Category Archives: Buddhism

The C-word

For five years I walked in the Philly “Race for the Cure” in memory of my sister-in-law’s mother, Jane. She was someone I really liked and spent time with when she was dying. When I walked I saw t-shirts announcing people who were there in memory of someone who had died. There were also special shirts for survivors. By profession, I’m a nonprofit fundraiser and I respect the astounding financial success of the Komen folks, but for me as an individual, the event became too big and commercial for something that I experienced as personal. And, by the way, I am totally sick of all the pink shit. Give it a rest already.pink-ribbon

In the nineties, I was a hospice volunteer at a cancer center for about three years, also in honor of Jane and my cousin, Robin who died from AIDS. I learned from that volunteer work that cancer is just not the worst way to go. I also learned that the most difficult deaths were usually due more to troubled relationships, or lack of any, than from physical pain. And the greatest pain at the end of life is usually from regret or guilt.

As I have written before, I reject what I consider the juvenile theology of a god fussing about every detail of my life. In fact, I had a lengthy discussion with a woman just a couple weeks ago who asked me to pray for the Eagles football team. I wish I was kidding. I wish she hadn’t been serious. I did tell her I thought god didn’t give a crap about football. Then she launched into a lecture on how sports contributes to our society and how praying for football helps bring people to god or some other such nonsense.

Last week I was in a meeting at a church exploring grant opportunities related to food security, i.e. feeding the hungry. I was talking to a woman who told me she chose this mission project in her church to honor her 42-year-old daughter who died from breast cancer. She told me how it hurts her to see those survivor-women celebrating. She was not being petty, I assure you. She just said, “I don’t know why God took my daughter.” We agreed that there are many mysteries in life that we just can understand. Just yesterday a close friend was diagnosed with MS and she is the sole support and caregiver of her mother with Alzheimer’s and her special needs son. No indeed, life is just not fair.

I do believe in cause and effect, and in karma. Though not the cause of every bad thing, karma can be social, with a lot of us paying for the sins of many before us. I think some cancers in our modern world are the result of our modern world. It could be the long-term result of additives in food, off-gassing from new carpet, years of vehicle exhaust in the atmosphere, and better examples my science-y friends can name without blinking. I accept the invisible, long-term consequence resulting in one in three Americans having a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. Since I have two siblings, odds are, it will be one of us.  And if it means, not unlike Passover, it’s me and my siblings are passed-over, then I accept. And although bargaining with the Universe is probably pointless, when times are tough the desperate start negotiating. I’ll take one for the team. I don’t have kids and I’m healthier than my sibs, so I can handle the fight. That’s just pragmatic.

For right now, I don’t know if I am sick. The spot of the biopsy is sore, so every time I move wrong and I feel the soreness, it reminds me and I wonder if I have cancer. So many times in our lives we find ourselves in that place of not-knowing. This is a sacred space. I am not experiencing fear. Not because I am courageous because I am not. Not because I believe in a personal god. I do not. I am not afraid because I am lucky enough to have access to health care. That said, I am very afraid of it bankrupting me with my $6,000 a year deductible.

What I find so deeply disturbing, and what does bring tears to my eyes, is this raw and profound reminder of my vulnerability. Most of us function with an assumption of control. I think it is how we keep going, being productive, maybe even happy. Deep down, I know this is an illusion. Better than anyone, the Buddhists try and teach this to us. But I am very Western and want to believe I am the boss of me. Well, clearly I am not.

The other reaction haunting me is how few activities seem important right now. I can tell you I surely don’t give a damn about the dishes. Then there’s work. Normally I find it satisfying – at least some of the time. Right now I feel like I’m raising money to buy life rafts for the Titanic and it has already set sail. (Don’t over analyze the metaphor because I don’t know if the Titanic is me, or the job, or it’s all a mood swing.)

It is uncomfortable, but I am working to honor this sacred time and space by recognizing my fragile humanity. This place of not knowing is sad and lonely. Don’t misunderstand me, I am lucky to have numerous, wonderful friends who have already been supportive; but ultimately, this experience is a solitary one. I have been forced to stop and accept my lack of control, even over my own body. It is the lack of power over something so important and personal as my own body that has me unhinged. Have I been betrayed by the very vessel that makes this human experience possible?And where is God in all this? That answer is only relevant when you answer that for yourself. I do believe there is a Universal force of love. And I believe those whom I have loved and who have died might just be on the other side looking out for me. I hope so. But cancer is not god’s fault nor up to god to cure.

The irony nearly escaped me that this is “Breast Cancer Awareness Month.” I hope to celebrate by not having it. But while I’m in the place of not knowing, I will accept my fragile humanity with as much grace as I can muster, with my little dog at my side, and some really good human beings who have my back, not the least of which is my spouse. If you read this and find yourself, for any reason, in that place of solitude and not knowing then I can only tell you I get it and wish you peace. So on this Yom Kippur, Shalom to folks of all faiths or none. #

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Don’t Pray for Me

Usually in these columns, I build up to some conclusion, but this time I’m starting at the end. Prayer is what you want it to be. Perhaps prayer is a connection, like my cat sitting next to me. (Thanks, Ralphie.)Ralphie Even atheists can find their spirit resonating with music, or maybe nature, in a way that is not just pleasurable, I think, but lifts us out of ourselves and our everyday existence. That is how I would define spiritual. When by intention or experience, we step outside of our daily worries to connect with the universe, I think we can call that a prayer.

Some people define prayer as the petitions they present to an all-powerful and interested God. I would liken that approach to wishing on a star – not that there’s anything wrong with that. When I was in the process of becoming Roman Catholic (I am now Episcopalian), I had some difficulty sorting out culture Jiminy Cricketfrom dogma from theology. One of the things the nuns talked about that I knew was strictly cultural was that when you go into a chapel for the first time you can make a wish. I saw it as a Jiminy Cricket sort of thing. At the time I was working two full-time jobs, and it follows that I had no social life. It was about December 17th and in spite of the fact that I would be working until at least 7:00 p.m. and the previously stated realities, I wished for a New Year’s Eve date. Admittedly a self-serving fantasy, I viewed it as a throw-away request. Surely God had better things to do. I didn’t even take my own wish seriously. I told no one, and forgot about it.

At about 6:45 p.m. New Year’s Eve, I had sent all my staff home and was tending to final work that I could handle alone when a man I had previously only spoken to casually asked me to accept an extra ticket to Penn and Teller because he had a friend who cancelled. This is the story that I tell my nieces under the theme of ‘God has a sense of humor.’ I had a lovely New Year’s Eve and one or two other dates, then found out he was gay. Well, at least now I knew God’s idea of a perfect date for me.

About those petitions…Though I don’t really believe in a personal god, in times of duress, I think we all wish we had a super-power from whom we could request intervention or relief. In that I am no different from anyone else. And in spite of the fact that I don’t think things work that way, when I am in the middle of a struggle, I do in fact yearn for not only relief but an acceptable resolution, and maybe even a rescuer. Who doesn’t? What I think is crucial to human contentment and spiritual insight, is what we expect during the ‘dark night of the soul’ and after. What I’m suggesting is to consider how we view prayer and what we expect as a result of prayer. Why? Because I’ve had too many people tell me they would pray for me instead of actually helping me. Also, I want to reconcile for myself what may seem like the hypocrisy of wishful prayers that are an understandable response to loss, sadness, fear, worry, and despair.

In this capitalistic society, when someone exploits your need to be employed to fulfill their ego’s hunger to exercise power, it is oppression. There are a lot of people longing for relief from oppression, whether it is external like workplace bullies, or internal like clinical depression. As for me, I have had a lot of very bad bosses who have made my work day miserable, and some eventually put me out of work. (I know I am not alone with these problems.) One day on the train commute to such a job when I was feeling overwhelmed by the dread of the coming workday, I looked out the window to see the most spectacular sunrise I had ever seen in my life. The clouds had formed in a way that created rays of brilliant colors that I am unable to fully describe. In that moment, surrounded by other apparently oblivious commuters, I felt that the vibrant and fleeting sunrise view was a gift just for me. It produced in me such a sense of joy that I carried it with me the rest of the day, and in fact I still remember it clearly even though it was about seven years ago. If my yearning for a better situation was a prayer, then that sunrise was an answer. And in that moment, the bliss I felt was more powerful than the relief from getting a new job, which I continued to pursue and did eventually land.

It would be an oversight to discuss prayer without addressing suffering. I have ended the old year and DalaiLamastarted the new year reading The Art of Happiness (His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, MD) which weaves lengthy conversations with the Dalai Lama into prose. Reading so much from His Holiness on suffering and pain has expanded my understanding of Buddhism. I have always had difficulty with what was my perception of Buddhism’s casual acceptance of the bad stuff in life in the old ‘life is suffering’ phrase. I heard it as a trite aphorism. Now I see that by accepting that there is loss and pain for everyone, my suffering is neither unique nor unfair. That is not to justify oppression which is unfair and unethical behavior, but suffering itself is a common human condition. This subtle shift in perspective helps me connect with humanity, rather than feeling apart, which served to increase my suffering.

If I can get myself to see suffering as a universal human condition, then it also changes my view on prayer. My prayer becomes a desire to connect with the universe in a way that reduces suffering, not just for myself, but for others as well. My prayer becomes a meditation on working to heal my soul in a way that makes compassion possible – toward myself and others.

I weave prayer and meditation together as complementary practices. I pray to release my suffering and affirm my wishes, then I meditate to quiet my ever-noisy head, to touch my bruised heart, and to restore my weary soul. These practices are very personal and I would never impose my approach on others. I write about it here as a means of reconciling my frustration with those who pray from an apparent desire to remain un-involved or from the arrogance of their own theology. I also write to work through my own hypocrisies.

Eventually, my practices include listening. I listen for what I would call the whisper of the universe. My Buddhist friends may consider it getting in touch with Buddha-nature. Some Christians might say it’s the Holy Spirit. I would not make any of those presumptions. I just know that I want the greater good for all of us, and that includes me, though I don’t know exactly how that will happen or even what comes next. How you pray or if you don’t, is just not my business. If you insist on praying for me, then I thank you for your good wishes, because sometimes wishes do come true. Please don’t expect reciprocity, because that is not my practice. Just know that my practice is intended for compassion. For you. For me. For friends and enemies. As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.” Well, I’m not making any vows, but I’m trying to head that direction. –J. B.

Tiny Houses and Religion

TinyHouse

Tiny Houses by Jay Shafer

When I think about what I most like doing at home, it is reading, writing, watching birds/squirrels/rabbits in the yard, and hanging-out with my cats – no disrespect to my spouse. (He’s just noisier and higher maintenance.) If I have a vice, other than eating chocolate and all forms of sugar, it is that I like entertaining. I’m not great at it, and meals are not gourmet, but I will have cloth napkins, fresh flowers, quality food, and wine. This is what I expect of myself. My entertaining is not extravagant, but I could not do it in a Tiny House.

“We the Tiny House People: Small Homes, Tiny Flats & Wee Shelters” By Kirsten Dirksen

Though I envy those Tiny House people, I do have some stuff that I want to have around me; however, I don’t have offspring and what means something to me now, will mean nothing to those who are left to disperse my humble possessions after my demise. Maybe it will fall to my nieces, who I pray I have taught to not just send it all to the landfill, but at least find a thrift shop. So being middle-aged, I’m looking around thinking what a pain in the ass it will be for someone to deal with all this crap. And yet, a Tiny House? Where will I put my table linens? The litter boxes?

There you have it, the minimalist quandary. What do I keep? What do I shed? What do I refuse to take in? It’s no different in religion. The way that the major religions are practiced today is probably not the way they started, or even what used to be good about them. But do not be confused. Minimalism is not fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, as I define it, takes a religion to the fundamentals of days gone by, without a sense of context, e.g. Biblical Literalists. A minimalist view would look at the essence of a religion. In other words, I believe religious minimalism can be found in understanding the context of religious thought without being limited by its history or even modern corruptions. (All religion is interpretive and minimalism is one interpretation.)

Perhaps Buddhism is the Tiny House of religions. For me, it is the first religion that comes to mind in thinking about minimalism because it is both complex and simple. What is the essence of Buddhism? It depends who you ask. You could get answers like: mindfulness, life is suffering, detachment, compassion, noble truths, meditation, and so much more.

Buddhism can be practiced simply, but reconciling compassion with detachment always seemed complex to me. For example, one interpretation of Buddhism had monks sweeping the ants from the walkway in front of them, lest they step on and kill any of them. Yet in another account, I read about a Japanese monastery that drowned unwanted kittens – or worse, loosed their aggressive dog to do the dirty work and kill the kitten violently, (Janwillem van de Wetering, The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery, 1973, p.35-6). They must have had some discomfort with this killing because they did it at night. I introduce this story not to accuse those particular monks of hypocrisy, but to identify the difficulty in making choices and reconciling values. Essential Buddhism to me is found in the quote which I thought was the Buddha, though I have been unable to substantiate, it is: “Look at the world through the eyes of compassion.”

We could use more compassion. We now live in a world with rants and deeply disturbing photos posted online with global access. Last week there was a picture of a starving African woman on my Twitter feed. Some American (I think) white male responded by saying, “f-her.” Really? Condemnation for starvation? That makes no sense. I responded with something like, “Why are you so angry? Why does suffering not reach you?” He responded by repeatedly Tweeting a photo of himself (I assume) to jam-up my Twitter feed. I am baffled by his attitude, just as I am confounded by a world with the sophistication of social media and the barbarity of be-headings.

What is the appropriate response to proud, showy brutality, for the civilized and compassionate of the world? (Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly has a good story on this – link below.) I don’t think it is a time for Buddhist detachment in terms of action; but it is definitely time to detach from the vengeful emotions that I believe Buddhists rightly warn us would perpetuate the pain to which we might hope to respond in the first place. Even though it is popular to equate religion with conflict, the essence of most religions is compassion. A minimalist approach to these religions can inform better choices in a complex world.

Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly on ISIS

I am one of those people who lives paycheck-to-paycheck and spends significant time worrying about money, so I’m not judging – I’m right there with you, but the financial obsession of Americans at all income levels, leaves little energy left to consider or confront difficult and painful social issues, local or global. I believe our consumer-culture and aggressive capitalism has anesthetized us from being all that we can be as human beings. In the grind of getting to work, staying employed, and paying the bills, it is nearly impossible to feel empowered. It’s even difficult to get Americans to vote and that is a simple, civic act that costs us nothing and is usually less than one mile from our homes. Do you know what does feel good? Yes, spending money.

I don’t have the answers, but I am comfortable posing some questions. What choices will I make today that will keep my life more simple, with fewer material distractions? What actions can I take that will not support global aggression? What thoughts and intentions can I nurture in myself that will send healing energy to the hungry and abused? What actions must I take to demonstrate my compassion and take it beyond private intentions? To quote Zen Master Seung Sahn, “Only don’t know.” Begging indulgence from my Buddhist friends, my unenlightened Western interpretation is that I don’t think we should stop asking questions, but rather remain humble in our pursuit of right action and right thought. Life happens in the small choices. Should I buy it? Should I keep it? What does vacation really mean? Does this activity nurture my soul or sedate it? “Only don’t know.” –J.B.

Families and Religion

Most of the major religions have stories about families, and often they’re confusing. However, if you are not comfortable with paradox, then you probably won’t be comfortable with religion in general, because many religious messages appear to be contradictory and are at least ambivalent, especially on messages about families.

Before the Buddha became the Buddha he left his family to find enlightenment. He never returned. Buddhism is a religion of compassion but it could be argued that abandoning one’s family is not compassionate.

Gandhi’s (Hindu) family was not so happy, with his parenting approach apparently as ascetic and tenacious as he lived his life. There was a play about Gandhi the man in the late nineties where the character of Gandhi’s wife said, “You have filled the entire sky with your love, like the clouds of a monsoon, but bend a little as you do, and pour a few drops into my son’s mouth.”

New York Times on Gandhi the man

Judaism has a story of God asking Abraham to kill his son. At the last minute God changed his mind and some poor goat was murdered instead. One irony of that story is that Abraham’s only (legitimate) son was supposed to father a nation, and there was Abraham raising a knife to him.

According to legend, three of the dominant religions of our time, came from that one man: Abraham. I’m not asserting that it is literally true, I’m telling you about the mythology of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Abraham was to be the father of the Jewish nation by his second son Isaac. His first son was Ishmael, who had a different mother than Isaac (not Abraham’s wife), and could be considered the father of Islam. Jesus became the catalyst for Christianity, and was himself Jewish.

I’m not going to interpret all these stories, I’m just pointing out that even in our religious mythology, families are not easy. In our routine lives, it can be a stretch just to have a pleasant special occasion. When it comes to hoping for a Hallmark-card kind of holiday, or even more unlikely – expecting a real family to resemble a Norman Rockwell painting – I think it is only for the lucky few or those in denial.

For many people, being around family requires sedation. I admit that I do not like to attend family events if there is no opportunity for a glass of wine. If that’s not possible-short of having a brown bag in the car, I allow myself the option to pre-medicate with my legal prescription of Xanax, the same as when I go to the dentist. I wonder what holidays are like with Bill Maher’s family? I bet they’re more fun than mine.

I love watching Bill Maher. It seems his two favorite drums, on which he beats regularly, are bad religion and good ColoradoSignmarijuana. With limits, I don’t disagree. Most of what Maher identifies as evidence that religion is bad, is evidence that religion is used badly. Most of what is good about marijuana, is not evidence that no one abuses it – or that there are not some very bad things about the infrastructure supporting marijuana use.

Here’s the thing, if marijuana were legalized it could be taxed and regulated. I call that job and revenue creation. And as to corruption and abuse, well there’s just no question that abuse and corruption occur even with legal substances. There’s also that ‘gateway’ argument; when it comes to marijuana as a gateway to worse drugs; well, for some people, beer is a gateway drug. For me, being around relatives is a gateway to drugs.

If we are to believe the mythology of the three Abrahamic religions then their inability to get along could be interpreted as an endless family feud, related as they are. What don’t families fight about? Who has more sheep? Who got a bigger inheritance? Who has a bigger house? Who gets to run the oilfields? Who has more successful kids? Then families turn into clans. Clans turn into tribes. Tribes turn into territories. Territories turn into countries. And all the time, the squabbling doesn’t stop. At some point people get killed.

For those of us who choose to explore religion, it goes with the entire complicated package of families and humanity. I have written this before and I still don’t know the original source, but human beings imagine the God we are capable of imagining – and most often our god resembles ourselves. People who thrive on hate, see an angry god. People who need rules and structure see a rigid, demanding god. And people who believe in love see a God of love.

Because bad people claim their actions are a result of religious imperatives, doesn’t mean it’s true. Bill Maher (on HBO’s “Real Time”) had Bobby Ghosh on his panel June 27th (managing editor of Quartz, qz.com). When it comes to religion and politics in the Middle East, he said it better than I ever have:

“ISIS is the worst, most successful terrorist group in modern times…They hate everybody. They are killing more Muslims than they are killing anyone else…It’s not about religion…It is a power struggle in which religion is a uniform. The Shia are not trying to convert the Sunni, the Sunni are not trying to convert the Shia. They are fighting for power…”

So, my point is that if families can’t get along, why does anyone expect it from tribes and countries? My big disappointment is if these three religions come from the same guy – according to their own mythology, then they ought to cut each other some slack and freaking learn to get along.  I mean, I keep showing up for Thanksgiving.  I’m the vegetarian bringing the damn turkey already.  True religious leaders should lead in promoting the common good, not themselves, and condemning – loudly – violence in the name of anyone’s religion.

Getting rid of religion would not reduce wars, violence, or conflict. These are unfortunate aspects of the human condition that all of us have experienced to some degree in our own flawed families. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be better. And I think it’s ok if that takes a little sedation. Maybe they should pass around joints at Middle East peace talks. They could all relax and eat junk food and forget what they were fighting about. Think about the possibility of marijuana as a gateway drug to peace talks. And isn’t it great we have several months before Thanksgiving? – J.B.

Bullies and Religion

“Radiolab” replayed a story this month that mentioned hockey great Wayne Gretzky (NPR 2/9/2014,”Secrets of Success,” original air date 7/26/2010).  At the age of two, Gretzky’s parents put hockey on TV for him and when the game was over he would cry.  It seems at two, he loved the game that much.  My own early memory is so much less, but still similar.  On the first day of fourth grade we were required to write about our summer.  I recall thinking that I could probably survive fourth grade if all I had to do was write, of course, that was before the math began. 

I think that writing is a little different from the obsessive passion of the Wayne Gretzkys and Olympic hopefuls of the world, for example, because the writers I most enjoy have read a lot and lived life.  While it may be true about many passions, vocations, or the arts in general, it seems that there is a need for times of reflection and quiet – passion alone is not enough.  It has been my experience regarding both religion and writing, that periods of solitude and retreat are essential, especially when we are struggling.

Islam is projected to be the fastest-growing religion worldwide according to Pew Research (link follows), rising IMG_0924from 1.6 to 2.2 billion people by 2030.  All that started in a cave, with one person.  Mohammed, before he was the prophet he was to become, needed some solitude and developed a habit of retreating to a cave in the hills of Mount Hira outside Mecca, (Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, 1991, p.224).

“The Future of the Global Muslim Population”

The Buddha, before he was the Buddha, was Siddhartha Gautama and born to a wealthy family, offered every comfort and luxury of his culture.  But he left it all behind, including a wife and son, to “live the life of a lonely forest-dweller…to rejoice in solitude,” (Huston, p.83-4).  And so, from solitude, two of the world’s great religions began.

In part, the retreat by Mohammed and the Buddha was a response to the suffering around them. In our post-modern world of runaway capitalism, I ask you to think about a basic and common form of suffering, workplace bullies.

The Philadelphia Business Journal did an unscientific survey of 173 responding readers and 58 percent said they knew of a supervisor at work who was bullying people; another nine percent said there was one who quit or was fired, which makes 67 percent.  PBJ asked the wrong question.  The question should have been: “Have you or any of your coworkers been bullied at work?”  I guarantee the number would have been higher, and 67 percent is not small.  If this number is representative, or as I suggest low, then lots of people are miserable at work.  They fear for their jobs, their health, and have little peace of mind.  Job satisfaction is a ridiculous fantasy when your spirit is crushed on a daily basis.  And even if your passion is outside of work, you drag home too depleted to pursue it.  You become Wayne Gretzky forgetting that there was a hockey game on tonight and just losing interest in the puck.

Bullying at Work in the PBJ

I assert that in a capitalistic society with the ever-widening gap between the disgustingly rich and the working poor, threatening someone’s livelihood is economic violence.  The expertise of the bullies is convincing you they can harm you, they are willing to do it, and enjoying the whole dirty business.  In some cases, they really can hurt you.  If, like most folks, you can’t quit because you need the job, you are stuck.  Has anyone noticed the workplace has gotten meaner?

There are a number of reasons that Mohammed and the Buddha needed solitude, and their response to suffering was, in my opinion, one of these reasons.  I had a shrink once who called it “strategic retreat.”  With enough retreat, meditation, contemplation, and if you are a person of faith – then prayer, I believe you can survive.

This is not my tidiest column.  I have started to write this several times over several months.  I intended to go on a rant about bullies and how I am just sure God doesn’t like them.  What I won’t do is defend them or rationalize their bad behavior because of a difficult childhood, or crap like that.  It doesn’t matter why they are a bully.  It matters who they are bullying and what weapons they are using.  It might be a jealous co-worker starting gossip or a supervisor who thinks you remind him of the sister who regularly called him on his shit.  The bully is not my preoccupation or priority, it is the victim.  If that is you, I want to let you know that you that you do not deserve this and that I recognize that your pain is real.

There are no easy answers for suffering, whatever the cause.  If your religion is not helping you with this, then consider reframing it.  I have read a little something about all of the major religions and some of the minors.  They all have something to say about suffering and some of it is helpful.  Don’t take any of it at first reading or what you were taught by others.  Allow yourself, like Mohammed, some time alone in the cave and see what comes to you.  I don’t have much faith and it is not common or traditional, but I do believe that if you are suffering, eventually there will be some measure of comfort come into your life.  You may not see justice served to the bully, but you might get some for yourself, which is much more important. – J.B.

Nuns, Cows and Inspiration

There was a summer when I sang “How do you solve a problem, like Maria?” 52 times.  I was home from college andSOM76 managed to get a miserable summer job in a tourist trap during the day and playing a nun on stage at night.  I suspect I was not good at it, but I don’t really know.  I do know I got in trouble for talking trash within ear-shot of the little “Von Trapp” children off stage.  I seemed to need something to balance wearing a habit every night.  It was hard to view it as serious theater because backstage was a livestock sales barn, usually with cows.  The mooing and the cow dung were equally distracting.  And contrary to the delicious rumor, I did not go bar-hopping in my nun’s costume, though I wish that it had been me.

When the “Sound of Music” movie was in theaters in the early sixties, Karen Armstrong had just joined a severe, conservative convent in England at the age of 17.  The day her family took her to the convent, they went to see the “Sound of Music” after they said good-bye, while she was entering an entirely different world than the movie convent.  Armstrong spent seven long, painful years there and many more recovering, but eventually wrote The History of God, and many other books.  I just finished reading her first book, Through the Narrow Gate, and re-reading her follow-up memoir, The Spiral Staircase.

These two Armstrong books reminded me of The Empty Mirror: Experience in a Japanese Zen Monastery, by Janwillem van de Wetering, and the book by my friend The Orange Robe (Marsha Low Goluboff).  I admit that not everyone is fascinated by people who go to extremes on their own spiritual quest, but I am.  In Armstrong’s case, she was in pre-Vatican II draconian communities that sounded quite like prison to me.  For van de Wetering, it was in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan with austere conditions that resulted in high-risk weight loss and numerous very serious physical and mental ailments.  My friend Marsha travelled the globe living on next to nothing that she most often had to scrape-up for herself in a guru-centered cult, Ananda Marga, which she calls a “spiritual sect.”

It is easy to be amazed by people making such personal sacrifice of physical and emotional comfort.  Granted, the stories I’m referring to here are written by people who have left the group.  Those who stay are less likely to write books that appeal to others or offer more than proselytizing.  Still, we can learn more about an organization, or a family for that matter, from those who have left.  Take a look at the black sheep of a family and you will learn more, faster.  Well, in my family that’s me, so maybe I’m biased.

What struck me in all three books was the arbitrary and brutal behavior of many in leadership who were viewed by themselves and others as spiritually advanced.  While I can understand the value to challenging and managing our own ego, I have never liked the people in power having to ‘break’ others. Upon arrival at the monastery, van de Wetering said, “In every training the ego is broken, the ‘I’ is crushed,” (p.17.)  Armstrong described that approach by saying: “We are, the great spiritual writers insist, most fully ourselves when we give ourselves away, and it is egotism that holds us back from that transcendent experience…” (p.279).  Armstrong offered another way of looking at the ascetic search for God or enlightenment; “…a disciplined attempt to go beyond the ego brings about a state of ecstasy,” (p.279).  Really?  Is it just another buzz?  The Buddha himself, moved on from asceticism and to the middle path (The World’s Religions, Huston Smith, p. 85).

One reason I am so skeptical of extreme lifestyles is a result of growing up around plain Mennonites and Amish.  What I have seen from all three books and while growing up, is that people are people.  By my idea of ethical behavior and compassionate interaction, I don’t see any greater measure of ethics and compassion coming from the Amish, the convent, or the Zen monastery.  For you religious readers I would say: Orthodoxy is not Piety.  For those of you scratching your heads at that one, I will add that rigid religious practice does not guarantee religious enlightenment or even sincerity.  In fact, often the severity of practice is in itself a distraction.

What I have learned from these stories is the value of ordinary life; for example, the struggle of staying employed and sane as an ethical person.  For many people, this is a fierce internal battle.  It’s just not that easy to find a civilized work environment where you don’t have to worry about who is going to throw you in front of the political bus, or how many people will be laid-off to protect the CEO’s inflated salary.  Your ego doesn’t need to be broken when it is beaten down by life every day.  I think more of us need the creativity and strength to keep some balance and perspective in our lives without being demoralized or immobilized.

In this, I have to refer (briefly) to education in our country.  I don’t have the research to present you with a full treatise here.  What I have are stories: stories of laid-off teachers and entire schools systems that are chronically under-funded in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  This week 30 school children went to see the governor of Pennsylvania with 4,000 letters.  He refused to see them.  Most of the state is controlled by white Republicans who see the School District of Philadelphia as poor blacks who have no right to expect the same education as white children of privilege.  Why is this ok?  Why is education considered a luxury?

That’s a long walk around the barn to say: what can I do to make a difference when I’m hanging on to my job by my fingernails and watching those in power abusing those who have even more meager resources than I do?  How do I manage my daily stress, and still find energy to make my voice heard?  And worse, will it make a difference?

What I’m hanging on to is knowing people like my friend Sara.  She took a vacation day to go to the state capitol to try to get callous legislators to care about education.  Every day she works full-time, cares for her mother and family, volunteers on two nonprofit boards, and was the volunteer of the year at her church.  At work she is fierce and vocal about workplace ethics and she has my back.  Always.

I can tell you I find more religious ecstasy in knowing Sara than contemplating my navel or being bullied by religious extremists.  I know there are more like her.  Truthfully, I’m not in her league.  But I aspire to be, and promise to keep trying harder.

If I have distressed you, then I do have a suggestion.  If you get really bummed, just put in the “Sound of Music” soundtrack and sing along really loud.  Nothing works for me better than the goat-herd song.  Just don’t stop listening to your conscience and protecting your soul, whether it is from your own ego or from bullies, in religion or at work.  –J.B.

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Anger Mismanagement

It is probably a mistake to admit this, but on the way to church, I flipped someone off.  Even at the time, I recognized the irony of my actions.  I admit I think they deserved it, and I did feel better doing it.  They were walking in the middle of the street in slow motion.  It was in a quiet neighborhood – but it was a street.  They saw my vehicle and just kept walking slowly in the middle of the street, before they finally sauntered to the shoulder. 

Even though at the time of my indiscretion I was driving to church, I don’t consider myself one of those typical church ladies, mostly because I enjoy cursing like teamster.  (Yes, I have heard them do that.)  But in my experience, very often church ladies have the same inclinations as me and my one-finger salute.  You see, I think passive aggressive is still aggressive and sometimes worse because it masquerades as nice.

At a place I worked I had a co-worker who was one of those sweet middle-aged women who everyone thinks is kind.  She was in church about four times a week always talking about praying for people and God’s will.  My perception is that she was more of a self-martyred doormat, and expected other women to be the same.

In the department in which I worked I was being picked-on by a male co-worker and quite honestly had groused about it a little too much.  Church Lady didn’t come to my rescue or defend my honor.  Nor did she communicate directly to me that my commentary was wearing thin.  When she became chilly (passive aggressive) I made several attempts to offer to help her with work or see if anything was wrong and got no response.  Instead she complained to a manager about me.  No complaints about the male for his actions, but instead about the female (me) and my reaction to being harassed.  As a female, she expected me to suffer in silence.

It seems that there are too many opportunities to feel out of control, frustrated, pissed off, and even enraged.  Fewer and fewer people know a safe way to handle those feelings.  Here’s what I don’t do – pray it away.  Turning anger in toward religion just creates an angry religion.

In my readings, I have come across an expert on this: a humble Vietnamese, Buddhist monk whom I have heard speak and whose books I have read.  His writing style is not challenging to serious readers (English is not his first language), but thePanOnStove content of his books is spiritually inspired, and almost magic in its simplicity.  (It is wise to read it as poetry.)  In Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Thich Nhat Hahn talks about “cooking anger,” (p.29).  He compares it to cooking potatoes.  “But even at a very high flame, if you turn off the fire after five minutes, the potatoes will not be cooked.”  I take this to mean that my anger deserves respect, and a minimal amount of time to process.  My anger has validity and deserves recognition by me, though perhaps something more positive than flipping someone off.

What kind of anger led the two men accused of the Boston Marathon bombing to such behavior?  Like most of us, this has been disturbing to me.  The Wall Street Journal article (link follows) tells the story of a lost, frustrated young man (the older brother).  The guidance he received from his mother was to pursue extreme Islam.  That’s not a reflection on Islam.  It is, in my opinion, bad parenting.  I sincerely believe that any religion, or any ideology for that matter, could have been exploited to the extreme by this young man.  He had a need to lash out, as he did once at his local mosque.  Reasonable Muslims told him to knock it off, just like moderate Muslims have condemned what it seems he did in Boston.

Wall Street Journal on family religious issues of accused Boston bombers

Salon article on deceased and accused Boston bomber disrupting mosque service

Religion News.com on Muslim leaders against terrorism

Religious people will likely disagree with me, but I don’t think religion is the answer for all one’s woes.  Religion may offer inspiration or guidance, and hopefully spiritual growth, but if someone has serious psychological problems or is socially disenfranchised, religion will be received and exercised in that same way.  Every religion is interpretive and angry people will interpret religion as angry.  Put more simply: people find the god they want.

That takes me to Bill Maher.  I usually agree with him, so when he went on a rant about Islam I really had to stop and think.  It is difficult to argue that Islam is not a dangerous religion, though I don’t really believe that it is.  With religion, much like human beings, context is everything.  There is a difference between understanding the Islam of Mohammed and his writings, and perceiving Islam only through the eyes of angry Muslims who have embraced a cult-like interpretation of what is truly an inclusive, peaceful religion.  As tragic as recent incidents have been, the actions of extremists represent a very small minority of practicing Muslims.  In the same way most Christians would not want to be thought of as people who bomb abortion clinics (I hope); nor would Buddhists want to be known for the “War Monk” in Sri Lanka.

When Bill Maher judges a religion on the behavior of its practitioners, it makes sense and seems fair.  But we live in a mass-media, global world with a lot of troubled people.  Some of them are going to choose a religious interpretation that validates their anger and allows them to lash out.  That can happen in any religion, or political group for that matter.  Remember, the moderate people are not newsmakers.  Peaceful, reasonable people do not make good headlines.

Bill Maher on Islam

I feel like we have learned enough about the accused Boston Marathon Bombers.  It was a sensational and horrible tragedy played out on live feeds for days on television and the Internet.  But now it is time to learn and heal.  We need to “cook” our own collective anger and learn from what has happened while we find ways to support those who have been hurt.  I do not want to see one more photograph of those young men. They should not be the news any longer.  We are the news.  People helping people is “Boston Strong” and that’s the only news I want.  And religious people around the globe – for this is not just about Islam – have to prove our worth by serving.  It takes a lot of compassionate service to offset those working for angry interpretations of religion. – J.B.

The War Monk: Yes, there is one

The death of Osama bin Laden is an opportunity for reflection.  He was a religious wanna-be.  He did not have religious training and his interpretation of Islam was neither Orthodox nor representative of the majority of Muslims (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/04/bin-ladens-theology/).  Every religion is vulnerable to the theft or distortion of ideology for political gain.  Buddhism is not immune either.  Yes, there is a “War Monk,” and he is Buddhist.

I was introduced to the War Monk in an article in Foreign Policy (FP) magazine.  He was quoted saying, “We musn’t talk to them; we can crush the LTTE [Tamil Tigers].  It is like surgery.”  He was not alone – he made the list: “The List: The World’s Worst Religious Leaders,” (4/7/2009).  FP was quoting Athuraliye Rathana, a Theravadan Buddhist Monk and member of the Sri Lankan parliament.  FP did not coin his nickname, and their list included representatives from Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.

Most Americans are not looking for the latest news about Sri Lanka.  Searches of CNN and MSNBC produced very few stories.  There is one MSNBC/AP story today (5/6/2011) and one story on CNN posted 5/2/2011.  BBC News Online posted a story on April 13, “Sri Lanka rejects secret UN war report as ‘flawed.’”  The United Nations was looking into war crimes associated with the civil war between the victorious government and the Tamil Tiger challengers.  The top leaders of the Tamil Tigers are dead and the UN wanted to investigate both sides in regard to the civilian deaths which human rights groups say are in the thousands.

One would think that a UN report on war crimes would be sensational enough to grab headlines, but apparently not when it’s Sri Lanka.  What really grabbed the UK media was that the War Monk, Rathana, was wielding his rhetorical sword their direction.  On May 21, 2009 the London Times Online posted the story “Victorious war monk Athuyaliye Rathana turns on Britain.”  Well now, that’s a little closer to home than the Indian Ocean.

The history of this exotic Indian Ocean island should be required reading in all seminaries, kibbutzim, ashrams, and madrasahs.  The story of Sri Lanka is one of years of tragedy and violence that in proportion to its population, compares to the U.S.’s Civil War, World War II, Darfur, and al Qaeda all in one little slice of hell that is slightly larger than West Virginia.

The New Yorker had a comprehensive article (01/17/2011) by Jon Lee Anderson who had been to Sri Lanka before and since the current government crushed the Tiger rebellion.  His 15-page story is worth every word.  It should be read as a shocking example of what people around the globe have in common with Sri Lanka.  The Tamil Tigers were using suicide bombers back before most Americans gave that phrase a thought.  Sri Lanka’s 26-year conflict has followed ethnic and cultural lines in which the majority is Buddhist and the minority is Hindu.  The Tigers were “guerilla fighters” (p.41) who were eventually crushed by the government in shocking brutality which caught up thousands of civilians – one report said 40,000 (p.42).

When Anderson was in Sri Lanka in 1986 he said, “The Army had developed a pattern of mass arrests, torture, and, with growing frequency, murder.  He met with a Tamil Catholic priest about whom he said, “The conflict had grown so terrible that he had come to question the very existence of God,” (p. 45).

Remember, Hinduism was the religion of Mahatma Gandhi.  One of the five precepts of Buddhism is do not kill.  But in the end, the Sri Lanka story is not about Buddhism or Hinduism.  It’s about power and exploitation.  The exploitation is more potent when a religious imperative can be contrived, like using the Bible to justify slavery.  Sadly, Sri Lanka has shown us that any religion can be hijacked.

It seems disturbingly easy for humans to desensitize themselves to violence, and even grisly oppression, when all that matters is that you are not the one who is being oppressed.  When tracing the roots of atrocities (in which most religions have had some role over time), there is also some relationship to the local economy.  The poor were bin Laden’s target audience and the lack of egalitarian economic opportunity set the stage in Sri Lanka.

Bin Laden was one of the most notorious opportunists in recent history, but there are many like him and the War Monk, who take advantage of poverty, exploit religious rhetoric, and justify their own political agenda.  We should be more frightened of poverty than terrorism.  If people are not hungry and have jobs, it becomes easier to learn to separate the religious practices of the faithful from the propaganda of the unscrupulous.

I’m not sleeping better because bin Laden is dead.  When there are enough jobs in Sri Lanka and no more hungry children in Afghanistan, then I’ll sleep better.  That goes for things at home, too.  The original terrorist is poverty.

– J.B.