A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A New Dialog

A recent visitor here was a gentleman by the name of Eric Vessels. He has two blogs, one Buddhist and focused on his study as a shakuhachi player. This is the traditional Zen Buddhist flute introduced into Japan from China. It is a long flute, like our recorder, which is made from bamboo. Asia also has a crossflute tradition, but this long flute is, I think, the more well known.

He actually lives near me and invited me to a wonderful shakuhachi recital by his teacher, Michael Gould of Ann Arbor, Michigan who is one of only a handful of non-Japanese "grand masters" and richly deserves his title. His playing was exquisite, and his insights into the history of the flute, and its Buddhist roots, very penetrating.

Eric also made a picture or two of the event, which took place in a local martial arts dojo, and I'm sure you can easily guess just who in the crowd is Joe Claus.

More importantly, for the long term, Eric and I have spontaneously generated a dialog on the question of Should Buddhists call Buddhism a religion? We are speaking from two different, and highly developed, traditions of Mahayana Buddhism, and this contrast, as well as that of our ages, and the stories of our respective involvements have made this a rich experience. Eric is in the process of developing a teaching and practice relationship with the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism. They have a monastery, in Mount Tremper, New York, which is just down the road a piece from my own Tibetan establishment in Woodstock. They also have an excellent website.

Here are some samples:

Eric: I try to focus on WHAT it is I do…zazen, shakuhachi, loving kindness, rather than talk about what Buddhism is. I do struggle though. I think Sam is correct, but not sure he delivers an effective alternative to lumping Buddhism into the current mix of world religions. It is an important question though!

Joe Claus: It was nice of you to stop by Straight Shot. I must say, though, that I do disagree with the notion that Buddhism is not a religion. Religions are as much about religious questions as they are about religious answers.

It seems to me that the questions which the Four Noble Truths answer: What is life like? Why is there suffering? What can we do about it? and How can we do it? are preminently religious questions. No where else but in religion do you find serious attempts to really answer questions like these.

Now, of course, they are our questions, sangha questions, if you will. The questions Christians ask about the nature of God, Muslims ask about the content of the will of Allah, or Jews ask about God’s relationship to His Chosen, are not the questions that interest us.

If our answers to the questions of life are distinctly different [and I think they are], a great deal of this has to do with the difference in our questions, the difference in what we think most relevant and important to ask about life.

The relations with our predominantly Christian neighbors, family, or friends can be difficult, far more difficult than when they happen to be secular, but I do not think we help them by implying that because we are Buddhist, we are irreligious and the possessors of some intangible essence somehow better than religion.

Before any of us can “kill the Buddha”, we need to think a long time, very clearly, and very hard about the precious opportunity of this life, the uncertainty of the time of our future death, the power of our actions to shape our rebirth, and the absolute lack of any worldly solutions to these three things.

And then we need to practice. Really practice. Wholeheartedly practice, holding nothing back.

It is that wholeheartedness that is the real core of any religion, including our own.

Eric: Welcome Joseph! I don’t think I’m necessarily NOT considering Buddhism a religion - of course I do in the sense that it is a spiritual practice. The point Sam is trying to make and that I agree with is we dilute the practice by calling it a religion.

It’s semantics really…but an important distinction. I do think there is a “wordly” solution to the problems of this life, though. I call it Shikantaza…you might call it something else. The path to realizing the Buddhadharma inherent within.

We do need practice…and boy do I have lots to go! I think the gist of the article is that we miss the boat when we simply call Buddhism a religion. It is much more.

Today I ran across an article that reinforces this for me. Any myth that Buddhism and Christianity can eaily coexist and live together is dispelled by comments from the Current Catholic Pope in 1989:

These and similar proposals to harmonize Christian meditation with eastern techniques need to have their contents and methods ever subjected to a thorough-going examination so as to avoid the danger of falling into syncretism

The author (billed as a writer for various Christian and conservative publications) goes further:

[Note: What is actually being talked about is an invitation given to Fr. Robert E. Kennedy, S.J., who is also a Zen master, to speak and conduct an introduction to Zen training methods at St. Joseph's Parish, Richardson, TX.--ed.]

Why is Bishop Grahmann allowing another questionable speaker priest to come into our diocese? There are excellent books giving wonderful examples of learning ‘contemplative’ Christian prayer, many written by Canonized Saints of the Church.

This is the same pastor, Fr. Fischer of St. Joseph’s Parish in Richardson, TX, who very recently hosted a two days retreat given by dissenter priest, Fr. Richard Rohr, O.F.M. Despite the enormous evidence that Rohr is an unfaithful priest who openly dissents against Humanae vitae, and who promotes homosexuality, the Bishop of Dallas, Bp. Charles V. Grahmann, and the pastor, Fr. Fischer, affirmed their support for this bumfuzzler preacher as well.

Joe Claus: You can always find pockets of hostility to Buddhism if you go looking for them. I think the far more important point to make is that Father Kennedy certainly has cared to know about us, and it is, as well, that the Dallas diocese sponsored Father Kennedy to come and teach. Surely this is an indication of openness to our point of view.

Despite Ms. Krallis, there is no particular indication that Father Kennedy has in any way abandoned his Christian beliefs and become heterodox [or that the Church thinks he has done so], and I strongly suspect that he continues to maintain the sharp capacity for “critical thinking” for which the members of the Jesuit order are well known.

As to belief, I really don’t think that Buddhists have no beliefs. On the MRO web page is a marvelous redaction of what Zen calls the Sixteen Bodhisattva precepts. I have taken them, in their Tibetan form, as the Refuge Vow, the Five Lay Precepts, and the Bodhisattva Vow.

They are real and lifetime commitments and the entryway into the life of several hundred such commitments which you must make as either a Buddhist monk or Buddhist nun.

And I can assure you that no one who took them seriously would ever make such vows in the absence of belief in things that no ordinary being like me can truly test: in karma, cause, and effect; in past and future lives; in the existence of “buddha nature” in all beings; in the genuine efficacy of our compassion to permanently relieve the sufferings of sentient beings once we realize buddha nature in ourselves; and in that true realization when one is finally able to totally and continuously actualize these 16 precepts in our present life.

None of these beliefs are immediately obvious, and MRO’s Eight Gates of Training appears to provide a serious, and very solid, foundation–which my Tibetan teachers would certainly respect and appreciate–for actually understanding the beliefs necessary in order to make and keep those Bodhisattva precepts.

When I engage in blog dialog with Christians, even politically Conservative ones, the most common misunderstanding I find about us is that we are “irreligious” in the sense that Buddhists make no commitments to do anything whatever.

I also find that when I explain the first Five Lay Practice Vows, all but the most determinedly hostile, and these are really relatively few, then accord Buddhism considerably more respect.

We must always remember, I think, that the only way you become Buddhist in this life is if you have the karma to do so, and that not everybody has this.

Because it will benefit their future lives, my teachers always encourage Christians to be the most sincere Christians that they can be. They explain this as part of their Bodisattva commitments and I follow their example. To do this is to encourage the respect for us that will be the gateway to a potential involvement in Buddhism for such Christians in their future lives.

Eric: I guess my main point - and the difference as I see it - is most western relgion hangs a great deal on belief while Buddhist thinking relies more on experience and the direct seeing of any precept or vow.

Your comments are very well taken and are indicative of my knee jerk reaction against hostility toward my chosen path that I have felt even in my own family. I see the wisdon in your taking the path of calm dialogue and explanation of Buddhist concepts with those who might be hostile.

I still maintain that beliefs are dangerous. I don’t “believe” in Buddha (a common misconception of my best friend who is Southern Baptist). He cannot even wrap his brain around the “Kill the Buddha” story.

My practice is about connecting with something that has always been there. I experience that, I don’t believe it.

Joe Claus: Well, I’m not that sure I can get my brain fully wrapped around it. A glimpse, mainly, of it’s meaning, and no more, is my present relation to it.

I hope to keep this dialog going an post some more from it in the future. I have also added a category of Buddhist to my blogroll and Eric's site is the first to grace it.

May all beings benefit.


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