The Dhamma Brothers is a remarkable documentary about inmates at an Alabama prison who do a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat. It’s currently being shown on PBS stations around the country.

Vipassana, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a traditional form of Buddhist meditation. The Vipassana course taught at the prison was based on the program developed by S. N. Goenka.

Although this was not the purpose of the documentary, as an introduction to the teachings of Buddhism, The Dhamma Brothers was far superior to The Buddha shown on PBS a few weeks ago. I found this to be a powerful film, with fresh insights into the process of meditation, and overall, a very positive message. The Vipassana program appears to offer some hope to men in a hopeless situation.

The Goenka approach to meditation is non-sectarian. “It’s not that it’s teaching a religion,” says Warden Stephen Bullard in the film. “It’s teaching a meditation practice that was born there.” The warden goes on to say that if the Vipassana teachers came in and tried to teach against Christianity, and to teach Buddhism, it would become a problem.

Apparently, it did anyway. This film was released to theaters in 2008 (and won quite a few awards), but for television they have cut out some of the more controversial elements. The film now only deals briefly with the controversy that resulted in shutting down the Vipassana program. The Wikipedia article on the film states, “According to New York Times reviewer Whitney Joiner this was because the chaplain of the prison complained to administrators that he was losing his inmate congregation. In December 2005, the prison administration changed and the meditation program was allowed to begin again. The film also includes interviews with local residents who provide statements that are negative about the meditation program, perceiving it as anti-Christian. One resident compared Buddhism with witchcraft.” Very little of that was in the film I watched.

The Dhamma Brothers offers some excellent instructions regarding the philosophy of meditation. One of the meditation teachers says, “No one is telling them what to look at or how to change. They have been getting their insights from within themselves.”

One of the prisoners comments, “I thought my greatest fear was growing old and dying in prison. In truth, my biggest fear was growing old and not knowing myself.” Another says, “When you start to practice Vipassana, you can’t hide anymore.”

And some great insight on how to teach: “We can’t really expect the men to do anything. Our job is, you know, just to give. The results really are up to the men.”

If you want to find out when this excellent film will be showing in your area, go to The Dhamma Brothers website here.

Did you know that at one time women’s lay groups were the driving force behind Buddhism in China?

Throughout its history, Buddhism has always been changing, taking slightly different shapes according to the social and political climate of the times. There is a lot we don’t know. Much of it has been lost or destroyed, and there are numerous historical accounts not yet translated into Western languages.

I suspect there have been more than a few periods when women took a leading role on the Buddhist stage. I know, from my own experience in several traditions, that without women working behind the scenes, Buddhism would not be what it is today.

So what about Buddhism today, and women? Here’s some interesting information from Sakyadhita, “Daughters of the Buddha,” the world’s leading international organization of Buddhist women:

There are an estimated 300 million Buddhist women worldwide, including more than 130,000 nuns. Many of these women live in poverty, without adequate opportunities for education or facilities for Buddhist practice. Although the Buddha acknowledged women’s equal spiritual potential and established a monastic order for women, as Buddhism spread abroad, patterns of male dominance persisted. In only three traditions today – Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese – can women achieve ordination status equal to men. Sakyadhita members are working to achieve gender equity in Buddhism and equal opportunities for education and training for Buddhist women around the world.

I am inspired by what these women are doing and invite you to visit their website here.

Buddhists talk a lot about karma, and yet I wonder how many really understand it. There is a growing trend among Western Buddhists to reject notions about karma and rebirth, or to be agnostic about their feasibility. I maintain that Buddhism works without these concepts, however, it doesn’t work quite as well.

Stephen Batchelor, a contemporary Buddhist teacher and writer, is one of the leading figures of this trend. He is quite right when he says that notions such as karma and rebirth are teachings Buddhism inherited from traditional Indian philosophy, but to dismiss these fundamental concepts on the argument that the Buddha taught them only because they were culturally prevalent at the time, is mistaken. I share Batchelor’s desire to rid Buddhism of “magical thinking”, but I am not too sure that karma and rebirth fit into that category.

As I mentioned in my post of April 22, reincarnation is not a Buddhist concept. I have a great affinity for and admiration of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism, but on this subject they are confused. I don’t care how many claim to be tulkus, there is no reincarnation.

Continue reading »

Apr 262010

The San Francisco Arts Commission has announced it has won a $70,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support their acquisition of internationally acclaimed artist Zhang Huan’s 26-foot tall, 15-ton copper sculpture of the Three Heads Six Arms Buddha.

zhang huan three heads six

© Zhang Huan Studio, from

I like statues of the Buddha. I own a couple myself. But, $70,000! How many starving Buddhist artists could they feed with that? And what about all that copper? It doesn’t grow on trees, you know.

The big money seems to be flowing up there in San Francisco. A little park over at 16th and Bryant could get a fancy new entrance gate as long as it is named after Daisaku Ikeda and the Board of Supervisors accepts up to a gift up to $180,000 to do it, according to the SF Examiner. Ikeda is president of the Soka Gakkai, the world’s largest Buddhist organization.

Now here is a guy who needs another park, building, monument, and/or gate named after him about as much as he needs a hole in the head. He must have hundreds by now. He holds the world record for honorary academic degrees. He and his followers (I can criticize, I used to be one) seem to crave these things. Over 200 so far, and it was just recently announced that Ikeda has racked up another one. According to PRWeb, “Daisaku Ikeda will receive a doctor of humane letters degree, honoris causa, from UMass Boston for his work as a Buddhist leader, peace builder, and founder of the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue in Cambridge.” The SF Examiner, in their article on the gate monument, calls Ikeda a “peace activist.”

Well, if talking about peace a lot qualifies one as an activist, I guess so. However, if truth be told, Ikeda has done little else in his life other than chase after honors and dole out pithy bits of guidance to his followers.

PRWeb says that “[Ikeda’s] dialogue partners have included Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, and Rosa Parks”, while neglecting to mention, out of ignorance perhaps, that some of them were paid to dialogue with him.

I don’t want to go off on a rant about Ikeda and the Soka Gakkai, the unseemiliness of pursuing worthless honors, or about spending obscene amounts of money on statues or gates.

I do think it is worth noting that the Buddha expressly asked his followers not to worship his relics after his death. Buddha didn’t need any statues or honorary degrees. Ok, they didn’t have honorary degrees back then, but you get my point. For several hundred years, Buddhists abided by his wishes and a bodhi leaf, a footprint, or the Wheel of Dharma represented his persona. Then human nature took over, and the statues began to appear.

Money is supposed to be in short supply these days, and it seems to me that a better use could be made of what is available. If UMass Boston just has to give someone an honorary degree, how about me? I don’t have any at all. I would also be glad to sell the San Francisco Arts Commission one of my Buddha statues. Dirt cheap. Only $1000 dollars. I’ll keep $500 (I could use it) and feed some hungry people with the rest.

Now that I have started this blog and borrowed its title, The Endless Further, from a term coined by Rabindranath Tagore, I’ve been going back and re-reading parts of “The Religion of Man”, where we find the phrase I have appropriated.

I want to tell you a little about Tagore, but first I’d like to share one of his wonderful poems, from “Fruit-Gathering”, published in 1916:

TagoreLet me not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless in facing them.

Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain but for the heart to conquer it.

Let me not look for allies in life’s battlefield but to my own strength.

Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved but hope for the patience to win my freedom.

Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling your mercy in my success alone; but let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.

Tagore believed in God, but not the same God that Abraham believed in. Tagore’s God was above all definitions and dualities, formless, a supreme reality that that transcends personality, and he did not believe in going to that God with a beggar’s prayer.

Continue reading »

Reincarnation is not a Buddhist concept.

Reincarnation is the idea that the same soul or same person is reborn in successive bodies. Buddhism rejects the notion of a soul or a self that is permanent. You will never be reborn as the same person ever again.

What Buddhism teaches is rebirth, the cycle of birth and death. You may carry over into your next life karma, or traces, of your former lives, but  you will be a new, unique person with no real memory of the past. According to Buddha-dharma, it’s very rare to remember a past life.

The concept of reincarnation found its way into Buddhism through the assimilation of folklore and native beliefs; strictly speaking, it is not part of the Dharma or teachings.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Whatever happens when we die is going to happen regardless of what we believe. Buddhism does not stand on assertions about what comes after physical death. Buddhism is about the experience of life, here and now.

The great Zen master Dogen once said, “This present birth and death itself is the life of the Buddha. If you attempt to reject it with distaste, you are losing thereby the life of the Buddha.”

I Stan with Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Myanmar

Will you?

Amnesty International USA

PBS’s recently aired documentary, “The Buddha”, was promoted as the story of the historical Buddha.

Unfortunately, the “historical” Buddha was nowhere in sight, instead viewers were presented with the same old mythological Buddha of the magical birth, who struggled with the demon Mara, performed miracles and so on. It is a nice story, but much of it cannot possibly be true, and the rest is certainly elaboration.

Perhaps those viewers unfamiliar with the traditional account, and others, found it interesting, however I can’t help but feel the program would have been much stronger if they had not relied so heavily on the myths.

As mythology, the story serves its allegorical purpose, but only if those receiving the story are able to see the allegory.

Over twenty years ago, another PBS program, The Power of Myth, a dialogue between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell, gave the world fresh insight into the meaning of mythology. A  tutorial, if you will, that came with this now-famous caveat from Campbell: “Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.”

I do not know if we are yet capable of resisting the temptation of getting stuck, and so, I wonder if it creates any value to keep perpetuating religious myths, especially when we invest so much in our religions. I am inclined to think that we would be better off if we put these myths behind us.

I will leave that for now, to give you a glimpse of the ordinary man behind the curtain, the Buddha.

Continue reading »

Apr 182010

Haiti is still a mess from their massive earthquake. Here in Los Angeles we experienced an quake recently that was rather scary. It was one of those rolling quakes, lasting a good thirty seconds or so. Fortunately, no damage or loss of life.

This week, a terrible earthquake in China. So far: 1,700 dead, 12,088 injured, 312 missing.

Sunday, Chinese President Hu Jintao met with survivors in a mountainous Tibetan region where badly needed aid was finally arriving.

The Dalai Lama has expressed his desire to visit the quake site in Tibet. He has not returned to China since fleeing Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. He was denied permission to visit after a 2008 China quake.

“To fulfill the wishes of many of the people there, I am eager to go there myself to offer them comfort,” the Tibetan spiritual leader said Saturday.

Somehow, I have a feeling the Chinese authorities won’t let him this time either. They have made it a crime in Tibet to even posses a photo of the Dalai Lama.

A letter from Tibetans in the quake zone requesting a visit from the Dalai Lama here.

The New York Times has an interesting article on how monks in Tibet are helping the quake effort here.

Thanks for coming here. This blog has roughly a twofold purpose:

The first, as expressed in the title, is to elaborate on the theme of the spiritual  journey.

TagoreIn 1930, the great Indian poet, musician and playwright, Rabindranath Tagore gave a series of lectures at Manchester College, Oxford, later published as The Religion of Man. In these lectures, Tagore spoke of civilization’s “constant struggle for a great Further,” referring of course to the instinct that motivates us to go beyond, to break out of our shell of limitations, our thirst for knowledge. Tagore said it was an Endless Further, our “ceaseless adventure.” It is endless because knowledge is endless. No one can ever know everything.

Tagore also knew that in our spiritual journey, the journey itself is the destination. As we set out on the road to liberation, we might think that we will eventually arrive at some place, find an ultimate horizon.  It is just an illusion, a concept in our minds.

Some people seek God, and yet can no one can say that there is final shore to reach in the search for a being that encompasses the entire universe.

In Buddhism, the stated goal is enlightenment. I like to use the word “awakening” because it implies continuous development. When Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, he did not stop growing, learning, awakening. When he reached Nirvana, he realized he had not gone anywhere, that Nirvana was no realm other than this saha or mundane world. I think Buddha knew about the Endless Further.

My second purpose is to make clear some distinctions and relations which might lead to a better understanding of religion and spirituality. We express and apprehend religion through ideas, words, and practices. Their meanings  shape our religions and our spiritual beliefs. I am not sure that we grasp these meanings very well. Understanding as far as possible what meanings are attached to religious ideas and practice is essential.

The journey to spiritual awakening is the greatest adventure.  Whether you believe it is an inner journey to discover one’s own true nature or an outbound voyage to seek God,  the final destination, the attainment of  enlightenment or a crowning state of sanctifying grace is just a mirage. The road goes on forever. In this lifetime, at least.

No one should be disheartened over the lack of final destination, for as Basho wrote, “Everyday is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

Comments are welcome and encouraged. A third purpose of the blog is to spark some dialogue. Just click on “Responses” up in the right hand corner of this post section.

Coming shortly, a post on the recent PBS program “The Buddha.”  After that: “Just how ‘religulous’ is religion anyway?”