoon we use to protect ourselves for groundlessness. However, Fowler also equates faith with “trust and commitment” in the very next paragraph, two ideas not so easy to exchange with delusion.

Here I fall into the trap of applying faith only to the one big belief I rejected so early – God. (That’s capital-‘F’ Faith.) With the rejection of this belief comes a rejection of the reasoning for action. From whence does morality spring if not God? Who made the world if not God? What is the goal of our lives if not to be closer to God? So I have lost Faith, but not trust or commitment. I still trust many things and many people and I have committed my life to certain goals. (Fowler also discusses Smith who points out faith is not about “faith in” certain beliefs and the creation of meaning, which brings out the existentialist in me, but that is a longer discussion for another time.)

Secondly, to say I have no faith is itself a delusion. It took time to realize other things had come to replace Faith in my lost God. I have faith in the goodness of human beings (whether it is a byproduct of a socially evolved species or placed there by God is of less importance). But mostly I have faith in my ability to figure things out … eventually.

I also have faith in much more mundane things, as Fowler points out we all have in Chapter One. I have faith that when I put my feet on the floor in the morning, it will not collapse beneath me. I have faith in the sunrise and the sunset and the rain. But always I fill this faith with caveats. That’s part of my baggage. My faith is not the absolute religious Faith I was taught faith should be. It is a “most-likely” faith, in both the big things and the small. Mostly likely the floor will not collapse. Most likely the sun will rise. Most likely I will be able to figure it out … eventually.

But I could be wrong, and I also have faith that it is okay if I am, most likely.

September 05, 2010

Too Much, Too Little

I haven’t published anything this week, though not for lack of trying. My head is filled with too many thoughts. And a good number of those are going into my twice weekly journals for Spiritual Formation. But I want to write. I have things to work out, and the process of writing helps me do that. I have things to say in support or response to others. I want to come out in favor of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. I want to tell my friend Jake that people aren’t inherently bad and sinful (so there!) even if we are a little broken, we’re also good and wise and full of buddhanature. I want to innumerate all the reasons why Glen Beck is either demented or a better actor than Stephen Colbert and Sean Connery combined (but that could take years). But I haven’t the time or mental energy to do the research to give any of them a proper treatment. There is too much and I am too little. Some things, I guess I just have to let go.

But only some things. So I’ll just say this about the first topic: We ought to build a mosque at Ground Zero. By that I mean a mosque and by that I mean Ground Zero. I do not mean an Islamic cultural center two blocks away in an old Burlington Coat Factory, as is currently being proposed and misnamed the "Ground Zero mosque."

When I first learned of the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” I was delighted. I thought “What a wonderful idea to demonstrate the true spirit of American than by embracing the religion that was perverted in order to commit atrocities. What a great way to uphold freedom of religion and create a spirit of inclusion and forgiveness. I mean, Christians are all about forgiveness, right? And America is all about freedom of religion, right? And we’re a pluralist country built on the backs of immigrants, right? Wouldn’t it be lovely if we included some kind of chapel for all the faiths, so that as people visit the memorial and remember the victims, who accounted for numerous religions including Islam, they could seek solace in their own tradition.”

Then, as the newscaster went on about this planned “mosque,” I was stupid enough to listen. I was terribly discouraged by the fear mongering and criticism and intolerance I heard. Sarah Palin contended that none of the hundred mosques already in New York failed to prevent September 11th. I wasn’t aware any of the hijackers attended a New York mosque. (Should we outlaw churches in Oklahoma because they failed to stop Timothy McVeigh?) Another talking head asserted we shouldn’t allow mosques in the United States because one can’t build a Christian church in some Muslim countries. I wasn’t aware we were taking our cues for how a free nation should behave from repressive, totalitarianism regimes. People say it’s disrespectful to the victims’ families. What about the Muslim victims who were working in the Twin Towers that day or on the airplanes? (And no, I’m not talking about the hijackers.)

Finally, one gentleman pointed to the truth of the situation, that this isn’t about Islam or honoring the dead. This is about the upcoming election. The announcement regarding the Islamic culture center was made a long time ago, over a year, I believe, and no one made a fuss. It’s only as the November election has loomed that Republicans and Tea Partiers, lacking any concrete policy recommendations of their own, have latched onto anything to criticize,. What better than something that they can link to the most traumatic event in the living memory of our nation?

They have the right to protest and speak their minds, however disgusting. Their right to protest the culture center is guaranteed by the very same document that guarantees the right of the Islamic culture center to exist. To deny a constitutionally protected right is to call into question the entire edifice of constitutional law which also protects them. They seem not to notice.

A number of responsible voices, such as Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama, can also be heard, but even they have been cautious is their “support,” citing constitutionally guaranteed legal rights rather than the more ambiguous moral questions of right and wrong. I can be less hesitant thanks to my utter lack of celebrity. I support the culture center and would suggest the inclusion of a true mosque within the Ground Zero memorial itself as a concrete example of compassion, forgiveness, understanding, inclusion, and respect. The memorial should include worship spaces for as many world religions as we can manage. Religion is great solace to the grieving.

That is all I shall say for now. I am sorry it is not as well thought out as I had hoped, and without sources cited. I would like to have linked readers to some of the more articulate responses to this disturbing argument. They are out there. I hope you go find them.

In the future, I shall begin posting my twice weekly journals. This will be something of a spiritual journey as my professor questions us about the meaning of our “faith,” a word I have commonly eschewed. It is intended to culminate in a spiritual autobiography. Even I know not how this story is going to end. I look forward to finding out.

In the meantime, support the “mosque,” excuse my brusqueness, and maybe give a moment to contemplate your own spiritual autobiography.